A social media exchange about introducing a coworker to their first opera got me to thinking and sent me back to a blog post sitting on the back burner for a few years. There’s no single best answer to the questions I’m asking.
This is half their delight.
As someone who loves, consumes, and studies opera on a daily basis, I am repeatedly asked the same question by newcomers to the art form, “What is a good opera for beginners?” It’s a daunting question to which aficionados may take umbrage, but for me, it always offers a unique opportunity. It has been a firm belief of mine that you cannot claim to be doing “good” for your subject unless you can—for lack of a better word—evangelize for it to the stranger on the street, and guide those with varying levels of investment to see its wonders, flaws, and joys. Answering this query also presents welcome chance to combat the nihilistic trope of condemning opera as either a “obsolete” or allegedly “dying” “art form,” a topic which loves to flare up around the internet like scurvy. (I do value such sentiments only for the chance it offers for us to assert the vitality of opera, but that remains a separate topic altogether.)
So, let’s say you find yourself on the receiving end of that question, or its plural variant, “What are good operas for beginners?” Your reaction is a vast mechanism of consideration and contemplation while your inquirer stares at you in earnest. How do you, or better yet, how can you answer this? For some this may be easy. Pick a token composer, fairly well-known to most musically-inclined individuals, chose the best representative and/or shortest work they have in their catalogue, and you’re done. Or do you rely on the list of so-called “classics” that populate the OperaAmerica statistics lists? Plenty of “good” options there, most of the great Italian operas of the last two centuries with a few chunks of German tossed in for good measure. Easy enough, right? Or do you rely on your own list of personal favorites—a good option—but like all the others, it doesn’t take the inquirer’s point of view into account. Remember that your inquirer is likely coming from a place of total unfamiliarity and thus any list should take a stance of cultivation rather than proselytization.
To that end, I always lead newcomers off the beaten path of warhorses, chestnuts, and other critical whipping posts for which familiarity breeds things far worse than contempt. Those works—looking at you in particular, Aida, Bohème, Butterfly, Carmen, Traviata—will never lose their weight in their respective oeuvres. But gravity shifts, and we are at a point where we are moving past how really “essential” they are. (Just as any major symphony orchestra could stand the challenge of going on a Beethoven fast for a whole season, opera companies could stand trimming such staples from their menus. This is a task easier said than done for the major repertory houses around the globe for whom these works are a critical capital. It has to start somewhere though.)
Getting back to our newcomers, however, we should consider what options are 1) suitable and 2) available. Suitability involves many variables and demands critical recommending. These variables frequently extends beyond the “score” itself to the production. If you recommend a production directed by someone who, for example, is partial to staging concepts of excessive violence, take pause and consider whether such a choice works for your inquirer.
On the point of short or long works for beginners, I confess I lean towards the former. Just as a singer shouldn’t vault into Götterdämmerung straight out of the conservatory, an audience member shouldn’t plunge into a marathon without having first stretched their muscles and endurance. I use the term audience member because, as we’ve been told time and time again, opera is an experience best had in an opera house, and I completely agree. It’s not to say that recordings (audio and/or visual) don’t have their place. For those of us with limited resources, they were/are/will be essential points of access. With few exceptions, composers, librettists, and dramaturgs (don’t forget those folks either) develop work to be performed for a live audience, which is just as much a part of the equation as any soprano chorister, spear carrier, powdered wig, or papier-mâché tree on stage. To that end, any introduction to opera should take advantage of local and live offerings. Picking a quality production from a local company (or, with some judiciousness, the Live in HD broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera) does many a good favor to all involved.
Surveying opera as we are, from the vantage of the present looking backward four-odd centuries, we possess a gluttonous amount of works to choose from. In terms of composers and content, again, local circumstances will and should dictate. Always consider to whom you are recommending as well. If our potential audience member is able to handle contemporary musical works with less-than-linear narratives, go for it, by all means. On a related note, many, opera producers and directors included, underestimate the value of operas in the vernacular. For us in America, works in English and Spanish often go overlooked. This branches into the often-touchy subject of translations. If there’s one on hand, why not? Of course, part of the glory of opera is the experience of language matched with music, but one should still consider these as options.
All these queries come to a head with the perilous phenomenon of the “list” of recommendations. No longer confined to books and articles from critics and experts, they flare up on the internet as clickbait or vainglorious attempts at enlightened introduction. Nearly all reinforce our notions of canon, the cross that opera bears to the point of it being a veritable yolk of servitude. These rolls are not, however, entirely devoid of value. Lists are the most fascinating when you consider what was left out, for therein you learn much about who made it. Exclusion is ultimately inevitable when asked for a list, because by its very nature it demands a sense of focus, and unless one is particularly open, you cannot sample everything on the buffet without getting the least bit sick or full too early. A good list ultimately needs the caveat that it’s a guide, not law. For opera, that’s always a principle that is too important to overlook.
So, what do you say to your inquirer cum audience member? Plenty of roads to try…
Coda: For the record, and not slightly informed by my own preferences, I recommend starting with either Strauss’s Salome or Elektra. Each is wickedly nasty, brutish, and short.