It's easy to get discouraged and give up if you start out listening to the wrong operas, so the golden rule is to begin with the popular ones and see each opera before listening to it. After all, operas were written to be seen as well as heard.
So, which are the popular ones and why are they popular? Essentially, an opera is a drama in music. It will feature a number of melodic arias (solos) or duets, but much of it will be a musical dialogue between the various actors. The most accessible operas are from what's known as the Romantic period - the second half of the 19th century - and are usually sung in Italian (some are in French or German). Verdi and Puccini were the master composers of Romantic opera. The most popular operas feature several memorable arias, a tragic story and interesting characters.
The problem with listening to a tape or CD of an opera is that you don't know what is happening or how the music relates to the story. Even if the arias are outstanding, the rest of a two-hour performance can be pretty tedious if you don't understand it. That's why my recommendation is to start off by watching DVDs of famous operas, performed by leading artists, and then buy a CD of the highlights. Of course, nothing beats a live performance, but a good DVD is a close substitute. And once you've seen an opera, whenever you listen to the arias you'll see the action in your mind's eye, making it a whole lot more satisfying.
DVDs come in two types: live recordings and studio recordings. A live recording is almost like being there in the front row. You'll hear the audience applauding and the singers taking curtain calls. You'll catch the excitement of the performance. But you'll also hear the audience coughing at times and see the singers contorting their faces as they sing. By contrast, a studio recording has perfect sound and the singers can concentrate on their acting. The director can take the action out of the confines of an opera house and put it in the original locations described by the libretto (opera lyrics), or use creative camerawork. But the lip-syncing in a pre-recorded performance can be irritating if not done well.
One advantage of DVD over actually going to an opera is that the camera allows you to see the singers' expressions, and therefore appreciate their acting. This isn't possible at a live performance unless you're in the first 20-30 rows or watch the whole thing through binoculars. Another advantage is that DVD is a lot cheaper, and with a home theater system the sound is excellent.
The best place to start is with two of Puccini's masterpieces, La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. Both are full of beautiful arias and duets, with melodies simple enough that you can hum them after just one performance.
For La Boheme on DVD, look no further than the live 1990 recording at the San Francisco Opera starring Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, two major stars who excel in interpreting Puccini. Alternatively, try Zeffirelli's 1965 film version starring a very young Freni and conducted by Hebert Von Karajan. The La Boheme highlights CD featuring Pavarotti, Freni and Von Karajan can't be beaten.
For Madama Butterfly, the 1974 film version with Placido Domingo, Freni and Von Karajan has beautiful music but rather unusual direction. The best Madama Butterfly highlights CD features Pavarotti, Freni and Von Karajan. You might also like the live 1983 Verona Arena DVD with a less well-known cast, but fine singing and beautiful sets.
After these two romantic operas, you should be ready for something a bit darker - Puccini's Tosca. Controversial when it was first performed, Tosca features a sadistic villain, scenes of torture and attempted rape, plus a stabbing and an execution. Although it has several memorable arias, many of Tosca's unforgettable melodies are woven into the orchestration rather than the vocals. For my money, the best Tosca on DVD is the 1976 film version shot on location in Rome with Placido Domingo, Raina Kabaivanska (Tosca) and Sherrill Milnes as the villainous Scarpia. Another excellent Tosca DVD is Franco Zeffirelli's 1985 staging at the Metropolitan Opera starring Domingo, Hildegard Behrens and Cornell MacNeil, with Guiseppe Sinopoli conducting.
As a contender for greatest opera of all time, you'll definitely want to have the Tosca highlights on CD, and you can't go wrong with the Pavarotti and Freni recording.
Another contender for all-time greatest opera that should be on your list is Verdi's Rigoletto. Where Puccini features sweeping, romantic, Mantovani-like strings, Verdi often favours short, dramatic violin chords accompanying the vocals. Rigoletto has everything you could want, a fantastic plot, interesting characters, catchy melodies and beautiful arias/duets. There are two definitive DVD versions, one is the 1983 film of Rigoletto starring Pavarotti and Ingvar Wixell, and the other is a live production at the Met starring Placido Domingo and Cornel MacNeil. The CD to buy is Rigoletto Highlights starring Pavarotti, Sherill Milnes and Joan Sutherland.
A good pick to follow Rigoletto would be Bizet's action-packed Carmen (sung in French) starring Jose Carreras and conducted by James Levine. But if you prefer the more romantic operas, try Franco Zeffirelli's film of Verdi's La Traviata with Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas.
These, in my opinion, are the most accessible operas for a novice. If you've listened to most of them, you should have a good idea of whether you'll enjoy opera or not. Of course, there are many other fine operas and composers, and if you already like classical music you may well be able to jump straight into Mozart's operas and others from the Classical period.
