Learn to Appreciate Opera
So you want to learn about opera? Well, you've come to the right place.
My name is Alkis Karmpaliotis, and I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. I began working on this guide when I was 12 years old, and, over time, I've developed it to cover more and more branches of the art form.
Countless methods of appreciating opera have been suggested by scholars and artists alike. I recently conducted an interview with Grammy-award-winning counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who asserted that immersing oneself in the music, without overwhelming oneself with the context and plot, is the best way to elicit a positive reaction. However, in a later interview I conducted with world-renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee, he suggested that all new listeners should always understand the context of a piece within the story in order to fully enjoy it. Moreover, in an interview with the brilliant conductor Antonello Manacorda, he mentioned that Mozart was the base for all opera, and should be given first priority. I hope to incorporate all of these methods and many more into my guide.
My personal methodology in designing this guide was to follow my own path as I discovered and learned to appreciate opera (hence the name of the website). At 6, I began with the instantly recognizable melodies of the bel canto greats; at 8, I immersed myself in the divine creations of Mozart; at 9, I explored the dramas of Puccini and Verdi; at 11, I journeyed through the intricate worlds of Wagner; at 14, I dove into the operas of Czech, Russian, and Hungarian composers; and it was not until 16 that I first ventured into the modern world of opera. Throughout high school and college, I hope to study and research musicology and turn the contents of this website into a full book.
By no means does one need to follow this exact path; however, I see it as a good starting place for anyone interested in appreciating opera. Without any further ado, let's dive right in!
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of AppreciateOpera.org
1 What is Opera?
History and Background
I like to think of opera as being the ultimate, all-encompassing art form, combining elements of music, theater, literature, drama, and even visual art. Like in a movie, operas tell a story, with singers playing the roles of different characters. Scholars believe that opera was created as an effort to revitalize the style of Ancient Greek tragedy, whose music is lost. Claudio Monteverdi, an Italian composer from the 17th Century, is considered the "founder" of opera as we know it. While opera remains popular today, being performed in opera houses all over the world, the composition of classical opera began to die down in the early 20th century, being replaced by films and musicals.
An opera performance involves a stage, containing singers and actors, and an orchestra, led by a conductor, seated in an "orchestra pit" beneath the stage. I've attached a diagram I created using London's Royal Opera House for reference.
Operas can last anywhere from less than one to over four hours, depending on the composer and era. Don't worry --- the four-hour ones seem daunting at first, but you'll learn to love them too!
Before getting hooked on the music, it's important to go over some basic history. Monteverdi lived during the baroque era, alongside other opera composers such as George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. Baroque music is characterized by a formal structure and complex polyrhythms. After the Baroque era, came the Classical era, which was led by great opera composers such as Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Classical music is generally very formal, following many specific rules and structures. That said, some of the most beautiful, popular, and catchy music comes from this era. After the classical era, came the bulk of operatic history, dominated by Italian and German composers. Composers from this period started using larger orchestras in order to produce greater sound. Modern opera composers --- mid-20th century and beyond --- also typically use large orchestras.
2 Where to Start?
The Bel Canto Greats
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), considered the father of opera
Fun Fact!: The word 'opera' is plural for 'opus' which means 'work' in latin.
The first piece you listen to is integral to your operatic journey. If you listen to a complex, obscure opera as your first listen, you may be scarred --- it took me years before I was able to properly appreciate the difficult music of composers such as Béla Bartók.
Your first step must be something light and simple --- something with a memorable melody that you can hum as you walk down the street.
There is no better place to start than the home of opera itself: Italy, specifically the 19th-Century composer Gioachino Rossini. Rossini was known for his use of the "coloratura" technique, which involves improvisation by the singer to add technically challenging ornamentations such as trills and high notes. The selection I chose is an "aria" --- a piece intended for only one singer --- from Rossini's famous comedy, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). This aria is sung by a tenor --- the second-highest male voice after the counter-tenor. The other male voices are baritone and bass, the latter of which being the lowest. This aria is from the first act of the opera; if you're interested, check out the full synopsis on Wikipedia. Enjoy!
The two composers that immediately come to mind are Rossini and Mozart. Italians are known for their operas, which is why it is fitting that the first thing you listen to be by an Italian composer. The selected piece is from Gioachino Rossini's opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia, a good starting point for opera learners. This piece is an aria, which means that it features only one person. In this case, the singer is a tenor. This is the second-highest male voice, after counter-tenor, The other male voices are baritone and bass, the latter of which being the lowest. This aria is from the first act of this comedic opera. Enjoy!
Regnava nel Silenzio from Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti, performed by Maria Callas
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Ecco ridente in cielo performed by Juan Diego Florez at the Royal Opera House.
If you liked the piece, great! If not, that's also completely okay! Don't give up; there are tons of different subgenres of opera and everyone has their own taste.
Now that you've listened to a piece from a comedy, namely a Rossini opera, your next step should be to listen to non-comedic works, perhaps by other composers of the same style and era.
