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An Opera Primer

A relative of mine wrote me this summer with the question that warms any opera-lover's heart; he's interested in learning more about opera, and wants to know where to start. My first concern, of course, is not overwhelming him with an answer so long it will drive him away forever.

Obviously, I have a number of thoughts on the subject. I'm not sure, for instance, that it makes most sense to recommend your standard "beginner operas" -- the ideal "beginner opera" is one that grabs you by the throat, or hits you between the eyes, and for a sophisticated person in his mid-twenties that could as easily be "The Nose" as "La bohème." I think of the teenage son of friends who was enthralled by "Götterdämmerung," or the story someone told me about an adult businessman who saw "Rheingold" (of all things) and fell in love with opera forever. I also think of talking to my brother this spring about "Peter Grimes," which he saw years ago when he was 12 or 13, and which -- although he didn't fully get bitten by the opera bug -- he still remembers vividly and positively (more so than some of the other operas we saw together as kids).

But this is a question I want to open up to the floor. What would your advice be to a newcomer to opera?

By Anne Midgette  |  September 1, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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I think it would heavily depend on how this newcomer responds to the music he or she currently listens to.

Does the person ferret out lyrics to songs on the radio and have heated discussions with passengers in the car about what such-and-such muffled word must be based on context and poetic effect? Baroque opera might be uniquely unsuited.

Does the person seem always to get irrepressibly catchy tunes/licks irritatingly stuck in his or her head (like, say, "the hustle")? Da capo arias might be a plus rather than a minus.

In any event, I would say 2 things pop to mind once this person is (gently) steered toward works or styles of composition that he or she may like:

1) Go to a moviecast. It's a live performance, so the frisson is still there. It mimics an experience that is already familiar to virtually all people (and nobody is going to sneer, least of all ushers, if you go in jeans); you get drastically better visibility for your ticket price; and you get top-notch performance and production values that otherwise can be hard to get in many parts of the country without long-distance travel.

2) Seek out (local; recorded) performances of dramatic vocal works of shorter length or different affect. I'm mostly familiar with so-called early music, which teems with examples: cantatas, madrigals, both Bach Passions (which are extremely dramatic and tell a story that virtually everyone is familiar with).

I know that Anna Caterina Antonacci has performed Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda as a one-woman town crier-style piece. Many baroque cantatas could easily be staged (Handel's Apollo e Dafne would be stunning this way) and aren't all serious (though none come readily to mind aside from the Coffee Cantata and possibly Hendel, non puo mia musa).

I also think that the astringent instrumentation of early music can make a better impression than a full symphony orchestra, which can come across (ironically) as slightly old-fashioned. Plus, I find a lot of musicians who play early music are a lot more punk and personally more accessible than their more tradition-bound counterparts (which I think has to do with the fact that early music instrumentalists generally have to strike out on their own paths without clear norms to guide them).

In any case, I would recommend doing some research on both work and composer at least the day before the performance.

Posted by: WallyP1 | September 1, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Not Peter Grimes, puh-lease!
Also, I would advise your relative to avoid the WNO if possible. It is not a good place for a newcomer. Where the opera is performed (notice that I am avoiding the word "see") matters as much as what it is. It is also important for an opera to be performed in a language, rather than being sung in tongues (as the WNO is wont to do).

There is only one opera worth being an introduction to opera, that one should see and hear for the first several times, if your concern is music rather than ideology, fashion, or being thought of well. That opera is The Magic Flute. Go to the performance. Hear the music at home. Go to the performance again. Learn German. Sing the arias in the shower. Go again. As a matter of fact, if you never go to the opera again, you'll have experienced the one opera one must experience to have lived.

After that, maybe Nabucco or Aida.

After that, if you still want to hear opera, go to every opera you can attend, even the WNO, regardless of what it is. Once you love opera, you will hear what you are meant to hear, regardless of the hiccups and misses and the shortcomings that, like the clicks and crackling of old LP records, music lovers are able to filter out.

Unless his taste runs to Peter Grimes, in which case he'll be better off not going to an opera performance at all.

Posted by: gauthier310 | September 1, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and I forgot to say: shower and shave and dress up as fancy as you possibly can and take someone well-dressed you love with you. Going to the opera is a sacred ritual, it is not like taking out the garbage, or doing aerobics, or going to a therapy group. It has to do with the salvation of your soul.

