The Royal Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Michael Schonwandt at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London in 2015
The Royal Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Michael Schonwandt at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London in 2015 © Getty  /  Robbie Jack

How to choose your first opera?

You want to learn more about opera: great! But where should you begin? Here is some advice for those seeking to discover the incredible (and immense) world of opera.

It's not easy to find one's bearings when discovering opera for the first time. Mozart or Verdi? Grand romantic opera or Baroque?

The good news is that opera covers over four centuries of music history and there's something for everybody: amateurs of tragedy, great love stories or even comedies.

Before exploring our (far from exhaustive) list of ideal works with which to begin, here are three tips to help you decide. 

A good plot always helps

Pelléas et Mélisande is undoubtedly a magnificent work, but this opera composed by Claude Debussy is not exactly a spectacle... Similarly, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte: each air is wonderful in its own right, each a miniature masterpiece, but the opera is over 3 hours long and the intrigue is far from thrilling (i love you, i love you not, i love you again). 

For a first time at the opera, it is (perhaps) advisable to choose a more theatrical work, one in which there are many twists and turns: Don Giovanni (a work for theatre by Tirso de Molina) or Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (by Beaumarchais), Rigoletto by Verdi (an adaptation of Le Roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo), and Faust by Gounod (written by Goethe)... 

Don't always trust the 'big names'

When talking about Mozart or Verdi, we are not necessarily dealing with "easy" works. We come yet again back to the first tip given above: the music of Cosi Fan Tutte is sublime but runs the risk of stultifying those in search of something more theatrical. Similarly, L’Enlèvement au Sérail and Idomeneo are of course works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but these lyrical works are not as ideal as Don Giovanni or the Magic Flute as a way of discovering opera.

Another trap: do you love Beethoven's symphonies? A word of warning: his opera Fidelio never encountered the same success. Do you listen to Debussy's Clair de Lune on repeat? His opera Pelléas et Mélisande is an entirely different cup of tea.

Since one must not trust the 'big names' of the classical repertoire, why not discover other composers? Georges Bizet for example, with his world-famous opera Carmen,  but also Charles Gounod's Faust, and Gaetano Donizetti's lighter works (L'elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale). 

Take note of the length of the opera

An opera is rarely longer than a standard film: between 2 and 3 hours for most works, usually separated by interval or two. 

However, certain composers have gone far beyond the average length, composing works lasting on average 4 hours! Such is the case of Richard Wagner, master of the immense opera. To avoid an overload of opera, it is best to anticipate the time that one will spend sat quietly still as a spectator. 

Suggestions

What are the ideal works with which to discover opera? 

Georges Bizet's Carmen

Composed in 1875 / Language French / Length 2h40 

Go for it if: you enjoy a grand performance, with lots of drama, all the while enjoying a work that still resonates today. As for the music, you will undoubtedly recognise Carmen's famous airs. 

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Composed in 1791 / Language German / Duration 2h45

Go for it if: you need to escape to a world of fantasy and enchantment, and are not a fan of long dramatic vocal passages. The Magic Flute is the epitome of levity!

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi

Composed in 1853 / Language Italian / Duration 2h10

Go for it if: you are a sucker for great love stories. A word of warning however: this tale does not end well, so have your handkerchiefs at the ready. As for Verdi's music, it shouldn't sound unfamiliar... 

La Belle Hélène by Jacques Offenbach

Composed in 1864 / Language French/ Duration 3h10

Go for it if: you prefer comedy and satire to drama. Offenbach's easy-going and catchy music, combined with a humourous and impertinent libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, will inevitably put a smile on your face. 

Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Composed in 1787 / Language Italian / Duration 2h55

Go for it if: you enjoy the theatre and an essential classic. You'll meet the legendary ladies' man Don Juan, an already familiar figure no doubt, and you'll notice how Mozart's playful music accompanies perfectly each and every one of his adventures. 

Platée by Jean-Philippe Rameau

Composed in 1745 / Language French / Duration 2h20

Go for it if: you want to discover the world of Baroque music, but are still hesitant at the thought of two hours of vocal drama. Platée is the perfect middle ground: both an opera and a ballet, both tragic and comic. 

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini

Composed in 1895 / Language Italian / Duration 2h00

Go for it if: you enjoy Italian lyricism. Though the story of La Bohème takes place squarely in Paris, the story's ingredients gathered by Puccini are well and truly Italian: cries of joy and despair, love, passion, and even more passion.

The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini

Composed in 1816 / Language Italian / Duration 2h35

Go for it if: you want to listen to grand and lengthy vocal passages with vocal acrobatics of all kinds. The Barber is a joyous work, typical of Rossini and emblematic of what is known as the bel canto movement (where the beauty of the melody was more important than the text itself).

L'elisir d'amore by Gaetano Donizetti

Composed in 1832 / Language Italian / Duration 2h10

Go for it if: you enjoy slightly 'stereotypical' characters from the commedia dell’arte: the mean crook, the young and ingenious lovers... Not to mention a music full of nuance and subtlety typical of Donizetti. 

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