Opera Newbie
September 20, 2004 7:18 AM   Subscribe

I want to start listening to opera. Where should I begin? Help me build a collection of recordings that consists of music composed in all eras, with the only requirements that it be sophisticated and uncommonly beautiful.
posted by PrinceValium to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Begin with the good, fun stuff, otherwise you might have a difficult time appreciating the other (sometimes arguably better) stuff later.

The Barber of Saville (Il Barbiere Di Siviglia)
The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze Di Figaro)
La Traviata

Basically, Italian first, then a little German, then more Italian, then (if you have the stamina) you might look into some heavier-German. I've always loved Wagner for some strange reason, but it's really hit-or-miss. Those four above are huge, though.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:38 AM on September 20, 2004

The first opera I ever got into was Mozart's Don Giovanni. It's darker, minor-key stuff--especially compared to The Marriage of Figaro or Cosi fan Tutte--which is why it appealed to a college kid raised on the Cure and the Smiths.
posted by jpoulos at 7:45 AM on September 20, 2004

You should check out the Metropolitan Opera's synopses page. Many people new to opera usually follow the old standbys: Prince Igor, La Boheme, Rigoletto. Depending upon the production company, Die Fledermaus can be hysterically funny - some bolder theatres will perform it in winter as an antithesis to yet another Nutcracker ballet.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:57 AM on September 20, 2004

i don't know if it counts as opera, but Lachrymae (not sure of the spelling) by Benjamin Britten is one gorgeous piece of music.
posted by amberglow at 7:59 AM on September 20, 2004

Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass is pretty good if you want something very uncommonly beautiful, and a good example of 20th century opera. Satyagraha is also pretty good. Akhnaten is a bit boring IMHO.
posted by wackybrit at 8:08 AM on September 20, 2004

just a quick note:
personally, i've found the best way to introduce opera to non opera people is by playing select arias, specifically kiri te kanawa's (?) aria from Madame Butterfly has never failed to bowl people over. because many have been used/sampled in other music, segways are pretty effortless.
(personally, wagner only works for me via bugs bunny
"kill da wabbit, kill thw wabbit--")
posted by ethylene at 8:10 AM on September 20, 2004

Good recommendations frm C_D. Personally, I started with La Bohème (Puccini), and got hooked instantly. It's a very light, sweet, approachable opera. A lot of Puccini is very much in that category, and you can't go wrong with Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot, etc. From there, you can venture into Verdi, Bizet (Carmen) and eventually make your way to Mozart. I saw le Nozze Di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte before I "got it"... but after bringing myself up to speed with Puccini, I came to love both of them. This worked for me, but some people are fonder of the heavier teutonic stuff, and find the romantics to be a bit too cloying for them. I still can't wrap my brain around Wagner, as many times as I have tried.
posted by psmealey at 8:16 AM on September 20, 2004

You wanna get into Wagner? Watch Excalibur. They use selected highlights of the Ring cycle throughout the entire movie. DUM DUM... dum dum...
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:23 AM on September 20, 2004

Akhnaten is a bit boring IMHO.

I disagree. I enjoyed Akhnaten immensely! If you want to start going and seeing Opera, you don't need to write down a laundry list of shows to see. Just check out what is playing in your area. Look at the schedules of any theatres within an hour of your home and grab a handful of random shows. Depending on your budget, try to go and see one new opera a month. Keep in mind that different companies have different budgets and talent and not all shows will be the same, but if you can get in on lower budget shows and get good seats (for me that's the first row) you'll learn about opera much faster. When you are close enough to touch the performers, the amazing power of their talent will blow you away.

I'd also recommend taking advantage of any pre-show lectures or informational types of events. Many shows have a half-hour or hour lecture prior to the show in a nearby venue. It's often very similar to a college class on the show and I've always found that I've learned a lot about the show and opera in general, but I've also gained a lot in terms of appreciation for the performance as well as understanding why I have gained an appreciation.

Opera is awesome, have fun!
posted by crazy finger at 8:39 AM on September 20, 2004

Pretty much ditto what others have said. What started me listening to opera was indeed listening to great arias first...like the famous and now ubiquitous "O Mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi. (Which as far as I know became popular after its use in the film A Room With a View.) Also "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot. People may warn you off Wagner early on in your opera exploring, but have a listen to the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and just try to tell me it's not the most gorgeous music ever.

If you get interested in Wagner, you might have a look at this book: Wagner Without Fear by William Berger. It's a great introduction, that discusses his life, summarizes each of his operas with notes about what productions are generally like, and gives a rough guide to various recordings. The same author has a similar book about Verdi, Verdi with a Vengeance, but I haven't read that one yet myself.

