First Time Opera
by: Eric Skelly, November 12, 2007 5:11:00 am
Inevitably the moment arrives...the moment that comes when word begins to spread that you like Opera. The uninitiated curious begin to flock to you like kids on a playground to an ice cream truck...and they all want to know one thing: “I’ve never been to an opera before; which is the best one to see for my first time?”
|Bellini's Norma: Not for the uninitiated|
In 1993 a college-student friend of mine had his first operatic experience at Houston Grand Opera. He came to see Elektra with Hildegard Behrens, Josephine Barstow and Leonie Rysanek in an innovative Andre Serban production with Christoph Eschenbach on the podium. As much as I personally love the work, I would never have suggested that someone new to opera try Richard Strauss’ edgy, violent, nerve-jangling Elektra. And yet, when I met up with my friend after the performance he could hardly contain himself he was so excited by what he’d experienced. The total commitment of the performers and the intense theatricality of the work completely won him over to Opera. Plus, he thought Hildegard Behrens was a “babe!” (To her credit Ms. Behrens was flattered when the compliment was relayed to her.)
|Opera Australia's production of The Barber of Seville|
So are there operas that are safe to recommend to just about everybody? Sure. In addition to the entire Puccini oeuvre (save for a few early efforts prior to Manon Lescaut that you’re unlikely to encounter in the theater anyway), here are a few:
- Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann it’s endlessly, excitingly melodic; with fantastic goings-on onstage; and the Barcarolle is on every “Greatest Classical Hits of All Time” infomercial ever made. (You’d be surprised, and maybe even dismayed, to learn how many people have their first exposure to classical music through those things.)
- Wagner’s Das Rheingold and The Flying Dutchman At about 2? hours each they’re short (for Wagner, anyway), their supernatural subject matter leads to interesting stage pictures if not dazzling special stage effects, and anyone who’s gone to the movies and thrilled to a John Williams score should feel right at home with Williams’ musical progenitor in his most accessible mode.
- Rossini’s The Barber of Seville How could anyone not love this opera?. With its screwball comedy plot, its death-defying virtuoso vocal pyrotechnics, and the immediate recognizability of the overture and “Largo al factotum,” who could resist Barber’s charms?!
- Many 20th-Century masterpieces work beautifully to introduce modern audiences to Opera, thanks to powerful scores and dramatic viability that 20th-Century audiences demanded (it still feels weird to refer to the 20th-Century in the past tense, doesn’t it?!). Two of the best are Jan?èek’s Jenufa and Britten’s Peter Grimes, but almost anything by these composers will work.