I've really been trying to 'get into' opera lately. I've listened to 'classical' (and I use this as a blanket term to encompass all pre XX century orchestral type music) since I was a kid. My mom tried to get me to listen to opera, and legions of idiots constantly imposed "Phantom of the Opera" upon me (it seemed they only recommended it loudly in public, so everyone could see how sophisicated they were...) That turned me off in a large part because I don't generally follow the recommendations of shallow people with shallow thought processes. After having watched the movie "Amadeus" again recently my interest was sparked. The movie, although its historical accuracy is doubtful, is a pretty badass movie and it definately highlights some of the most powerful moments of Mozart's operas; the movie seems to imply, through Salieri's character, that Mozart's operas were his most enduring and powerful works. So because of all that I have been listening to Mozart's "Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" as well as Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (with noted National Socialist Karl Boehm conducting) "Lohengren" and "The Flying Dutchman". I've always liked Wagner... at least, I have had several CD's with ochestral selections (overture's, etc) from his operas that I've loved dearly since I was a kid, but this is the first time I've gone through complete operas. Several things strike me after this initial, and very limited, exposure to opera.
1. They seem to wear their librettos like shackles. Too often the voice is used merely as a plot device. Instead of voices being just another instrument, they too often become a distracting narrator... "now this is going on, and some shit happens man, and then here were are...." It seems to be program music in a very bad sense. Or maybe like a shitty tour guiide - "if you look out of your left window you will see Mt. Rushmore." In Mozart's requiem and the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony it is the exact opposite... it doesn't matter what the voices are actually singing, the notes they are using and the melodies and themes they sing tell the story in a perfectly clear manner. Beethoven didn't need someone singing about walking to a folk festival and then hearing a thunderstorm at night or how leaves on a tree can be seen as individual and subtlely changeing leitmotifs in his 6th Symphony... its just obvious. This leads me to
2. The librettos are pretty stupid for the most part. Like lots of metal lyrics, you sit down and actually read them they come off as moronic. Fortunately in metal the vocals are mangled by screams etc, or in black metal often done in a foreign language. The rapsing/growling is definately to my liking as it turns the voice into another instrument so the literal words are not as important as the underlying ideas of the music as a whole. There are many parts of operas where the vocals are done in chorus or done with significant symphonic backing which I think is good, as it does away with the egotistical humanist element engendered in most 'lyricism'.
Maybe I am off base here. Ultimately, I would like to hear other's thoughts on this. Hopefully someone knowledgeable could point me more in the right direction as to what would be the most rewarding listening.