Posted by: gauthier310 | September 1, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

best bet: SALOME

It is short, hard-hitting, theatrical, edgy, etc. It is 'modern', but has that classical/mythological basis that is fundamental to so much of the repertoire. Many DVD productions exist that do it justice.

I got started on 'Turandot', myself.

My favorite opera "hits" CD is an old one: RCA's "Opera Goes to the Movies". Fantastic performances, and a great mix of tunes (incl overtures and intermezzos as well as arias).

Posted by: jejonesdc | September 1, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

For kids, I think Otto Schenk's production of Wagner's Ring will be a good place to start. Say what you want about the production - which I still prefer over much Euro-trash - but I can't see a kid not fascinated by those dragons and demons and dwarfs, and he may learn to also love the music.

For those who suggested The Magic Flute, it was indeed my first opera but as a kid I found it too long - at the begining. Maybe the shortened version at the Met or Vienna State Opera is more accessible for kids.

Speaking of the Vienna State Opera, one of Ioan Holender most successful initiatives was a Opera for Children series in which he presented mostly contemprary works!

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 1, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

How timely, as today Opera released version 10 of their great browser!

Posted by: Bartolo1 | September 1, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, let’s take all the kids to the Ring for their first opera! I hear that The Magic Flute is too long (and also that it’s in German!)

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 1, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

If the relative is local, send him to WNO's "Opera in the Outfield" on September 12 at Nationals ballpark. It's a free, live broadcast of The Barber of Seville, which really is one of the best operas for newbies. It's comic, the music is familiar, and the story and characters are relatively easy to understand.

Posted by: OperaLove | September 1, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

There's nothing wrong with "The Magic Flute" as a first opera, but it's silly to say it's the ONLY opera worth being a first opera. Anne knows someone who got hooked via "Rheingold" and I know someone who got hooked via the Norwegian Radio Orchestra "Goetterdaemmerung," which is a mess by any standard despite the presence of Flagstad and, I think, Svanholm.

I'd consider about the new person's age and existing musical interests, what's available locally, what's available on DVD. I might give the person my personal-choice greatest-hits CD, though my taste is um idiosyncratic and the singers on that mix CD are all long gone.

The ready availability of opera on DVD makes it possible to screen bleeding chunks of a bunch of works to see what appeals. It might be Handel, it might be Verdi, it might be Berg.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 1, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

This is a great discussion topic! The answer is as varied as the people who might go to opera.

The opera that made me love opera is Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Why? Well, my Mom bought a recording of it when I was 9 or 10. It was the Metropolitan Opera Erich Leinsdorf/Giorgio Tozzi/Roberta Peters/Lisa Della Casa/George London recording.
I LOVED the pictures of the singers in costume on the cover. I thought Roberta Peters and Lisa Della Casa were so beautiful, Gorgio Tozzi looked so cuddly, and George London looked so mean and scary.
Then I listened to the record and loved the music. I played Side 1 and maybe 2 over and over (about the length of my attention span). I liked the story from the liner notes.
Why did I relate to it so? I don't know, I was 9. Maybe I identified with Susanna, who was like a plucky fairy-tale heroine, and I wanted to wear the clothes in the cover photos.

Now, almost 50 years later, it's still my favorite opera for lots of esoteric reasons, though I still love those pictures.

Posted by: c-clef | September 1, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

The only operas I have heard and enjoyed in my life are "Jenufa" and "Peter Grimes," though this is a small sample size.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | September 1, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

For the one who sarcastically said "let's take the kids to the Ring", I should have pointed out that I was speaking about the DVD. You don't have to watch the whole Ring at once; some fragments should be OK for kids, especially in Otto Schenk's production. I would not suggest for kids Chereau or Kupfer's productions though.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 2, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

DVDs and books and learning about opera are fine tools,and they make you more cultured and a more refined listener, but they can make you think you've been to an opera when in fact you haven't. What you are seeing is light from pixels on a screen, and what you are hearing is electricity causing membranes to vibrate. The whole thing is canned and you can fast forward to the end. At a live performance, you will have the magical experience of hearing a human voice directly, unmediated by electronic amplification. You cannot fast forward, among other reasons, because life is precarious and you really don't know if you or the singer will still be alive by the time Act III comes around. It is likely, but uncertain. When it does, and you are still alive, it is a miracle, even if our senses have been too dulled by the virtual reality in which we live to appreciate it. Going to an opera is like falling in love: you don't feel the earth move by reading about it. I agree that a first choice is very subjective and probably any first choice is like a first date and may work out or not. But I still think that The Magic Flute shows you how it should be. And if it is longer than the 15 min attention span of the average American, see if you can sleep through this one!

