April 6, 2005 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I have very little interest in classical music, but lately I've found myself intrigued by opera, of all things. It seems very rock and roll in it's inherent drama and showmanship and...humanity for lack of a better word. Or perhaps it's merely my Italian heritage calling me home. Any good ideas on where to start? I'd prefer older recordings because I'm big on starting at the source. I kinda like that "La donna mobile..." thing that you hear on sports shows sometimes. Thanks.
posted by jonmc to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am far far from an expert when it comes to opera, but of the small sampling I've heard, I particularly like Verdi's Rigoletto which is bombastic and romantic. It has very dramatic, but simple, violins which accompany the arias.

If you really want to go back to the source, Claudio Monteverdi is generally considered to have been the first to create what we now consider an opera with his 1607 opera Orfeo. He supplemented the recitiative style of earlier operas with actual songs.

I'll leave it to others to really answer this question, but from one novice to another, check out Rigoletto.
posted by Falconetti at 8:01 PM on April 6, 2005

Earlier thread.
posted by Gyan at 8:02 PM on April 6, 2005

The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts over public radio every week in season. It's an excellent no-cost way to experiment. You'll want to educate yourself about the overall form and a bit of history. It helps if you know the storyline (they're very simple, really) before you listen, and have an idea who's singing when. There are also movies about opera such as Aria (but don't think Phantom of the Opera will get you anywhere, especially not with opera fans!).

Bizet's Carmen is one of the popular favorites, although true buffs consider that something of a sangria or cabernet sauvignon; maybe it's just backlash. If you're just trying to get yourself into a feel for the whole thing, work you way in through Gilbert & Sullivan and Leonard Bernstein (or even Jonathan Larson); the American musical is basically a descendant of opera, although there are key differences.

One thing you'll learn is that there are fewer than, oh, 50 all-time-classic operas, and they get performed over and over again. If you're into the new and jejune, opera won't be your bag.
posted by dhartung at 8:34 PM on April 6, 2005

I agree with the previous thread: don't go bargain on opera. I usually pay on average $30 for a recording, but I think it's worth every cent. My favorite is probably Puccini's Tosca with Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi, and conducted by de Sabata. An absolutely astounding recording.

I don't want to repeat a bunch of what people said in the other thread (Verdi, Rossini, Puccini, Wagner, et al. are always good) but there doesn't seem to be much respect for French opera. Certainly everyone loves Carmen, but I'd also check out more than that. Romeo et Juliette (Gounod) and I have a French version of Lucia di Lammermoor (Lucie de Lammermoor) that I'm particularly fond of. But above all you should try Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saens); the opening scene is profoundly emotional and despairing (the Israelites are singing of their oppression by the Philistines).

Make sure to read the libretto at least once along with the opera. The singing is more than just its mechanical aspect; there's usually an emotion that is trying to be conveyed and you'll enjoy it more if you understand what is going on. And one last thing: since opera is a bit more of an investment and sometimes mixed bag, you might want to go to your local library and checkout some CDs/librettos before you purchase something. This saved me from buying Mozart (really don't care much for his operas).
posted by sbutler at 8:37 PM on April 6, 2005

Seriously check-out the thread that Gyan linked. I posted a ton of helpful tips for listening and buying.

...and Italian opera is definitely the place to start for you (as opposed to French or German). Rossini, Verdi, some Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, and Puccini are the 'big six' italian composers you should look for.

If you want to get some live opera in before this fall, you better buy your tickets now, as the MET/NYCO season only lasts for approximately another month.

sbutler: on preview, French opera is my favorite, too. I <3 Offenbach, and can't recommend him enough. But for the novice, Italian opera is definitely the way to go...
posted by naxosaxur at 8:40 PM on April 6, 2005

Alternate suggestion: what do you like to read? Try looking for stuff with similar plots. I got started on opera as a kid via The Magic Flute because it was the same fantastic/fairytale-type literature I enjoyed at the time.

In any case, 2+ hours of straight singing in a foreign language from an audio recording, without any points of reference, is just going to leave you lost. Find a detailed plot summary of whatever opera you might be interested in - there are plenty of scene-by-scene books available - and then see a performance (live, video, however).
posted by casarkos at 9:06 PM on April 6, 2005

It's not Italian, and there are no words, (and it's not Opera) but as far as classical music goes, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" has all the Sturm und Drang of Led Zeppelin.
posted by interrobang at 9:07 PM on April 6, 2005

Carl Orff's Carmina Burna is the Judas Preist of the Opera world. Hard not to love it.
posted by dong_resin at 9:16 PM on April 6, 2005

It was probably said in the prior thread, perhaps even by me, but the typical suggestion for opera newbies is to stick with the Italians at first. Many people find them more accessible. For me it worked differently, and I liked Mozart's operas first, and later warmed to the Italians. I suggest your local library to find some good operas to try without having to buy just yet. See what you like then hit the record stores.
posted by caddis at 9:23 PM on April 6, 2005

Not to be a spoiler, jonmc, but if you don't shed a tear when Mimi dies in La Boheme, you may not be Italian. Or when the Duchess sings Dove sono in LeNozze di Figaro.
But your heart will swell if you can hear Pavarotti in Turandot. The almost too pretty Der Rosenkavalier, the mad scene form Lucia di Lammermoor verrano a te, etc. - lots of wonders await you; but as advised earlier, you will appreciate more what you understand better. This may not be the case in Wagner - it might be wise to save Wagner for later unless you dig Valkyries.
posted by Cranberry at 9:54 PM on April 6, 2005

I really, really like Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans which is an oratorio (Wikipedia: "it differs from an opera in that it does not have scenery, costumes, or acting"). I doubt this matters to you unless you actually want to see a live performance. Don't go expecting see scenery, costumes or acting dammit!

