Rough Guide to opera

Nicky Garsten, Andrew Kenningham and Kevin Read

Opera. A short word with a long history. Since the 16th century this musical genre has delighted, annoyed, irritated and perplexed audiences. In the 21st century it still enjoys a loyal following. So, what aspects of this art form appeal to its longstanding fans? And how can a first-time listener or opera goer unlock this magical world?

At the heart of many operas are powerful stories. Some borrow from mythology (Orfeo and Euridice) and others from playwrights such as Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream). Social and political themes engage, fate (Carmen) and hypocrisy (La Traviata) tantalise, while ethical themes invite judgement (Dr Atomic) and challenge listeners.

Many paint rich emotional canvases. From young love (La bohème, Eugene Onegin) to the complexities of a father-daughter relationship (Die Walküre), audience members are left to explore their own feelings by reacting and creating their own meaning from sublime music, arresting vocals, elegant movement, intricate dance, dazzling costumes, eye-catching sets and moody lighting. 

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The interplay between the librettist (who writes the text), composer and singers gives the genre a particular timbre. Early opera used small ensembles and it was commonplace for spoken word to carry the plot. In the 18th and 19th centuries famous divas would sing boldly, adding their own embellishments. Drama and distinct motifs took a grip in the 1850s, supplemented by deep psychological explorations as the century progressed. The twentieth century has seen many more experiments; a revival of the romantic, new sound worlds and the tackling of gritty, contemporary themes.

For the newcomer, the world of opera is rich and diverse – at times easy to access and at other moments bewildering. As a ‘newbie’ you are invited to explore your likes, and dislikes, by navigating our carefully curated selection of opera extracts. Go on – give them a listen.

La bohème by Giacomo Puccini (1896)

‘Che gelida manina’

One of the most popular operas in the world is La bohème. It is super accessible thanks to its realism and passionate, melodic music. The central characters are Parisian artists and students who express different types of love for each other through rousing, lyrical music. They experience passionate romance, compassion and convivial camaraderie. Sadly, financial pressures shape their lives and drive the tragedy.

This track is one of the most famous Italian tenor arias, ‘Che gelida manina’ (your little hand is frozen). From the moment you hear Rodolfo’s tender concern for Mimi, you know this opera will be a

tearjerker. The many vowels in the Italian words of this aria allow Rodolfo to bring out the creaminess of his voice. Mimi falls for him. However, the ending is not a happy one. Tissues advised. (NG)

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La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi (1853)

‘Libiamo ne’lieti calici’

If you want to experience a high society party laced with flirting and overflowing with champagne, look no further than

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Verdi’s La Traviata. The opera’s tragic heroine, Violeta, watches over a rousing drinking song and falls hopelessly in love. ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ (Let’s drink from the joyful cup) captures the high spirits. However, the mood changes in Act Two as the heroine’s past catches up with her. In an act of supreme selflessness, she yields to her future father-in-law and breaks off her engagement. Hope for reconciliation remains in Act Three, but failing health precludes the union. Powerful music, an engaging plot and a delicate observation on social acceptability propel you to a tragic end. Once again… tissues advised. (KR)

Carmen by Georges Bizet (1875)

‘Trio des cartes’

Carmen received bad reviews when it premiered in Paris. Bizet died shortly after the opening in despair, thinking his opera was a flop. However, the public loved it. Its popularity continued. Today, it is the most popular French opera.

The protagonist, Carmen, is a great mezzo (lower) soprano part. In the ‘Trio des cartes’ (trio of cards) a mezzo can show off her lower, velvety register whilst adding psychological depth to the role. The trio begins with predictions of love and fortune for Carmen’s friends. Contrastingly, Carmen herself sees her and her lover’s death. A steady, slow pounding beat conveys the inevitability of her fate. Her silences convey her fear. She is suddenly very vulnerable. (NG)

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The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1786)

‘Cinque, dieci, venti’

The Marriage of Figaro is Mozart’s most famous and popular opera. I have chosen the first song which begins with Figaro measuring his marital bed: “cinque, dieci, venti” (five, ten, twenty). We learn immediately that this will be an opera about love, and sex 😊 Although Figaro’s bride, Susanna, is thinking more about her bonnet at the start of the song…

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However, the duet soon reveals that the wedding day will not go smoothly. The bed has been given to the happy couple by Figaro’s employer, the Count, whose own bedroom is nearby. Susanna reveals that the Count is trying to seduce her. Meanwhile, a flirtatious page is in love with the Countess, so things quickly get complicated. The protagonists hide from one another, jump from windows and arrange secret rendezvous. You get the picture: a bedroom farce.

It is no mystery why The Marriage of Figaro is one of the most popular operas ever written. The plot is light-hearted and fun but deals with serious themes

including the abuse of power. The music is in turn both joyful and moving. (AK) 

Orfeo and Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1762, revised 1774)

‘Che faró sensa Eurydice?’

