How to get started with opera

First I assume we are talking about recorded opera (most opera on DVD bores me, too static, though many swear by it), but of course go live when you can.  My core view is that people "do well" with culture when they feel they are in control, and tune out otherwise.  So pick one area and master it, or at least get intrigued, rather than trying to survey all of opera.  Those "introductory" books are probably counterproductive, if only because they let you know how much ground there is to cover.  Who could possibly master five different recordings of Parsifal?

Here are a few areas to start with:

1. Mozart: Get Abbado’s Magic Flute (a new recording, truly splendid, one of the best of 2006 or any year), the Rene Jacobs Figaro, and the Colin Davis Don Giovanni.  If you love those, move on to Cosi Fan Tutte and then Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The Ingmar Bergman film of Magic Flute is perhaps the single most inspiring introduction to opera, even if they are singing in Swedish.  It is cinematic in conception, rather than a mere film of a performance, thus avoiding the DVD problem.

2. Italian opera: Start with Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Gobbi/Callas, then either Verdi or Puccini, in the former case La Traviata (many good versions) or Aida (Karajan), in the latter case start with La Boheme (Beecham).  Move out into Donizetti (The Elixir of Love, bubbling and playful erotic fun) and the rest of Verdi, culminating in Otello and Falstaff, his greatest and deepest works, no organ grinder music there.

3. Wagner: Go for some extended excerpts, most notably Kempe’s one-disc condensation of Das Rheingold (better than the full-length version), this four-disc set of scenes, or Act One of Tristan und Isolde, by either Karl Boehm or James Levine.  Work up to Parsifal or Valkyries, but in my view Act One of Tristan was his peak and this remains music’s greatest erotic/death-wish experience, so good it is dangerous, maybe you should just stop reading this blog.

If you are putting on four discs of Flying Dutchman, Tannhaeuser, or Goetterdaemmerung, and hoping to make sense of it, your planning has gone badly wrong.

4. Twentieth century: Start with the fun, accessible works, like Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Robert Ashley’s Improvement, or Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Over time head to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Messiaen, Lachenmann, Mercury/May and many others.

If you want to leap into the unique and the complex, consider Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Tchaikosvky’s Queen of Spades, Strauss’s Capriccio, or Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande.  Liszt fantasies and transcriptions are a good entry point into opera, that is how I got my start, his Robert de Diable Meyerbeer transcription (played by Earl Wild, among others) has to be heard to be believed, same with his Norma fantasy, after Bellini.

Arguably Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion is the greatest opera of them all, but that is another story.

By the way, few of the libretti are worth knowing beyond a plot overview; Don Giovanni is a notable exception, Der Rosenkavalier is another.  Keep in mind that a lot of opera simply isn’t very good.  The biggest problem is too much filler, even in the true classics.  Don’t let these boredom traps keep you away from some of music’s highest peaks.

Comments

Sorry, but the only way to experience opera is live.
It isn't just music, it's drama and poetry and music, and being in the presence of thousands of like-minded people to experience a performance, knowing that this may be one of those rare times when all forms come together to create a profound artistic moment for the audience...that is an experience that cannot be recreated sitting and watching Mozart on DVD alone in your underwear and a can of beer.

I think this is all good advice (although I would be very cautious about _starting_ with 20th century opera, certainly an aquired taste).

My own introduction, aged about 14-15, came via Mozart's Magic Flute (Bergman's movie), a TV production of Abbado's Barber of Seville (Beganza, Prey, Alva), and a tv version of Orff's Carmina Burana (done as an opera by Eichorn - still available on DVD). I was fortunate that these were all first rate performances (IMO).

Another route was through selection dics of arias perfomed by the singing greats - I became interested in the tenor voice particularly, which has persisted.

For English people, the 'Savoy Operas' of Gilbert and Sullivan are an excellent bridge to grand opera - as well as being wonderful in their own right. And of course you can perform them yourself, since G&S societies are found everywhere.

