The Best Operas for Beginners

Nowadays, when a lot of people think of opera as something stuffy and old-fashioned and vaguely silly - a fat lady in a horned helmet screeching at the top of her lungs for four hours in a foreign language? I'll pass, thanks! - it's easy to forget that opera composers and singers were the rock stars of the 19th century.

Once upon a time, "Libiamo ne' lieti calici," was the "Blue Suede Shoes," the "Yesterday," the "Thriller" of its day. Everybody knew it, everybody was humming it, and the people who could sing it best were the cool kids of their age.

The three operas I've chosen below are three that I think best represent the cool days of opera to those who are unfamiliar with the art.

Largo al Factotum

The Barber of Seville, by Gioachino Rossini

If The Barber of Seville were a movie, it would be described as "a fun romp," and it is. I can see the posters now: "The hilarious antics of a scheming barber, a count in disguise, and a not-so-sweet-and-innocent young heroine!"

The Barber of Seville is not only great fun, it is also blessed with one of the most famous tunes ever written - "Largo al Factotum," aka "The Figaro Song" - as well as a particularly pretty tenor aria (the count in disguise serenading his sweetheart, the not-so-sweet-and-innocent young heroine) called "Ecco Ridente in Cielo."

If you love The Barber of Seville, you will probably also enjoy the sequel (which was actually written first) The Marriage of Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Ecco Ridente in Cielo

The Toreador Song

Carmen

Carmen was shocking when it was first performed in 1875 - an opera about a wild gypsy girl who sleeps around, smokes cigars, gets in knife fights, and smuggles goods as a sideline. In fact, its first run was denounced by critics and nearly canceled after only four performances. Its composer, Georges Bizet, died of a heart attack at age 37 only a few months later, never knowing how popular his masterpiece would one day become.

Instead of disappearing into obscurity, Carmen's many memorable tunes, including Escamillo's "Votre Toast" (aka "The Toreador Song"), Carmen's sexy "Habanera", and Don Jose's broken-hearted "Le fleur que tu m'avais jetee", survived the horrified morals of the Victorians to become a classic. Today it is one of the most commonly performed operas in the world.

Habanera

Image from Baz Luhrmann's production of La Boheme on Broadway
Image from Baz Luhrmann's production of La Boheme on Broadway

O Soave Fanciulla

La Boheme

Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme is my top choice for best opera for beginners for several reasons:

  1. It has inspired several modern pop culture adaptations, including the Broadway musical Rent and the popular movie Moulin Rouge, so the basic plot is familiar to many people who have never seen the opera.
  2. It is one of the most consistently hummable operas ever written. Some operas are hurt by the need for every single line to be sung, including the ridiculous ones ("La la, please pass the salt la la!"), and it is obvious the composer took short cuts and used some "filler" melodies. Puccini avoided this problem in La Boheme by giving virtually every single scene a tune worthy of a showstopper aria.
  3. It is one of the most passionate love stories ever written...
  4. ...Yet also has an element of the sublimely ridiculous common to many great operas, movies, and television shows. Boy meets girl. They declare undying love to each other ten minutes later. (Girl singing at the top of her lungs despite having tuberculosis)... It's as fun to mock as it is to cry over. I personally do both.

Puccini's Tosca is another opera that is particularly good for beginners. Tosca offers a thrilling plot full of political intrigue, a particularly memorable heroine, and some great arias, including "E lucevan le stelle," "Recondita armonia," and "Vissi d'arte."

E lucevan le stelle, by my favorite tenor, Placido Domingo

More Great Opera for Beginners

A few more operas that I would consider particularly good choices for beginners include:

  • Madame Butterfly
  • Aida
  • La Traviata
  • Rigoletto
  • The Magic Flute
  • Amahl and the Night Visitors
  • Pagliacci

If you are the sort who likes samplers at restaurants, the late, great Luciano Pavarotti had a series of albums called Pavarotti's Opera Made Easy that I think make particularly good introductions to the world of opera for beginners. Pavarotti consistently choose great songs sung by great stars for these albums, and he also included plenty of useful and interesting notes about what's going on in the song.

