Learn to Appreciate Opera
So you want to learn about the opera? Well, you've come to the right place. This guide will take you through all the important steps necessary to become an Opera aficionado.
The guide is in sections, so that if there is one specific area that you are interested in, you can just jump to that section! Furthermore, the effectiveness of the guide has been definitively proven, for it is modeled on the way the founder of this website himself learned to love the opera!
What is opera? Opera is a combination of music and theater. Below the stage on which the characters sing, there is an orchestra pit in which the conductor leads the orchestra. Operas typically last from one to four hours. Before we get you hooked, let's go over some basic history. Opera began in the 16th century, with Jacopo Peri's lost opera Dafne. Although he didn't write what is considered the first opera, Claudio Monteverdi is thought to be the 'father' of the art. His works, as well as the works of his contemporaries, typically have small orchestras. Other composers who wrote operas in the Baroque era include George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi.
After the Baroque period, came the classical period. Composers such as Antonio Salieri and, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, were amongst the most important figures in this era. Classical music is generally very formal. It strictly follows very many rules and structures. This does not, of course, take away from its beauty.
After the classical era, came the bulk of operatic history, with composers such as Giuseppe Verdi, Gaetano Donizetti, Richard Wagner, and countless others. Composers in this period started using larger orchestras. Modern opera composers -- mid-20th century and beyond -- also typically use large orchestras. The four 'greatest' figures in operatic history are thought by many to be Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Giacomo Puccini.
Fun Fact!: The word 'opera' is plural for 'opus' which means 'work' in latin.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), considered the father of opera
2 What should I listen to?
Although there is no difference in quality between short, fun, comedic operas versus long, dramatic, tragedies, there is a basic consensus in what the first steps are when it comes to the opera. An opera novice should not be listening to Wagner, for instance, the same way a classical music amateur should not listen to Mahler. The first step must be something light and simple. Something with an memorable melody. 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 is sung by only one person. In this case, the singer has a Tenor voice. 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!
Ecco ridente in cielo performed by Juan Diego Florez at the Royal Opera House.
Fun Fact!: The quick runs and trills and ornamentations that the tenor sings in this aria are called coloratura!
After you've listened to this aria, listen to some more pieces from Il Barbiere di Siviglia as well as some pieces from other Rossini operas. Your next step will be to listen to Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. To the left are two pieces -- one by each composer. The operas of Donizetti and Bellini are very melodious and beautiful. Their melodies are arguably even more memorable and recognizable than Rossini's.
Regnava nel Silenzio from Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti, performed by Maria Callas
Vi ravisso from La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini, performed by Nicolai Ghiaurov
3 Verdi & Puccini
The main difference bewteen Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini is that Verdi went through many phases during his life, starting with simple, Donizetti-like operas such as Nabucco, before moving into his greatest period, during which he composed his three most famous operas: La Traviata, the most performed opera of all time; Rigoletto; and Il Trovatore. Towards the end of his life, Verdi started composing more intense works such as Otello that require larger orchestras. Puccini was consistent in his style throughout his life. His most popular works include La Boheme, Tosca, and Turandot. Two pieces by Verdi that I would suggest listening to are Libiamo ne'lieti calici and Parigi o cara. These pieces are both from La Traviata, and yet one sounds cheerful and festive, while the other is slow and moving. This is an example of the wide range of musical ability that Verdi had. You should also listen to Va pensiero, a choral piece from Nabucco.
The most popular Puccini aria is Nessun dorma. If you haven't listened to that yet, do so before listening to any other pieces by Puccini. The video to the right is from Puccini's opera La boheme. It is performed by the renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
I encourage you to listen to early-Verdi and Puccini before starting to listen to late-Verdi.
Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, performed by Luciano Pavarotti
You may be wondering why Mozart is so far down in this guide? Well, now that you are acquainted with Verdi and Puccini and other italian composers, Mozart should be easy for you. With Mozart, there is no particular order in which you must listen to his operas. Despite this, I would still suggest that you listen to Le nozze di Figaro first. Start with the Overture, the orchestral piece that opens an opera. and then move into the actual singing. After you learn Figaro well, listen to one of his German-language operas, Die Zauberflöte. It is worth spending a lot of time listening to Mozart's operas.
Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Fun Fact!: Mozart was one of few composers who wrote operas in more than one language! Can you guess the two languages?
5 French Opera
Some French opera composers are Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, and Charles Gounod. French opera is typically very lush and charming. Some well-known French operas that I would suggest you listen to are Werther by Massenet; Romeo et Juliette by Gounod; and Carmen by Bizet. Despite common stereotypes, French opera is not all tears and tragedy. Although most operas by French composers are not comedies, some of the best comedic operas are composed in the French language! A good example is Donizetti's opera La Fille du Regiment! If you're in the mood for something light and fun, listen to 'Ah mes amis' from this opera, preferably with one of the three tenors who have encored this aria at the MET: Luciano Pavarotti, Juan Diego Florez, and, most recently, Javier Camarena. This aria is famous for its nine "High C's!" (A high C is a very high note for tenors to sing. Some tenors can even sing High D's!)
