10 Friendly Opera for Beginners

Jul 7, 2007 (Updated Mar 3, 2008)

The Bottom Line For those unfamiliar with the opera but want to try, here are 10 opera you shouldn't have problem sitting through on the first go.

10 Friendly Opera for Beginners

Are you one of those folks who have never seen or heard an opera before, want to try, but don’t know where to start? I (not so) humbly suggest that renting a good recording of one or a few of the following opera would give you a good idea of how opera is performed these days. There are many good choices, I’ll just pick at 10... in no particular order.

1. MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)
Based on the 2nd play of the Beaumarchaise ‘Figaro’ trilogy, this charming political satire opera is full of wonderfully catchy music and witty jokes (the servants getting the best of the nobility class is the main theme). At a bit over 3 hrs, this is a rather long, though it really showcases Mozart's prodigious skills at making time fly with his music. Even folks who aren’t familiar with any kind of classical music before would likely be able to recognize at least 2 or 3 songs in it.

I bet you can recognize the overture, which often shows up on TV commercials. Also, Figaro’s Act I ending ‘Non piu andrai’, Cherubino’s Act II ‘Voi che sapete (the music used in the TV ads for the last episode of HBO's hit series, The Soprano), and Act III's Letter Duet between Susanna and the Countess Almaviva (featured in the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (where Andy plays an LP on the prison stereo system).

There are many good DVDs of this opera around. The worst of the bunch that I’ve seen (and so do not recommend) is from the 2006 Salzburg Festival conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I do; however, recommend the DVD from the 1994 Glyndebourne Festival. You can sample the music of this opera at, or try these Youtube clips:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vlh9t7eGh4o (Overture)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-WnUWRlOkw (Cherubino's 2nd aria)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLtqZewjwgA (Act III Letter Duet, Sull' aria)

2. GLUCK: Orphée et Eurydice
Gluck’s first reform opera actually comes in many versions. The original version is in Italian (Orfeo ed Euridice) and has a tenor as Orfeo. I prefer the Berlioz French version (with a contralto Orphée), since I have a thing for the low female voice. The story if of the myth of Orpheus, the Thrace musician who braves the furies of Hades in the attempt to rescue his recently deceased wife Eurydice from Hades. This is an elegant but very effective dramatic work. At around 2 hrs with the ballets, it is an appealingly short opera famous for the 2 arias sung by Orphée. The Act I ending ‘Amour viens rendre à mon âme’ is one of the most fearsome bravura arias around with a famous ending virtuoso cadenza. The heart-wrenching lament, ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ (better know in Italian version ‘Che faro senza Euridice’), is a popular concert piece for mezzo soprano. I personally love the Orphée/Eurydice duets most, however. Another well know number from this show is the orchestral ’Dance of the Blessed Spirits.’

My favorite DVD is the one from Munich (Studio Farao) conducted by Ivor Bolton and starring Vesselina Kasarova, Rosemary Joshua, and Deborah York. My favorite CD is the Italian version conducted by Sir Georg Solti and starring Marilyn Horne, Pillar Lorengar, and Helen Donath. It is a real shame that no recording of this opera exist with the great Lucia Valentini Terrani singing the title role!
www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFeneyJa6_Q (Orphée's bravura aria)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQ65B0ly8Uc (Orphée/Eurydice duet)

3. BELLINI: I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues)
This is a rather rarely staged opera, since good coloratura mezzo sopranos with good top notes and enough vocal acrobatic ability to do Romeo justice are so hard to find (even in this current golden age of virtuoso mezzo). The story is, of course, of the tragic love between Romeo and Juliet, though it isn’t based on the Shakespeare play. At any rate, this is bel canto opera at its finest. The focus is on the voice, and the orchestra only paints the background and provides subtle contrasts. If you like vocal music, this opera should be an easy sell for you As breath-taking as Romeo’s and Giulietta’s arias are (Romeo’s Act I bravura ‘Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio’ is a tour de force for showing the character’s range of emotions), the ensembles are just drop dead gorgeous. Aside from Norma, this opera is my favorite work by Bellini.

