Opera for Dummies?
September 28, 2012 9:47 AM   Subscribe

I would really love to truly enjoy the magic and beauty of opera, but I'm a complete novice. While I have enjoyed Broadway style musicals since I was a child, opera has escaped me. Are there any books, specific productions or recordings I should read, watch or hear?

The recent PBS broadcast of Wagner's Ring Cycle has sparked my on-again/off-again interest in opera. I've DVR'd them, but when I sat down to watch the first broadcast, I made it through about fifteen minutes before I just gave completely up. Maybe it's the language barrier or the lack of prior knowledge of the subject - I'm not sure.

Any tips or info on truly appreciating this genre would be greatly appreciated. Typically, I have inordinate amounts of patience and tolerance with musicals so I'm flummoxed as to why I can't really get into this.
posted by BrianJ to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Wagner Without Fear is both funny and informative. You also owe it to yourself to listen to Anna Russell's take on the Ring cycle.
posted by matildaben at 9:52 AM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can get books that give you synopses of the operas. Here's one that does it act by act.

You can also get operas on DVD with subtitles. Those are great!

Go with the ones that are really well known:

La Boheme
Nixon in China
The Magic Flute (kind of an opera)

Also, check out some Light Opera, if you've got that in your town. Gilbert and Sullivan for example.

I find the more you know and can expect during the show, the more enjoyable it is.

As for Wagner. Yuk. You can have him.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:54 AM on September 28, 2012

I think Cosi Fan Tutte is very accessible (to me as an opera novice). I've linked to the recording I have.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:58 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: I'm not sure how much I have to add to this because I really wasn't introduced to opera until the last year or so and will be reading the answers for any helpful insights.

If you know and like musicals quite a bit then La Boheme should be very accessible to you (Rent must have been inspired by it...there are many similarities including the characters names).

However, one thing that I have tried the last few years is to just go, watch, and listen and see what captures my attention and imagination. Along those lines, last year I went to Verdi's Traviata and fell in love with it; the story was very accessible and so was the music (to me).

So this year I plan to watch as many Verdi operas as I can.Since it tends to cost quite a bit, I plan to watch it being streamed live and free from the MET.

Here is another resources that you may or may not find useful; NPR has a short series about ~10 operas; I noticed that this one in particular compared a musical, West Side Story, to an opera that is very accessible (Carmen).
posted by Wolfster at 10:09 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can watch the movie Carmen Jones if you want to get a feel for Carmen.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:11 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: I've been a Seattle Opera subscriber for about seven years now, although my introduction to the genre was seeing the full production of the Ring Cycle back in 2001. Let me assure you that that is not an easy way to get into opera! Since you've enjoyed some Broadway productions, I'd suggest going with something that spans the gap between "musical" and "opera": Porgy and Bess. La Traviata, La Boheme, Cosi Fan Tutte are all excellent suggestions as well.

(I'd advise against Die Fledermaus and Der Rosenkavalier, two comic operas that totally fell flat for me.)
posted by Vervain at 10:26 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was in your shoes.

Opera is different from musicals. There's more singing, most of it in an older style and in a foreign language. Musicals are very accessible - people are singing, in English, and usually dancing, and there's a lot of dialogue. Opera has little to no dialogue, relies on some musical forms/ideas that most of us aren't so familiar with, and is rarely in English.

What worked for me was getting several videos/CDs of opera performances from the library, along with copies of the libretti (different translations) and watching the operas along with the libretti. I think I also read Opera for Dummies around that time, and it was helpful. I learned to listen for the acting in the singing.

I will never be a hard-core opera fan, but I have learned to appreciate a lot of it and I've gone to and enjoyed several performances. I find I enjoy it more when I read up beforehand and know what is happening and what the "points of interest" are for the particular piece.

Thanks to the internet, you can start by looking up clips on youtube and get a feel for the composers and works you prefer. Keep in mind there can be great and awful productions of any opera, so don't be quick to give up on any one of them without checking out various approaches.

You could also try just listening to some of the great choruses and arias while puttering around the house. I think this lets the style seep into your head and then when you sit down to hear the whole thing it's like "hey, I know this already!"
posted by bunderful at 10:35 AM on September 28, 2012

I saw Tosca in Toronto several years ago and loved it. That one might be another good choice for a novice.