While it isn't a good idea for the novice to go straight into Mozart, if you've enjoyed the operas mentioned above you're probably ready for it. And if you liked the movie Amadeus you aren't likely to be disappointed with Mozart's major operas. Start off with the DVD of either Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro. Marriage of Figaro is three hours of gorgeous music and a comedy that will leave you smiling. Don Giovanni is essentially a drama with some humorous scenes provided by the Don's servant Leporello. Both works are considered by many opera buffs to be the greatest operas ever written. Another extremely popular Mozart opera is The Magic Flute, which is sung in German.
Some of the most memorable arias and duets are from operas that aren't well known to the general public, and all of them have been used in movie soundtracks over the years. The most beautiful male duet ever written is 'Au fond du temple saint' from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. It was used to great effect in the 1981 movie Gallipoli and there's a good version of it on Essential Opera 2.
The best-loved female duet is the 'Flower Duet' from Delibes opera Lakme. Made famous by a British Airways commercial, this one featured in Carlito's Way, True Romance and many other films. The opera is now available on DVD.
The ever-popular 'Nessun Dorma' became the World Cup anthem and was sung live by Pavarotti on The Original Three Tenors Concert DVD. Placido Domingo sings it on the DVD of the original opera, Turandot.
Another beautiful aria is 'Una Furtiva Lagrima' from Donizetti's opera L'Elisir D'Amore (The Elixir of Love). You can find it on the original opera DVD starring Pavarotti, and on his CD Amore: Romantic Italian Love Songs. Equally memorable is the Neapolitan song 'Rondine Al Nido', which was sung by the holographic doctor in an episode of Star Trek Voyager. Although it isn't from an opera, Pavarotti sings it on the Three Tenors DVD and on his CD Amore - The Essential Romantic Collection.
Hopefully, this will give you some ideas for developing an appreciation for opera without too much pain.
Opera DVDs that appeal to musicologists and opera buffs are not necessarily the ones that appeal to beginners. The novice is more likely to be attracted by recognizable melodies, plenty of action, good production values and stars with a strong stage presence than by subtle musical characterisation and vocal technique.
Here is a brief list of the most accessible and enjoyable opera productions on DVD for the neophyte. As a rough guide, five stars indicates a totally enjoyable experience for someone fairly new to opera.
A romantic opera set in Paris and full of romantic arias and duets.
A romantic but tragic opera set in Nagasaki, Japan. The music often has an Oriental sound to it. Full of hummable and romantic melodies, but the second half is pretty tragic.
Tosca was a controversial opera in its day - with rape, torture and murder featuring prominently. It's full of drama and melody. Not to be missed!
Turandot is not an easy opera for beginners. Written in 1924, it was the last Grand Opera, and it has a rather modern sound as well as much oriental influence in the music. In fact, at times it sounds like the soundtrack to some old 1930s Hollywood movie set in the Far East. It only has a couple of well-known arias, one of them being the famous Nessun Dorma, but it has a fine story and an exotic setting.
Verdi's masterpiece - a dark drama about a jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua.
The tragic love story of a society man and a courtesan, apparently inspired by Verdi's relationship with his own wife (formerly an unmarried mother and opera singer).
Another dark drama with some great tunes.
Verdi's late-in-life Grand Opera set in ancient Egypt.
Verdi's only opera about an idea rather than about people. This panoramic tragedy of honor and vengeance in 18th-century Spain and Italy is not quite a 5-star opera but it has some beautiful duets and an interesting plot.
Considered a materpiece by musicologists, Otello is a difficult one for beginners to appreciate because of its lack of memorable melodies, but the drama of Shakespeare's play holds the attention.
Italian TV series biography of Verdi.
Rossini's comic masterpiece.
A popular opera buffa that's a lot of fun to watch. No really memorable arias, but enjoyable music throughout.
Mozart's unique German-language opera about Masonic ideals and the search for enlightenment. Full of memorable, folksy tunes and a couple of stunning coloratura arias.
One of three operas Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. An update of the Spanish Don Juan legend, Don Giovanni is considered by many to be the greatest opera ever written. Full of memorable music and a great overture.
One of Mozart's three operas written with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Also considered by many musicologists to be the most perfect opera ever written. Full of memorable tunes.
The least well-known of three operas Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Cosi is nevertheless full of beautiful melodies and is famous for its ensembles.
Mozart's somewhat underrated German-language comic opera that is fun to watch and full of melody.
Opera DVDs seem to be manufactured in relatively small numbers, which makes them expensive and is presumably why some of them have a shelf-life of only 3-12 months and most less than four years. So, don't delay in buying the stuff you want. Once a title is deleted, about the only way you can get hold of it is through Amazon Marketplace - at prices up to $125! These disks are advertised as "like new," or "new," or "factory-sealed," but it's difficult to know exactly what you're getting.
As a general rule, Amazon.com has the best selection, all NTSC. Amazon UK has some titles not available at Amazon.com and often has copies left for several months after the USA has run out of stock. But almost all DVDs from Amazon UK use the PAL system.
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