Best operas for beginners: 5 operas newbies can't help being enthralled by
Want to try opera but don't know where to start? Freya Parr shares her favourites for opera newbies
Opera houses can be intimidating places, with their grand exteriors, formal ‘dress codes’ and multi-layered plot lines unravelling in foreign languages. In recent years, however, opera companies have made moves to welcome new audiences in, with contemporary adaptations of centuries-old stories and surtitles providing English translations of the opera’s libretto above the stage.
But even in the stuffiest, oldest opera houses, there are a few operas that can be enjoyed by newbies and old timers alike. We’ve picked out some of the best operas for beginners.
Best operas for beginners and newbies
Mozart’s The Magic Flute
One of Mozart’s best-loved operas, The Magic Flute tells the story of Prince Tamino, who is rescued from a monster, shown a photo of Pamina (daughter of the Queen of the Night) and, naturally, falls in love with her instantly. Classic operatic melodrama. Armed with his magic flute, he sets off on a mission to find and rescue her from the sorcerer Sarastro she is being held captive by. It’s a classic story of love triumphing over evil – with a raft of tunes you’ll no doubt already be familiar with.
We included The Magic Flute in our round-up of the best Mozart operas.
We named the best recordings of Mozart’s The Magic Flute here.
The ‘Habanera’ and the ‘Toreador Song’ from Bizet’s Carmen have both enjoyed success beyond the walls of the opera house, so will probably be familiar to you already. The opera itself is packed full of brilliantly catchy melodies and hummable tunes – and that’s before you even consider its dramatic plotlines. Carmen is a brilliantly bold heroine: smoking, drinking and seducing her way around town. Don José falls instantly in love with her and ends up running away from the army to be with her. Shortly after, however, she grows tired of him and instead pursues the bullfighter Escamillo. The romance shifts to tragedy as Don Jośe pursues her in a fit of jealousy, stabbing her at the amphitheatre where Escamillo is about to perform. She has become one of opera’s most iconic characters.
In recent years, choreographer Matthew Bourne has created The Car Man, a ballet based on Bizet’s opera but with an entirely new plot, instead set in a garage in a small Italian American community in a midwestern town in the US.
We included Carmen in our round-up of the best Bizet works.
If you’re already a fan, here are our choices of what to listen to if you like Bizet’s Carmen.
Puccini’s La bohème
If you’ve seen the iconic movie Rent, you’ll find the plot of La bohéme eerily familiar. Puccini’s 1896 opera is such a timeless classic that Jonathan Larson used it as the basis for his 1996 musical. Just as we’ve all been worried about the cost-of-living crisis, the characters of La bohème were too. The plot follows four bohemians living in Paris, whose worlds are turned upside down when Mimì knocks on their door and quickly falls in love with Rodolfo. We discover that Mimì is gravely ill and Rodolfo is unable to support her. It’s a tragic story of young love, friendship, mortality and heartbreak.
Seven leading singers and directors named La bohème as one of Puccini’s best operas.
We named the best recordings of Puccini’s La bohème here.
Verdi’s La traviata
Quite a few of our choices are rather tragic, but heightened emotions are the name of the game when it comes to opera. La traviata is no different, telling the tragic love story between Alredo Germont and the courtesan Violetta. Set against the backdrop of a divided upper-class society, their love is illicit and threatens to destroy the Germont name. Again, it’s helpful to have a film to hand for an entry into an opera – and, like La bohème, La Traviata has enjoyed new life on the big screen. In 2001, its story was adapted for the film Moulin Rouge!.
Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
Finally, a bit of light relief for all you opera beginners. The Barber of Seville is a frivolous, fizzy feast of fun, packed full of wit, excitement and vocal fireworks. Rossini’s most famous opera focuses on a barber, Figaro, who must help Count Almaviva prise his love Rosina away from her evil, manipulative guardian, Dr Bartolo. It combines vocal jollities with physical comedy, making The Barber of Seville an opera for all the family to enjoy.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.