Upon request from a correspondant:
A Basic Introduction to Opera
Opera—the fusion of words and music—really started with Monteverdi in the 1600s. It was revolutionary and very quickly became the latest thing in early 17th-century Italy. Unfortunately, to the modern ear, it's pretty boring stuff, not just musically, but also because it's full of people standing around singing about either what they're feeling, what they're about to do, what they've just done, or some combination of the above. All the plot and character development happens during the recitative, or the bits where they're not singing.
Modern opera really started with Mozart: he was the first composer to really get away from the old model of having plot only happen during the non-singing bits: his use of music to develop character and advance the plot was unprecedented. It also helped that he was the greatest composer who ever lived. Mozart wrote five truly great operas that are still in the repertory today: The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutti, and The Magic Flute. The first and the last are a subset of opera called singspiel, or Song-Story; it was Vienna's 18th-century equivalent to modern musical theater. Unlike traditional opera, singspiel was in German (not Italian) and featured spoken, rather than sung, dialogue. The middle three—Figaro, Giovanni, and Cosi—are more traditional Italian operas, with dialogue that's sung in recitative and performed in Italian. The librettos for those three were written by Lorenzo da Ponte, an intellectual, poet, man-about-town, raconteur, renegade priest, and all-around degenerate who had a habit of leaving town right before his creditors caught up to him (in a side note, da Ponte eventually ended up in New York City, teaching at Columbia University; aside from leaving his library to the university, da Ponte also founded the first opera house in New York City). Figaro and Giovanni are regularly mentioned as the greatest operas ever written; I give the nod to Figaro because it holds together slightly better plot-wise, though the music in Giovanni is probably slightly better (there's a scene in Giovanni, towards the end of the first act, where there are three on-stage orchestras, each playing a different tune, with the main orchestra in the pit playing a forth). All three of the da Ponte operas are essentially sex comedies, though of very different sorts; Cosi fan tutti has perhaps the most ambiguous endings of any romantic comedy ever written.
After Mozart, the next really important opera composer was Rossini, who's single biggest hit was The Barber of Seville (it's the one with the "Figaro, Figaro, Fiiii-Gaaaa-Rooo" aria). Rossini's greatest innovations were 1) he could write music extremely quickly and was extremely lazy (one story has him in bed, writing an aria; he drops the paper he's writing on and rather than rouse himself to pick it up, he simply wrote a new aria) 2) he plagiarized himself without remorse (the overture to Barber, which is a very famous piece of music, is actually the overture to a completely different opera; the tenor aria in Barber shows up in La Cenorentola as a soprano aria; a duodectet (for twelve voices) in one opera shows up as a sextet in another...), and 3) he further advanced the Mozartian ideals of advancing character and plot via the music.
Rossini also laid the groundwork for the golden age of bel canto (or beautiful song), which we're going to skip because it's a bit boring (Donizetti and Bellini are the names to know) and it mostly sets the stage for Verdi and his contemporaries (namely a guy named Wagner).
By the 1840s, bel canto was the accepted format for opera -- it was codified to the point where every aria started with a slow bit (called the cantabile) and finished with a fast bit (called the cabaletta). It also emphasized the beauty of the vocal line above all else (which is why it's called bel canto). Verdi started firmly in the bel canto tradition, but then he went ahead and supersized everything. Bigger voices, bigger operas, bigger orchestras (and bigger singers to go along with it all). His most famous operas—Il Trovatore, Aida, La Traviata, Otello, Don Carlos—are casts-of-thousands, elephants-on-the-stage spectacles (and, at least in the case of Trovatore and Don Carlos, head-scratchingly confusing plots). Plus they feature entirely stupendous music and singing. Musically, Verdi increasingly integrated the orchestra into the music (particularly in his later operas) and he started to toy with musical themes for characters, a heretical idea, primarily because it had been invented by a German: Richard Wagner.
Wagner was many things: a boor, a womanizer, an anti-semite, and a genius. Unfortunately, he knew it, too. Drawing on a tradition of German opera which I've mostly ignored here, he had a grand idea: to unite theater and music and dance into one seamless piece of Art. He introduced many technical innovations into the art form: through-composed operas (instead of stopping between arias and ensembles for dialogue, the music flows seamlessly throughout the opera); the idea of musical themes for characters (his famous leit -motifs, which he later extended to emotions and even later to abstract ideas); and he wrote the first truly atonal piece of music. The flip side is that he never wrote a note he didn't like (the first act of Parsifal clocks in well over 90 minutes), and generally thought himself God's gift to the world. While interesting for the ideas he put into practice, his operas are, however, difficult and not really a good place for the operatic neophyte to start.
Puccini, who emerged at the end of the 19th century as the next Verdi, took a lot of Wagner's ideas and re-packaged them in somewhat more audience-friendly format. Instead of writing Grand Opera about Grand People and Grand Ideas, he wrote about ordinary people (mostly) who did ordinary things (mostly, if murder, suicide, and death from TB count as ordinary) and sung about them. Both Tosca and Madama Butterfly are mostly through-composed and feature leit -motifs of a sort, for example. And while he had a taste for cheap melodrama (murder! attempted rape! wife abandonment! loose women! the French!) his skills as a composer elevated that cheap melodrama to the status of great art.
After Puccini died, the last great opera composer left standing was Richard Strauss. Strauss was something of a throwback -- unlike Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, and Rossini, who were all opera specialists, Strauss wrote just about everything. He wrote symphonies, tone poems, chamber music, et cetera, and he happened to be a prolific and accomplished opera composer. Most of his operas were written in conjunction with the poet Hugo von Hoffmansthal. His early operas—Salome, Elektra—were very 'modern', atonal, and deliberately difficult (which makes a certain amount of sense given the subject matter). As he matured, however, he mellowed a bit and developed a neo-Romantic style that he did his greatest work in—Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau un Schatten, Arabella. Rosenkavalier, which started life as a rambunctious comedy about an unrefined baron, underwent a rather startling metamorphosis in the writing and ended up a sophisticated and some would say profound meditation on the nature of love (and that unrefined baron, while still in the piece, was demoted from protagonist to bit player). As the opera changed, it also evolved into a 20th-century companion piece to Mozart's Figaro.
I completely ignored French opera, but that's another topic for another day...
A few notes about seeing opera:
- Be prepared. Unlike a movie or a novel, seeing an opera without knowing what it's about and who the main characters are is a bad idea. that's largely because it's gonna be sung in a different language, and even though supertitles enormously help moment-to-moment comprehension of what's going on, it helps to know what's going on with the statue in Don Giovanni, for example. I'm not saying that you have to memorize every note and know the libretto word-for-word; but having a familiarity with what's supposed to happen and what the famous tunes are (for all great operas are littered with famous tunes) helps a lot.
- They're supposed to be funny. Not in the unintentional the leading-lady-is-the-size of a Volkswagen funny, but funny in the yes-that's-a-joke-in-the-libretto way. Note: Wagner is not known for his sense of humor, and Verdi was pretty stingy with them too. On the other hand, The Marriage of Figaro is an out-and-out comedy.
- There is no three.
For a beginner, I would start with the following shows to see (not an exhaustive list, by any stretch of the imagination):