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.
Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (1874)
Richard Wagner's vaunted Ring cycle is actually four epic operas running about 16 hours in total. In many ways, Wagner's work is overshadowed by controversy, largely around legitimate claims of racism and xenophobia. One of his greatest champions happens to be one of history's most infamous shitbags, Adolf Hitler, who used Wagner's sometimes incendiary music as a soundtrack to stir up nationalism and, eventually, genocide. And J.R.R. Tolkien — no stranger to criticisms of imbuing his work with an unnecessary amount of racist ideology himself — clearly based much of his Lord of the Rings mythology on the Ring cycle, even though he consistently denied it. But the Ring Cycle is an ambitious, epic blending Norse and Icelandic mythology, whose most well-known piece of music to modern ears is certainly the “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Bizet, Carmen (1875)
Carmen is a French opera comique, brimming with so many mellifluous melodies and harmonic play, all in the service of complex character study and romance. Its recognizable earworms perfectly suit this tragic tale of love lost, told from the proletariat perspective.
Puccini, Madame Butterfly (1904)
The end of the 19th century ushered in a short-lived movement called verismo, which is like realism in literature. The characters became more relatable, and partly thanks to Wagner, there wasn't a real distinction anymore between the spoken or sing-songy parts and the real singing; it all blurs together. This is where we can sort of situate Puccini (though he does more than this), who rounds out the biggest four names in opera as we know it today, alongside Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. His well-known tragedy Madame Butterfly showcases imperialism at its best: an American soldier goes to Japan, falls in love with a Japanese woman, impregnates her, then leaves and forgets about her. It would later be the foundation for Miss Saigon, one of Broadway's most successful musicals.
Strauss, Salome (1905)
Salome opened the floodgates to modernism in opera. A one act piece based on an Oscar Wilde play, it's a biblical drama where the titular protagonist famously strips and makes out with the decapitated head of John the Baptist. Salome is some heavy business, and it was so edgy for its time that it was banned initially banned in London (which almost always give you cult cred, no matter the medium).
Erik Satie, Socrate (1919)
Around 1910, as with all classical music, shit went off the rails, in a good way. Alban Berg, Schoenberg, Satie, Bartok, Stravinsky and Britten all wrote operas that would be unrecognizable to previous generations. Erik Satie's Socrate (a relatively obscure opera, but a great one nonetheless) embodies its composer's avant-garde, experimentalist streak, spliced with a reverence for the classics, in this case a dramatization of Plato's dialogues about his mentor, Socrates. A minimal, short and spare work, Socrate is the tragic story of someone so logical that his government sentenced him to death. Its simplicity belies its depth.
Janácek, The Cunning Little Vixen (1924)
This opera is a unique 20th century adaptation of a popular Czech daily comic strip. The work — on the lighter end of the tonal scale of Janácek's oeuvre — draws heavily on Czech folklore and tells the tale of a young female fox and various creatures in the forest and the drama between them and humans. Both playful and profound, the opera was popular in its time as well as with contemporary audiences. The tragic final scene of the play was performed at Janácek's funeral.
Want to know more? Opera season opened this past weekend at the L.A. Opera, and they're offering a double bill of two short operas, both starring Placido Domingo: Gianni Schicchi by Puccini, which is one part of his triptych Il Trittico, and Leoncavallo's famous Pagliacci (you know, that iconic clown). More info.