Posted by: gauthier310 | September 2, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

“There's nothing wrong with "The Magic Flute" as a first opera, but it's silly to say it's the ONLY opera worth being a first opera.”

Agree. Generally speaking, if my young charge were a girl I’d take her to, and show her on video, Arabella … if my young charge were a boy I’d take him to, and show him on video Don Carlos (both in older, traditional MET-style productions).

I would not take my charge (or own child) to a ballpark with a large video screen and call it an opera experience. (It would be a slightly more difficult call if a WNO performance were to be screened live on a side of the Kennedy Center -- for example – especially if it were an American opera such as Baby Doe or Susannah).

(How many are planning to fly or drive their children - or charges - to next season’s full Los Angeles “Ring”?)

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 2, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

I'd think an easing into the genre would be a good starting place, personally. Go from a point you know to a point that's related in some way.

My first opera recording was actually an older, "historic" recording..."Porgy and Bess" from 1952, with a young Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and a more familiar name, Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life. It's a European radio broadcast from 1952 and it is amazingly well preserved and the themes are timeless, and it's in English. A familiar cast member (especially if one is a fan of "The Blues Brothers"), a clear recording, and understandable themes and language all add up to a great starter.

(My second opera recording? The Houston Grand's "Treemonisha.")

Posted by: SportzNut21 | September 2, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

"DVDs and books and learning about opera are fine tools,and they make you more cultured and a more refined listener, but they can make you think you've been to an opera when in fact you haven't."

Of course, but the topic is making a kid to love the opera, which is where these tools come in handy. Once a kid is sufficiently versed or comfortable, then you can actually take him to see one.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 2, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Some of the Met at the Movies would be excellent for a first opera - perhaps 'Tosca'. A simple plot, a great second act and Matilla to boot. WNO's 'Barber' would also be a good choice, particularly to hear the talented Larry Brownlee.

Posted by: Arlingtonian1 | September 2, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

The first opera I took one friend too was a lovely, bubbly performance of Cenerentola. She became a fan.

Shortly thereafter, inspired by my success, I took a bigger group of friends to a performance of The Magic Flute. It was horrible. None of them have been back.

Moral? A good performance will sell itself to a newcomer. The only thing I tell people about to go to the opera is to have a big lunch so they don't have to bolt down a chicken sandwich from the bar at 7.15 and suffer indigestion throughout the first act.

I really would not tell someone, unless they expressly asked, to go off and read the libretto and listen to the CD's and so on because that can come later. Similarly, as great as an outreach activity Opera in the Outfield etc... is, I think an operatic deflowering should take place in the house, because an important part of the 'wow' factor I've found with newcomers is that this person is doing this amazing thing with their voice right there in front of them, without a microphone or autotune. One of my absolute favourite things in the world is when the house lights dim and the oboe plays the A, and that's always something I like to share and you can't do it in an AMC.

Oh, and gauthier310 the first two operas I ever liked were Akhnaten and Nixon in China. What about that?

Posted by: ianw2 | September 2, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

The first opera I saw was Don Giovanni at age 20, and I hated it. A few years later, someone gave me a copy of the first Three Tenors album, and I kept playing it. Then I started listening to La boheme, while walking to classes, and ended up going down the rabbit hole. I didn't actually see another opera until a few years after I started listening to it, so my perspective is undoubtedly skewed. But, since that's how I did it, I think it makes sense to listen first and figure out what kind of music most appeals. Opera is not everyone's cup of tea, but I think that it is important that newcomers understand that it is a hugely varied art form that can be approached from several possible vantage points, including one's headphones.

Posted by: newbie2 | September 3, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

"Elixir of Love" should capture anyone's heart!
Just came back from Santa Fe where the audience was a lot younger and probably less familiar with opera than the usual crowd in Washington and based on their reaction the show was a smashing success!

Posted by: Mike-Klein | September 3, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

One of the tricks here is addressing what the new person will like, not necessarily taking him or her to what you like. I think Arabella is extremely hard to bring off well; in many years of opera-going and three different productions of Don Carlo, I have yet to see a fully satisfactory performance. I can't stand most Rossini and Donizetti, so it's not likely I'd take a newcomer to them.

