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Thread: How to start appreciating opera?

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    Default How to start appreciating opera?

    Of all the types of classical music I like opera the least.

    There are many difficulties that I face when I try to enjoy opera.

    First, it is not only music, it has the story and dramatic elements. So, in order to understand opera fully I must know what it is about. To do this I have to either understand the text (which is usually in Italian, and even though I know a bit of Italian it is not enough to understand text which is usually full of archaic words) or read the plot in advance. But if I read the plot it is as if I watched the film for the second time - a bit boring.

    Second, operas are usually very long in duration which is a bit of problem in itself. If I enjoyed the plot it wouldn't be very big problem.
    One idea that I still have to try is to get libretto together with translation and read it while listening to opera. I think this might help me, but I'm not sure.

    Third, I find some very high pitched voices in opera a bit irritant and abrasive. I will say the heresy - I even find them even a bit artificial, unnatural. The same thing rarely happens with other vocal works, but in opera I find it is quite common.

    Having said all that, I still want to find a way to understand, appreciate and enjoy opera knowing its huge importance in classical music. Can you give me some more suggestions?

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    Senior Member jhar26's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Whistlerguy View Post
    operas are usually very long in duration which is a bit of problem in itself.
    Listen to one act at a time then.
    One idea that I still have to try is to get libretto together with translation and read it while listening to opera. I think this might help me, but I'm not sure.
    Of course it would help. It's the only way to listen to opera unless you know the libretto inside out.
    Martha doesn't signal when the orchestra comes in, she's just pursing her lips..

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    I guess it varies from person to person. I'll list my experience, might be relevent to you.

    I'm 35 years old and had a general appreciation for classical music, could tell the difference between a random Beethoven vs. Mozart piece, but not much more than that. About a year ago I watched (for the nth time) Amadeus, a film I love despite how historically inaccurate it is. There was one part that always bugged me in the movie, which was the bit from The Magic Flute that had some lady in a cloud squeaking. Seemed really pretty bad, I'd thought so every time I watched the movie. So I decided to see if there was something I was missing about it, or if it was really that mediocre. So, after some googling I found out the meaning of the song (both lyrics and its role in the opera), and I also stumbled on this performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXOYcd6KZ0E#t=2m03s (as with any youtube links, choose the highest resolution available in the lower right corner of the video for best audio / video quality).
    No subtitles there unfortunately, you can find those here: http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/o...hollerache.htm

    Needless to say, I was absolutely floored. From there I decided to look up other songs I had turned my nose up at, like that song where a guy sings Figaro! Figaro! over and over again (aka the Bugs Bunny opera song). What a silly song! But it's actually really really good!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3skh44qlxM8 (not my most favorite rendition, but it has the benefit of subtitles)

    Of course, it will be different for you -- you might not care for either of the above. In general, though, I think starting from the bottom and working up (finding songs you like, and eventually moving to an opera that features several songs you've grown to love, rather than just turning on a 3 hour performance of Nozze and expecting not to be bored) is the way to go. Listen to several "famous" arias, with subtitles if possible. Find both songs you like, and search out more from that opera and/or composer, and singers you like and find more songs by that singer, and slowly branch out.

    I'll list a few songs that I think even the most ardent hater of opera would find entertaining:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi6SDINpeTw
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQeXDsaiTJE
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK1_vm0FMAU
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9tEbhIWAcQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCg4r1Ile4w
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv1Bj8_6ID4 (poor audio quality and since there are no subs, a bit of explanation may be necessary. Olympia is a wind-up doll that sings a simple song about how to a young girl everything seems to speak of love (lyrics: http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/c..._charmille.htm ), while Hoffman, who can't see she is a doll due to special glasses, falls in love with her. I link this performance specifically because despite the poor audio quality, it is hilarious. Natalie Dessay is truly an actress par excellence.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zegtH-acXE

    If you don't find any of the above entertaining, it could just be that opera isn't for you. Nothing wrong with that, not every art has to be appealing to every person.

    If you decide you do want to dive in and watch a full opera, I'd suggest Orphee Aux Enfers (the operetta from which the Duo De La Mouche I posted above is from) as a great first choice, specifically the Laurent Pelly / Natalie Dessay version. It's short (by opera standards), modern staging and pacing, one great song after another, riotously funny, some really great performances (both singing / acting) and just a much more modern feel than, say, Mozart -- it's very over-the-top and satiricial.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Whistlerguy View Post
    Of all the types of classical music I like opera the least.
    But if I read the plot it is as if I watched the film for the second time - a bit boring.
    I understand what you're saying but I generally read a synopsis of an opera first otherwise I often get lost. I have to listen to an opera 2 or 3 times before I have a good feel for the flow and rhythm of an opera. One exposure works with a film, but not with opera.