Piggybacking on this question: I was annoyed and distracted by the surtitles that gave a running translation of the libretto during the show. I would very much prefer reading a summary of the action beforehand (in one of those sources Ruthless Bunny mentioned), then letting myself be absorbed in the whole gestalt of the performance without all those WORDS. If the libretto is especially good, I can read it later on, then go back to the opera one more time with everything I need without having to read during the show (or, worse yet, attempting to avert my eyes from Jenny Holzer's insistent red dream above the stage).

That Wikipedia article I linked notes that some opera companies use elective captioning instead, so if you think you may be as distracted as I was, that may factor into your choice of operas and/or opera companies. You may actually prefer surtitles above the stage instead of getting a plot summary first -- SPOILERS, sweetie!
posted by maudlin at 10:43 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: I think opera is one of those things you really have to see in person. I've been to three operas (here in Chicago) and they were fantastic. I've listened to quite a few more (even the ones I have seen), and it's just...bleh. I don't really care. I need the scenes, the people, the costumes, the live action, and the subtitles in order to make it happen for me.

Unfortunately, it's an expensive habit.

The times I have gone, I've read the wikipedia entry beforehand to get the plot down, and I've gone to the pre-opera talk they give at Lyric that puts the plot and music in context. Great tools.
posted by phunniemee at 10:49 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's what turned me on to opera. Prof. Greenberg is an enormously talented teacher, and the quality of the recordings is outstanding. I listen to his music appreciation lectures in the car, and I've learned a huge amount while hearing gorgeous music.

Also, though the price looks daunting, I've learned that if you hang around Great Courses long enough, almost everything goes on sale for a reasonable price.
posted by bearwife at 10:56 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: My first opera was one of the Ring Cycle operas - I don't think that this is an advisable way to get into opera. I liked things about it but it was pretty intense and "difficult" even to someone who loves musicals and also really austere artistic experiences.

A few years later, I'm still kind of a novice, but my main advice is to read a synopsis and/or the libretto before you see something - even the wiki synopsis meant I got way more out of a recent production of Tales of Hoffman than I would've if I'd just gone in with no background. I read the libretto of Nixon in China before seeing the Met livecast last year and it really helped me appreciate what was happening with the language/music/staging more than if I'd been trying to follow what was happening coming in cold. You can also watch youtube videos of different performances of the famous arias and choruses so you can kind of get a sense of different approaches companies can take.

I don't think you should stress too much about what's "accessible" - my approach has been to just see live productions of what is available and sounds interesting, and try to learn about it before going in.

I'm definitely an opera appreciator in progress - I am getting better at doing research before performances, and learning to distinguish different styles and composers, and this year is my first year as a subscriber to my local opera company, so maybe I will have better answers once I've seen 7 more operas?

(Thanks other answerers! Totally an ongoing learning experience.)
posted by SoftRain at 11:06 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: I've learned to enjoy opera by watching well-known opera singers on youtube, and then slowly increasing my dose by adding what I like into Spotify.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:06 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: Before I became an opera fan, someone told me--or maybe I read it in a book--that you have to experience seven live operas before you get hooked. I didn't need seven--more like three--before I was running over to Lincoln Center to see if anyone was selling tickets outside. I familiarized myself with the basic plots before every performance I wanted to see, then read the libretto, then listened to the operas at home. Some of the Verdi operas are a good way in: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Otello, Macbeth, Falstaff are still in my top ten. Beautiful operas. Start with those, especially Verdi's Shakespearean operas since you'll probably be familiar with the characters and plots already. The Met's HD Carmen--Bizet--is fabulous--give that one a try. It's available in DVD.

Do you have a local movie theater that shows the Met HD operas? Google the Met for the schedule. The performances are filmed live then shown in movie theaters shortly thereafter. You get closeups, good sound, subtitles, all at a reasonable ticket prices. The Donizettii opera L'Elisir D'Amore, starts the HD season in October. Otello is right behind and is great for an opera newbie.

The Met version of the Ring Cycle sucked onscreen. I called it "The Slab." Maybe that staging was awesome if you saw it in performance, but onscreen it made the singers look puny. "The Slab" was the star. I wondered throughout whether someone would fall and really die during the performance. Wagner is not the place to start, in my opinion.

So, yes, there's homework but in no time it's pleasure and beauty and you can boo if it's not.
posted by Elsie at 11:06 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best way to start with opera is to realize that there is no one homogeneous opera style. Operas vary widely, depending on the era, composer, and culture. So don't write off opera because you don't like Wagner. My family includes several opera buffs and none of us enjoy Wagner very much.

