Puritan Guide to the Opera, 1: Clearing the field

In commending opera, we take note of the fact that for most, it will be an acquired taste. Few that are now opera fanatics became so after the first dip of the big toe into the water. Most good things in life are not apprehended immediately. Think of your first cup of coffee, or your first whiskey. Yet how impoverished our lives would be without coffee and whiskey!

So, in this first installment of the Puritan Guide to the Opera, I lay out the field for the beginner to approach it. The seasoned opera buff will probably not get much out of this effort.

Brief history of opera

Opera began in Italy after the death of Calvin, in the late 16th century. Initially, it was basically setting texts of plays to music. The narrative part of a story told in a sequence of pitches is called recitative. Note that this is also an aspect of the oratorio, such as we hear in Handel’s Messiah.

The next step was to add arias, which are solo pieces that dwell on one aspect of the story. Note that the oratorio also added arias, under Handel and Bach. The trajectory of opera was similar. What makes opera opera, however, is the element of story acted out. While singers in Bach’s Matthew Passion tell a story, they are interchangeable to some extent; they are concert performers. Opera took on more of the feel of a play, with singing actors.

For a long time, the songs were interspersed with spoken dialogue. In time, ensembles were intermixed with the entire cast, plus extras, functioning as choruses.

Wagner was the first to fully integrate continuous music with the story. At the end of his life, Verdi followed suit. Puccini inherited that tradition. However, Puccini restored arias into the basic framework of continuous music.

What is needed to appreciate opera

Opera is a combination of “classical music” with drama. Therefore, those that hate both classical music and drama should probably drop out. There probably won’t be much to scratch you where you itch.

At the next level, those that like one or the other, but not both, might come to love opera.

Those that love both classical music and drama are prime bait to be hooked.

Some opera lovers have latched onto one of the styles and may even dislike the other ones. Therefore, the beginner should try several before concluding it is a lost cause.

Milestones of Opera

For the beginner, I am going to propose three basic epochs to try out. They need not be tried in order.

  1. Mozart (late 18th century)
  2. Verdi and Wagner (mid 19th century)
  3. Puccini and Strauss (early 20th century)

Later, there will be plenty of other fields to plow. Prior to Mozart, Handel and (above all) Monteverdi will yield many pleasures. Between Mozart and Verdi is the Bell Canto. Prior to Puccini is the Verismo. After Puccini, there may be a few, but nihilism has basically triumphed, unfortunately.

So far, I have only mentioned Germans and Italians, and only a sampling of those. There are pleasures to be found in the French and Russians, and a handful of others; but for reasons that will become clear I think to everyone once he has waded in, they are subordinate in importance to the Germans and Italians.

Here is a good starter list for the beginner:

  • Mozart: Marriage of Figaro, or Magic Flute
  • Wagner: Walkyrie
  • Verdi: Rigoletto or Il Trovatore
  • Strauss: Rosenkavalier
  • Puccini: La Boheme or Madama Butterfly

How to swim

Opera should not just be listened to. It is meant to be seen. After seeing one a few times, one can listen and “watch” in the mind’s eye.

However, the full experience might be compared to swimming across an Olympic swimming pool. It can pay off to splash around at the shallow end for a while first. This is especially so with opera, because the senses can become overloaded on first exposure. There is simply too much to take in.

The way to do this is to study the libretto (text) and listen to the sound track a few times. Some of my most crushing experiences seeing an opera for the first time have happened when the first viewing came only after much time was spent studying the libretto and listening to a CD.

Short of this, reading a synopsis such as Kobbe’s famous compilation can be very helpful. Only rarely does this lead to the “spoiler” effect. The impact of opera comes in the text/music/drama combination, not so much in “not knowing what is going to happen until the end.”

In the next installment, I will answer some common objections.

3 thoughts on “Puritan Guide to the Opera, 1: Clearing the field

  1. As a beginner myself, I would recommend starting with Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. Even the novice can’t help but enjoy this one.


  2. Yes, but the quickest way for opera to get its hook into you is to listen. This is the overture of Tannhäuser.

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