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Famous Operas: A Quick and Easy Introduction

Updated on April 11, 2017

The Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner

The Ride of the Valkyries, a great opera by Richard Wagner, written during the Romantic era in Germany.
The Ride of the Valkyries, a great opera by Richard Wagner, written during the Romantic era in Germany. | Source

Have a Look - You Might Enjoy Them!

In the past several centuries, a form of music drama called opera has become popular.

Some of the most famous operas included:The Magic Flute (by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Fidelio (by Ludwig van Beethoven), The Barber of Seville (by Gioacchino Antonio Rossini), Tristan and Isolde (by Richard Wagner), Aida (by Giuseppe Verdi) and Madame Butterfly (by Giacomo Puccini).

These days you can see opera being performed by opera companies in most large cities. In addition, opera can easily be seen on the Internet. For example, YouTube has many videos of famousarias [songs] being performed.

In this hubpage, I will begin my introduction to opera by looking at Puccini's Madame Butterfly...

Madame Butterfly

Poster for the Opera, Madame Butterfly (by Puccini). This opera is also known as Madama Butterfly.
Poster for the Opera, Madame Butterfly (by Puccini). This opera is also known as Madama Butterfly.

Madame Butterfly (by Giacomo Puccini)

Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, first appeared at La Scala opera theatre in 1904.

The opera tells a tale of love and abandonment. Pinkerton, an American naval officer, comes to Japan and falls in love with a Japanese lady, Madame Butterfly, who in turn trusts her heart to him.

They are married but Pinkerton sees his Japanese marriage as just a temporary one, valid only till the day when he will return to America for "a real marriage, a real wife from America."

Pinkerton goes away with the Navy for three years and then returns with his new American wife.

A tragedy now occurs -- for Butterfly believes that "Death with honour is better than life with dishonour!".

The aria "One Fine Day" from Madame Butterfly

Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer

Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer
Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer

Opera doesn't have to be deadly serious. This book takes a fun and refreshing approach to this great work.


Interior of the Paris Opera, 2006

The magnificent interior of one of the world's top opera houses
The magnificent interior of one of the world's top opera houses | Source

Opera Houses of the World

Great Operas -- Country by Country

Some of the greatest operas have come from Italy, Germany/Austria, France, Russia and England.

Here are some of the greatest names that most people will have heard of:

Italy: Rossini (The Barber of Seville, William Tell), Verdi (La Traviata, Aida), Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor), Puccini (Madame Butterfly)

Germany: Mozart (The Magic Flute), Beethoven (Fidelio), Wagner (Tristan and Isolde, The Valkyries, The Flying Dutchman)

France: Bizet (Carmen), Berlioz (The Damnation of Faust), Goundo (Romeo and Juliet)

Russia: Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin), Stravinsky (The Rake's Progress), Shostakovich (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District)

England: Britten (Peter Grimes)

TIP: If you wanted to start with just three operas, I would suggest:

  1. Rossini - The Barber of Seville
  2. Mozart - The Magic Flute
  3. Verdi - Aida
  4. Wagner - Tristan and Isolde
  5. Puccini - Madame Butterfly

The lively Largo al Factotum aria from Rossini's Barber of Seville

Richard Wagner's Opera Revolution

Richard Wagner set the opera world on fire with his revolutionary view of opera and of music.

He promoted what he called Zukunftsmusik (Tomorrow's Music) in which instrumental performance, song, drama and art all formed one indisoluble whole and together created an uplifting experience never before experienced.

He also wove leitmotifs throughout his operas -- each one of which represented a theme.

Wagner's operas were huge affairs, not least in the length of time which they take to perform. For example, the Ring of the Nibelungen (a series of four operas including the the Valkyries) takes four evenings and anything from 15 to 20 hours to perform in all (depending of the speed of the conductor in charge).

For your interest, I attach a dramatic example of Wagner's instrumental and choral work in the following video, "The Ride of the Valkyries"(from Act 3 of his opera, The Valkyries).

The Ride of the Valkyries (by Richard Wagner)

Opera For Dummies

Opera For Dummies
Opera For Dummies

A brief and light-hearted look at several dozen of the better known operas. This book comes with a CD of CD with operatic snippets from the great operas.

Don't be put off by this book's title. This book is NOT for dummies. It is just a fun and irreverent introduction that will have you interested in the subject in no time!


The Music is Great but I Cannot Understand the Lingo!

Many great operas have unforgetable music with arias (songs) that once heard will never be forgotten.

And yes, the music is soaring and takes the listener to the heights of bliss and often the depths of unhappiness.

But it is an undeniable truth that many of the great operas are written in foreign languages -- particularly Italian, German, French and Russian.

The good news is that many opera DVDs these days come with the option to view the operas with English subtitles. An easy and profitable way to understand what the singers are saying.

Some of the greatest operas now have the original text (lyrics) and an English translation of each aria on the Internet. To get you going, here is a nice selection of the greatest arias in the original language and in translation.