I've been going to see opera since I was small, and it took me many years to realize that what I really love is Baroque opera - those 18th century spectacles in bel canto style written for countertenors/castrati. Rinaldo is one example of this type of opera. Unfortunately, these are rarely performed because they are different from your Toscas, Carmens, and so forth, so they don't appeal as much to the average operagoer. Who knows? Maybe you have an obscure taste in opera waiting to be discovered.

So, give all kinds of opera a chance! If you live in a major city and have the means, subscribe for a few seasons to discover your taste. There is no substitute for seeing a top-quality production live. I would go so far as to say that second-rate productions can turn off newcomers because without great visual or vocual execution, it's sometimes hard to see what the fuss is all about. If not, there are many great suggestions in this thread for learning about opera without spending lots of money or living in a major metropolitan area.
posted by Atrahasis at 11:07 AM on September 28, 2012

Watching it on TV is so not the same thing. Do you have an opera house where you live? Go to the opera. Dress nice and feel fancy. Try to get good seats (either spend $$ or find last minute tickets, or something? look into it). I don't have any recommendations for which beginner-friendly operas to go to, but maybe someone here will? I do remember going to some kind of comedy-opera instead of a tragedy-opera back when I was in college (I wish I remembered the name! I know it was by someone famous and classical, so it wasn't some modern opera that was re-made to be funny), so if you find something like that, it might be easier to sit through than a serious opera.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 11:27 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: Starting your opera appreciation with Wagner is a bit like learning to swim by jumping into the ocean. Many opera buffs never do like Wagner.
The more approachable composers are a better choice. Puccini - you will recognize some of Madame Butterfly, and Turandot (Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma), and La Boheme. Bizet's Carmen (Toreadora, don't spit on the floora).
If you are short of cash, the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on radio on Saturdays from December to April. Your local public station might carry the broadcasts. There is commentary to discuss the plot and the singers.
posted by Cranberry at 11:35 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: I love opera, but I really don't love filmed operas. First, unlike Boadway today, the singers are performing unamplified. You really do lose something special when you switch to recorded sound. I'm the last thing to an audiophile, but I still notice it. Second, performers are projecting and emoting to connect to the poor, passionate opera lovers like myself up in the second balcony. Filmed, this comes across either as deeply unnatural, or if the camera keeps a very wide shot, static and unengaging. I have better luck just listening to the recording and letting my imagination fill in the staging.

For your first few operas, you might have better luck choosing stories with which you're familiar. Composers and librettists frequently drew on popular novels, biblical stories, myths, a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rusalka_(opera)">folk tales and plays that would have been familiar to the audience at the time. I find it hard to really connect with most operas, as stories, unless I know in advance who the characters are and why we should care about them, and reading a synopsis doesn't always plug that gap.

I'm very hesitant to recommend specific beginner-friendly operas because one person's tragic love story is another's overwrought melodrama, but picking a story you already know and love could help you get into the flow of things more easily.
posted by psycheslamp at 11:36 AM on September 28, 2012

I was just like you, with a mild but never explored interest, until I began going to the Met's Live in HD shows. Not the same as being there, but absolutely better than tv -- I got completely hooked. After each one ends, my brain says, OOOOOH I WANNA SEE THAT AGAIN!!
posted by JanetLand at 11:42 AM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: I adore Wagner's music, but I admit he's maybe not the best choice for a first time opera-goer, unless of course you're me, and you fell in love with orchestral excerpts from The Ring cycle when you were a kid cuz they were used as the soundtrack to "Excalibur."

The "Wagner Without Fear" book mentioned above does a great job of explaining all about Wagner's works. The same author, William Berger, has similar books about Verdi and Puccini. I think Berger's writing is a great introduction. He gives composer bios, plot synopses, explains about the writing of each opera, tells you where the highlights are, etc.

Personally I'd say a live performance of Puccini is probably the best choice, if you can. La Boheme, Tosca, or Turandot. Or Bizet's Carmen. All four of those are great classics, good catchy tunes, big romantic/tragic plots.