If you limit your experience of opera to audio media, you miss the element that sets opera apart from classical concert music. It becomes just a concert with vocal music, with people singing and reciting incomprehensibly in Italian, French, or German. It is critical to see the action, and experience the relationship that the arias have to the characters' inner life, and to the unfolding drama. Experiencing opera live is definitely best, but there are a lot of excellent DVDs that are not static and have the compelling quality of a good movie, which can easily be enjoyed in one's underwear with a can of beer.

How can you experience Don Giovanni without seeing the statute grab the Don and then see him dragged to hell? How much fun can a bedroom farce like Figaro be if you can't see Cherubino, a male character played by a woman, hiding from the Count? Don't you miss a lot if you don't see Tosca stabbing Scarpia and jumping to her death off the battlement?

It may be difficult to acquire a taste for Wagner, but it is a lot harder if you must just listen to the constant buzz of leit-motivs, without seeing the gods, dwarfs, giants, dragons, earth-goddesses, incestuous twins, magic fire, swords and spears that populate the Ring operas.

I am a long-time classical music lover, who never was much interested in opera until I started going to performances and watching opera DVDs. If live performance is inaccessible, I urge anyone interested in learning about opera to look for a good DVD such as the Zeferrelli Otello, the Abbado Barber of Seville, or the Furtwangler Don Giovanni.

Personally, I found opera by picking up Rigoletto at the local library and listening to it while reading the libretto one rainy, boring day. Because of this, I disagree with a few statements: the libretto IS important, especially at any given moment in deciphering what exactly is happening. Secondly, while I must admit that seeing opera live is a much more fulfilling experience, just listening to good recordings is like reading a book- you get to imagine all the great things that are happening to the characters on your own terms.

I wrote a bit about how I was finally to "get"
opera here ...

Tip: Although I've only ever been to the Seattle opera, when I went to the Ring cycle last year the audience had flown in from all over the world, most of them die-hard Wagner fans who'd seen multiple Ring performances in multiple cities, and many many many of them said that Seattle's is the best. The next Ring is in 2009, tickets go on sale in 2008 (and often sell out the first day): http://www.seattleopera.com/wagner/

One thing I recently learned. There is a big difference between watching a classic opera at the Met, and seeing an even relatively decent 2nd rate opera. Probably listing to some opera on tape (CD/DVD/TV) and learning at least a little bit about it is a good idea. But also finding a knowledgable friend that knows your tastes and will take you to see something you will enjoy is a great way to be introduced. The best part of an excellent opera is sitting there live, surrounded by the music, entranced by the costumes, enveloped in the story and the passion. You should lose yourself completely in it. That is good opera.

I rarely disagree with Prof. Cowen, but now is one of those times. (Supersmart people often are not so good as "how-to" instructors.)

1. First operas: NOT Mozart, NOT Elixir of Love. Start with Carmen or Rigoletto. That's not news, but it's still the best advice.

2. Go live if you possibly can. All opera companies in the U.S. use supertitles now, so you have no excuse. Don't worry about whether the performance is any good or not. It will be a long time before you'll be able to appreciate the differences between a first-rate and a third-rate performance. Just relax and enjoy the show.

3. DVDs are the next best thing to live performances. (Plus they're usually cheaper than CDs.) Opera is theater -- you need to see the show to get the whole effect. Listening without seeing is something our ancestors had to do before technology had reached its current heights. ;-)

4. Libretti are not worth knowing beyond a plot overview? Excuse me, Tyler, but are you on crack? Opera is a fusion of music and drama, storytelling by means of music. The genius of Mozart and Verdi, for example, is their matching of the music to the thoughts and emotions the characters are expressing. You just can't appreciate that if you only have a general idea of what's going on.

5. Try joining the free chat-room Opera Friends in Exile (find by googling that title). There are a lot of very knowledgeable and friendly people on there who are happy to share tips.

Depending on taste I'd recommend radically different starting points. I'd start with the masterworks of a period, style, or composers you particularly like. I love Mozart now, but I didn't really get into opera until I heard Elektra and Wozzeck and Der Ring.