This particular style of opera is known as "bel canto," or "beautiful singing." Some of the most famous bel canto composers include Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Vincenzo Bellini, each known for their melodious and beautiful music. I've included two more arias, one from Donizetti's tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor and the other from Bellini's opera La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker)
Vi ravisso from La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini, performed by Nicolai Ghiaurov
3 Italian Romanticisim
Verdi and Puccini
The two most famous Italian composers are, without a doubt, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, both of whom lived after the bel canto era.
Giuseppe Verdi, the best-known Italian composer, went through many musical phases during his life, starting with simple, bel-canto-like operas such as Nabucco, before moving into his most famous period, with operas such as La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Il Trovatore. Towards the end of his life, Verdi started composing more intense, large-scale works such as Otello and Don Carlo that require larger orchestras.
Two pieces by Verdi that I would suggest listening to are the ensemble piece Libiamo ne'lieti calici and the soprano/tenor duet Parigi o cara, both from La Traviata. Notice the contrast, with one sounding cheerful and festive, and the other being slow and moving. You should also listen to Va Pensiero, a choral piece from Nabucco, to further observe the variety in Verdi's music.
Unlike Verdi, Giacomo Puccini was consistent in his compositional style throughout his life. He used large orchestras with grandiose themes but generally composed shorter operas, many of them under two hours. If you love melody and romance, this is the place to be. His most popular works are La Boheme, Tosca, and Turandot.
The most popular Puccini aria is Nessun Dorma, from Turandot. If you haven't listened to it yet, do so before listening to any other pieces by Puccini. The video featured is a rendition of Che Gelida Manina, a deeply romantic aria from Puccini's opera La Boheme. It is performed by the renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Check out the lyrics as you listen --- they're incredibly touching and go with the music perfectly
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Libiamo from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, performed by Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, and the Metropolitna Opera Chorus
Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, performed by Luciano Pavarotti
Now that you are acquainted with Verdi, Puccini, and other Italian composers, you should find no problem with the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps the most famous and influential composer of all time.
Mozart was one of the few composers who wrote operas in several different languages, including Italian, German, and even Latin. He is the most influential composer from the Classical era, which is characterized by music of a lighter texture and more formal rhythmic and harmonic structure than its successor, the Romantic era.
By no means is Mozart's music boring. In fact, his operas are some of the most exciting in the canon. Fairy tales and comedies such as Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) contain some of the most distinctly heartwarming moments in theater, while darker operas such as Don Giovanni have some of the most strikingly blood-chilling music you'll ever hear.
Der Hölle Rache (Queen of the Night Aria) from Die Zauberflöte, performed by Diana Damrau
Sull'aria from Le Nozze di Figaro, performed by Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming
Soave sia il vento from Così fan Tutte
5 French Opera
Bizet, Massenet, Gounod, and Saint-Saëns
Before we dive into the unique world that is French music, we must first define what we mean by "French opera." French opera is not necessarily the same thing as French-language opera. Many non-French composers, including Verdi and Donizetti, composed operas in the French language --- but that doesn't make these pieces French opera. Rather, French opera is a subgenre of opera that contains music of a particular style unique to French composers.
This style is typically very lush and charming, with dramatic themes such as romance and tragedy always at the forefront. The most popular French opera composer is Georges Bizet, who wrote Carmen, one of the most commonly performed works in the canon, and Le Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), a duet from which I have included as a reference to the right.
Some other French composers you should check out are Jules Massenet, best known for his opera Werther, an adaptation of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, Charles Gounod, best known for his operas Romeo et Juliette and Faust, and Camille Saint-Saëns, most famous for his biblical opera Samson et Dalila. I've provided some of my favorite selections
L'amour est un oiseau rebelle from Carmen by Georges Bizet, performed by Elīna Garanča
Au fond du temple saint from Le Pecheurs de Perles by Georges Bizet, performed by Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix from Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns, performed by Anita Rachvelishvili
I could write a book on appreciating the work of Richard Wagner alone --- in fact, numerous books have been written on just this matter. Even though he only wrote thirteen operas --- only ten of which are still performed today --- his work is monumental in its gravity. There's truly no one like him; that's why his music is an acquired taste. Some love him, some don't, and that's totally fine; what I will attempt to do is walk you through what I believe makes Wagner so special.
If, by the end of this section, you are intrigued by Wagner and interested in learning more, I suggest reading Wagner Without Fear by William Berger. It walks the reader through every Wagner opera and provides a detailed guide on each one.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Many people shy away from Richard Wagner, fearing that his music is loud, heavy, and overly complex. This could not be further from the truth. Wagner is responsible for some of the most beautiful, moving music ever written. Before you start listening to the actual operas, you must listen to some of Wagner's overtures. There are many different ways to go about familiarizing yourself with Wagner's music, but, in my opinion, there is no better place to start than with his overtures.
