Opera

June 10, 2021, 10:51 AM · Hi all,
So I have 2 questions really, none of which are particularly strictly strings related. When it comes to opera, save for seeing it live, what is the best way to hear it? Watch a YouTube video or a recording (Spotify, Apple Music etc.)?
Also, as someone who knows virtually nothing about it, where would you suggest I start with listening?

Thanks in advance!

Replies (42)

Edited: June 10, 2021, 11:12 AM · Personal preference. I like highlights CDs. I can't be bothered with the recitative (bad libretti tediously sung). Others scream when they hear me say that. Go on Amazon and buy the cheapest you can find. Highlights tend to be plentiful and cheap. Get 2 or 3 at random of each of Purcell, Gluck, Mozart, Bizet, Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, Delibes, Massenet: that will last you a while. If you want Wagner, ask someone else, lol! (not that I don't like him, it's just that it's a huge field. In his case the ideal would be continuous streaming of the Ring Cycle - Radio 3 in the UK played it once for 12 hours straight. You could go and make lunch and come back, and it didn't matter what you missed, there was always something else going on)
June 10, 2021, 11:07 AM · You might hunt up survey programs. For instance if there is a radio show or podcast talking about performances and history and so on and playing examples. I think this has the highest chance of igniting the flame.

Cruising Youtube to develop a sense of what appeals to you is a nice accessible starting place.

Edited: June 10, 2021, 11:17 AM · Part 1 is 12 hours, it's longer than I thought!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJf8G1E_hBU
The initial crescendo is crucial. Screw that up and you ruin the whole thing. I have no idea where part 2 is.
June 10, 2021, 11:33 AM · Verdi La Traviata is always a nice spot to start with. There are also many other great and not too difficult works. Wagner is generally too advanced for the "beginner", though Tannhauser is not difficult at all (I love it myself.)

Disagree with Mr. Alf/Shumway about excerpts. Buy videos of performances, live performances, or studio performances of the whole works. Librettos are always great, especially with me not being a true opera expert. But sometimes hearing/watching the whole thing even without fully understanding it has its own magic.

Finally, I am in the minority but I appreciate opera as works by a composer, much like listening to a very long symphonic work. I do not care as much about star singers and divas, but about the sum of its parts, including the orchestra. The music and scenes are more important than any singer's particular ego, for me.

Enjoy, and do not be intimidated. I personally love quite a lot Rossini's opera seria. No need to emulate the general opera fan-do what works best for you.

June 10, 2021, 11:35 AM · Gordon, you left out the greatest of all operas, in which a certain composer made the work of German poets of the status of William McGonagall into great drama!
June 10, 2021, 11:39 AM · I love seeing live Mozart (/late classical) operas. I couldn't care less for recordings.

Edited: June 10, 2021, 11:47 AM · I have no idea what you are talking about, John!

Someone preceded Wagner, but I can't remember who it was. Weber?

June 10, 2021, 11:59 AM · Excellent question Jake! Here are a few strategies:

1. I would suggest collections of 'greatest hits', and as you are a violinist I feel you will want to begin to savour the voices of the greatest singers in the way in which you undoubtedly appreciate the greatest violinists. Listen to some of the greats of the past - Tebaldi, Callas, Leontyne Price, but also some of the great singers of nowadays: Lysette Oropesa, Javier Camarena, and so many more

2. Begin to fit the arias, duets and choruses (and also, in some cases, famous orchestral interludes) into something like dramatic contexts. For this, YouTube is invaluable, and many film clips have a translation. Wikipedia can help with background on composers and libretti. DON'T read libretti on their own however, they will put you off!

3. Who are your favourite composers? If they wrote operas, those would be a logical place to start. If they did not write for the stage, then look for contemporaries who did.

4. Work first on operas in which you have a grasp of the language: much as I love Tchaikovsky and Janacek as opera composers, they will be difficult at first unless you have a smattering of Russian and Czech.

Enjoy the journey and take it slowly! Ah! and when you do attend an opera performance, make sure you have done your homework (as Benjamin Britten liked his audiences to do) and that you have some steady familiarity with what you are going to hear/see.

Edited: June 10, 2021, 12:12 PM · PBS presents operas - almost as good as being there. I have been recording them for myself (DVD) for many years and have accumulated over 100 DVDs (some repeats of operas, but not of the same performers) of the NY Met and the San Francisco Opera Co. That is the best way to gradually build a collection.