Go with what everyone else is saying. Stay away from Andrea Bocelli. He's like the Vanilla Ice of the opera world. If you expect to go to one of those cool coke-filled opera after parties don't mention how much you like him.

During the bullfighting scene of "Carmen" try not to get as excited as I did and yell out "BEEF! IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER" during the middle. Damn marketing campaign, ruining opera!

But seriously Vivaldi is the shizzle. He was like the Snoop Dogg of his day.
posted by geoff. at 9:55 PM on April 6, 2005

And if you're into mp3z... a friend I know notices that in alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.classical contains the 1948 recording of La Boheme as of right now.
posted by geoff. at 9:57 PM on April 6, 2005

I almost forgot, you'll love Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" I'm sure. I don't think it's quite the Venetian upper-crust fat lady opera you're going for though. The best American opera ever produced. Ever.
posted by geoff. at 10:15 PM on April 6, 2005

If it's the drama you're into, you should read the plots of the operas you want to listen to. A good aria is a good aria, but understanding the situation behind a good aria makes it that much more stunning.

I'm a fan of Kobbé's big-ass Opera Book, a massive compilation of plot summaries and musical notes on damn near every opera worth hearing. It's the IMDB of the operatic repertoire, and just as useful as the IMDB when you want to look up an unfamiliar name or dig deeper into a composer's works.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:16 PM on April 6, 2005

Jon, you met me one time at the radio bar, and I'd be glad to loan you a few CDs. I think to start you might like some Verdi and Puccini. Since you work near where I live, it should be easy. I studied opera many years ago and I might be able to give you some pointers once you take a listen at the recordings I have.

You may be interested in Rigoletto, one of Verdi's best, or Tosca (I have a recording with Leontyne Price and Placido Domingo). Anyway, you can email me from my profile, if you want.
posted by lackutrol at 1:22 AM on April 7, 2005 has a wide selection of freely downloadable mp3s of classical music, including the opera heavyweights. Try before you buy, but definitely buy eventually because MP3s don't do justice at all to the performances.
posted by randomstriker at 3:43 AM on April 7, 2005

If you want to see something live, I'll go exploring with you.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:37 AM on April 7, 2005

American / English opera? Anybody tried it? Not translated, written by natives.

I was in the chorus of a production of "Susannah" (Carlisle Floyd) once; that seemed a pretty powerful opera. We have an English-only opera company here (Triangle area of North Carolina) that does interesting productions, though it's not the Met.

Also, "Highway 1"(William Grant Still) was pretty good.

Those two composers may even still be living.

That company has also done works by Gian Carlo Menotti ("The Medium", "Amahl and the Night Visitors"), Ned Rorem, and Ralph Vaughan Williams ("Riders to the Sea" - complex all-woman chorus parts). I liked the music for "The Medium", and it's pretty passionate.
posted by amtho at 6:03 AM on April 7, 2005

Response by poster: lackutrol, I may take you up on that. And I always called it the West Side Tile Bar. Send me an email. I've got time to kill after work today.

My mom was into Pavarotti and Placido Domingo when I was a kid, but that stuff never grabbed me. But I've heard snatches of stuff over the years, that sounded interesting. The way some of the singers sing reminds of a really good soul singer or a heavy metal singer (Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford both have operatic voices in many ways, and James Hetfields mother was an opera singer), it had the same sort of testosterone flowing.
posted by jonmc at 7:12 AM on April 7, 2005

Response by poster: Or to put it another way, most symphonic music makes my ears feel like they're wearing a tuxedo that I can't wrinkle or spill anything on, no matter how much I respect the skill involved. The little bit of opera, I've heard dosen't have that effect. Like electronica, I doubt it'll ever become my main thing, but I could stand some expansion.
posted by jonmc at 7:15 AM on April 7, 2005

Not opera per se, but I should mention that, to this day, every time I hear part of Bach's "Matthew Passion," I start to tear up. It's one of my favorite things in the world, with incredible bits to interest anyone new to the genre; the songs are as short as any pop song, so it can be digested easily, and they're very good, even on their own. I highly recommend John Eliot Gardiner's recording of it.

I mention Bach because I've had something of the same feeling you mention above about classical music: like I'm sitting in a big hall, and I have to hush up. Bach was always a little different for me; he's more folksy, more willing to stick in traditional German songs, less pretentious. That's my feeling, anyhow.
posted by koeselitz at 8:26 AM on April 7, 2005

The Metropolitan Opera has $20 tickets for way high up, but in the middle of the week no one is there so you can move to the front.
posted by scazza at 12:12 PM on April 7, 2005

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