A Beginner’s Guide to Opera

So you wanna know something about opera but haven’t ever seen one and don’t know where to begin? Never fear! Your solution is here in the form of a brief introduction that will point you in the right direction to finding and loving opera.
Things You Might Want To Know

What is opera? it’s a staged musical drama. Sort of like a musical, but obviously better. It’s normally in a foreign language, and runs for 2-3 hours, so I guess you could say it’s kindof like watching a foreign film musical….

Is it boring? Nonono!! it’s very exciting, especially when the music is good and the production is new and innovative. Opera does have a reputation for being long and boring (no thanks to Verdi and Pucinni), but people who believe that have probably never actually seen an opera, or they’ve had the misfortune to see a very bad one, which is a shame as it’s a beautiful artform

So, what’s so good about Opera? it’s the blend of music and story and staging that makes it amazing – they somehow work together in a way that amplifies each aspect’s power, and make an incredible total. It’s as though Shakespeare merged with Bowie and Scorsese. But be warned, it’s pretty addictive.

How do I know if it’s for me? You like music, right? then you’ll love opera – just try it out!! if you like it, go back for more, if not, try a different kind of opera. It’s kindof like asking if you’ll like pop music – what kind?? Someone who likes One Direction might not like Stevie Wonder, or Madonna, or Vampire Weekend, but you can probably find something from the mix that they’ll like – it’s a bit hard to predict what exactly your match will be, but I’m pretty sure you will find a match, and don’t be put off if you come across something you hate – I personally can’t stand Verdi (hatehatehate) – so, if you don’t like French Baroque? Try Italian Bel Canto! Don’t like 4hour Wagnerian epics? Try English Chamber Operas!! There are so many kinds to choose from.

Where do I even begin? hmmm well seeing it live is always the best thing, so pick something interesting that your local state opera house is doing and go for it!! But if you want a suggestion I would recommend starting with Mozart – it’s the best and most accessible music, has the most hilarious plots, and isn’t too long. If you want more suggestions see the beginner’s playlist below.

Maralin Niska in the 1975 Washington National opera production of Salome
Beginner’s Playlist

So where in the 450 odd years of opera do you start? Here’s a selection of popular Operas – just remember that there’s a HUGE range of operas so if you’re not feeling one, just try something a bit different. I for one HATE and can barely sit through Classical Italian Opera (Verdi, Puccini), but looovetodeath the early 20th Century (Britten, Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Berg).

  1. Mozart – The Magic Flute //Video
  2. Britten – Death in Venice //Video
  3. Handel – Giulio Ceasar // Video
  4. Donizetti – lucia di lammermoore // Video
  5. John Adams – Nixon in China //Video (the opera starts at 4:15)
How to get your fix

LIVE – the live experience is waywayway better than any recording, so go see it live!!! Most major cities have at least one major opera house, plus a few smaller companies. The best thing you can do is go see it live.

Opera on Film – either a filmed stage production, or a made-for-film production (though these are rarer). Some cinemas brodcast the Metropolitan Opera’s season so check that out if you want to see an excellent production on a big screen with surround sound. Otherwise online streaming services like Medici TV (a rotating schedule – currently 83 operas) and The Met on Demand (over 500 of the Met’s productions) are great – though for the biggest range youtube is still hard to beat.

Listen to Opera – Though Opera is IMO best when staged, there’s no denying that the music stands on its own as a worth while thing to listen to  – so find a singer you like (maria callas, pavarotti, joan sutherland) and listen to their recorded performances.

FYI – If you’re in Perth your local Opera Company is the WA Opera, and the smaller companies are OperaBox, Lost and Found, and WAAPA Opera. Don’t forget to check out this schedule of the 2015 Opera productions for a complete list of what’s on. Sweet, right?

aMadame Butterfly
A Brief History of Opera

It all started in Renaissance Italy with Peri’s Dafne (1598) and the form became so popular that it quickly spread throughout Europe and before you knew it composers everywhere were writing these new sung/danced/staged works for the courts of monarchs – Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) is probably the most famous work from this period – but by 1640 operas, though still sponsored by monarchs, were being performed in public theaters. Over the next 100 years heaps of important composers like Handel, Gluck, and Purcell composed Italian operas – and in a slightly different way the French peeps Rameau and Lully were doing it too. They used Castrati (google it).

