Opera & Musical Theater

First Time Opera

Going to the opera for the first time can be a daunting experience. Eric Skelly discusses how, with a little help from a fellow lover of opera, one can make their first experience a pleasant one.

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

There are some operas that are clearly not for the first-time operagoer.  Many years ago, the education department of a regional opera company in the Midwest — which shall remain nameless (but just e-mail me and I’ll tell ‘ya which one) brought area schoolchildren in to the opera house for a series of student matinees to introduce these kids to Opera.  And what, you may ask, was the work this company chose to turn these impressionable young minds on to Opera?!  Bellini’s Norma (!).  Let’s take a moment to let that sink in.  First there’s the somewhat mature subject matter that one can only assume the company judiciously edited for their student matinees (although truthfully those kids probably hadn’t a clue about what was going on on that stage, which is just as bad if not worse).    And Norma is all about vocal virtuosity and tends to be very “talky,” with long stretches of music in which the singers have really nothing to do but sing beautifully.  Norma is a brilliant work, and can make for a great night in the theater with the right cast, conductor and director.  But it’s not ideal for audiences with short attention spans, and it can give the wrong impression to first-timers who are looking for something a little closer to the verisimilitude they might find in non-musical theater.

Puccini’s Turandot

What, then, does make for a good first opera?  Conventional wisdom has it that the more melodious works tend to be good for a first experience, and if the opera has some well known tunes in it, so much the better.  Pretty much everything Puccini ever wrote fits the bill.  The man was a genius at composing memorable melody, achingly beautiful phrases pregnant with emotion . . . and he was one of the best composers ever at creating viable, taut dramatic frames for his music.  He nearly drove his librettists to the brink of insanity with his relentless micro-management of their work, but the result is a body of opera in which there’s a true marriage between words and music.   And talk about your operatic hit parades!  Few people who have never been to an opera would fail to recognize “Nessun dorma” from Turandot (thanks to Luciano Pavarotti and World Cup Soccer), Musetta’s Waltz from La boheme or “Un bel d?” from Madame Butterfly.

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 it pays to take a person’s musical tastes into consideration before recommending a first opera.  Opera comes in all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors, and seldom does any one person like all of it, regardless of how into Opera he/she is.  In the case of this college-age friend, he was used to a steady musical diet of speed metal and Nine-Inch Nails; so Elektra‘s edginess and dissonance didn’t faze him.  He probably felt right at home.  Norma would have sent him running for the hills, never to return.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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?!
  4. 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.