I have only attended one live opera, la Boheme (fortunately a short one - but if you have to sit through a live opera, there is none better than this, I think) they are usually long. I watched a couple of opera movies at the drive-in with my girl friend (now my wife) back in the early '50s (fortunately, longer ones). The most enthralling operas I recall (on TV) were (Levine conducting) Wagner's "Ring Cycle" with full scenery! Fortunately the series was rerun years later when I had the equipment to record it.

I think if you are after "the music," Gordon's idea of listening to (or watching ) highlights is a good way to go. Opera actually goes way back before the more familiar composers, for example, Handel, and the extremely prolific, Meyerbeer, a contemporary and unappreciated financial supporter of Wagner.

June 10, 2021, 12:05 PM · I was forgetting Donizetti. I like his arias, but others think they are too lightweight. I had a superb cassette of Pavarotti once singing Donizetti on one side and Verdi on the other. Getting the same compilation nowadays on CD is surprisingly difficult. You'll also want some Callas. But people's preferences for singers is wide and wild. I've never understood the popularity of Domingo - but then I'm sensitive to the way he chews German to pieces.
Edited: June 10, 2021, 1:34 PM · I was never a big opera fan, but then again, I'd never attended an opera. However, several years ago I was in New York City, and bought a standing room ticket for Fidelio, performed by the Metropolitan Opera, at Lincoln Center. At the time, 1980, standing room tickets were $5. I stood in the third standing room row in the back of the main floor during the entire first act. The opera was so distant from where I was standing, that I was tempted to leave at intermission. It seemed like hours until the house lights came up. I was about to walk out when a man came up to me and said, "Excuse me, but I'm a doctor, and I have to leave. Would you like to use my ticket?" I was grateful, and decided to stay. The ticket was for fifth row, center. This was an entirely different experience. Suddenly, the grandeur seemed both vast and intimate. I was swept away by the experience. For me, opera is only opera when it's live and close.
June 10, 2021, 3:23 PM · Until the covid shutdowns I had been going to large screen cinemas to see live simulcasts of the NY Metropolitan Opera. There were theaters all over the world showing the opera live as it happened on the stage in NY. Considering my 2 visits to NYC to see the Met live cost me more and put me high in some 4th balcony, the live HD broadcasts are AWESOME!!! Close ups so you can see the threads on the costumes, the heaving breast of the wailing soprano, the concentration of the pit musicians (during overtures). And during intermissions, we go backstage for interviews with the singers, the set designers and choreographers, etc. I have shown opera to some friends and coworkers and seeing a MET in HD in the cinema is a fabulous way to introduce someone to opera or see your hundredth show.
June 10, 2021, 3:33 PM · Of course opera is live on stage, and until you see one (or dozens) live in stage, you haven't fully lived. For this experience, I have often enjoyed smaller opera company productions in smaller halls. Opera is full drama, acted as well as sung, with sets and costumes and humanity of breathing singers in front of you. Don't be afraid to seek out smaller companies in smaller halls near you. They might not have world-famous superstar singers, but the intimacy and live drama always bring me great satisfaction. Examples local to me that always thrill are the New York City Opera (not to be confused with the Met), Heartbeat Opera, Connecticut Opera, Yale Opera, and the Yale Baroque Opera Project. When I was an undergrad at UCONN (mid 1980s), I went to punk band shows in the gymnasium. About 10 years ago I evaded Yale security and went into one of the small auditoriums in a dormitory, where a fully undergraduate production of Dido and Aeneas was performed. My inferiority complex was set that day and still brings me tears and laughter.
June 10, 2021, 3:34 PM · I also like the Met Opera simulcasts at the local movie theater. It is a recorded live performance, but the cameras bring you up close, better than a not-so-cheap seat at back of the hall.
Start with Mozart, Rossini, Verdi.
My favorite short reviews of Wagner Operas:
"Wagner's music is probably not as bad as it sounds"- Mark Twain.
"Wagner's best opera was Falstaff"--Igor Stravinsky.
For live performances near to us, San Francisco is good. Vienna was wonderful.
June 10, 2021, 3:50 PM · Talking about Donizetti, Lucia de Lammermoor is another easy "starter" opera.

I disagree live opera is the only way to enjoy opera. The ideal way, I would argue. Recordings-even studio ones-can be great if you can transport yourself "there" or imagine the scene. And... some of the modern stage recreations of the classics are best kept unseen, if one had to choose (IMHO-sometimes the modern staging has its own messaging separate from the composer's work, which although creative, annoys me as "superfluous" or unnecessary in my view.)