    Like another poster, I'm 35 and love the genre. I'd listen to it even more if it wasn't such a time commitment (I do an act at a time as someone else suggested) and if I didn't have to follow along closely with the libretto (a must). I don't know any other strategies to enjoy it; I love opera and can't explain why, much to the bewilderment and amusement of my wife.

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    I just started my journey in opera recently. My first was Don Giovanni, which I absolutely loved. I was really surprised by the humor in it. Then I went on to Turandot, which was the first one I had to go back and listen to over again. The melodies were incredible, the way the emotion and drama intertwines with the music is just stunning. That's the opera I recommend starting with. Next was a series of Wagner (Tristan, Die Meistersinger, Bohms Ring Cycle), the only one I really loved was Das Rheinegold, I found Siegfried to be absolutely annoying, and perhaps a little mentally retarded, in short - a complete idiot. I think I'm done with Wagner, the characters seem to operate on a juvenile level, which I just cannot stand.

    I bought a Puccini "Definitive Edition" recording box which is what I'll focus on next. The recordings in it are stunning, but maybe a little too perfect and clinical. Then comes the rest of Mozarts operas.

    So my recommendation - youtube Turandot, listen to some of the arias to see if they grab you, but realize that you're only getting part of the experience. If you like it - buy a copy (that includes the libretto), set yourself in a quiet room away from everyone and follow along with the text.

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    Moderator mamascarlatti's Avatar
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    Opera by its nature is music theatre and has never been designed to be just listened to. It has be be seen and even preferably experienced in the flesh for true appreciation and enjoyment, so maybe the first thing is to get a DVD and watch it an act at a time.

    It's probably best to choose music that is close in character to what you already enjoy. What non-opera classical music do you listen to most?
    Natalie

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    I was seduced from the moment of attending my first opera in person. There is nothing to compare with the real-life experience. In most instances there are subtitles that allow you to follow the story easily... especially when coupled with the dram being acted out upon the stage.

    As for the problem with operatic vocals... yes, they are "artificial"... it's art, not life. What's the quote? "Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings." The entire experience is theater... spectacle.

    Beyond the live experience, if you are really serious about exploring opera I would suggest you read up a bit on it. I greatly enjoyed the book, The Story of Opera by Richard Somerset-Ward which gives a great history of opera for the novice illustrated lavishly. It can be found rather inexpensive used. But undoubtedly there are other good books.

    I would also suggest you might want to explore recitals by various singers of note which collect highlights of various operas. Look for discs by Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Teresa Berganza, Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Bjorling, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavaroti, Janet Baker, Lucia Popp, Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Flemming, Magdalena Kozena, Carlo Berganzi, Franco Corelli,

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    Thanks guys for all responses. In OP, I forgot to mention that there are some arias that I absolutely love, but haven't yet had meaningful experience with entire opera. I'll try to follow your suggestions, and I will tell you about my experiences as I progress.

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    I have the absolute same problem. I try and try, and still just can't get into opera, with a few rare exceptions.

    My advice is to go to your local library and see if you can find an opera recording on DVD. Treat it like a movie. You can turn on the subtitles and have the translation to follow along. Having a visual to put with it helps understand it better.

    As I said, some I like, most I don't. I can't get into most Wagner - I am slowly coming to appreciate Die Meistersinger, but only after great difficulty. Strauss has been somewhat entertaining to me (esp. Ariadne auf Naxos). Mainly German operas, because I am fairly competent with German.

    My major exceptions are Mozart, esp. Figaro and Magic Flute. The Magic Flute is my absolute favorite, and one of my favorite classical works, period. After that, Beethoven's Fidelio. I found a DVD of Fidelio in my library a while back which helped immensely.

    I agree about the high falsettos. I rented a DVD of Monteverdi's L'Incorronazione di Poppea (Jacobs conducting), and was very put off by the high falsetto of one of the MALE characters. In many situations they had male characters singing some of the higher parts (I suspect due to the use of castrati in earlier times). It was like fingernails on a chalkboard. I couldn't watch the rest.

    If you can't get into the whole thing, look for highlights recordings that leave out all the spoken parts (although those become almost non-existent once you hit Wagner). Klemperer's recording of Mozart's Magic Flute on EMI is excellent in this regard - he only recorded the singing portions, and left out the spoken parts. That way you can enjoy the music and singing (and the men sound like men, and the women sound like women, although the Queen of the Night sounds like a superwoman!). Some people will say this is blasphemy, but who cares. That is how I now listen to Wagner - I have a recording by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra entitled Wagner Without Words, and I love it more than the full operas.

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    Senior Member Argus's Avatar
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    If you don't like something then don't listen to it.

    Don't try to force yourself to enjoy or appreciate something you clearly don't. Try listening again to opera in a few years and your opinions might have changed, or they might not. Listen to what you enjoy, whilst you still enjoy it, and then if/when you stop enjoying that, then listen to something else.