Please share your suggestions for the best operas for beginners in comments, or better yet, write a hub about it yourself!

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Comments 13 comments

Triplet Mom profile image

Triplet Mom 7 years ago from West Coast

Very interesting. I have never been an opera person but I just might try to see one of these and see how it goes. Thanks for posting.


Georgiakevin profile image

Georgiakevin 7 years ago from Central Georgia

This is a great hub! I enjoy most music but have not been able to enjoy Opera yet Thanks to your hub I can look forward to enjoying Opera in the future. Thank you. I have heard of all of those operas but have never seen them. i want to now.


RNMSN profile image

RNMSN 7 years ago from Tucson, Az

Great hubmob!! My daughter and I both are opera nuts and my favorites (Madame Butterfly not withstanding) are Carmen and La Boheme! What a thrill to sit and watch and listen to such wonderful theater! The thing I dislike, however, is that opera still considers itself a closed form of art...To me, Hello Dolly and Cats are also opera, along with many others I'm sure. But still, as long the civic center doesn't care that I wear my bluejeans and not jewels and furs I will gladly go to see and hear my favorites again and again!


Princessa profile image

Princessa 7 years ago from France

I love Opera and Carmen is my number 1 favourite (number 2 comes Madame Butterfly). I have seen Carmen so many times in different countries and everytime it has been a moving experience. Thanks for a great hub.


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for commenting, folks!

Triplet Mom and Georgiakevin, I hope you enjoy your first forays into opera!

RNMSN and Princessa, I have an irrational dislike of Madame Butterfly or I probably would have included it. It is another great choice for beginners, and like La Boheme is familiar in basic outlines to many people already thanks to the musical Miss Saigon.

Verdi's Aida is another that I personally dislike, but many beginners would probably love. I think I will go back and add a few of these at the end.


BrianS profile image

BrianS 7 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

I once went to the Bolshoi opera house in Moscow and watched an opera called the Masked Ball, never heard of it before I went but it was the only night I could go anyway and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of my colleagues turned the opportunity down, to me that beggars belief.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 7 years ago from Canada

Tae Joon Yang is amazing, Rinat Shaham is elctrifying - thanks so much for sharing this.

Tosca has always been a fave - I get too annoyed at that stupid Lieutenant to truly enjoy Butterfly, though her entry aria is breathtaking and "Idio Mio" always moves me to tears.

Turnadot has some nice moments, and Pagliaci stands up well, though as far as I am concerned after that great tenor aria at the end of the first act, the rest of it is totally anti-climactic, LOL


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

Isn't Yang great? I had never heard of him before I wandered over to YouTube to find a good clip of the song but I will definitely be looking up his work in the future! The others I have been fans of for awhile, especially Domingo, who I'm sure I've been listening to since I was in the womb! He is my mother's favorite too.


Stina Sense profile image

Stina Sense 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

I absolutly agree with your great choices for the first timers - great hub!


vtotheyouknow profile image

vtotheyouknow 6 years ago

NIIIICE post!


Al 5 years ago

I'd have to put Mozart's Don Giovani on the list as well because it is wonderful on so any levels. Great music, great story, interesting context, complex characters, and very revealing of 18c culture and values. I know most people wouldn't recommend Wagner for first timers but Tristan und Isolde is just so grand, profound, and adventurous it literally changed music forever.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 5 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

I think many younger people would be impressed by Aida - the costumes, choral numbers (Trumphal March), faux pyramids!


kndashy41 profile image

kndashy41 3 years ago from Houston, TX

I like opera music, however I don't follow it. There are some tunes that are memorable like the one's you have in the videos, but if I were to go to an opera and sit and watch it, what am I looking for? I am a fan of Broadway musicals, but they're all in English. My Italian is pretty bad so I wouldn't understand a word during an opera performance. How do I enjoy an opera?

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