If the word "opera" brings an image of a fat lady singing and sends you running away, you're missing out. Many operas are so famous that they've entered into pop culture. In fact, you probably already know more about operas than you think. Here are the 10 Operas You Didn't Know You Already Like*:
Note: Belay that hate mail - I know that technically these are arias, but let's not quibble, mmkay?
Léo Delibes' Lakmé: The Flower Duet
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Lakmé is an opera composed by French composer Léo Delibes in 1881, based on the autobiographical novel Le Mariage de Loti by Pierre Loti (about Loti's romantic liaison with an exotic Tahitian girl, how's that for a premise of the novel?). The opera is famous for its complex and beautiful melodies.
Synopsis: The opera is about an Indian girl named Lakmé, daughter of a fanatical Brahmin priest. One day, a British officer named Gérald accidentally trespasses on the grounds of the temple where he encounters and falls in love with her. At first, she is afraid but later she grows to love Gérald.
In the second act, Lakmé's father Nilakantha, vows revenge and forces Lakmé to sing and thus lure Gérald into identifying himself. Nilakantha stabs him, but she then hides him in the forest and nurses him back to health.
In the last act, while she is away, a fellow British officer reminds Gérald of his duty. After Lakmé returns, she notices the change in her lover and realizes that she has lost him. Rather than living with the dishonor, Lakmé kills herself by poison.
Where have you heard it before? British Airways ads!
Giacomo Puccini's Turandot: Nessun Dorma
Giacomo Puccini is one of the heavyweights in opera: his masterpieces includes La Bohème, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly - some of the most popular operas in history - and many others. It's difficult to limit this list to just two selections from Puccini operas ...
Synopsis: Turandot is an opera about a beautiful but cold-hearted Chinese Princess of the same name. The law of the land says that anyone who wants to marry Turandot has to answer three riddles - but if he failed, then he would be killed. The hero, Prince Calàf, after meeting his long lost father Timur and a slave girl named Liù, takes the challenge ...
... and answers correctly:
[Turandot] then confronts Calàf with the first riddle: "What is born each night and dies at dawn?"
"Hope," Calàf answers, correctly.
Unwavering, Turandot asks the second question: "What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?"
"Blood," says Calàf.
Turandot is shaken. No one else has ever gotten even this far with her riddles. She asks the third question: "What is like ice yet burns?"
Boldly, Calàf answers, "Turandot!" Right again. (Source)
Turandot, however, doesn't want to get married so Calàf tells her a riddle of his own: if she can guess his name by dawn, then he will give up his claim of marriage and sacrifice his own life. This sets the stage for the most famous aria of the opera, Nessun Dorma (None shall sleep!), as commanded by the Princess: on pain of death, no one in Peking (as it was called then) shall sleep until she learns his name.
A group of soldiers than drag in Timur and Liù, saying that they have been spotted with Calàf and therefore should know his name. The loyal slave girl Liù speaks that she alone knows his name but refuses to reveal it even under torture. Turandot is taken by her resolve and asks her the secret of her strength. "Love," she replies, right before she seizes a dagger from a soldier's belt and kills herself.
Calàf reproaches Turandot for her cruelty, then kisses her and reveals his real name to her. The Princess falls in love with him, and as they approach the Emperor's throne, she reveals his name as "Love."
Read more about the story here: Link
Puccini didn't finish Turandot; he died while working on the middle of Act III. Several composers had created several endings, but purists don't accept any of them.
How do you pronounce it? Turandot comes from the Persian word Turandokht meaning "daughter of Turan" and therefore should've been pronounced "turanDOT," but Puccini has italian-ized it and pronounced it "turanDOUGH."
Where have you heard it before? Well, if you're an avid of the TV show "Britain's Got Talent," cell phone salesman Paul Potts won in 2007 with this song: Link [YouTube]
Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly: Un Bel dì Vedremo
Synopsis: Madame Butterfly is a story about a Cio-Cio-San, or "Butterfly" as she is known to her friends, a young Japanese geisha in turn of the 20th century, Nagasaki. Butterfly renounces her faith and marries an American sailor named Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, who left Japan soon afterwards but promises to return to her.