If you start asking people about, say, "which recording of Tosca should I get," you'll be opening a huge can of worms because it seems everyone has their favorite diva. I think basically if you stick to well-known names in the singers, the conductors, and orchestra you'll probably be fine with whatever's easily available. At least to start. When you get more familiar with performers you can get pickier.

I'd say that La Traviata, La Boheme, and Carmen are sort of the "archetypal" operas...what most people think of when they say "opera." Mozart's works for me are a little too light - I prefer the grander Italian stuff, and I love Wagner.
posted by dnash at 8:41 AM on September 20, 2004

My recommendation would be to see opera, rather than just hear it, whenever possible. If you don't have a decent opera company near you, try video--even Netflix has some operas on DVD, which would be a good way to try before you buy. Your local library may also be a good resource for both CDs and videos.

The recommendations you've already received are good, but opera is a very personal thing, so don't give up if the first few you listen to don't do anything for you. The San Francisco Opera's production of Le Nozze di Figaro a few years back (with Bryn Terfel, Sylvia McNair, and Angelika Kirkschlager) was one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life so far, whereas you'd have to pay me to sit through a full Puccini opera. But I like quite a bit of 20th century opera, which most people would probably find excrutiating, and I love Wagner. Just don't expect to like, or even learn to like, everything that's been designated a "classic." Take the time to discover your own preferences, and refuse to be ashamed of them.
posted by Acetylene at 8:48 AM on September 20, 2004

I second Puccini, especially La Boheme.
posted by willpie at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2004

i agree with ethylene. listen to some arias recorded by different voices (i personally like renee fleming and mirella freni and leontyn price), just to get familiar with the sound and structure. then listen to some full operas (i think you should follow along with the libretto, so you get familiar with how to follow the story, which--you know--is what opera is). you need to listen to it; not have it playing while you play Doom or wash the dishes when you're first exposing yourself to it because opera makes demands on the listener.

after you've found out which composers (or which performers) you like, go see something. when i first start going to opera, i enjoyed the ones i was famliar with better because just when i'd start to get lost, i'd recognize some of the music and pick up the threads again. now it's completely a matter of quality of production as to which performance each season is my favorite. (this season, my subscription has two operas i'm not particularly familiar with and i can't wait!). like acetylene says, just because you really like, say, massenet, doesn't mean you'll really like beethoven, but you might.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:06 AM on September 20, 2004

i second the seeing, as most places have supertitles running distreet translations.
I was lucky to see la boheme and don giovanni as a child on field trips in ny tri state area field trips and lucked into bloomington's IU operas.
it was once the "complete art form". now with matthew barney (and even sky captain) it has gone more into film incorporation. but if you want to enjoy just the music, try finding the opera focused shows on your local radio, note the ones you respond to or call the station.
for views cheaply, try the many recorded performances via pbs shop.
dress rehearsals and such can be cheap or free if you can get in or know someone (not really hard to find out)

personal thing with wagner i'm not getting into, it's my thing. but you'll find that besides my beloved bugs, you have heard lots of opera used in things. (example: rox hysterical use of carmina burana)
posted by ethylene at 9:15 AM on September 20, 2004

I want to add this: there is a lot of opera that I have listened to in the past that was boring to me or failed to move me. Those same operas, though, when seen on the stage take on an entirely new meaning. There are many pieces of music that would have otherwise bored me in the past, but the context of seeing those pieces performed now gives that music an entirely new power and awesomeness that is undescribable.
posted by crazy finger at 9:47 AM on September 20, 2004

In the modern opera vein, I highly recommend minimalist composer John Adams' Nixon In China.
posted by clockwork at 9:49 AM on September 20, 2004

as for uncommonly beautiful, i think delibes lakme is uncommonly beautiful (one of the airlines used the flower duet in their ads a few years ago, and it was in the hunger).
posted by crush-onastick at 10:07 AM on September 20, 2004

For the beginner:

Reading: Fred Plotkin's book Opera 101. This is the best guide to opera i've read, and it's really geared completely for beginners. He also has a section in the back that recommends which specific recording is the best for each opera. His selections are mostly spot-on, too.

DVD Viewing: Schaffer/Foreman's Amadeus and Zeffirelli's Carmen.

Magazine: Met Opera's Opera News.

