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OPERA - Getting Started

Opera can combine elements such as singer soloists, orchestra, chorus, dance, scenery, costumes—many times presented with great pageantry. When talking about opera you can also include such subcategories as operettas and singspiel (German for song-play). There are also different types of opera including: opera seria, opera buffa, grand opera, concert opera, etc.

Like an opera, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However while an opera is more akin to classical musical theater, an oratorio is strictly a classical concert piece—though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form.

So while an oratorio is not technically an opera, Handel's Messiah isn't too far removed from the vision of what an opera is. And as The Messiah is one of the greatest musical works of all time that has also been included in the listing below. If you would like to listen to a wonderful rendition here is what I recommend:

Handel's Messiah: Augér, von Otter, Chance, Crook, Tomlinson, The English Concert & Choir, Pinnock [Arkiv]

If you are new to opera I would suggest that you start with Mozart. If you would like to watch a DVD, I would suggest the Ingmar Bergman movie of The Magic Flute. Opera on DVD or Blu-ray (with English subtitles--assuming you don't speak the original German, Italian, French, Russian, etc.) is a great way to more fully experience an opera than just an audio recording.

Then there are The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni both of which Mozart wrote with his librettest da Ponte. Another wonderful composition is his singspiel Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio). All of these are timeless masterpieces as well as being quite accessible.

For a great performance of Abduction from the Seraglio try this recording:

Arleen Auger, Reri Grist, Schreier, Neukirch, Moll, Mellies; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden; Karl Bohm [DG]

After exploring Mozart you might turn next to Bizet's Carmen. Succeeding that you could listen to Puccini's La Boheme. Next maybe Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Followed by Verdi's La Traviata. Then Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Of course there are plenty of others to explore at your leisure from the listing below, which comprises some of the most important operas composed during the eras spanning 1642-1945.

For a recording of La Boheme you could listen to:

EMI: Victoria de Los Angeles, Jussi Bjorling, RCA Victor Chorus & Orchestra, Beecham]

For some people the singing is the main attraction. In which case you may choose to listen to some recordings of opera highlights or collections of arias. One collection of arias that I particularly recommend is Arleen Auger singing arias from Handel & Bach. These works were recorded in 1984 when vocally she was in top form—and is available as two different compilations both of which contain mostly (but not totally!) overlapping material:

Arleen Auger: Handel & Bach: Arias (recorded in 1984)

Arleen Auger: American Soprano (Note: Disk 1 of Handel and Bach arias was recorded in 1984. Whereas Disk 2, entitled Love Songs, was recorded in 1988—and while not opera per se nevertheless contains some really beautiful singing!)

Both of the above recordings contain some of the most transcendent singing ever of some truly wonderful arias. Though there is much great singing on both of these albums, to highlight some arias by Handel that are particularly lovely I'd recommend the following:

  • "Care selve, ombre beate" (Atalanta, HWV 35, Act I)
  • "Lascia ch'io pianga"  (Rinaldo, HWV 7, Act II)
  • "Softly Sweet in Lydian Measures" (Alexander's Feast, HWV 75, Part I)
  • "He Shall Feed His Flock/ Come Unto Him" (Messiah, HWV 56, Part 1)

Note that the first two arias are on both releases, whereas the last two renditions are only on the first release:


If you would like to read a book about opera to get you started I would recommend:

A Passion for Opera: Learning to Love It: The Greatest Masters, Their Greatest Music
by Peter Fox Smith

A Listing of the Most Significant Operas

Note: Among the listings below you will find some more recommended recordings in brackets.)


