Opera. A word that conjures up different images for different people and encompasses a whole lot in just a few syllables.
But here's the thing about opera. If you haven't been raised on it, you don't know where to start. And if you start in the wrong place, it's easy to become deterred forever. A simple example: if the average person listens to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, he'll probably run screaming for the hills. Or at least fall asleep. The opera is approximately four hours long, and even though there are some beautiful moments, it's helpful to understand some structures of music theory to really appreciate the opera as a whole. (Although, to be honest, I'm not a Wagner fan for many reasons, not the least of which was his horrible anti-Semitism.)
So I've put together a Beginner's Guide to Opera. I think opera is so incredible, and with a helping hand, it can be a lot of fun to learn about and to enjoy. But first, let me answer a few questions regarding opera.
Why do your voices shake so much? Opera is one of the few art forms where we don't use microphones. In 2,500-seat houses, we have to sing resonantly enough to be heard at the very back of the auditorium with a full orchestra behind us and no amplification. One of the things that allows our voices to carry is something called vibrato. Vibrato is the shaking sound you hear, and it's what allows a singer's larynx to move with flexibility as well as helps the voice carry resonantly. In addition, vibrato is something that sounds much better in person - recordings don't ever do voices justice.
Why is everything so dramatic? - The same reason that we watch movie and TV shows where dramatic things happen all the time! Opera takes every day life and magnifies it so that we can see the most extreme of emotions play out in front of us.
Why are operas so long? - Because opera uses music as its language to convey emotions, drama, and suspense, things take longer to build. As well, each aria (song) gives the character time to process their emotions in almost what would be real time, and gives the audience the opportunity to process those emotions along with the character.
Follow me on Spotify to find this playlist here, and you'll be able to follow along with me as I discuss each piece and why I chose it. Don't be surprised if you've heard many of these arias before - they've become standard in commericals, movies, and TV shows!
1. Nessun dorma! - You've heard this aria before, but you've probably never thought twice about it. It's a stunning piece written by Puccini for his last opera, Turandot. In the opera, Turandot, a princess who has challenged any man who wishes to marry her to answer three riddles correctly or risk being beheaded, has met her match in Calaf, a prince of a fallen dynasty who has answered her riddles correctly. Calaf has fallen in love with Turandot, but she doesn't ever want to be married, and so Calaf has presented her with a response: if she can discover his name before dawn, then she can kill him. "Nessun dorma" is the song he sings that night, certain she will not discover his name and that he will have victory. Here are the lyrics:
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Not even you, oh Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
watching the stars
that tremble with love and with hope!
But my secret is hidden within me;
no one will know my name!
No, no! On your mouth
I will say it when the light shines!
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!
Luciano Pavarotti made this aria famous because he sings it so effortlessly, and let me tell you folks, this aria is not easy. Listen to the rising of the violins at the beginning, rising in hope. But everything is calm and steady in the accompaniment at the beginning reflecting the night sky and the calmness that Calaf himself feels that he will win Turandot's heart and hand. It isn't until we get to the second verse that the accompaniment takes on a new tone and doubles the melody with more colors. The anticipation builds until the last moment: I will win!
2. Sull'aria - If you've seen the Shawshank Redemption you've heard this one before! This is a duet from the opera The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I sang an aria from this a few week's ago, and you can see that video here. This duet is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, but the subject matter is more than just a discussion of beauty.
In the story, the Countess' husband has been pursuing her maid, Susanna. In order to catch her husband out and plot against him, the Countess has devised a plan: she'll have Susanna write the Count a letter, telling him to meet her in the forest that night. Instead, the Countess will be waiting there in disguise. The duet is the Countess dictating what Susanna should write in her letter. Here's the translation:
On the breeze
What a gentle little zephir
This evening will sigh
Under the pines in the little grove.
And the rest he’ll understand
Certainly, certainly he’ll understand.
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
When the notes of a chord are played in succession, that's called an arpeggio, and Mozart writes arpeggios for the orchestra to make it sound like a soft breeze. You can also catch the interplay between Susanna and the Countess, as Susanna catches the Countess' drift and they plot and laugh together. But the music itself is so captivating, it's like accidentally picking your favorite flavor out of a chocolate box: an unexpected and delicious little morsel in the middle of The Marriage of Figaro.