The key to a pleasurable opera experience is the production. The singers and conductors are what make it happen, and is what you pay for. You could pick a flawless opera by Mozart, but if you have second-rate singers and bad orchestration/conducting, it will suck. Get tickets for the performances boasting 'big names', and you won't be disappointed. Prominent conductors are Domingo and Levine. Popular contemporary singers are: Voigt, Florez, Netrebko, Fleming, Bartoli, Pape, Swenson, Giordani, Ramey, Nucci, Mattila, etc...

This rule should also apply to procuring recordings. You'll see that each opera has at least 20 different recordings with different conductors and singers. DON'T pick the value-brand. The recordings are horrible, and the singers are crap. Most famous recordings are around $50.00. If you are paying $15.00 for Carmen, you bought a turd. I suggest you go to your local library, which is always overrun with terrific recordings that you can take home and copy. Stick with known classic performers such as Sutherland, Pavarotti, Callas, Tebaldi, Sills, Gobbi, Alva, etc...

Each opera you listen to will link you to another, and here's an anecdote to demonstrate: At the MET 2003 season, I was extremely moved by Cherubino's aria Voi che sapete from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. The woman singing it was a Czech soprano by the name of Magdalena Kozena, who i had never heard of. This season, the MET is staging Janacek's Kata Kabanova, with Ms. Kozena as the lead soprano. I would normally have no interest in Czech opera, but i will certainly buy a ticket to the upcoming performance just to hear her sing. I'm sure you will have the same experience.

Avoid for your first experiences Mozart's Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutti, which are two of Mozart's longest operas. Although the singing is sublime, the problem is that they've been in the repertoire for so long, most production companies stage odd/boring versions. If you want to see Mozart's operas, I recommend Die Zauberflote or Nozze di Figaro. Nozze has beautiful arias, but really drags in some parts (be warned). Die Zauberflote is flawless (if not totally bizzare).

Stay away from Wagner until you are more seasoned. He didn't even write operas...as he called them something like 'musical experiences'. I've been seriously into opera for 3 years, and haven't even really touched him yet. Stay away from 'modern' opera as well, which really doesn't have much to offer to the beginner: no Glass, no Adams, et al.

Personally, I started with light and comedic Rossini. Il Barbiere di Siviglia is the perfect opera for a novice. L'Italiana in Algeri is also fun from Rossini. Strauss's Salome is short, quick, and has very powerful singing. Puccini’s Carmen is a great first opera, but stay away from his other operas like Madama Butterfly and Tosca. His La Boheme bores me to tears. Verdi's Rigoletto or La Traviata are also great, but stay away from Nabucco or Il Trovatore, which are too complicated. At first, stay away from any Puccini or Verdi that is more obscure because you will be bored. Pick an opera you have heard an aria from, and you won't be disappointed.

For tickets: you don't need to get expensive tickets. The $20 seats in the upper balconies usually have the best acoustics anyway. Just bring binoculars. Dressing-up is really a thing of the past, too, and people only do it on opening nights (the premier of each opera). Also cheering basics such as: bravo is for a single male performance, brava is for a single female performance, brave is for a group of two or more women, and bravi is for a mixed group larger than one. For the actual applauding times, just listen to when everyone else applauds. Usually it is at the end of an aria. Do not clap when the curtain rises (like you would do at a Broadway show). This is frowned-upon.

Neophytes post these sorts of questions all the time in forums. A good free one is England’s Gramophone Magazine. Another great forum is Met Guild's Standing Room, which is only available to subscribers of Opera News.

However, I've always gotten my best advice from other people in attendance of operas. During intermission is the best time to ask for listening advice. You'll find that opera fans are some of the most opinionated in the world, so be prepared to get lectured! If you'd like to know specifics about favorite performances, or any other guidance, feel free to email me. Happy Listening!
posted by naxosaxur at 10:35 AM on September 20, 2004

Response by poster: Wow! Thanks everyone!
posted by PrinceValium at 10:45 AM on September 20, 2004

Turandot. I can't recommend it enough.
posted by electro at 11:28 AM on September 20, 2004

I as well recommend your local library. I have never really found good popular music there (except in college towns) at liabraries, but the classical collections, including opera tend to be quite good. You can sample an awful lot of music without having to plop down serious coin on a three CD opera set. You can always buy copies of the ones you liked later.

The conventional wisdom is to start with the lighter Italian fare, but Mozart was always my favorite even as a newbie. I recommend you try some of everthing. At library prices you can not go wrong.
posted by caddis at 11:54 AM on September 20, 2004

Puccini’s Carmen is a great first opera, but stay away from his other operas like Madama Butterfly and Tosca. His La Boheme bores me to tears.