I’m afraid neither of the 2 DVDs of the opera commercially available appeal to me much, but on the CD front, the RCA complete set conducted by Roberto Abbado and starring Vesselina Kasarova, Eva Mei, and Ramon Vargas is a front runner. The 1964 recording conducted by Lamberto Gardelli with Giulietta Simionato and Mary Costa is a good choice as well.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qzKUY2rt7s (Vesselina Kasarova sings Romeo's entrance aria)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvaWNTPi3Us (Kasarova as Romeo and Laura Claycomb as Giulietta)

4. VERDI: La Traviata
Perhaps Verdi’s most popular work (aside from Aida), this is a tragic romantic drama of a forbidden love between a courtesan and a French gentleman. If you have seen the hit film, ‘Pretty Woman’, this is the opera that Julia Robert’s character is taken to see and is touched to tears by it. There are many musical numbers that pop up occasionally in TV commercials as well, not the least of which is the famous ‘Brindisi (Drinking Song)' where Alfredo courts Violetta at her party.

On the DVD front, I must say that the film by Franco Zeffirelli starring Teresa Stratas, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNiel is the gold standard. Though the pairing of Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko from a performance from Salzburg is ...er... sizzling beyond words!!

5. OFFENBACH: Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld)
Based on the same myth as in Gluck’s opera (#2), but this one is a hilarious satire instead. Musically it is at the borderline between a true opera and an operetta. In this version, Orphée and Eurydice are both alive at the beginning of the opera, but in a very rocky marriage. He is an unrepentant playboy and she is something of an ...er... easy lady (ahem!) who runs off to have a hot and heavy affair with Aristée... AKA Pluto, the god of the underworld. It is a fun work with hook-infested tunes and a famous 'Can can'. At any rate, both the preferred DVD & CD to me are the EMI label from the same show conducted by Marc Minkowski and starring Laurent Naouri, Natalie Dessay (the woman in red in the clip), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Ewa Podles, Véronique Gens.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=QN-zyCPtXOE (The Fly Duet)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeB_ZFDKcBI (Finale & Can-can)

6. HÄNDEL: Rinaldo
The first big hit opera by Händel, the master of melody. This is a fantasy tale full of fantastic beasts, witches, and heroic knights. The biggest hit number is probably Almirena’s mournful ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’, which is a favorite concert piece of lyric soprano (cross-over artists included). Get this, Händel lived in the late 17th to 18th Century, and his music is still performed regularly today. When it comes to writing long-lasting, time-tested melodies, there is no-one who can beat that dude!

I haven’t seen the 1 DVD available of it starring David Daniels (the counter-tenor), but on the CD front I can recommend either the one conducted by Rene Jacobs and starring Vivica Genaux or the 1989 set from Venice conducted by John Fischer and starring Marilyn Horne.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu1Z2PoaE5I (Almirena's aria Lacia ch'io pianga)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=AImvk6UrnqI (Rinaldo's aria Cara sposa)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se7SfDCcKxw (Rinaldo's final aria Or la tromba)

7. DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor
As stupendously tragic as the story of this opera is, it was actually based on a real life story (as adapted from Sir Walter Scott’s version of it). This is another bel canto opera that focus on the vocal music. But unlike Bellini, who loved the harp and the French horns, Donizetti loved having his soprano sing with a wind obbligato (usually there’s a flute miming a melody while the soprano voice is singing) to great effects. The opera is a showpiece for the coloratura soprano singing the title role (and if you’re lucky then you’ll have a splendid tenor singing her beloved Edgardo as well).

There are loads of great CDs of this work. Any of them starring Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, or Edita Gruberova is good for it. The most famous music is of course the mother of all operatic 'Mad Scene' that Lucia sings after having butchered her husband on their wedding night (that's what you get when you make a coloratura soprano cook for you!).
www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpZ6wZHc5GY (The Sextet)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGaVtdPotME (last part of Lucia's Mad Scene)

8. PUCCINI: La Bohème (The Bohemian)
If you’ve seen the film ’Moonstruck’, you’ve heard many tunes from this most popular Puccini opera (No, 'O sole mio' isn't one of them). It is a tragic love story between a penniless artist and his girl next door (literally), who is also dying of tuberculosis. It is a shortish work, and full of marvelous melodies. You surely are familiar with Musetta's Waltz and the duet 'O soave fanciulla', at least. When you have a great soprano like Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, or Angela Gheorghiu singing Mimi, it is almost glamorous to die from the disease...

There are many great recordings of this opera that it’s hard to have 1 favorite. Any of the choices that appear on the first page of Amazon.com when you search for the opera are good, I think.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=AI2mkUj5-As (Act I ending duet, O soave fanciulla)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFf4lg2pMWI (Musetta's Waltz)

9.WAGNER: Tannhäuser
Wagner opera are usually too long and self-absorbed for my taste, but there is no denying their place in the basic repertoire. One of the easier Wagner opera for those newbies is the mythical Tannhäuser, about a knight who actually found himself bored from hanging out with Venus for too long and returns to seduce the virtuous local girl instead (get off it... sensible people wouldn't make a good title role for an opera, you know!). As with most other Wagner opera, the cad is redeemed by the love of the maiden.

