10 Classic Operas for People Who Don't Know Shit About Opera
There are generally two amounts of knowledge about opera: lots and zero. If you're like the majority of human beings, you're in the latter camp, where the extent of your operatic knowledge comes from Looney Tunes. There isn't a ton of casual knowledge about the history of one of the western world's most refined forms of music. For most, you're in or you're out.
While opera was, for centuries, one of the dominant forms of European culture, these days it gets a bad rap, and often for good reason. It's an expensive form of entertainment with a mostly older audience that has historically been associated with erudite aristocracy. But it can be a lot more visceral, funny and subversive than just a stuffy night out with rich white folks.
Opera all started around 1600, when a bunch of well-heeled artists and intellectuals from Florence drew together some artistic traditions to stage dramas that incorporated singing and instrumental accompaniment. From that era, Monteverdi is the only one who still gets much play. Over the next 200 years, opera became a popular form of entertainment in the royal courts and cosmopolitan capitals of Europe. A few early composers — including Purcell and Handel — contributed some gems that are still popular today, but we're going to fast forward a bit to the first undisputed master, Mozart, whose work kicked off the Golden Age of Opera.
So, without further ado, the following is a chronological primer of operas for those with little-to-no knowledge of opera.
Mozart, The Magic Flute (1791)
Mozart's final opera is also one of his most beloved. Mozart's combination of critical and commercial success makes the Beatles look like the Shitty Beatles. The Magic Flute is technically a singspiel, which is more like a musical than an opera, and it's a fairy tale romance, with a lot of complicated twists and turns. It's never quite clear who you should be rooting for: the lovebirds Pamina and Tamino, the bird-catcher Papageno, the enchanting Queen of the Night, or the cultic Sarastro. It's an entertaining, magic-filled piece with plenty of subtext to boot.
Rossini, La Cenerentola (1817)
For the first half of the 19th century, the most important opera scene was in Italy, where the dominant style became bel canto ("beautiful singing"). This builds on the classical stylings of Mozart and some of his Italian contemporaries, but singers get the top billing. The main composers of this highly melodic style are Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. One of Rossini's most staged operas, La Cenerentola, is based on Cinderella, way before Walt Disney got his pilfering fingers on the classic fairy tale. Rossini flips the version we all know by making the evil stepmother antagonist an evil stepfather, Don Magnifico. Another obvious difference is that it's not a slipper but, rather, a bracelet that is the key object of the piece.
Weber, Der Freischütz (1821)
Concurrent with the Italians in the early 1800s, German composers begin to carve out their own tradition as well, which is more narrative-driven compared to the neighboring Italians. Beethoven wrote one opera, Fidelio (a weighty masterwork in its own right and not just the password to an Illuminati sex orgy), but the most important German composer of operas from this era is Carl Maria von Weber, and his masterwork is Der Freischütz. It's a bizarre German folktale with scary atmospherics and great set numbers, and it was later adapted by Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson as The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets.
Verdi, Rigoletto (1851)
The two biggest opera figures of the 19th century — and, in fact, the entirety of opera history — are Verdi and Wagner. They both lived a long time, in parallel, and devoted themselves to opera (rather than, you know, symphonies and quartets). Verdi comes out of bel canto, but adds weightier drama and pathos. He wrote a dozen or so classics, most famously La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and Aïda. Put simply, Rigoletto is a tale of murder, intrigue and revenge — everything one hopes for from opera. Stylistically, Verdi broke the form to include a standalone aria, which was basically unheard of at the time.
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