But to really enjoy great operas in depth, it is necessary to study one or more of these languages. This is a task which is not as difficult as it may sound as there are specially designed "fast track" courses that teach the essentials of the chosen languages necessary for understanding opera (rather than a technical or everyday understanding that a learner would be expect to learn to be labelled a fluent speaker).

Some self-teaching courses published by Assimil or by Linguaphone will have you up and running with an everyday knowledge of your chosen language in less than six months.

Some people combine a trip to Europe with a course studying the language of the their favorite operas. For example, the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci (School Leonardo da Vinci) has classes in Rome, Florence, Siena and Milan teacing the "language of the opera".

A Lecture on the Romantic era of opera (Verdi, etc.)

Test your knowledge of opera

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Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera

Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera
Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera

This book is a light but intelligent "do it yourself" course on opera.

After a short introductory chapter and then a 90 page history of the opera, we learn about eleven of the great operas. Information is given on key composers, conductors and singers and on topics such as French opera, grand opera, etc.


© 2012 David Paul Wagner


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    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 

      3 years ago from Massachusetts

      David, my late father was a huge opera aficionado and my father-in-law is as well. I grew up in New York City and was lucky enough to have been introduced to opera at the Met. I no longer live in NYC and am delighted that the Met decided to launch live satellite broadcasts of selected Met productions in large-screen movie theaters worldwide via their innovative program, "The Met: Live in HD." Not only does it allow me to continue to "attend" live performances at the Met, it also is introducing a new generation of music lovers to opera. Thanks for this lovely and informative introduction!

    • David Paul Wagner profile imageAUTHOR

      David Paul Wagner 

      3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I am glad you enjoyed these operas, aesta1. Going to a community college course would indeed be a pleasant way to enter the world of opera.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Enjoyed these operas. I have not yet gotten acquainted with the Barber of Seville so I am going to listen to this in preparation for our trip there this December. I would love to go to a course on this at a community college.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Yes, I agree ... they are rather like contemporary cross-overs bridging the gap between the old, traditional operas to opera-musicals.

    • David Paul Wagner profile imageAUTHOR

      David Paul Wagner 

      4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      You could certainly class POTO as a musical. But in the same spirit of enquiry you could ask whether Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy Operas (H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, etc.) are operas, operettas or musicals. :)

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      What fun! I get to learn new things, every day, here at HubPages! ;-)

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Well, I'm almost thinking POTO as a musical. Are they different classifications of opera? Like "high brow" and "low brow" ??

    • David Paul Wagner profile imageAUTHOR

      David Paul Wagner 

      4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Julie Ann, I have a broad definition of what constitutes "opera". Opera for me ranges from Wagner through to Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan. Glad you enjoy the "Phantom of the Opera" too!

    • David Paul Wagner profile imageAUTHOR

      David Paul Wagner 

      4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Nancy, I love the passion and excitement of opera. As with classical musical music, you have to listen and to watch and give it time to work its magic.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Ah, like our "maverick," I too love the "Phantom of the Opera" but always thought of that as a different kind of opera. LOVE that music and have a few CDs of it.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I also love Madame Butterfly, but I think I must be a maverick, because my favorite is Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Phantom of the Opera." I even have a DVD of it, so I can play it while I'm writing. I know there are other great operas, and I know snippets of them, but I've played "Phantom" so many times I know all the dialogue and the music. Thanks for an astute coverage of opera. It isn't boring and stuffy like some folks think, but beautiful, soaring, passionate musical stories.

    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      4 years ago from Canada


    • profile image


      4 years ago

      David, I won't be transferring that lens because I deleted it over a year and a half ago and haven't gotten to working with all that previous content. Got too many live lenses to deal with - have transferred nearly half to my blogs! Not sure how my content will work on HP - anxious about my high traffic top pages. I don't want to lose what I worked for 8+ years, you know? Hugs to you!

    • David Paul Wagner profile imageAUTHOR

      David Paul Wagner 

      4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thank you, Julie Ann. I love Madame Butterfly too. Do you plan to transfer your Madame Butterfly lens to HubPages? You are right: America's Got Talent, American Idol and similar programs in the U.S. and other countries have introduced opera to millions of viewers in the new generation.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I love Madame Butterfly - it is probably my favorite opera of all time. I actually had a lens on it too. I think America's Got Talent has helped to reinvigorate the interest in opera. Nice to meet a guy who loves opera!!

    • David Paul Wagner profile imageAUTHOR

      David Paul Wagner 

      4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thank you, FanfrelucheHubs. Many people only recognize excerpts, which is fine and can give enjoyment. Many take their interest a step further by taking a course on opera at a local community college. Some years ago an interesting partworks series (fortnightly magazines and LPs/CDs) called The Great Composers introduced many thousands of people to the great works of classical music and opera.

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 

      4 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      I am familiar with many Operas BUT I never ever listened to a complete one. Still, I can recognize some excerpt.

    • Tolovaj profile image


      4 years ago

      I think the main 'problem' with operas is in the way how are they introduced to young folks. While ten years old can't really enjoy in one of Wagner's masterpieces, can still have great experience with some of the arias and with summarized stories. When the interest grows, more can be digested and many people can become true fans.


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