When I tell people I work in opera or that I am starting an opera company here in Vermont, I often get a response along the lines of "I don't know anything about opera!" or "I have never seen an opera". Lately I have been lucky enough to hear people say "I really ought to try that.", which is music to the ears of any opera lover. I often recommend that they go see one of the Met HD Broadcasts at the Paramount, which is a great way for an opera novice to discover the world's greatest art form (okay I am a bit biased). The question that is inevitably raised is: Which one? So I decided to compile a list based on the current 2015-16 broadcast season in an attempt to guide you on your way.
There are nine operas that will be broadcast at the Paramount: Il Trovatore by Verdi, Otello by Verdi, Lulu by Berg, Les Pêcheurs de Perles by Bizet, Turandot by Puccini, Manon Lescaut by Puccini, Madama Butterfly by Puccini, Roberto Devereux by Donizetti, and Elektra by Strauss. There is an additional broadcast of Tannhäuser by Wagner if you want to drive to Middlebury.
One of the things about opera is that you can often make bets on enjoying one based on the composer. Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Georges Bizet... these are a few of the names of famous composers whose work is popular and recognizable. If you are ever presented with a list of possible operas, works by these composers is generally a safe bet. Gaetano Donizetti's comedies are accessible and fun; his tragedies are a bit more intense but always beautiful. Either way you can be sure there will be lots of notes. Alban Berg and Richard Strauss are incredible composers, but their work is a little less tonal and the subject matter generally pretty intense. Richard Wagner is in a class by himself. Anyone who has ever watched Bugs Bunny or the traditional wedding march has heard his music, but to see a full Wagnerian opera is a rite of passage.
As I wrote this list, I realized the danger of quantifying opera in this way. My criteria was based on the familiarity of music, accessibility of story, and length of opera; I have to say that any of the "novice" group would be a good first opera so don't let the order dissuade you. I have added a link to the Met website if you would like a more complete synopsis, casting, and video or audio excerpts. If you would like to buy tickets to see any of the productions at the Paramount in Rutland, you can follow this link.
Suggestions for the opera novice:
- Madama Butterfly by Puccini (April 3, 2016): If you can only attend one opera this year, this is the consummate first opera. There is love, betrayal, heartache, and death. And of course, a gorgeous score that will have you weeping like a child. It runs about 3 and a quarter hours. (more information)
- Il Trovatore by Verdi (October 3, 2015): This is the first broadcast of the season and not a bad first opera. It is a strange story of gypsies, mistaken identity, and burning babies. The "anvil chorus" is a famous tune and Azucena is the most famous gypsy in opera and a force to be reckoned with. Il Trovatore is under 3 hours long. (more information)
-Les Pêcheurs de Perles by Bizet (January 16, 2016): Bizet's most famous work is Carmen and this is its lesser known cousin. It is a great story also of love, betrayal, and heartache (the bedrock of opera themes) and it has great tunes and is visually stunning. It is 2 and a half hours. (More information)
- Turandot by Puccini (January 30, 2016): Opera is all about spectacle and Turandot has plenty of that. This is truly a grand opera with a chorus scenes boasting over a hundred people all fantastically dressed. There is a princess, a prince, three riddles, death, love, and one of the most famous arias in all of opera. Not bad for 3 hours and 15 minutes. (more information)
-Otello by Verdi (October 17, 2015): This is one of my favorites and I struggled with putting it so far down on the list. Verdi composed many operas based on Shakespeare's plays and this is one of the best. You have jealous Otello, sinister Iago, innocent Desdemona, and a little handkerchief that causes an awful lot of trouble. It runs just under 3 hours. (more information)
- Manon Lescaut by Puccini (March 5, 2016): Manon Lescaut is a gorgeous opera about an obsessive love affair and a young woman caught between romantic love and a love of material things. Like all Puccini operas, it is full of beautiful music. It runs just about 3 hours long. (more information)
Opera for the more adventurous patron:
- Elektra by Strauss (May 8, 2016): This is the final broadcast of the season and you really shouldn't wait this long to see one. Based on the greek myth, Elektra is full of crazy characters bent on revenge and torturing each other, sort of your average family get together. It is a truly electrifying piece that is not to be missed. And coming in at 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission it is the shortest opera of the season. (more information)
- Roberto Devereux by Donizetti (April 17, 2016): I am going to just come out and say it. I have never seen this opera. That said it is part of the trilogy that Donizetti composed for the Tudor queens. The cast is amazing and I can guarantee it will be some of the very best bel canto singing you will ever hear. It is just over 3 hours long. (more information)
- Lulu by Berg (November 21, 2015): This is the opera I am most looking forward to this season. It is another that I have never seen, but I can't wait to experience. Lulu is a femme fatale who sexually and psychologically dominates a wide variety of characters. Berg uses 12 tone technique for a decidedly atonal sound. It is over 4 hours long. Definitely not first opera material. Or maybe it is... (more information)
-Tannhäuser by Wagner (October 31, 2015 at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury)
This is last on the list simply because it is not showing in Rutland. It is part history and part myth and a lot of Wagner. It has beautiful, sweeping music and a lot of it. 4 hours and 20 minutes. (more information)