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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 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.
O Soave Fanciulla
Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme is my top choice for best opera for beginners for several reasons:
- 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.
- 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.
- It is one of the most passionate love stories ever written...
- ...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
- La Traviata
- The Magic Flute
- Amahl and the Night Visitors
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.
My Favorite Opera Books for Beginners
Please share your suggestions for the best operas for beginners in comments, or better yet, write a hub about it yourself!