Three years have passed and Butterfly has been raising their son by herself. She calls her son "Sorrow" and says that his name will be changed to "Joy" when Pinkerton returns. When her faithful servant suspects that Pinkerton has abandoned her, Butterfly sang one of the most famous arias in the world, "Un bel dì vedremo," saying "one fine day we shall see" (that he returns to her).
Pinkerton does return ... but with a new American wife. Realizing that she has been replaced, Butterfly gives them the son and commits suicide.
Where have you heard it before? Love is a Many-Splendored Thing , Fatal Attraction.
Georges Bizet's Carmen: Habanera
Maria Callas sing Habanera from her 1962 performance: YouTube Link
The opera Carmen is a 1875 adaptation by Georges Bizet of a novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée. For a year after its premiere, it was considered a failure and was even condemned as "immoral" - now, Carmen is one of the most-performed operas in North America.
Synopsis: The story revolves around a beautiful gypsy woman named Carmen and her lover Don José. The opera opens with a scene in a tobacco factory: when the beautiful Carmen appears, all the men ask her when she will love them - and she replied that "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser" (love is a rebellious bird that nothing can tame) in the famous aria Habanera. A fight ensues in the factory, and when a brigadier in the Spanish army named Don José and his superior Zuniga arrive, they discover Carmen has been fighting. They arrest her, but Carmen seduces José and escapes.
A month later, Carmen and her female friends are dancing when Zuniga and a matador named Escamillo try to woo her. She refuses them both and can think only of José, who is due to get out of jail. After they left, José arrives and Carmen asks him to join her and her smuggler friends. At first, he refuses, but he is surprised by Zuniga - José is then forced to flee with Carmen.
Carmen stops loving José, and decides that the matador Escamillo is a better fit for her. The matador and José almost got into a fight, but it is averted when José hears the news that his mother is dying and so he left. At a bullfight in Seville, Carmen professes her love to Escamillo but talks to José, who has descended into madness and depravity. She says that she was born free and will die free. When she throws away the ring that he gave her, José stabs and kills the gypsy and she dies.
Read the full synopsis here: Link
How do you pronounce his name? Bee-zay.
Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
Here's something different: there's no singing in this piece! Violinist André Rieu plays the Intermezzo: [YouTube Link]
Synopsis: Mascani's Cavalleria Rusticana (or Rustic Chivalry) is a story of lust, revenge and betrayal. The story begins when Turridu, a returning soldier finds that his true love Lola had married another man named Alfio while he was away. Turridu seduces a young woman named Santuzza, but then also starts having an affair with Lola, who realizes that she still loves him.
Santuzza, spurned by Turridu, tells Alfio about the affair. Enraged, Alfio challenges Turridu to a duel to the death and kills him.
Where have you heard it before: Godfather Part III (1990) and Raging Bull (1980)
Richard Wagner's Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries
Ride of the Valkyries by the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland, conducted by Edo De Waart: [YouTube Link]
Richard Wagner composed Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) as part of four epic operas called Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, or more commonly Wagner's Ring Cycle) written over the course of about 26 years, from 1848 to 1874. And by epic, we mean EPIC: the four operas have a total playing time of about 15 hours, split over four nights (and yes, Wagner "opera marathon" has been performed before).
Synopsis: The Nibelung dwarf Alberich forged a magic ring with the power to rule the world from gold stolen from the Rhinemaidens of the river Rhine. Not surprisingly, everyone wants it, including Wotan (or Odin, the chief of the Norse gods).
Wotan orders his daughter, a valkyrie named Brünnhilde to protect a man named Siegmund (who is actually the son of Wotan - it's complicated) then later orders her to ensure his death. When Brünnhilde refuses, Wotan turns her into a mortal and put her in a deep sleep - and Siegmund dies anyway, but not before fathering the hero of the saga, Siegfried.
Siegfried, after a series of adventure involving a dragon/giant, wakens Brünnhilde with a kiss and gave her the ring. Siegfried was tricked into drinking a potion to erase his memory of loving Brünnhilde and instead promised her to a man named Gunther. Then it gets really complicated: Siegried, disguised as Gunther, kidnaps Brünnhilde and takes her ring. Later, Brünnhilde finds out that Siegfried has the ring and realizes that she was betrayed - so she plots to kill Siegfried.... only to realize afterwards that he was innocent. Brünnhilde then takes the ring and returns it to the Rhinemaidens.