3. Brindisi from La Traviata - Another absolute classic is the opening from La Traviata, an opera by Giuseppi Verdi. This is the beginning of a tragedy, if you can believe it, given the lightheartedness of this first scene! Verdi introduces us to the two main characters and their views on life in the first ten minutes of the opera - Violetta, who lives only for now, and Alfredo, who wants more. Of course, within a few moments and throughout the opera, it becomes clear that living this material life is, in fact, meaningless and the only true happiness could be found in a serious, loving relationship. But Verdi's brindisi is famous because it is so tuneful and truly captures the intoxication of a lively party filled with libations. And from the beginning, the audience knows the chemistry between its two main characters.
4. Toreador Song - This is one of two arias I picked from Carmen, an opera by Georges Bizet that contains so much incredible music it's difficult to narrow it down for this list. Carmen, a gypsy who can seduce basically anyone but cares for no one longer than a moment, has ensnared Don Jose. But the toreador song occurs in the middle of the opera and introduces us to Carmen's second love interest, a bullfighter. This is the entrance of a conqueror, a man who has returned victorious from a bullfight and is pulsing with pride and masculine energy and is looking for love. Here's a portion of the translation:
The arena is full, from top to bottom;
The spectators are losing their minds,
The spectators began a big fracas!
Apostrophes, cries, and uproar grow to a furor!
Because it is a celebration of courage!
It is the celebration of people with heart!
Let’s go, en guard! Let’s go! Let’s go! Ah!
Toreador, en guard! Toreador, Toreador!
And dream away, yes, dream in combat,
That a black eye is watching you,
And that love awaits you,
Toreador, love awaits you!
This is like the entrance song for a UFC fighter or a boxer! This is the Rocky theme, just back in 1875! He's getting his audience hyped up and also doing a little seduction of his own! One of my favorite things Bizet does in this aria is that each time the text builds up to "Toreador!" it pulls back to reflect what's happening in his mind during the bullfight - and inside his mind it's quiet even as the audience screams and yells.
5. O mio babbino caro - Another one you probably know! This aria cracks me up. The music is incredibly tender and beautiful, which is what the composer, Giacomo Puccini (who also composed Turandot) wanted to convey, but with a wink in his eye. Lauretta, the young woman singing this, is telling her father that she'll throw herself into the Arno river if he doesn't let her marry her boyfriend. She's playing Daddy's Little Girl and Puccini pulled one over on the whole world, because everyone takes this out of context and is entirely convinced by the emotionally charged music! Of course, the piece is beautiful and Lauretta is sincere in her words - but it is funny to think of this aria in context.
6. Habanera - Another classic from the incredible opera, Carmen. This is Carmen's introduction to the audience and boy, does she know how to make an entrance. It is interesting to note that she and the toreador are similar in many ways, including the way they are introduced by Bizet. Carmen enters with a rose and a song meant to entice all the men surrounding the cigarette factory, where she works. She then sings:
Love is a rebellious bird
That none can tame,
And it is well in vain that one calls it,
If it suits it to refuse.
Nothing to be done, threat or prayer;
The one talks well, the other is silent,
And it's the other that I prefer;
He said nothing, but he pleases me.
Love! Love! Love! Love!
Love is a gypsy child,
It has never, never known the law;
If you don't love me, I love you;
If I love you, do stand on guard!
If you don't love me,
If you don't love me, I love you
But if I love you,
if I love you, do stand on guard!
The bird you hoped to catch
Beat its wings and flew away.
Love is far, you can wait for it;
You no longer await it, there it is.
All around you, swift, swift,
It comes, goes, then it returns.
You think to hold it fast, it flees you,
You think to flee it, it holds you!
Love! Love! Love! Love!
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
In this description of herself, we immediately learn who she is and who she has targeted as her next victim: Don Jose. She goes on to throw her rose at him, marking him as her prey. The sensual nature of the habanera is completely reflected in the text-setting.
7. Largo al factotum - Ever heard someone sing "Figaro, Figaro, Fiiiiiigaaaaarooooo!" and think, that's opera? This is the aria that's from! The Barber of Seville is a wonderful romantic comedy by Gioachino Rossini. We have two lovers, a count in disguise as a starving artist, and a young woman who has little freedom. Figaro, the barber himself, is the aide to the two lovers, making their pining love a reality. This aria is another entrance aria, like Carmen's or the toreador's, and it defines Figaro in an instant. Here's some of the translation:
All after me, all inquire for me,
Both young and old, mistress and maid:
"My wig here!" – "My beard here!"
"Here, bleed me!!" – "Quick, the note!"
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! etc.
Oh, what a crowding! Oh, what a fury!
One at a time, please, for charity's sake!
"Hey, Figaro!" – I'm here.
