It’s that sound that does it for me — the orchestra tuning up.
It sparks that first fizz of pleasure. The lights dim, people in the audience take their last chance to cough or clear their throats, the curtains go up and you’re suddenly immersed in a world of somebody else’s making.
Opera is perhaps the most exquisite art form around. It combines grand live music with drama and sumptuous stage sets.
Like whiskey, cigars, oysters and other complex delicacies, opera is a taste that needs to be acquired with some effort. It takes patience and learning to get to love it, and there are, frankly, many barriers to the complete novice.
For starters, operas are typically very long, and usually sung in their native languages. The art form has a long history, and it’s not easy to know where to start. It can be a very expensive spectator experience because the ticket price covers an orchestra, singers, dancers and actors, but you can and will find cheap tickets if you’re eager.
In some countries, opera is criminally over-subsidised because the elites that govern are also the kind of people that patronise opera houses. In the UK opera gets many more multiples of government funding than, say, jazz, despite the latter being obviously more popular and accessible. It’s not fair — and that’s a subject for another post — but it does mean that more people can access opera.
It’s also undeniably an art form that’s tarnished with snobbery. Part of the barrier to opera for novices is the feeling of inadequacy many of us feel entering the realm of the very rich. But opera houses are more welcoming than designer boutiques or fancy hotels, you’d be touched by the hospitality you receive by most of them.
Once you get past the real and imagined barriers you’ll find the art form rewarding, even transforming. Unlocking the history of opera is like opening a new world of intellectual and emotional feeling.
I didn’t know a thing about opera until my late-20s. In fact, I hated opera. I thought it was for pretentious rich people. But I’m a music lover and classical music got to me. Opera is intrinsic to the classical music tradition, very few notable composers didn’t at least dabble in opera. I decided to learn more because I found the music itself so beguiling.
I figured it out for myself making my way through YouTube videos, compilations, playlists, TV broadcasts and, of course, attending live opera.
I haven’t looked back since, and so I’m going to show the complete novice the easiest and best way I know to get into the art form. We’ll do it composer by composer…
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart. Everyone knows that name. He is the Da Vinci of classical music. Mozart is the mould of genius: a prodigious child, supremely gifted (his middle name means “loved by God”) yet tragically under-appreciated until after (an early) death.
Mozart is the best place to start as a listener. We’ve all heard his Requiem somewhere, and like the Beatles he has more than a string of hits that we could whistle before we even knew what the tune was called.
Who could forget that scene in The Shawshank Redemption, when our hero treats his fellow prisoners to Mozart’s Canzonetta “Sull’aria” (“Song on the breeze”) from The Marriage of Figaro like he’s just given them the keys to a champagne cellar.
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about,” drawls Morgan Freeman. “I tell you, those voices soared, higher and farther above anybody in a grey place dares to dream.”
Those ladies were singing the words of a love letter, dictated from mistress to maid, instructing her lover to meet her in secret. “Under the pines the evening will sigh.” Typically for Mozart, the sublime has a smutty touch to it: “the rest, he’ll understand.”
Mozart is a great start to opera. His music is regal and delicate, ornate yet restrained. He’s approachable and inoffensive.
As odd as it sounds, the best place to start with Mozart and opera in general is a movie.
Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning Amadeus, based on a critically acclaimed play by Peter Shaffer, is a great introduction to Mozart’s unusual life and works and it’s just a great introduction to classical music.
The musical sections of the film are a terrific journey through some of his most notable compositions. Having them grounded in the composer’s unusual life story helps us better grasp the music’s emotional depths and meanings.
The best place to start with live opera is Mozart’s Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte). This opera is basically very high-class musical theatre, a product of Mozart’s collaboration with a popular entertainment impresario, Emanuel Schikaneder.
Operas usually keep the story moving with a singing style called “recitative” which is like sung dialogue. This can be jarring to the beginner. The Magic Flute has plain dialogue with musical set-pieces.
The opera is relatively short (about two hours) and feels a little like a pantomime, having its basis in a fairy-tale, but is surprisingly rich and deep with its masonic symbolism and its other-worldly love story.