(Psst...Carmen is by Bizet.) Can't think why you'd say stay away from Puccini. A friend of mine's first opera ever was Madama Butterfly, just last spring, and he loved it. Classical music of any kind bored him before that. And La Boheme is full of some of the most recognizable melodies in all of opera. (Rent the film Moonstruck...it's full of La Boheme music, and I think nicely captures what going to the opera can be like.)
posted by dnash at 1:02 PM on September 20, 2004

In general, these are a few tenets for collecting noble opera recordings:

1. Anything conducted by Levine, Chailly, Solti, Bonynge, Ozawa, or Marriner is preferred. If the composer isn't famous, don't bother...waste of time.

2. Anything performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra or La Scala orchestra is gold.

3. Any Mozart or Wagner opera conducted by Levine is a gift.

4. Any Wagner (or Strauss) with Birgit Nilsson is worth the listen.

5. With opera recordings, you get what you pay for. Full operas with prestigious performers and conducters are around $50.00. Do not buy bargin-bin recordings or recordings from obscure companies; they always suck.

6. When looking for recordings, watch out not to buy the "live" versions by accident, as there are a quite a number of these. Live versions are fabulous, but you should really get a sound for the studio technique and complete adherence to the libretto at first.

7. Stay away (far away) from Opera in English (translations). An abomination. It's akin to "dubbing" in foreign films.

8. Watch out also for two composers who have written the same opera. Example: Dvorak and Rossini both have written operas called Armida.

9. There are generally certain performers who excel at their 'fach'. The fach is sort of like an archetype...and how a performer identifies with a repetoire pertaining soley to the vocal range. For instance, Sutherland and Horne are masters of many bel canto roles, such as operas written by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini. So if you are looking for a great performance in a Bellini opera, it is a safe bet to pick Sutherland singing the lead. Find these magic combinations...they are widely known, and you will always have a fabulous recording.

Here are my personal recommendations to start your CD collection:

Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia: in Italian. I favor the one conducted by Galliera, with Callas, Alva, and Gobbi. I love Callas & Gobbi in this, especially for the "Dunque io son" duet. However, Plotkin recommends the version conducted by Chailly, with Horne, Nucci, and Ramey. He also recommends the version conducted by Abbado, which I have, but I think it sucks.

Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri: in Italian. Conducted by Cobos, with Gimenez, Larmore (her Italian pronunciation leaves much to be desired), and Corbelli. Best recording out of only 5 existing. The one with Horne is crap.

Bizet's Carmen: In French. Conducted by Pretre with Callas, Gedda, Massard. Okay, I expect a fight with this one because Callas' French pronunciation is horrible in this recording (and in general), and her overall voice is weak, but I still love this version because i love Callas. But, I also recommend the version with Troyanos, Domingo, van Dam, and Te Kanawa. Or the version conducted by Levine with Baltsa and Carrerras.

Verdi's La Traviata: In Italian. Conducted by Levine with Studer, Pavarotti, Pons. Flawless.

Mozart's Nozze di Figaro: In Italian. Conducted by Levine, with Hampson, Te Kanawa, Upsahw, Troyanos, von Otter, Plishka. Follow the two arias by Cherubino, and you'll be hooked.

Mozart's Zauberflote: In German. Conducted by Neville Marriner with Ramey, Te Kanawa, van Dam, Studer. The Queen of the Night aria will own you.

Verdi's Rigoletto: In Italian. Conducted by Bonynge with Pavarotti, Milnes, Sutehrland, Te Kanawa.

Bellini's I Puritani: In Italian. Conducted by Bonynge with Sutherland, Pavarotti.

Bernstein's Candide: In English. Caution! This is modern opera, and very ‘show-tuney’! Conducted by Mauceri with Mills. I couldn't exempt this from the list without a nod to the great Bernstein.

Tschaikovsky's Eugen Onegin: In Russian. Conducted by Levine, with von Otter, Shicoff, Senechal.

Puccini's La Boheme: In Italian. No recommendations because I don't like this opera. Sappy, manipulative tripe. However, Plotkin recommends the version wiht Pavarotti conducted by Karajan.

posted by naxosaxur at 9:47 PM on September 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

Straus' Elektra was pretty good too--i saw it as a staged singing thing at carnegie hall a while ago.
posted by amberglow at 10:53 AM on September 21, 2004

I'll second the Nixon In China recommendation. I have some of the music and it's excellent. Someone accidentally marked it as Philip Glass, and so I was forced to download it when I saw it as I hadn't heard of it before. Pleasantly, it got me into Adams!
posted by wackybrit at 4:21 PM on September 22, 2004

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