"Both scores are highly accessible and carry you into an alternate world"

In the 1760s Gluck reworked the Orpheus myth into an opera for the Viennese. He distanced himself from earlier treatments that focused on elaborate arias, leading with the drama instead, earning himself the reputation of a ‘reformer’. However, his lean 90-minute version still met many conventions; for example, requiring a castrato lead. A major rework for the Parisians in the 1770s included two extra dances introduced to suit local preferences. In both versions, Orfeo’s journey to the underworld to reclaim his recently deceased wife, Euridice, dramatically explores his encounter with the Furies and the serene Elysian Fields. Both scores are highly accessible and carry you into an alternate world. Unbridled anger in the opening is replaced by reflection and acceptance in Act Three. ‘Che faró sensa Eurydice?’ (What will I do without you, Euridice?) captures Orfeo’s internal journey within the underworld. But listen on for the final twist that Cupid brings... (KR)

Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, (1879) 

‘Letter Scene’

Russia challenged Italian opera in the 1870s. Tchaikovsky chose Pushkin’s verse-novel, Eugene Onegin, to unleash a barrage of human feelings. He created exquisite melodies for Tatyana and Onegin, who wander through time, love, loss, and rejection. It is these intense emotions, rather than the narrative, that grab hold of you. In Act One, the young Tatyana, governed by country ways, is infatuated with Onegin. She pens a brutally honest letter and sings “Пускай погибну я, но прежде” (Let me die, but first). The aloof, aristocratic Onegin sensitively, but firmly, rejects her advance. By Act Three, the tables are turned, as

Onegin develops a child-like passion for Tatyana. Settled in high society, Tatyana resists him.

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Tchaikovsky loved Bizet’s Carmen when it premiered in 1875, and through Tatyana he creates his own natural, direct and passionate heroine. Yet the psychological journey of the lead characters, expressed through evolving motifs, are more reminiscent of a Wagnerian psychodrama; Tchaikovsky had seen the first Ring Cycle in 1876. Passions combine with melodies to win the day. (KR)

Midsummer’s Night Dream by Benjamin Britten (1960)

‘You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongue’

"Britten takes one work of genius and transforms it into another"

Britten takes one work of genius and transforms it into another, staying true to the text, but tweaking the play’s balance between fairies, lovers, rustics and royalty. The magic of the forest is elevated and conveyed beautifully in his take on Shakespeare’s popular comedy.

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The librettist’s (Peter Pears) adaptation of the play uses only half of the original text, cutting out some human passages, thereby foregrounding the fairies, for whom Britten creates an ethereal sound world. Unlike the play, the opera also begins in the woods where they reside. In this excerpt, the fairies (a boys’ choir) sing a lullaby to their Queen, Titania, called ‘You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongues’. They want to help their mistress sleep and to protect her from danger. There is comfort in the chorus with its movement up and down the notes of a scale and steady beat. Listen out for the gliding, percussive sounds of the forest. Can you feel some fairy dust? (NG)

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) by Richard Wagner (1870)

‘Overture’

Richard Wagner is renowned for using motifs in his operas. His masterpiece is a cycle of four operas, The Ring of the Nibelung, which takes fifteen hours to perform. I’m not gonna lie, some of it is boring... but it also includes some of the most stirring and exciting music in all of opera. Indeed, parts of it are so stirring that more sensitive souls have reportedly needed medical attention after listening to it! 

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I’ve chosen the overture to the second opera which evokes a raging storm. The hero of the opera, Siegmund, staggers through a forest to arrive at the house of Hunding. The music has a clarity and excitement which grabs your attention immediately: initially only the stringed instruments play but things burst into life when the brass section joins the action.

This orchestral prelude sets things up for the extraordinary scenes which follow. In a nutshell, Siegmund falls passionately in love with Hunding’s wife, Sieglinde, who turns out to be his own long-lost twin sister and act ends with the two declaring their undying love for one another and running off to commit an act of incest. The plots of Wagner’s operas are bizarre (I haven’t even mentioned that the twins were demi-gods raised by a wolf…), but the music is so moving that everybody should give it a try. (AK)

Dr Atomic by John Adams (2005)     

‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’

"This is probably the only opera about weapons of mass destruction"

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This is probably the only opera about weapons of mass destruction. The Doctor in the title is theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer (pictured below) who led the team that developed the first H-bomb, and the entire opera takes place in the hours before the first bomb is detonated. 

The composer John Adams uses the opera to explore the moral anguish which Oppenheimer suffered over his work: Oppenheimer himself quoted the Hindu text “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”. 

In this particular song, the “hero” is alone and sings the words of John Donne’s poem ‘Batter my heart,

three person’d God’. He seems to be begging God to enter his life in some way which, to be frank, I find a bit obscure. That said, the music is not obscure, and is very moving. (AK)