Did Wagner inspire Tolkien? If you're wondering if Wagner's Ring Cycle and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are related, that's because both people were inspired by the same Old Norse mythologies. Tolkien said "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases." (Carpenter, H. and Tolkien, C. 1981 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien)
How do you pronounce his name? That's VAGH-ner, not WAG-ner.
Where have you heard it before? Apocalypse Now.
Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann: Barcarolle
Les contes d'Hoffmann or The Tales of Hoffmann is an opera composed by Jacques Offenbach in 1881, about a fictionalized account of the life of a real author named ETA Hoffmann.
Synopsis: The opera starts in a deserted tavern, where the poet Hoffmann is waiting for his lover, the actress Stella. Hoffmann's Muse, who wants the poet for herself, is disguised as a man named Nicklausse, and keeps Hoffmann company while he recounts the tale of his past three lovers.
Hoffmann's first love is Olympia, a mechanical doll whom only Hoffmann perceives as human (through the use of a pair of magic glasses). His second love is Antonia, who dies while singing and his third love is a courtesan named Giulietta who seduces him and then leaves him for another man.
After Hoffmann finishes telling his tales, Nicklausse reveals that each story actually describes different aspects of one woman: his current lover Stella, who ends up leaving him at the end of the opera.
Where you've heard it before: Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni, amongst many other.
Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore: Anvil Chorus
Here's something unexpected: the creative staging of the Anvil Chorus by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles: [YouTube Link]
Like Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi wrote so many great operas like Rigoletto, Aida and La traviata, that it's hard to pick just one.
Synopsis: Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) is so full of plot twists, it'll make your head spin. The story begins with Count di Luna, whose infant brother was supposedly sickened by a gypsy. The gypsy was burned at the stake, but before she died, she asked her daughter to take revenge by killing the infant.
Fast forward to the present: Count di Luna and a man named Manrico are courting a lady named Leonora. After the Count wounds him in a battle, Manrico is nursed back to health by her mother Azucena. She tells the story about her own mother who was burned at the stake after being blamed for a boy's death. To avenge her death, Azucena kidnapped the baby, but in her delirium, she mistakenly threw her own son into the fire. So, she raised the baby she kidnapped as her own son.
At this time, a messenger arrives to tell Manrico that Leonora thinks that he is dead, and has gone to enter a convent. Manrico rushes to stop her.
Count di Luna captures Manrico and Azucena. To secure Manrico's release, Leonora offers herself to the Count and then takes a poison to kill herself. Enraged, the Count orders Manrico to be beheaded. As the ax falls, Azucena cries out that her mother has finally been avenged: "You," she tells the Count, "have just killed your own brother."
You can read the entire story here: Link
Gioachino Rossini's Barber of Seville: Largo Al Factotum
Il barbiere di Siviglia or The Barber of Seville is Rossini's most famous opera. It was written in 1816, and it took Rossini only two weeks to write!
Synopsis: The story opens with Count Almaviva, who wants the beautiful Rosina to fall in love with him and not his money, by serenading in disguise as a poor student named Lindoro. Afterwards, the Count meets his former servant, a barber named Figaro, who is singing "Largo Al Factotum" or "Make Way for the Factotum" (factotum means servant) while walking, and asks him to help.
Figaro agrees and advices him to dress as a drunken soldier to gain entry to Rosina's house (she's living in the house of one Doctor Bartolo, who also wants to marry her). Dr. Bartolo discovers the disguised Count and starts an argument. Soon after, the Officer of the Watch and his men appear and arrests the Count ... only to release him when he tells them who he really is.
Count Almaviva appears again at Dr. Bartolo's house, this time disguised as Rosina's signing tutor Basilio. When the Doctor realizes the ruse, he rushes to get a marriage contract drawn.
The Count and Figaro climb up a ladder to Rosina's room and Almaviva professes his love. They are discovered by Basilio and a notary, whom they force to draw up a marriage contract between the Count and Rosina. Dr. Bartolo barges in too late.