An overture is a symphonic piece performed as a prelude to an opera. Each composer has a unique way of using overtures in their operas. For example, the overtures of Rossini and Mozart are often musically independent from their operas, containing themes that do not reappear later. These pieces could be anywhere from three to thirteen minutes long. On the other hand, Verdi and Puccini often did not compose overtures at all, preferring to dive straight into the action. Wagner's overtures are special because they incorporate important recurring themes from his operas. These themes are called "leitmotifs," and they can be used to represent characters, objects, or emotions. For example, the principal melody of the overture to Tannhäuser is the leitmotif that represents the title character, a melody that recurs throughout the opera. Here's a great video about leitmotifs:
Here are some overtures for you to listen to:
a) Overture to Tannhäuser: Notice how the music starts soft and builds towards a powerful climax. Also, pay attention to the main melody and its presence throughout the piece. My favorite recording is that of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.
b) Overture to Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman): Notice how powerful and dramatic the music is at the start, with the violins playing frantic tremolos and the brass playing the Dutchman's leitmotif. Also, pay attention to how the tone of the piece quickly shifts from frantic and intense to soothing and serene.
c) Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nurenberg): At nearly five hours long, this is the longest opera ever composed. However, the overture is one of the most memorable pieces of music you'll ever hear, containing a catchy melody and beautiful harmonies to go along with it.
d) Overture to Lohengrin: This piece stands alone as one of the greatest symphonic works ever created. It is often performed in concerts, independent from the opera. Notice how it builds towards its powerful climax, before calming back down and resolving the original motif.
Now that you've heard some of Wagner's orchestral work, we can enter into the actual operas.
Arias and Duets
Wagner didn't compose arias the way his predecessors did. In Wagner, there is rarely any orchestral pause; the music always flows from piece to piece. That's why it's difficult to pick apart music from his operas other than his overtures. Here are some beautiful passages from his operas:
a) Winterstürme from Die Walküre: This tenor-soprano duet is among the most beautiful parts of the opera. Listen to it with Jon Vickers singing the tenor part.
b) O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhäuser -- This is one of the most well-known baritone arias. Listen to it with Hermann Prey or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing.
c) Walkurenritt (The Ride of the Valkyries) from Die Walküre: This is one of the most famous individual melodies in music history and needs no introduction. The main theme is Brünnhilde's leitmotif --- she's the opera's protagonist.
The Ring Cycle
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), commonly referred to as the Ring Cycle, is a four-part operatic saga, the story of which is written entirely by Wagner. It is made up of four operas: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). This took him 22 years to complete. Here are two of my favorite selections from the Ring Cycle:
Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung
Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre
7 Eastern European Opera
Czech and Russian Composers
Eastern European composers aren't generally known for their operas; however, if you explore their repertoire, most notably that of Czech and Russian composers, you'll quickly find that it contains some of the most profound operas in the canon.
Some famous Russian composers are Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky. Some Russian operas are Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky; The Golden Cockerel by Rimsky-Korsakov; and Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky. Interestingly, there are many operas written by Russian composers that have libretti in languages other than Russian; an example of this is Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress, which is sung in English.
The most famous Czech operas are Rusalka, The Bartered Bride, and Káťa Kabanová, by Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana, and Leos Janacek respectively. Another famous Czech opera is Janacek's Jenůfa, one of the first operas to be written in prose.
Lenski's Aria from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin, sung by Piotr Beczala at the Metropolitan Opera.
8 Moden Opera
Late-20th and 21st Century Composers
Many opera fans don't bother exploring modern opera. But there is a place in the world of modern opera for everyone, as it is just as versatile as romantic opera. There are many different styles within what we call 'modern' opera. Some composers, like Alban Berg, the composer of Wozzeck and Lulu, two of the most-performed modern operas, used the twelve-tone technique in their operas (Read about this form of composition here).
The most famous living opera composer is Phillip Glass. Among his most popular works are Akhnaten, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and many more English-language operas. Fascinatingly, parts of Akhnaten are sung in biblical Hebrew. These operas are part of Glass's biographical trilogy, which includes three operas about three different important historical figures: Akhnaten, Einstein, and Ghandi, respectively. Much of Glass's music is atonal, a very unique style that he pioneered in the late-20th-century. This music may sound off-putting and repetitive at first, but once you've listened to it for a while, it can be profoundly powerful. It is certainly worth making the effort to take a listen.
21st-century composers like Nico Muhly and Thomas Ades regularly have their operas performed at big opera houses like New York's Metropolitan Opera, often having their operas premiered at such theaters.
Excerpt from Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, performed at the Metropolitan Opera.
Excerpt from the Hymn to the Sun from Phillip Glass's opera Akhnaten, sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo at the Metropolitan Opera.
Have you fallen in love yet? If so, I hope that you will continue learning more and more about opera. If this guide has been helpful, share it with others so that we can spread our shared love of opera to people all over the world.
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