With simultaneous translations now installed in almost every opera house across the world, and versions of old standards now being done by amateur and semi-professional groups in the native tongue of the country, there seems to be a resurgence of the genre. In addition, new operas are still being written and performed, and even some Broadway musicals are being redone as operas. So there’s no reason why anyone with a love of good music can’t find something they’ll like. Here are the ones I enjoy the most.
10. Tosca by Verdi – if it is drama you’re looking for, this is for you. Tosca is in love with a man who is in big trouble with the authorities. To make a long story short, she brokers her lover’s freedom by promising sex, and then she kills the guy who signs the pardon, but not before he double crosses her. In 1992 there was a three part televised live production filmed in Rome, at the exact places where the opera is set, and in real time. It was this version that made me truly appreciate this opera.
9. Carmen by Bizet – this opera about a gypsy woman who turns a good guy, bad and then abandons him, with tragic results is probably one of the better known operas. Almost everyone knows the “Toreador” aria, considering how many TV commercials and movies it’s been used in, but the opera has much more to offer than just this. With the character of Carmen being probably the sexiest character in any classic opera, this is perfect soap-opera fodder. There are also lots of crowd scenes and even a children’s chorus to add to the action, making this opera not just lovely musically, but visually as well.
8. Candide, by Leonard Bernstein – you might recognize this composer as the man who wrote West Side Story – the (very operatic) Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This little known opera is based on Voltaire’s novel by the same name. The story was originally written as a satire on French society of the 18th century, and made into an opera in the mid 1950s. More recent productions appeared on Broadway in 2005 and another in 2007 (which I had the privilege to see at La Scala) which updates the story somewhat, and introduced more modern political satire. The story is crazy (as with most operas), funny and jabs at things like materialism, war and the human condition. More importantly, Bernstein’s music just sparkles, and it’s very unique composition, using discord and atonal elements is a popular study for music schools. Also, being in English, this easily lends itself to newer audiences by virtue of its accessibility.
7. Rigaletto by Verdi – far more complex than Tosca, this includes a Count, and his hunchback jester, Rigaletto. Moreover, the jester has a beautiful daughter that the Count lusts after. Needless to say, this being a tragedy, things gets terribly complicated and you’ll never guess who gets hurt in the end! More than the beautiful music here (including one you might have heard if you ever saw those three tenors concerts), it is the drama that makes me like this opera. And while there are no jesters in today’s world, one production updated the characters to look like modern mafia gangsters – which worked surprisingly well! So, despite the old fashioned concept, the basic idea can still seem timely.
6. La Traviata by Verdi – you might be fooled into thinking you’ve never heard of this, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the movie Moulin Rouge and this musical was based mostly on this opera – with some minor differences. Here we get Violetta – a courtesan (in other words, a high priced call girl) who falls in love with a reputable man. She’s very sick and they move away together to help repair her health. Of course his family doesn’t approve and they are forced apart, and her return to the city has tragic consequences.
5. La Boheme by Puccini – if you’ve seen the musical “Rent” you’ll know this story already – Mimi, a poor girl living in the bohemian section of Paris meets Alfredo, a poet, and they fall instantly in love. But (like Violetta in La Traviata) she is very sick, and we find out once again that love cannot conquer all – especially if TB is involved. Musically, this is probably the most emotionally charged opera I’ve ever heard. Even if you don’t understand the words, you know from just the music what’s going on.
4. The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – this comic opera is about… well, the marriage of Figaro, the right-hand man to the Count, to Suzanna, the Countess’ maid. This one includes intrigue, philandering, jealousy, misplaced family members and even some trickery with disguises to help them along. Musically, this arias and ensembles are a joy to listen to, and despite the fact that the most famous “Figaro” aria come from the far inferior “Barber of Seville”, there’s no small amount of lovely pieces in this film – for instance, the opening when Figaro is measuring the room in the Count’s palace where he hopes to install his new wife. Of course, the idea of being so close to their employers doesn’t go over too well with his prospective bride.
3. Don Giovanni by Mozart – yes, you’ll see that my top slots all go to Mozart operas, but I can’t help it. This opera is about a great lover – a la Don Juan – and how he gets into trouble because of his philandering. While essentially a tragic opera due to the ending, there’s no small amount of humor here, and the genius of Mozart’s music is in full swing. There’s one aria that can get really steamy.
2. The Magic Flute by Mozart – probably Mozart’s best known opera with the most obscure of stories. There are those who have studied this for its Masonic references, and all sorts of wild and wonderful things happen here. There’s a man who is half bird who helps a prince get to the girl he loves. But the girl’s parents put him through trails of fire and water to be allowed to be with her. Talk about problems with the in-laws, her mother’s big aria is enough to make any guy run away in fright! But don’t worry, there’s some lighter sides as well – such as when the bird-man Papageno finally meets his mate, Papagena, which I find absolutely adorable, and even kids would enjoy this part!
1. Cosi fan Tuti by Mozart – this is, to my mind the most musically amazing works by Mozart. The story is basically just silly. Two men in love with sisters, and certain that they will always be true to them. But their philosopher friend Don Alfonzo insists that all women are essentially fickle. So they make a bet. The men pretend to go off to war and then return in disguise to try to seduce each other’s lovers. The outcome proves that Alfonzo was right and “all women are like that” (the liberal translation of title). Newer productions change the outcome of the story slightly, but none have ever tried to fiddle with the score. This opera has some of the most beautiful arias and ensembles pieces I’ve ever heard. In particular, there’s a trio of the two girls with Alfonzo when they’ve just bid their men goodbye, which is simply to die for. The pain and anguish in the lyrics is perfectly represented in the music, with Alfonzo’s underlying fake sincerity in the background as the perfect counterpoint.
Of course, this only my list of favorites, and I’m sure others will have their own list. But to my mind, most of these operas are newbie-friendly (especially the comic ones), and I hope this piques the interest of those who haven’t tried listening before. If that’s the case, I also highly recommend you check out student or community productions, many of which are done in English, and are always less expensive than professional performances – and often they’re of a surprisingly high quality. More importantly, you really get the feel for opera when you’re witnessing a live performance.
Happy listening (and watching)!