My preferred DVD of this opera is from Munich conducted by Zubin Mehta and starring Rene Kollo, Nadine Secunde, Waltraud Meier, and Bernd Weikl.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0aeutiyv-0 (Wolfram's Ode to the Eveningstar))

10.ROSSINI: Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)
This is one of the most popular operatic farce ever written. It’s also Rossini’s biggest hit, and you surely have heard many pieces from it in TV commercials over the years. The overture is famous, and so are the arias of Figaro, Rosina, and Don Basilio. This is the prequel to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, where the Count Almaviva enlists the help of Figaro (the barber of Seville) to help him win the hand of Rosina from her guardian Don Bartolo.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiS9ciE4_sU (Vesselina Kasarova sings Rosina's entrance aria)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKELRwa08m4 (Leo Nucci sings Figaro's Largo al factotum)

Other works you might like to consider that are also children-friendly are:
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Don Giovanni by Mozart, Aida by Verdi, Tosca by Puccini, La Belle Hélène by Offenbach, Hänsel und Gretel by Humperdinck, Die Fledermaus by Johannes Strauss, Jr., The Little Prince by Rachel Portman, Carmen by Bizet, and Lohengrin by Wagner.

OPERA TO AVOID... at least when you’re just starting out:
1. Any opera by BERG, SCHÖNBERG, or STRAVINSKY (Lulu, Wozzeck, Moses und Aron, Le Rosignol (The Nightingale), etc), unless you like atonal and/or 12-tone music. These are dissonance-fest opera with hardly any recognizable melody you can hum to. Sometimes they sound like they were composed when the composer was under LSD intoxication....

2. R STRAUSS: Salome and Elektra.
When sung well, these are fascinating works. The trouble is that these are also full of dissonance (though not as extreme as the works by the 3 composers mentioned above) and very morbid (it explores love, lust, incest, & necrophilia). And a good 'godzilla-size voiced dramatic soprano' who can sing Elektra and Salome really well only come around a handful per generation (and when the title role in these works isn't well sung, they're just sheer torture to sit through). You might grow to like these two works later, but they really aren’t stuff for beginners.

3. WAGNER: Ring Cycle... taken as whole. This is a set of 4 opera... or ‘musical drama’, as Wagner preferred to call them (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung). I agree with him that they are wonderful wedding of music and drama, but would add one more word to the description... musical soap drama. At nearly 5 hrs each, they are killers to sit through even for veterans..

4. DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande
Another good opera that maybe too musically involved for beginners (and many veterans, to tell the truth). The story is a mythical fantasy of illicit love between a prince and his sister-in-law. The music is a flowing expressionistic painting (it’s by Debussy, after all!). You either ‘get’ it, or you don’t.... and if you aren’t already a fan of French classical music from the late Romantic Period, then chances are good that you won’t ‘get’ it.

Opera is about music. Clever staging and convincing acting are added pleasures, but if the music isn't good and/or well performed, then you don't have a successful opera. Another great way of learning about how opera works is by reading books about it... including the memoirs of singers and conductors. These offer many wonderful insights into how a performance is conceived and how the operatic characters are in the mind of those who portray them. One should be mindful that these account are likely biased; however, and learn to use multiple sources (different books by different authors).

A few good diva memoirs are:
- 55 Years in 5 Acts (Astrid Varnay)
- La Nilsson (Birgit Nilsson)
- Galina: A Russian Story (Galina Vishnevskaya)
- On Stage, Off Stage (Régine Crespin)
- Hans Hotter: Memoir (Hans Hotter)
- In My Own Voice (Christa Ludwig)

Voila! I hope this essay is helpful in giving non-opera fans a better idea of where to start in checking out this musical theater genre. If you would like to hear some opera for free, try www.operacast.com to access free webcast from all over the world. :o)

More about the opera:
A Few Words To Opera Newbies, Commandments for the Operafans, Some Friendly Diva Opera Arias (the ladies), Some Friendly Divo Opera Arias (the gents), Some Friendly Operatic Duets, Some Friendly Operatic Ensembles, Tips In Opera Reviewing, 15 Favorite Opera Youtube Clips (2007), Newbies' Guide to German & French Opera, Newbies' Guide to Operetta

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