The 5 Best Operas for Beginners and First-Timers

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I have wanted to write this post for a really long time. Weird as it may be, one of my most frequently-received questions is some variation of “what are the best operas for beginners?” I recently did an Instagram Stories Q&A about opera, and, yet again, that was the main question asked.

In my experience, most people are interested in the idea of going to an opera. But they don’t know where to start. Or they’re nervous they won’t understand what’s going on.

I realize I’m in a unique camp. I’ve been going to the opera since I was in high school (potentially earlier but I don’t remember!). While I’m about 87% sure that my very first opera was Madame Butterfly, within the following 5 years I saw each of the operas I list below at least once (or more!).

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So. You’ve decided you want to go to the opera. It’s your first time seeing an opera and you want to make sure you see the right one. Or, at the very least, one that won’t leave you going “huh?” at the end.

First let me warn you: operas can be confusing as hell.

When I saw The Magic Flute with Yasmina in Germany in December, I gave her a brief synopsis of the plot before the show started. She then Wikipedia’d the opera – she was so convinced I had flat-out made everything up.

Apparently my description of the supporting character being “either a bird who thinks he is a human or a human who thinks he is a bird” forced her to cast some doubt on my knowledge of the opera.

I have no idea why.

But don’t let that story frighten you away.

If you’re seeing an opera in the United States, chances are that the lyrics will be translated into English and shown above the stage (supertitles). They even do this for English operas. Trust me when I say the cast might as well be singing in Italian – I never understand the lyrics anyways!

However, note that most opera houses abroad do not have these translations… And if you’re in a non-English-speaking country, they almost certainly won’t have the translations in English (this is why Yasmina had to Wikipedia the plot of The Magic Flute when we were in Germany – the playbill was entirely in German and there were no supertitles of any sort).

Additionally, while opera as an art form isn’t known for having the most realistic plots, many operas are at least historically-based and therefore at least somewhat realistic. Each of the 5 best operas for beginners I list below has an actual plot. Some of them have even been adapted into movies or plays. And you will definitely recognize some of the music, which should make the experience all the more enjoyable!

Still too nervous to go to an opera?

As I suggested in yesterday’s post, cozy up on your couch and stream one of the operas from the Metropolitan Opera!

The English translations of the lyrics will appear on the bottom of your screen, so it’s more like watching a foreign film. Just make sure you select a production that has been filmed within the past 10 years – otherwise, the video quality can be a bit meh.

The 5 Best Operas for Beginners

Best Operas for Beginners: Carmen

You’ve heard of Carmen. Trust me: even if you think you haven’t, you have. And you definitely know the music. It’s in at least one superbowl commercial each year!

Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. The songs are so catchy, it has a real plot, and it’s always a fan favorite. There’s a reason why I’ve seen this opera over 5 times in the past decade: it’s the perfect opera to which I can bring a first-timer!

PS remember that episode of Hey Arnold when he goes to the opera and falls asleep and dreams an opera? Guess what opera he’s seeing (and where the music in his dream comes from)? Yep: Carmen.

Best Operas for Beginners: La Bohème

I love La Bohème. Love love love. The story is timeless. Don’t believe me?

Where do you think the plot for RENT came from? Swap out the consumption (tuberculosis) for AIDS and it’s just about the exact same story. Even most of the characters share names.

Just like in Carmen, you’ll recognize much of the music in La Bohème. The music appears in commercials, movies, and even pieces of it show up in RENT.

PS just so you don’t make the same mistake my friend Brad did in Paris (when I surprised him with tickets to see La Bohème at the Paris Opera), Bohème is pronounced like “bo-em”. Not “bo-he-me”.

Best Operas for Beginners: La traviata

Fun fact: La traviata is my favorite opera. It has one of the most amazing arias (a song sung by just one person) in all of opera. When done well, it can be absolutely incredible.

The aria is basically the main character having a mental breakdown/breakthrough and I am here. for. it.

You’ll recognize the music. Well, not as much as for Carmen… but it seems like every pasta or pasta sauce commercial in the history of ever has used the Brindisi for the music. It even appears in the first Twilight movie, when the Cullens are making pasta for dinner (don’t ask me why I know this fact – I’m honestly ashamed to admit it).

Oh and BTW the movie Moulin Rouge! is based on the plot of La traviata (and also La Bohème).

Best Operas for Beginners: The Marriage of Figaro

You didn’t think I could have a list of the 5 best operas for beginners without any Mozart, did you?

When you think of opera, you don’t typically think of comedies… but that’s just what The Marriage of Figaro is: a comedy. So if you’re open to going to the opera but want to steer clear of any drama or chance of tears, I recommend checking out The Marriage of Figaro (or Le nozze di Figaro).

While the music isn’t as recognizable as the previous three operas listed, you will still recognize bits and pieces from TV commercials and even movies (like Shawshank Redemption!). Plus it’s about 100 years older than the other operas included in this list, so it uses completely different musical techniques and even a few different types of instruments than other operas.

And now my nerd is showing.

Note that this is a pretty long opera… so if you want something a bit shorter but still a comedy, I’d recommend The Barber of Seville or Così fan tutte. The latter is longer than the former, but it was written by Mozart (and apparently he had a penchant for long operas). All three are pretty funny and regularly appear in opera houses’ repertoire.

Best Operas for Beginners: Tosca

Finally, Tosca.

Every time I see this opera, I love it more and more. In my opinion, it has one of the best plots in all of opera. The music is fantastic. Whats more, the leading lady is not a damsel in distress, but instead leads her own story.

In case it’s not clear, I’m such a big fan of this opera.

This opera also features one of the most hated characters in all of opera: Scarpia. Think Claude Frollo (the villain) in Hunchback of Notre Dame. But worse. Because that was a Disney movie and this is a super dramatic opera. I’m only telling you all of this so that you’re not surprised when people “boo” while clapping as he bows at curtain – that tradition dates back to the earliest years of this opera’s existence. Plus the character is seriously despicable.

Hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas for what to see for your first opera. Each of these operas is performed quite regularly at the major opera houses.

In fact, at least one (if not more) of them is performed each year at the Dallas Opera. Last fall, I saw Carmen in Dallas… and, this spring, they’re doing La Bohéme! Perfect time to go see your first-ever opera!

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