Then BAM Mozart landed on the scene in Vienna in the 1780s and dominated Opera and his last few operas – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutti, the Magic Flute – are still some of the most popular operas to stage today. Then the bel canto (trans: beautiful singing) style took off and 19th century Italian opera was all about florid lines and the likes of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Pucinni were writing popular, but not especially interesting works, and that’s pretty much where Italian Opera ends.

Then the 19th century produced Wagner – a giant of giants who single handedly pushed aside bel canto and created German Opera with an epic set of high fantasy operas called the Ring cycle that runs for an insane 16 hours – you can even make a pilgrimage to Beyreuth for the annual festival where they perform them all together.

Things get a little crazy after the 19th century, with the Mordernists who went for Expressionism (Berg, Shostakovitch, Prokofiev), Impressionism (Debussy), Neo-Classicism (Stravinsky, Britten), and Minimalism (Glass, Adams) which is basically to say that every composer went their own way and tried to be an innovative individual. And it kindof worked.

And now…. well aside from the bastard opera-musical hybrids of Gilbert and Sullivan, Bernstein and Gershwin, that have devolved into contemporary Broadway musicals, it’s Modernism that’s still going – right now the most famous contemporary operatic composers are Glass and Adams, and they’re both pretty boss, and that’s where things are right now!!

The top 10

okok so here’s my top 10 – it’s not a list of my personal favourites, just a list of what I would objectively say the best operas are. If you want to know the 10 most popularly staged productions are click here.

  1. The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
  2. Tristan une Isolde (Wagner)
  3. Pelleas und Melisande (Debussy)
  4. Lucia de Lammermore (Donizetti)
  5. Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District (Shostakovich)
  6. Wozzeck (Berg)
  7. The Turn of the Screw (Britten)
  8. Einstein on the Beach (Glass)
  9. Nixon in China (Adams)
  10. Salome (Strauss)
Top 5 tips for a night at the Opera
  1. Find out what’s going on – Most Operas have pretty convoluted plots, so getting an overview of who’s who and what’s going down will help things make sense. Opera companies always provide a one page synopsis (for free) when you attend a performance, so track one down from an usher before the performance begins and you’ll be set! During the performance there are digital screens above or to the side of the stage that translate what the singer’s are saying. If you want to find a synopsis online check out your opera company’s website as they normally upload them a week before the run begins – otherwise Naxos can be your best friend – they have a ton of operas listed alphabetically.
  2. Eat Before the Opera Starts – Most Performances start around 7:30pm or 8pm and go for 2-3 hours, but unlike when you’re seeing a movie you can’t really snack on things during a performance, so it’s best to eat before you get there. There are intermissions, usually 20mins long, when you can get food from the foyer (and nb. to save time you can pre-order your food/drinks). If you’re intending to dine out before the performance try and make your reservation for at least an hour and a half before the performance is scheduled to begin – most cafes and restaurants that are close to opera houses also have special pre-performance menus that have quicker service.
  3. Don’t be late – Opera houses have strict lock-outs, so any late comers that arrive any later than the overture will only get admitted at an appropriate break in the music, which may be as late as the end of the first act!! It would kind suck to miss 30% of the opera. Don’t forget to factor in stairs (so many stairs…) and to allow enough time to find your seat – arriving 15 minutes before the scheduled start time will usually be enough and will help you avoid the desperate sprint to your seat.
  4. Tell them how AWESOME they are – If a singer gives a boss performance you can signal your approval by clapping at the end of their song – unlike other kinds of performances like theater or orchestral concerts that have stricter conventions about when to clap, in opera you can clap whenever you feel it is appropriate – you can even call out Brava!!!! BRAVA!!! or give them a standing ovation if you think they’re especially awesome – it’s totes your call. But singing along during the performance is absolutely unacceptable. If you’re a particular fan you can usually
  5. Do NOT talk during the Opera – In the same way that everyone hates those people who talk through movies, everyone hates people who carry on conversations during performances – it distracts from what’s happening on stage and takes people out of their zen listening zones. P.S. if you get struck by a coughing fit you can get a cough losanger from an usher.
Want to level up?

If you’ve worked through the beginner’s playlist and are craving more why not try something a little different?

  • There are opera lover societies to join that organise trips to performances, public screenings of DVD recordings, and host talks by guest speakers – check out the WA Wagner Society page
  • Stephen Fry hosts an interesting panel discussion on the value of opera
  • For a complete list of 2015 opera performances in Perth Click here