It has an entertaining and breezy plot, plenty of acting and action and some of the greatest musical moments of Mozart’s career, including the dizzying Queen of the Night Aria (“Die Hölle Rache”), and the opera’s famous overture (an overture is a musical — usually purely instrumental — introduction to an opera). The Magic Flute is also child-friendly, older kids will love it.
- The Overture of The Marriage of Figaro.
- The Queen of the Night Aria from The Magic Flute (see above).
Puccini’s operas are even more popular than Mozart’s. The modern Italian composer’s tunes are well-known through advertising and movies and his style is unmistakable. Most of his operas are accessible, they have a soap opera quality about them, featuring ordinary people caught up in big historical moments.
The composer’s “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”), sung by crossover superstar Luciano Pavarotti, was the theme song of the 1990 Soccer World Cup. It seemed fitting for the passion and beauty of the world’s most popular sport.
Puccini is a composer in the Romantic tradition — his operas immerse us in a storm of human longing, but are rooted in a gritty realism that Italian artists embraced in the early twentieth century. His most performed operas are La bohème, Tosca, Madam Butterfly and Turandot (from which we get “Nessun Dorma”). All of these operas are suitable for the beginner with straightforward plots and some great tunes.
- Tosca’s tragic aria, “Visi d’Arte” — “I lived for art, I lived for love” — is a great moment of opera, requiring supreme control from the singer (see above).
- Madam Butterfly has the beautifully restrained “humming chorus” (“Coro a bocca chiusa”)
Once you tick off Amadeus, The Magic Flute and a Puccini, you’re ready to delve deeper. Here’s suggested listening/watching for the opera novice who’s
Henry Purcell’s Dido and Annaeus is your best introduction to Baroque opera. This is the richly ornate style that dominated the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when opera was a new art form. As a “chamber opera”, Dido and Annaeus is mercifully short for the beginner who might lack the stamina for a 3-hour plus opera (Baroque opera is typically very long-winded). It also has some great tunes like the famous “When I am Laid in Earth” (Dido’s Lament).
Richard Wagner is the most divisive name in classical music. As a person, he was pretty wretched. His nastiness is well documented, yet there’s no appetite to cancel his legacy as a composer.
Some believe Wagner perfected the art form of opera with his revolutionary Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) approach, others think this approach initiated a self-indulgent modern era that killed opera off as a genuinely popular art form.
His best operas are very long and, for the beginner at least, will be extremely boring. But Wagner’s music itself is like a lucid dream, it sweeps you off your feet and carries you to heaven on a cloud of light.
The “Ride of the Valkyries” is Wagner’s biggest hit in the television era thanks to the napalm scene of Apocalypse Now. But I would suggest checking out the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser, and the overtures of Lohengrin, Parsifal and Tristan and Isolde. Crank them up loud and let the music sweep you away.
Wagner rarely did straight-up arias, but his so-called Liebestod (“Life-Death”) aria from Tristan and Isolde is one of the all-time greatest moments of music.
Gieussepi Verdi was a contemporary of Wagner and the two are often compared. Like Wagner, Verdi was highly influential both on music and opera and on society at large. Verdi was, and is, immensely popular, his La Traviata is currently the most performed opera in the world.
The composer provided the soundtrack to Italy’s unification in the latter part of the nineteenth century. His beautiful “Va, Pensiero” (also known as “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”), from the opera Nabucco, captures the spirit of a nation yearning to find itself.
Verdi has a lot of hits, all of which you’ll recognise. “Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici” or “The Drinking Song” from La Traviata is instatly recognisable as a quintessentially Italian tune. Then there’s the grand set-piece “Gloria all’ Egitto” (Triumphal March) from Aida.
His operas Aida, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Macbeth are all great for a beginner.
John Adams, a “Minimalist” American composer, is a good place to start with contemporary opera. His controversial Death of Klinghoffer is an unflinching and poignant examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also wrote a quirky Sondheimesque musical about the LA earthquake called I Was Looking at the Ceiling Then I Saw the Sky.
This by no means a definitive guide, it’s subjective and based on my own journey into opera. Some people may get snooty about my suggestions, but this is about easing into the art form gently. I hope it helps total beginners who love music and drama, but feel intimidated by opera, to get into the wonderful universe of opera.
Toi toi toi (good luck).