Pourquoi me reveiller from Werther by Jules Massenet, performed by Jonas Kaufmann
If you have made it this far, that means that you like what you've heard. Before you move on to Wagner, research, study, and listen to these composers AS MUCH AS YOU CAN! It took the creator of this website 2 years before he started enjoying Wagner!
Fun Fact!: After the premiere of Tannhäuser, Wagner decided that from then forth he would call his works 'music dramas' instead of 'operas'!
There could be pages and pages of advice on how to learn to appreciate Richard Wagner -- and there are. What Appreciate Opera will provide you with is an overview: some information that you will need going into your Wagnerian journey. If you are interested in diving even further into the universe that is Wagner, I would suggest reading Wagner Without Fear by William Berger. It takes the reader through every Wagner opera and provides a detailed guide on each one.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Many people are scared of Richard Wagner. They think that his music is loud, heavy, and screechy. This could not be further from the truth. Wagner composed some of the most beautiful, moving music ever produced by man. In order to appreciate Wagner, you must not dive into the more 'difficult' Wagner too early. This is a common mistake. If you listen to Parsifal as your first Wagner piece, you will be scarred because one needs experience before one can listen to such pieces. Before you start listening to the actual operas, you must listen to some of Wagner's overtures. Like the overtures of many Italian composers, Wagner's overtures contain little snippets of what the operas themselves contain. These snippets are called leitmotifs. Wagner used them more than most other composers. Leitmotifs are little themes that represent characters, objects, or emotions. Leitmotifs have been used even in film scores: for example, Star Wars is full of them! The Metropolitan Opera has a very good video that talks about Wagner's leitmotifs:
Step 1: Overtures
a) Overture to Tannhäuser -- One of Wagner's more famous operas. This overture is one of the most famous pieces ever composed. Listen to this in depth before moving on. Listen to this piece with Georg Solti conducting.
b) Overture to Der Fliegende Holländer-- One of Wagner's earliest operas. This overture sounds intimidating at first, but once you go further into it, it has some of the most beautiful music Wagner composed as well as some of the most powerful.
c) Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg -- The longest opera ever composed. This overture is long and memorable. Listen to it enough times so that it gets in your head.
It is worth noting that you will hear both the term 'overture' and the term 'prelude' to describe the piece that precedes an opera. They largely mean the same thing, although overtures are typically longer. The overtures of all 13 of Wagner's operas are brilliant and I encourage you to listen to those as well after you've listened to these three enough times.
Now that you've heard some of Wagner's orchestral work, we can enter into the actual operas. Just to dismiss your concern that Wagner is just 4 hours of the Ride of the Valkyries and no actual soft singing, you should first listen to some of his more 'pretty' music.
Step 2: Soft Music
a) Winterstürme from Die Walküre -- This tenor-soprano duet is among the most beautiful parts of the opera (Yes, I know I say that a lot...). Listen to it with Jon Vickers singing the tenor part.
b) O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhäuser -- This baritone aria is just as wonderful as Winterstürme. Listen to it with Hermann Prey or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing.
Now that you have some experience with Wagner, you can start learning about the Ring Cycle.
Step 3: Ring
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a saga of four long operas. The Ring is typically performed in one week, with the four operas spread out.
The four Ring operas are as follows:
1. Das Rheingold
2. Die Walküre
The Ring took Wagner 22 years to complete. This is for two reasons: first, he wrote his own libretti, which few composers do (a libretto is the script of an opera); second, he paused his work on the Ring for a few years after he was done with Walküre to compose two of his other operas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürrnberg.
Read the synopses of the Ring on Wikipedia before you start listening to bits and pieces of it.
Step 4: Listening to the Ring
Listen to the following pieces from the Ring Cycle:
a) Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung
b) Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre
7 20th and 21st Century Opera + Russian and Czech Opera
Many people, including some Wagner fans, run away from modern opera. In fact, 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). Others dismissed this style. Although at first, such music is strange-sounding, it is worth making the effort to listen to it rather than dismiss it.
21st century composers like Nico Muhly and Thomas Ades regularly have their operas performed at houses like the MET, and often have their operas premiered at such houses. The most famous living opera composer is Phillip Glass; he composed Akhnaten, Einstein on the Beach, and many more English-language operas. Fascinatingly, parts of Akhnaten are sung in biblical Hebrew. Both of these operas are part of Glass's biographical trilogy, which includes three operas about three different important historical figures: Einstein, Akhnaten, and Ghandi.
Some Russian composers who wrote operas are Piotr Illyich 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.
Although many Czech composers wrote operas, 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 Jenůfa by Janacek, one of the first operas to be written in prose.
Excerpt from the Hymn to the Sun from Phillip Glass's opera Akhnaten, sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo at the Metropolitan Opera.
Excerpt from Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, performed at the Metropolitan Opera.
Lenski's Aria from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin, sung by Piotr Beczala at the Metropolitan Opera.
Have you fallen in love yet? If so, I trust that you will continue learning more and more about all forms of opera. If this guide has been helpful, I implore you to share it with others so that we can spread our shared love of opera to people all over the world. It is imperative that people, especially young people, develop an appreciation for the opera.
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