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Introducing Opera

Classical Academy | Opera historyWagner | Verdi Operas

Opera ought to be the most accessible and least elitist genre of classical music, and yet it is the art form most likely to baffle, intimidate or repel the English speaking listener. Why do we not listen to more of it?


Royal Opera House,
Covent Garden

Maybe the issue with opera is that it’s considered elitist. For example in England and New York Although the Arts Councils try to push productions in the direction of accessibility, the big money commercial sponsors want audiences who can afford the luxury goods they advertise and the top performers want to do something slightly controversial – something that “pushes boundaries”. The problem with this theory is that classical music is reaching bigger audiences in the UK than ever before. The popular programming of radio stations has increased the demand for (and thus the range and quality of) budget recordings of most of the major repertoire. At the popular end of classical music, the things that really sell have an extra-musical theme. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending all give you something to relate the music to.


Opera tells a story – often a very dramatic one. The big stories that inspired composers to write operas like Macbeth, Julius Caeser and Don Giovanni contain themes that everybody can relate to: ambition, greed, love, jealousy and betrayal. Anyway, most of the stories are either based on folk tales and historical events or simply stolen from somebody else, so you probably know how they end already.


The trouble is, most people still can’t tell what’s going on. When staged, the wooden actors often look nothing like the characters they are supposed to be playing, and even if you know the story, it can be hard to discern who is supposed to be who. Most operas are either in Italian or German, and generally use the kind of floral language that you aren’t going to learn on a Linguaphone course.


The Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir Edward Appleton once said, “I do not mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand”. With this in mind, we have selected some easily recognisable operatic moments (in their original languages), and tried to explain how they fit into the plot and what they are about.


W. A. Mozart

Der Hölle Rache Kocht in Meinem Herzen


From: The Magic Flute, Mozart’s last and most farcical opera.


The story so far: Sarastro, high priest of the temple of Isis, has kidnapped queen of the Night’s daughter Pamina to protect her from her mother’s evil magic. A Prince who has fallen in love with Pamina has been sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her, but is told he cannot be united with his love until he has undergone three ordeals.


This bit: In the meantime, the Queen of the Night sneaks into the temple with a dagger and tells her daughter to use it to kill Sarastro, singing “Hell’s revenge cooks in my heart…if you do not kill Sarastro, you’ll be my daughter no more”.


What happenes next: She doesn’t kill Sarastro – she marries the Prince and lives happily ever after, while the Queen of the Night is vanquished, never to be heard from again.

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G. Puccini

E lucevan le stelle


From: Tosca, a tragic opera by Puccini, based on a book by Sardou.


The story so far: Cavaradossi, a painter, has been arrested for helping his friend Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner. He is held by the evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia, who is in love with Cavaradossi’s girlfriend, Tosca.


This bit: Using his last possession, a ring, Cavaradossi bribes a guard to take a letter to Tosca. As he sits down to write, he sings of his love.


What happenes next: It all goes wrong. Angelotti kills himself to avoid capture, Tosca kills Scarpia after trying to secure her lover’s freedom with the promise of sexual favours, Cavaradossi is executed and Tosca commits suicide. Nobody lives happily ever after.

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R. Wagner

Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn


From: Die Meistersingers von Nurmberg, Richard Wagner's only comic opera.


The story so far: In a town obsessed with singing, a contest is organised. The gold-smith promises his daughter Eva’s hand to the man who sings the winning song. Beckmesser, the town clerk, has fancied Eva for some time and is sure he can win. The trouble is, Eva is in love with Walter, a young nobleman. Walter sings to the master-singers, but fares badly because Beckmesser is one of the judges.


This bit: It is the morning after a small riot caused by an apprentice who thought Beckmesser was serenading his sweetheart when he was in fact singing to Eva. Sachs, a cobbler, laments the madness that makes people start riots and wars, and wonders how this power could be harnessed to do good things.


What happens next: Walter writes a song so beautiful he is sure he will win the contest. Beckmesser steals the manuscript and tries to sing the song in the contest, but he cannot remember how it goes. Walter sings the song beautifully, and wins Eva’s hand. The two lovers live happily ever after.


Browse other Wagner opera tracks | Browse all opera tracks