    Simple as that.

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    I'm not ashamed to say I got into it only because of the Three Tenors and then only because I thought José Carreras was cute. I bought a CD he'd made of opera arias & grew to love them. From there I bought a CD Box Set of an opera with the full libretto. These are great little books with a page of the words in the original language opposite a page of translation. There's often a bit about the composer & a potted history of the opera which is great for putting it in context and a synopsis of the story.

    Don't expect to fall in love with an opera straight away. Give yourself time to get to know it; read the synopsis & just play a few scenes to start with & follow the words. After a while you'll be able to listen to the music/arias & even if you don't know the language you'll know what is happening in the story at that moment. And as others have said, opera DVDs are great for learning the story.

    Good luck with your project!
    Ann

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    Senior Member Jeremy Marchant's Avatar
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    I suggest listening to operas by composers whose non-operatic music you already like. I'm not a fan of opera as a form of music but I enjoy those by Janacek, Tippett, Berlioz and a few others.

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    Honestly, I took right to opera, so it's hard for me to relate to some of the difficulties people experience with it. Of course I never approached it like I would "abstract" musical forms, and never tried to. I can understand the difficulties with that approach. Listening to hours of music, and often recitiative, without any sense of how or why the music is being organized would be boring to the extreme when first being introduced to a work for anyone I think. Ditto for trying to follow a dramatic performance without an understanding of what is being said.

    My first experience with opera was Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, sitting down with the libretto while following along with the story and being swept along by great music. After becoming familiar with it, a month later I attended I live performance of the opera and from that point I've been hooked. What amazed me from the start was the ability for music to describe the emotions of the drama more directly and profoundly than pure words in an oral drama ever could. The quintet in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, for example, is expressed in words and music which give the audience an unforgettable impression of the kind of harmony which in real life is wordless and soundless.

    So yes, an understanding of the dramatic setting is vitally important, so either reading along with the libretto or seeing it while following along with subtitles is something that you should probably be prepared to do if you want to get the full force of the experience. Now myself, personally, I took right to that. I find the plots of the best operas to be fascinating. And the best -- particularly those by Mozart and Wagner -- have a genius for understanding the deepest, innermost workings of the human psyche. I definitely take umbrage with David58117's description of Wagner's characters as juvenile, and I think his skill as a dramatist was pretty amazing. But if you're not hooked by the drama in the same way I was, it may not be a medium for you.

    As sospiro said, after you become more familiar with the operas and their stories, you quickly grow to love the music and can often listen to it outside the context of the drama, although it always sound best in that context in my experience. And as far as problems with getting into the singing, again, it's mannerisms begin to make sense after you become better acquainted with the operatic experience as a whole.

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    Moderator mamascarlatti's Avatar
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    I think Poppin'fresh has put it very well and it pretty much reflects my views and feelings about opera.

    But I'm not 100% in agreement with this:

    Quote Originally Posted by Poppin' Fresh View Post
    I definitely take umbrage with David58117's description of Wagner's characters as juvenile, and I think his skill as a dramatist was pretty amazing. But if you're not hooked by the drama in the same way I was, it may not be a medium for you.
    The problem, for me, is Siegfried (the character). He almost spoils the Ring for me because he is such a juvenile creep:
    • Disrespects his stepfather even before he knows that the guy is planning to kill him.
    • Beats Wotan up for no good reason.
    • Cheerfully goes off and procures an unwilling woman for his buddy.


    I ask, what is so heroic about that? (OK, I get that he kills a really mean dragon).

    For me the only good Siegfried is a dead Siegfried (the music always makes me cry, despite my feelings about the character)

    I'm half in jest, but really, I need someone to explain to me why I am supposed to believe in Siegfried as the hero.
    Natalie

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    Quote Originally Posted by mamascarlatti View Post


    The problem, for me, is Siegfried (the character). He almost spoils the Ring for me because he is such a juvenile creep:
    • Disrespects his stepfather even before he knows that the guy is planning to kill him.
    • Beats Wotan up for no good reason.
    • Cheerfully goes off and procures an unwilling woman for his buddy.


    I ask, what is so heroic about that? (OK, I get that he kills a really mean dragon).

    For me the only good Siegfried is a dead Siegfried (the music always makes me cry, despite my feelings about the character)

    I'm half in jest, but really, I need someone to explain to me why I am supposed to believe in Siegfried as the hero.
    I thought I was the only one!!

    He's too immature, all brawn with no brains, rude, arrogant, easily manipulated, and has fortune handed to him rather than earned - that doesn't make for a very likable character.

    It might sound harsh, but...I physically became sick reading other characters talk highly of him. I couldn't even enjoy the Death scene because of all the mourning that occurred over him.

    I'm also curious why we're suppose to believe in Siegfried The Hero.

    Can't wait to get back to Puccini and Mozart.

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