MONTEVERDI

  • L'Incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

PURCELL

  • Dido and Aeneas (1688)

GAY & PEPUSCH

  • The Beggar's Opera (1728)

HANDEL

  • Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) (1724)
  • Rodelinda (1725)
  • Alcina (1735)
  • Ariodante (1735)
  • Serse (Xerxes) 1738
  • Messiah (oratorio) (1741)
  • Semele (1743) (Note: this was originally presented as an oratorio)

GLUCK

  • Orfeo ed Euridice (1762)

MOZART

  • Idomeneo, rè di Creta - K.366 (opera seria) (1781)
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail - (The Abduction from the Seraglio) - K.384 (Singspiel) (1782)
  • Le nozze di Figaro - (The Marriage of Figaro) - K.492 (opera buffa) (1786)
  • Don Giovanni - K.527 (opera buffa) (1787)
  • Così fan tutte - K.588 (opera buffa) (1790)
  • La clemenza di Tito - K.621 (opera seria) (1791)
  • Die Zauberflöte - (The Magic Flute), K.620 (Singspiel) (1791)

BEETHOVEN

  • Fidelio (1814)

ROSSINI

  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia - (The Barber of Seville) (1816)
  • La Cenerentola - (Cinderella) (1817)
  • Guillaume Tell - (William Tell) (1829)

WEBER

  • Der Freischutz - (The Marksman/The Freeshooter) (1821)

BELLINI

  • La Sonnambula (1831)
  • Norma (1831)
  • I Puritani (1835)

DONIZETTI

  • L'Elisir d'Amore (1832)
  • Don Pasquale (1843)
  • Lucia di Lammermoor (1835)

BERLIOZ

  • La Damnation de Faust - (The Damnation of Faust) (1846)

WAGNER

  • Der Fliegende Hollander - (The Flying Dutchman) (1843)
  • Lohengrin (1850)
  • Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (1868)
  • Parsifal (1882)
  • Tannhauser (1845)
  • Tristan und Isolde (1859)

The Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen - The Ring of the Nibelung - composed between 1850-1876) - comprised of:

  • Das Rheingold (1869)
  • Die Walküre (1870)
  • Siegfried (1876)
  • Götterdammerung (1876)

VERDI

  • Rigoletto (1851)
  • Il Trovatore (1853)
  • La Traviata (1853)
  • Aida (1871)
  • Otello (1887)
  • Falstaff (1893)

OFFENBACH

  • Orphee aux Enfers (1858)
  • Les Contes d'Hoffmann - (The Tales of Hoffmann) (1881)

GOUNOD

  • Faust (1859)

BOITO

  • Mefistofele - (Mephistopheles) (written & revised: 1868-1881)

MUSSORGSKY

  • Boris Godunov (1873)

STRAUSS Jr., JOHANN

  • Die Fledermaus (1874)

BIZET

  • Carmen (1875)

SAINT-SAENS

  • Samson et Dalila (Samson and Delilah) (1877)

DELIBES

  • Lakme (1882)

TCHAIKOVSKY

  • Eugene Onegin (1879)

MASSANET

  • Manon (1884)
  • Thaïs (1894)

GILBERT & SULLIVAN

  • The Mikado (1885)

MUSCAGNI

  • Cavalleria Rusticana (1890)

LEONCAVALLO

  • Pagliacci (1892)

PUCCINI

  • La Boheme (1896)
  • Manon Lescaut (1893)
  • Tosca (1900)
  • La Fanciulla del West - (The Girl of the West) (1904)
  • Madame Butterfly (1904)
  • La Rondine (1917)
  • Il Trittico (1918)
  • Turandot (1926)

DEBUSSY

  • Pelleas et Melisande (1902)

STRAUSS, RICHARD

  • Salome (1905)
  • Elektra (1909)
  • Der Rosenkavalier (1911)

BARTOK

  • Bluebeard's Castle (1918)

JANACEK

  • The Cunning Little Vixen (1924)

BERG

  • Wozzeck (1925)
  • Lulu (1935) (Note: This is a modern 12-tone composition)

GERSHWIN

  • Porgy and Bess (1935)

BRITTEN

  • Peter Grimes (1945)

MENOTTI

  • Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)

 

   
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