Opera can seem like a closed shop to newcomers – five-hour bum-numbing epics sung in impenetrable German and based on obscure mythology (yes, I’m looking at you, Wagner). But there is so much more to the artform. Comedy, drama, relatable storylines and some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear. However, it might feel impossible to know where to start to the beginner. Here we list 10 albums you should start your collection with.
1 A ‘best of’ compilation
This will provide an introduction to the world of opera. If you can ignore the cheesy title, The Best Opera Album in the World Ever has some of the world’s most famous arias sung by opera’s best-known performers, including José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. The double-CD set includes music from Carmen (Bizet, 1875), Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, Mozart, 1791), Turandot (Puccini, 1926), Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, Rossini, 1816), Tosca (Puccini, 1900) and Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart, 1786).
There are many CDs with similar track listings – all available from Amazon or streamed from Deezer and Spotify – so just pick one and dive in.
2 Carmen by Bizet
Now that you’ve got your grounding from your chosen compilation CD, it’s time to invest in some recordings of full operas, and there are few better known than Bizet’s Carmen. Set in Seville and sung in French, this steamy epic is packed with memorable melodies, including the ‘Toreador’s Song’. It’s always a good idea to try to track down a definitive version, or at least one featuring voices of performers you recognise, and this 2005 version features Plácido Domingo as Don José.
3 Madama Butterfly by Puccini
Puccini wrote some of the world’s most famous operas and any fledgling collection should contain a couple. Choosing which, though, is a difficult task, but Madama Butterfly (1904) is a good shout. Cio-Cio-San is the Butterfly of the title. The young Japanese bride of dashing American officer Lieutenant Pinkerton, she finds her romantic idyll shattered when he deserts her shortly after their marriage. She lives in hope that one day he will return. It’s a story known to many and was adapted and modernised as Miss Saigon. This recording features the splendid Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton and Antonio Pappano conducting.
4 Turandot by Puccini
Sticking with Puccini, his final great work contains one of opera’s most iconic tunes, ‘Nessum Dorma’, made famous by Luciano Pavarotti. In a nutshell, the story is that Princess Turandot has sworn that no man shall marry her unless he can correctly answer three riddles. Prince Calaf, captivated by the princess’s beauty, takes up the challenge. This 1985 recording showcases Pavarotti in the role of Prince Calaf in a cast also includes Dame Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé.
5 Die Zauberflöte by Mozart
Mozart could well be the most famous of all classical composers and really any of his operas could easily feature on this list, but he was best known for his comedies. This light-hearted and relatively short piece takes the form of a singspiel, combining music and spoken dialogue. It’s a fairytale fantasy set in ancient Egypt and is packed with great tunes and is one of the most performed operas in the world. This CD features highlights from what is widely thought to be one of the best performances of the opera, conducted by German impresario Karl Bohm and starring Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino.
6 Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart
If you like The Magic Flute, this light and sparkling comedy should also appeal. Figaro and Susanna are about to get married, but their master, the Count, is determined to seduce the beautiful Susanna. The pair conspire with the Countess to teach the Count a lesson. This recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, features Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in one of her most famous roles.
7 The Pirates of Penzance (1879) by Gilbert and Sullivan
Sung in English, relatively short and dealing with more light-hearted topics, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are an accessible introduction to the artform. This swash-buckling comedy features sentimental pirates, bumbling bobbies and, of course, a love story; it’s also packed with songs you’re sure to recognise, including the tongue-twisting ‘I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’. This recording with Isidore Godfrey conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is considered one of the best.
8 Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini
Light and frothy aren’t adjectives that are generally applied to opera, but when it comes to Rossini they can be pretty apt. Hugely unpopular when it premiered, his Barber of Seville went on to become one of his best-loved works. It’s a love story complete with bad disguises, mistaken identities and emotional entanglements. And who could forget the cry of ‘Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!’? The remastered EMI Classic with Maria Callas as Rosina is considered one of the greatest recordings.
9 Die Fledermaus (The Bat, 1851) by Strauss
Strauss’s operetta is a masterpiece of Viennese light opera. Rosalinde is looking forward to some time with her lover while her husband is in prison. Her maid asks to be excused in order to care for a sick aunt. In truth all four characters are planning to spend the evening at a magnificent masquerade ball. The characters are brought together in a hilarious story of mistaken identity. Strauss’s rich, romantic score features some of the most irresistible melodies ever written for the stage. This remastered recording of a 1955 production that took place in London and was conducted by Herbert von Karajan is considered one of the best.
10 A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Britten
This is the most modern of our selection, premiering at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1960. Based on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and accessible plays, it’s another comedy of errors, complete with cross dressing, mistaken identities, magical creatures and, of course, true love. It’s sung in English and will be familiar to most. There are many recordings, but the remastered version of the premiere has been described as a must for collectors of Britten.
This list is not meant to be definitive or exhaustive, but it does provide any newcomer to opera with a good grounding – after that it’s time to start adding your own. We would like to thank various friends on Facebook who took the time to comment on a discussion of what one opera they would recommend to a beginner.
Please note, the links to Amazon above are affiliate links and if you do decide to buy Opera For All receives a small commission. These recordings and many others are available to stream from services such as Spotify and Deezer.
Georges Bizet’s Carmen in Madrid’s Reina Victoria Theatre (Pochi via Wikimedia Commons).