George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess: Summertime
George Gershwin did not limit himself to just classical or opera - he wrote many popular songs and jazz standards, including Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and one of the most famous operas of the 1930s, Porgy and Bess.
Synopsis: The opera Porgy and Bess takes place in Catfish Row, a fictitious black tenement in South Carolina. The opera opens with Clara singing the "Summertime" lullaby to her baby, as the men play craps. One by one they crap out, leaving only Robbins and Crown in the game - when Robbins wins, Crown starts a fight and ends up killing him. Crown then runs, telling his woman Bess that she has to fend for herself. Porgy, a cripple and a beggar, is the only one that comforts and shelters her.
One month later, as the residents of Catfish Row prepare for a picnic, Sportin' Life, the tenement's resident drug dealer, asks Bess to start a new life with him in New York, but she turns him down. Later, Porgy and Bess profess their love for each other.
Later, a storm approaches and Clara drowns while trying to rescue her husband in the river, leaving Bess to care for the baby. While everyone mourns for the two people, Crown enters to claim Bess and a fight ensues in which he was killed by Porgy.
When the detective comes to question Crown's murder, Porgy is apprehensive. Sportin' Life has told him that corpses bleed in the presence of their murderers and that he would be hanged for his crimes. Porgy refuses to identify the body and is sentenced for contempt of court. In the tenement, Sportin' Life forces Bess to take cocaine, and once again asks her to leave with him to New York.
A week later, Porgy is released from jail and returns rich to Catfish Row after winning money playing craps with his cell mates. When he sees that Clara's baby is with another woman, he is told that Bess had run off with Sportin' Life to New York. The opera ends with Porgy leaving for New York to find Bess.
If you like that: Another piece that is particularly awesome (personally, I like it better than Summertime) is "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'." Here's one by Willard White as Porgy: Link
Carl Orff's Carmina Burana: O Fortuna
Well, Carmina Burana isn't exactly an opera - it's a cantata composed by Carl Orff in 1935 based on 24 of the poems found in in the Burana Codex manuscript, a collection of medieval love and vagabond songs, including gambling songs and parodies. But I'm sure you guys will like it anyhow.
Orff's Carmina Burana, like the songs in the Codex, covers a wide topic from the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling, and lust. (Source)
Giacomo Puccini's Gianni Schicchi: O Mio Babbino Caro
I really, really like O Mio Babbino Caro, but we have two operas by Puccini already, so I decided to substitute it with Habanera from Bizet's Carmen. Still, what's a bonus section for if not for something fun like this?
Synopsis: Gianni Schicchi is a shrewd Tuscan peasant in the 13th century, whose daughter Lauretta is in love with a young man named Rinuccio. Rinnucio's relatives, however, are against the marriage because Schicchi is poor. "O mio babbino caro" or "Oh my dear papa" is sung by Lauretta about how she wants to go to the Porta Rossa to buy a ring, but if she can't have his love, then she will go to the Ponte Vecchio bridge to commit suicide.
Rinuccio's distant relative, a rich man named Buoso Donati dies, and, much to the disappointment of his relatives, leaves a will giving away his fortunes to the monastery.
Rinuccio suggests that Schicchi help forge a new will if they agree to his marriage to Lauretta. Schicchi agrees to help by locking himself inside Buoso's room and impersonating his voice. Soon afterwards, Schicchi forges a new will ... leaving all the money to himself! With the money, Lauretta can then marry Rinuccio.
If you think that operas are only written a long time ago, you'd be wrong. New operas are being composed all the time - take for instance this 1987 work by John Adams, titled Nixon in China, about President Nixon's visit to the country in 1972. In the second Act, Pat Nixon tours rural China and meets the wife of Chairman Mao:
Alice Goodman sings "I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung": [YouTube Link]
The style of opera is constantly evolving - for example, Philip Glass wrote a piece called Einstein on the Beach in 1976 that broke all the rules of opera: it was five hours long (with no intermission, so people were free to walk in and out throughout the performance) and included a visual imagery that borders on crazy.
I'll be the first to acknowledge that this list is incomplete - we haven't talked about some of the most famous ariass in the world, including La Bohème and Tosca ... not to mention works by Handel and Mozart. If you have a favorite piece that is not mentioned, please tell us in the comment section!