R.C,

Rigoletto's libretto is almost the exception: the plot and characters are so strong that the libretto has a lot to work with.

Heck, I remember explaining the plot to one of our secretaries many years ago and 75% of the way through she screamed "Oh my God, I know that's going to happen." The story is just plain stronger than, say, Elixir of Love.

For a beginner who wants to start just with the music, before moving on to the drama, try two of the Mozart overtures - The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. If you like them, try almost any of the Rossini overtures too.
Then, for the theatre: The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, The Barber of Seville. I agree that the Zeferrelli film of La Traviata is excellent, at least in the cinema. I have a soft spot for Donizetti's Don Pasquale.

Two other tips. (1) I went to the opera in Berlin for the first time recently - wonderful value.
(2) If a pretty girl says "I have a spare ticket for the opera, would you like to come?", say yes immediately. Overtures can follow.

I think starting live has its attractions, but my guess is that it's probably even better to start with CDs of Italian opera. Puccini and Verdi. Just recently, I saw Madame Butterfly at the Kennedy Centre, and I know I wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much if I didn't know half the songs in there -- you become more sensitive to the nuances of the music, I think, and it's emotionally more engaging as a result. A lot of people also find two or more hours of continuous music tiring (a lot of the audience always leaves after the first intermission), and having a general sense of the entire work means you know what there is to look forward to.

On the other hand, I can see the other side of it. When I was listening to Die Walkure all the way through for the first time, a while back, the theme that you hear towards the end, when (I think) Siegfried is being prophesied by Brunnhilde -- the theme you hear at the very end of Gotterdaemmerung, after the apocalypse -- broke in very suddenly, shockingly, and beautifully. Brought a tear to my eye (really). I regret that my first exposure to it didn't come in an opera house, that I didn't get to experience it as something new and unexpected in a stage performance. It was still very moving, but not as moving as it would have been if it had caught me unawares in performance. I expect I'd have wept like a baby.

But for opera in general, just for a beginner trying to get into it, I think Verdi and Puccini are the thing to start with, and CDs the way to go at first.

are you approaching opera at the beginning because you have a prior interest in classical music? Then start with operas that are excellent musically. Begin with Mozart, and begin with Marriage of Figaro--the harmony, and counterpoint, and the musical dialogue will be uplifting, and then move on to Beethoven's Fidelio is good as well. Then move on to wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Wait for a liking of the theatrical before mozart's Don Giovanni. if you like Rossini, do Barber of Seville.

if you like theatre, and are beginning opera from that side, start with Puccini--Madame Butterfly, Turandot, Tosca. work your way through mozart's Italian operas. if you like plays, start with Pelleas et Mellisande, Strauss' Elektra, Verdi's Falstaff.

I am currently studying to be an opera singer. I'm not sure I agree with the statement that most opera is not very good. However, I do believe that a better way to get into opera is to start with listening to individual arias. Indeed, entire operas can be overwhelming for someone who is trying to develop an interest, however if you become particularly attached to an aria, you might be more inclined to experience it in context.

I started by listening to CDs that featured a showcase of arias by different performers. I recommend The Ultimate Puccini Divas, if for no other reason than Renee Fleming's performance of "Doretta's Dream" is absolutely amazing; if track 7 of this CD doesn't move you, then I doubt any performance from any opera will.

This brings me to my next point. Renee Fleming is a genius. I won't explain the details of what makes her voice so amazing, but she is the singer that sparked my interest in opera. I also suggest Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. I agree with many other comments, specifically that Puccini is a great place to start. Many of Puccini's arias tug at the heart strings and it's hard not to like them.

Finally, if you are looking to watch an entire opera, live performances are definitely the best and I would suggest attending any Mozart opera, with the exception of the Magic Flute. I love the Magic Flute, but it's difficult to understand. However, the rest of Mozart's operas are hilarious and it's easy to maintain interest.

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