June 10, 2021, 3:59 PM · Opera is comparable to theater: both are drama. Reading Shakespeare is a treat, like listening to some good opera recordings. But to see the same play or opera onstage is to get it through all the senses for which it was created. You won't get the plot and the full experience of a drama through even the finest stereo speakers. That said, I have a good collection of opera CDs. In my opinion, some carry over to stereo much better than others. I saw a GREAT NY Met simulcast of Wagner's Die Walkure, but when I put it on the stereo a few days later, I found it relentless and boring! Mozart's operas carry over to speakers very much better, because they were a series of discreet numbers, unlike the through-composed concept operas of Wagner. It was a great day when I rolled onto the construction site first thing in the morning with all my windows and sunroof open and blasted the Queen of the Night aria from Magic Flute. My coworkers finally appreciated that opera is SERIOUS SINGING!
June 10, 2021, 7:27 PM · Favorite composer = Puccini
Favorite performer = Maria Callas
June 11, 2021, 1:03 AM · https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6ubiUIxbWE
June 11, 2021, 2:08 AM · Florence - the apotheosis of the amateur! Here's an excellent antidote:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=463jDvbw3LQ

June 11, 2021, 2:34 AM · No, Deutekom is the one you want for hairdrying
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQpTGKXAxqA
June 11, 2021, 4:34 AM · I personally think that Wagner operas *are* well-suited for a beginner, *provided* that "beginner" already knows a lot about music, just not about opera; I think Jake fits that profile. So Jake, my advice, dive straight into Tristan and Isolde!
June 11, 2021, 8:58 AM · My advice would be: If you have access to a well stocked public library: check out opera DVDs. If you want to experience opera you need to watch the whole thing (excerpts are like a concert; only the whole performance is "Musikdrama" as they call it in German sometimes). Live is the best way no doubt but pricey and--depending on where you live--not easy to find.

As to repertoire: The opera of all operas is the Marriage of Figaro (it should be Wedding" BTW). It has it all: brilliant textbook (those do exist, Gordon!), brilliant music, fast pace, great characters, a compelling plot (for a satirical comedy). I would at any rate recommend Mozart as the starting point for an opera exploration.

Generally one does not understand the text, not even in recitatives. Opera watching is a bit like watching a movie with the sound turned off. Maybe you can guess what is going on but mostly you can't. Especially if the opera is sung in a language you don't know.

On a CD you'll have subtitles and many live performances project subtitles so you can understand the story. If they don't you should ideally read the libretto (not just the summary in the program booklet) before you go see the performance.

June 11, 2021, 9:23 AM · The San Francisco Opera live performances have translated libretto visible above the stage
Edited: June 11, 2021, 9:33 AM · "I have only attended one live opera, la Boheme (fortunately a short one - but if you have to sit through a live opera, there is none better than this, I think)"

Yeah, I saw La Boheme at the Albert Hall once. I also saw Cosí Fan Tutte somewhere somewhen. And someone's Agamemnon. One of those 3-hour atonal modern operas. We walked out of that one in the interval!

June 11, 2021, 4:19 PM · Opera is a theatrical art form, and you cheat yourself if you just listen to audio excerpts. The best way to experience opera is, in order of most to least preferable:

1. Live, in a decent-sized hall with great singers and an excellent orchestra. (Think: Met, Chicago Lyric, San Francisco Opera, etc.)

2. Theatrical broadcast of a Met production.

3. Live, in a regional production without a first-rate orchestra or singers.

4. DVD, preferably on a big-screen TV with good speakers.

5. The Met's iOS app, preferably projected onto your big-screen TV with good speakers, or with good-quality headphone. This gets you well-filmed excellent performances.

6. Live, in a local production with a pickup orchestra and local singers.

7. Recorded audio.

Edited: June 12, 2021, 12:36 AM · I watch a lot of opera and I would definitely recommend getting the MET subscription. They have great productions and many to choose from and totally worth the money. You can try the 7 day free trial.

Also, I would recommend starting with something Puccini like Turandot or Madama Butterfly.