I note lastly that Anne's question was about "advice for a newcomer," not "what's the best newcomer opera." I'm therefore going to expand on that a little.

I think people come to love opera in one of three ways.

1. They love a composer and are in it for his particular music. People who know Mozart's symphonic work might try one of his operas. You know about Wagnerophiles.

2. They love voices and are looking for thrills. If you think your newcomer is one of these people, give them a mix tape of great voices and see if any particular voices or styles appeal to them, then go from there. Include some Handel, Donizetti, Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, Britten, at least.

3. They love theater. Find the best live production you can of a highly theatrical opera. Forget most Handel, which tends not to have much action, but Rheingold might work here, given the many special effects called for. Or find an opera with great dramatic construction, which might be Nozze or might be Rigoletto or might be Lulu.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 4, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

This is such a problematic comment, Ms Hirsch. I can’t imagine a newbie attending the 2000 Dresden Early Music Festival production of Handel’s “Serses” and not being bowled over by it. A wonderful DVD of the production is available, but I imagine that other live theatrical productions of Handel (even short of Peters Sellars’s “end-of-life,” staged Theodora) could grab new opera goers in a similar manner (as someone or two mentioned above.)

Mozart … I strongly agree with the commenter almost immediately above that Don Giovanni is very difficult to appreciate on first viewing in a theater. Drama aside for the moment, the music is at times so complicated and even disorienting. Perhaps if one had conducted the Jupiter Symphony as a high school student one could appreciate it as a first opera, but I doubt it.

Expanding a bit … Is one who loves the simpler Mozart Gm Symphony or the Clarinet Concerto really ready for Idomeneo or Cosi fan Tutte? …. The Abduction from the Seraglio, most likely, but probably not the others; in my opinion. (Yes, I saw the excellent SFO Idomeneo. Perhaps you disliked it.)

And yes, Berg’s Lulu is a theatrical masterpiece, but even with Christine Schäfer. performing the lead at the MET in the late winter of 2002, I don’t know how many newbies were won over by the long matinee or evening. (I’ve had enough trouble getting friends and colleagues to sit still through Boris Godunov and Falstaff at the MET.)

Finally, I am sorry that you “think Arabella is extremely hard to bring off well, and that in many years of opera-going and three different productions of Don Carlo/s, you’ve not encountered a satisfactory production.” Perhaps I was fortunate to have encountered superb productions of both operas at the Metropolitan Opera and in London years ago (along with a superb Cosi, in English!, in Cambridge.)

But aren’t most of the greatest (if not necessarily the three most popular) operas somewhat difficult to pull off?

I stand by my recommendations of both Arabella and Don Carlo/s as ideal operas for newcomers to the form, due in large part to their realism. I was not speaking about what I like. Aren’t we always told by opera publicists that new, young opera goers should be attracted by the theme of young love (and then told that La Boehme, alone, fits this criterion?) In my book, Arabella and Don Carlo fit that requirement in deeper and more complex, and less sentimental, ways that should be attractive to those who read literature, view films, and are able to travel.

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 4, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

My aha moment!

"E lucevan le stelle"

Salvatore Licitra as Cavaradossi in Tosca,

2005 Washington National Opera

That was it - my fate was sealed -- opera forever.

Posted by: mac17 | September 6, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Snaketime - I did not see the most recent SFO Idomeneo, but I liked the previous go-round very much.

As far as opera publicists claiming that young-love-stories are the way to bring young newbies in, I'm not a publicist and I don't buy it, given the range of comments above about what pulled each person into opera.

As for Arabella - you may see a story of young love. I see a story about women as property: Arabella's parents want their daughter to marry their rich widowed acquaintance because they've frittered away the family money. Just how do you think Mandryka is, also? He could be anything from, say, 30 up. I can imagine him as a 45-year-old widower marrying a 19-year-old (or however old Arabella is), too.

And as for "Serse," I love Baroque opera but I know people who can't stand it and flee from the thought of a da capo aria.

What I'm trying to say here is that there is no single work that you can say everybody will love. I know opera lovers who can't stand the following composers: Wagner, Mozart, Puccini, Rossini, Handel. I'm the one who can't bear Rossini, at least the comedies - William Tell is a great, great piece.

But I can say this: I would never take a newbie to an opera I myself can't stand or think won't be performed well.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 7, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

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