Figaro here, Figaro there,
Figaro up, Figaro down.
Figaro is everywhere and everyone wants him! He is a pro at what he does and he's proud of his work. He's full of himself and is absolutely hilarious!
In the aria itself, there are a few things to notice. It begins with the Figaro offstage - that's why he sounds distant in the recording. Because this is a comedic opera, you'll notice that he sings about a million words a minute, and that's called patter: it's something that audiences thought was hilarious at the time. It has translated into modern musicals as well. Lastly, one of the things that I love about this aria is when Figaro imitates people calling him all over the city - keep an ear out for it!
8. The Barcarolle - This is stunning. I mean, absolutely stunning. A barcarolle is a traditional Venetian song sung by gondoliers, but this duet from the Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach has become known by that name. The duet opens the third act of the opera and is sung by Hoffman's, the main character, third love interest, the courtesan Giulietta, and his muse, Niklausse. The music is seductive and sensual, and is somewhat sinister as we transition into the final story of the opera:
Lovely night, oh, night of love
Smile upon our joys!
Night much sweeter than the day
Oh beautiful night of love!
Time flies by, and carries away
Our tender caresses for ever!
Time flies far from this happy oasis
And does not return
Embrace us with your caresses!
Give us your kisses!
(h/t Lyrics Translate)
Imagine the skies of Venice as you're floating in a gondola while you listen to this, and I think you'll understand what Offenbach was trying to convey. Since Giulietta is ultimately going to betray Hoffman, there is a calmness in the regular rhythm of the accompaniment that seems meant to calm, as if to lull Hoffman into a false sense of safety.
9. Pur ti miro - This is an aria from one of the first operas ever written! The Coronation of Poppea, or L'incoronazione di Poppea, by Claudio Monteverdi, was premiered in 1642 and it was the first opera to be based on history rather than myth. It tells the story of Emperor Nero and his affair with Poppea even as he was married to Octavia. It's amazing to hear the difference between the earliest operas and what we would consider standards in the operatic repertoire as of now. Many of the instruments we think of now as being integral to an orchestra hadn't been invented yet, or were in very different forms than we see now. That's why the accompaniment is so limited!
This is the last duet in the opera, after Nero and Poppea have finally rid themselves of everyone in their way and Poppea is crowned empress. The story is oddly immoral, as the "winners" of the piece have destroyed everything in their way in order to be with one another. The clashing of certain intervals in the voices (which is called dissonance) is utilized here, even in a love duet, to show the underlying evil of the two characters who have pursued their lust and love.
Another thing to note is that even though it sounds like two women are singing, one of those voices is actually a man. One of the voice types in opera is called countertenor, which is a man who is trained to sing in his falsetto. Originally in the operatic world we had castrati, men who were castrated as young boys to retain the beauty of their young voices. Of course, this practice was ended a little over a hundred years ago but had tapered off long before that. Now, we have countertenors who are simply men who can access that part of their voices with training.
10. Vissi d'arte - Another Puccini opera and aria? You bet! This aria is from the opera Tosca which is absolutely incredible. It is one of the most dramatic operas ever composed. Puccini was so concerned with the construction of this opera as a dramatic piece that he almost cut this aria from the opera because he thought it slowed down the action. Thank goodness he didn't, since it's one of the most beautiful arias ever composed!
In the opera, Tosca, an operatic diva, has been put in a terrifying position. Her lover is being tortured by the evil Scarpia, and Scarpia has told her that he will release her love if she sleeps with him. She turns to God and sings:
I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!
With a discreet hand
I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.
Always with sincere faith
rose to the holy tabernacles.
Always with sincere faith
I decorated the altars with flowers.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I donated jewels to the Madonna's mantle,
and offered songs to the stars and to heaven,
which thus did shine with more beauty.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?
These words are so powerful in the moment of her despair, and Puccini sets them beautifully. It's all a cry of grief, of pain. It starts off with disbelief, slowly as she processes the information, and then suddenly, a cry to God. All of a sudden, the orchestra takes on the melody. I love that the orchestra is doing something totally different than what she's singing - there's no support in it, but everything is in the same vein of pain.
The singer in this recording is Maria Callas, who you also heard sing the Habanera. She was one of the most famous opera singers who ever lived, and for good reason. She was an incredible actress and known for making operatic characters feel real. She also happened to be beautiful. Listen for the way she uses the words to express her meaning.
What did you think of this playlist? Are there any arias I left out that you think I should put in my next one? Let me know in the comments!
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