And don't read too many reviews or blogs by bitchy opera fans. They love to argue, you see, about the tiniest details of the singers and productions. There are endless battles over "who sang which role better." A newbie can easily feel like they're missing out on something ("gee, I thought she sounded very nice, but this critic/blogger here says she was bad, what did I miss?") Don't worry about any of that. Just go, and if you like it, keep going, and eventually you'll start to understand the nuances everyone's warring over, and then you can decide if any of them are right for yourself, or you can decide you don't give a care what they all think.
posted by dnash at 11:43 AM on September 28, 2012

I thnk the Bergman Magic Flute film is a great entry point. The story is moderately silly, but the music is wonderful and Bergman shows just enough of behind the scenes at the theater to make it both magical and relatable. And then, ease into operas with great stories--Carmen, Aida, Cosi fan Tutti. It really is more enjoyable if you can follow the story line, and not aren't just waiting for the big arias.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:58 AM on September 28, 2012

Try to see one or two excellent productions, rather than a bunch mediocre ones. Opera productions have a huge drop off in quality. I live in San Diego which has a great regional opera company with solid, experienced singers, a good scenic shop, a well conducted orchestra and an inspired Artistic Director at the helm. San Diego has also run in the black for 25 years. Not every regional house is so lucky. Many are bleeding red ink and consequentially putting on productions of lower quality.

If you have a chance to be in a city with a good company, see a production there live. Once you have an established love for opera, you can see the good parts in lower quality productions and overlook the rest. When you're starting out seeing some poorly done productions can really kill your buzz.
posted by 26.2 at 12:16 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm also an opera newb, and I also somewhat rekindled my desire to grok opera via the recent Ring Cycle broadcasts.

Here's what I did.

1. I watched the documentary about the production that aired the night before the actual operas started up. Not only was it informative about how operas are produced and what's interesting about this one, it was a great intro to who the main characters are, what the music sounds like, what the overarching story elements are, etc. On top of being educational, the documentary really psyched me up to sit through the whole thing.

2. The night of the first opera, Das Rheingold, I pretty much watched with my laptop in hand and one window open to the Wikipedia entry on Das Rheingold. So every time I got confused about which god was which, or why the Rainbow bridge is important, or whatever, I'd just go back to the Wikipedia article and figure it out. which leads me to:

3. The operas move slowly enough that you don't really have to pay attention to the whole thing like you do for a stage play or movie. It's more like baseball and less like basketball. You can go to the bathroom, make a sandwich, multitask with your laptop, etc. There are a few epic moments you don't to miss (and every once in a while I'd get distracted and then look up and realize I had no idea what was going on, necessitating a visit to my Wiki tab), but by and large you don't need the intense focus of attention that we associate with media consumption nowadays. (Though obviously if you go to the opera, you are expected to be in your seat paying attention the whole time.)

4. Subtitles. Subtitles subtitles subtitles. I'm going to see Carmen at the Met next month and am a little worried about this part.

5. This. This got me out of the Wikipedia cycle once and for all.
posted by Sara C. at 4:08 PM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: No love for Marriage of Figaro? Basically an 18th-century operatic screwball comedy.

Getting involved is a great way to grow an appreciation for it, too - if you read music and can check out a score from the library, following along with a recording can really help you appreciate what's going on.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:22 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

(I mean, this is so silly and yet so sublime: Marriage of Figaro: 1 2)
posted by en forme de poire at 4:51 PM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: Go to one, but in the mindset that you're going to the symphony - you're not there for the story, but for the live music. Ok, you're not so familiar with the music, which makes it harder to enjoy it, but wait - this orchestra has a choir too - that's a nice bonus! And there's some stuff on stage to look at too! As concerts go, this is pretty cool!

I think if you go to see the story play out, you'll struggle (it's not really where opera is strong). But if you go to hear live orchestra, and get vocals+sets+costumes+story on top of that, it's more accessible.
posted by anonymisc at 5:09 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Mozart! Also, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas seem as though they'd be a great transitioning point between musicals and serious opera-- music and singing style is much more in the operatic vein (although lighter/ with more emphasis on melody), BUT it's in English, with clever, funny plotlines and witty lyrics. I've never been able to stand much Wagner, but have been thinking I need to give him another shot after listening to a lot of Wagner-influenced G&S.
posted by Bardolph at 5:16 PM on September 28, 2012

Best answer: You can also get into opera through a particular singer. I was introduced through a CD of Maria Callas singing Puccini and Belinni arias. It's sublime.

The Rough Guide to Opera by Matthew Boyden is first-rate.

Be careful what you wish for here. Now I even love Wagner.
posted by ecourbanist at 9:13 AM on September 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much to everyone for all of the wonderful suggestions!

I've picked up a few books from the library about opera, including Wagner Without Fear, and I'm really enjoying what I've learned so far. I've watched La Boheme and enjoyed it immensely and I'm planning on going to see the Met's broadcast of L'Elisir d'Amore tomorrow.
posted by BrianJ at 8:27 AM on October 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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