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October 29, 2009, 12:43:31 AM
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.

Re: Opera
October 29, 2009, 06:54:35 PM
I started listening to opera with Wagner, but he really isn't the best place to start. I'm still trying to figure out ("get into") the ring cycle, and I've owned the complete Karajan recording for four years now.

A better beginner opera that's still rewarding years later is Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. Rather than being shackled by the libretto, the music is very expansive, with lengthy purely instrumental sections. The story only features two characters, and the staging is fairly simple (seven doors and colored spotlights), so the whole thing is driven almost entirely by musical rather than visual or verbal aspects. It's also a great deal shorter than most operas (it all fits on one disc), which makes it fairly accessible to someone who is more into symphonies and sonatas than opera. I've listened to it at least once a day for the past month or so, and I still find something new in it every day.

I haven't checked out the recording posted here in Audiofile, but this recording is really well done. I'll upload it in a bit, but I'd recommend actually purchasing the recording to get the full effect. The booklet is very informative and interesting, and helped me understand the piece a lot more.

Re: Opera
October 30, 2009, 02:08:58 AM
As for getting into Wagner's Ring, I haven't even bothered reading much of the libretto, but a synopsis should suffice. The cycle is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. Karajan's recording is far from being one of the best not because of Karajan's conducting, but the cast is less than desirable. Bohm's 1966 account is one of the ideal recordings. I remember liking the music itself even without having any idea of what the story was about, but it might be a good idea to learn about Wagner's leitmotifs, some of which he uses many times throughout the cycle. To get a vague idea about leitmotifs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bniQNm0eNeQ

Re: Opera
December 13, 2009, 11:11:54 AM
Operas are imo all about understanding, if you know the story and the language, you can apperciate the presentation. Meaning, it's best seen live.


Re: Opera
February 26, 2010, 04:29:20 PM
The guy above me is correct. Only listening to the music can be very enjoyable  but to get the full experience, you should see it performed in some way (especially if its Wagner!), even if it is just on DVD. Speaking of DVDs, does anybody have a recommendation for Wagner's Ring? I'm thinking about getting the version with Boulez as the conductor and Chereau as the director because Boulez is a good conductor and I like the idea of modernizing the Ring somewhat without being tasteless about it.

By the way, there's this wonderful essay by Bernard Shaw about the Ring. Some nice quotes:

And now, what forces are there in the world to resist Alberic, our dwarf, in his new character of sworn plutocrat? He is soon at work wielding the power of the gold. For his gain, hordes of his fellow-creatures are thenceforth condemned to slave miserably, overground and underground, lashed to their work by the invisible whip of starvation. They never see him, any more than the victims of our "dangerous trades" ever see the shareholders whose power is nevertheless everywhere, driving them to destruction. The very wealth they create with their labor becomes an additional force to impoverish them; for as fast as they make it it slips from their hands into the hands of their master, and makes him mightier than ever. You can see the process for yourself in every civilized country today, where millions of people toil in want and disease to heap up more wealth for our Alberics, laying up nothing for themselves, except sometimes horrible and agonizing disease and the certainty of premature death. All this part of the story is frightfully real, frightfully present, frightfully modern; and its effects on our social life are so ghastly and ruinous that we no longer know enough of happiness to be discomposed by it. It is only the poet, with his vision of what life might be, to whom these things are unendurable. If we were a race of poets we would make an end of them before the end of this miserable century. Being a race of moral dwarfs instead, we think them highly respectable, comfortable and proper, and allow them to breed and multiply their evil in all directions. If there were no higher power in the world to work against Alberic, the end of it would be utter destruction.

The government is of course established by the few who are capable of government, though its mechanism once complete, it may be, and generally is, carried on unintelligently by people who are incapable of it the capable people repairing it from time to time when it gets too far behind the continuous advance or decay of civilization. All these capable people are thus in the position of Wotan, forced to maintain as sacred, and themselves submit to, laws which they privately know to be obsolescent makeshifts, and to affect the deepest veneration for creeds and ideals which they ridicule among themselves with cynical scepticism. No individual Siegfried can rescue them from this bondage and hypocrisy; in fact, the individual Siegfried has come often enough, only to find himself confronted with the alternative of governing those who are not Siegfrieds or risking destruction at their hands. And this dilemma will persist until Wotan's inspiration comes to our governors, and they see that their business is not the devising of laws and institutions to prop up the weaknesses of mobs and secure the survival of the unfittest, but the breeding of men whose wills and intelligences may be depended on to produce spontaneously the social wellbeing our clumsy laws now aim at and miss. The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive; and no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human materialfor society.

Re: Opera
March 02, 2010, 04:55:27 PM
Personally, I started to appreciate opera with Puccini's "Madama Butterfly". You are already skeptical about librettos hence you might not like the story behind "Madama Butterfly", but the music is great. I was told to look for the subtle things that make Puccini good. For example, closely listen to the ambient choruses that subtly accompany singers. Also, examine how Puccini progressively builds powerful melodies out of arias and subsequently interrupts the sound of voices right before the melodic climax (i.e. Turandot's "Nessun Dorma").