June 12, 2021, 8:53 AM · Hey all. Thanks for the responses. I've had a look at the Royal Opera House in London (as its the closest one to me, realistically) and they have performances showing from October at the cinema so I'll see what I can do about attending a showing
Edited: June 12, 2021, 9:42 AM · Opera never really worked for me. In my school years I was exposed to operas by Mozart, Schubert and Donizetti (actually sang the title role in Don Pasquale!) but didn't become hooked. Aged 18 I decided it was time to take Wagner seriously but found I couldn't keep a straight face. At university I had a great time in the orchestra of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society where you don't need to keep a straight face.

Working in London I went to a dozen or so productions by the English National Opera which gave me a taste for Janacek but not much else. Later I served about 8 years in the orchestra of the Chelsea Opera Group which gave concert performances of rare operatic repertoire. On tour in southern France we accompanied a local cast in Bizet, Offenbach and Gluck. Back home there were regular amateur productions of G&S, Cav&Pag, Smetana, Puccini, Verdi etc, all of which I enjoyed being part of but was never fully converted. Opera either gets to you or it doesn't.

June 12, 2021, 9:47 AM · The arias rtc. that I have heard of various things I have liked. But never sat and listened/watched one in its entirety. The closest I have come to that is listening to Handel's Messiah completely
June 12, 2021, 10:50 AM · The Theater buildings can also have historical or architectural value.
For me, a bucket-list, expensive Opera tour would include places like the Palais Garnier in Paris, La Fenice in Venice, Aida at the Verona Arena, Don Giovanni in Prague, Magic Flute at that the theater in Sweden where Bergman's version was filmed, etc.
June 12, 2021, 11:45 AM · I think that sounds like a good idea Joel to be honest
June 12, 2021, 2:29 PM · In terms of "gateway" operas for people who don't usually listen to opera, I recommend:
  • La Boheme (Puccini)
  • Carmen (Bizet)
  • La Traviata (Verdi)
  • The Magic Flute (Mozart)

I recommend getting to know Wagner through an orchestral-only volume of Ring selections, and a broad range of operas through overtures (which will get you a greatest-hits selection of tunes for the most part).

My son, at age four, was obsessed with Carmen, the Magic Flute, and Aida, which he could listen to (and watch on the Met app) inexhaustibly.

June 12, 2021, 3:03 PM · Lydia, La Boheme is one of the 2 that will be showed at cinemas so that helps. Thanks
Edited: June 13, 2021, 12:39 AM · Jake - I hope you have found plenty of leads and a good variety of answers to your two questions. As you are in London, you should also look at the ENO - English National Opera. They are a few minutes' walk from the ROH Covent Garden. They always sing in English I believe, and their exciting productions are generally affordable and more available. 'Messiah' is a good intro to baroque opera, incidentally.

Opera is a whole world within western music. Some people can't stand it (my good parents, for example), some are absolutely addicted. You won´t know until you try it. Let us know how you get on!

June 12, 2021, 5:14 PM · Carmen has been done to death, though. You could go for the Pearl Fishers instead if you feel the the way I do.
June 12, 2021, 6:19 PM · There are good reasons everyone loves Carmen and it's done to death: It's got engaging music throughout almost the entire thing. It's got plenty of action on stage; there are no dull moments. And the generalities of the plot are easy to comprehend.
Edited: June 13, 2021, 9:24 AM · Lydia's list of entres are as good as any. I was surprised by a comment above saying one can't follow the dialogue (sung 99% of the time) because of all the operas I've seen on stage by diverse companies, there were always English subtitles (or supertitles) --even for operas in English.
June 13, 2021, 10:12 AM · Gordon, if you read Michael's comment, you'll see which opera I'm talking about! This composer with his music can transform a cardboard villain into a Hitlerian megalomaniac!
What I was surprised to find out recently is that the beginning of Schumann's Piano Concerto is NOT derived from Florestan's aria (but in the minor key), especially as Schumann wrote quite a lot of German in the names of Florestan and Eusebius - Schumann constructed that theme from completely different elements.
June 13, 2021, 10:59 AM · I don't think I've ever heard any of Fidelio.
June 13, 2021, 3:56 PM · Gordon - you must at least know Beethoven's multiple shots at the overture!
June 14, 2021, 12:26 AM · Strictly speaking, yes, I've been a Classical radio listener for nearly 60 years, so I will have heard some of it. I don't listen to the announcers, though.
June 14, 2021, 3:08 PM · Yes, Will, subtitles have almost become the standard, at least in the US. But not everywhere. And I suppose the real opera snobs are still strongly objecting to the practice.


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