Short guide to learning and loving Opera                                                                


If you are reading this, it means you have already some interest in Opera. In case you are not completely in love with Opera yet, we offer you some advice to help you initiate into learning and loving Opera


What is Opera?

How to start listening to opera?

How to "learn" an opera?

What opera to listen to first?

Recommended readings


What is Opera?
Opera is a form of theater with music. What makes opera so intense is the combination of words and music to transmit emotions in a play. The feelings that music conveys together with words, are able to awaken inside us emotive impressions deeper than words alone can.

If word is the means to express the literal and rational part of the message, music is the language of feelings.

In opera you can find the same emotions that we experience in our daily life (jealousy, impossible love, betrayal, friendship, love-duty conflict...) By identifying ourselves with the characters and the situations they go through, we can recognize in them part of our own being. In that sense, opera can be a means to better get to know ourselves.

The big emotional impact that it can trigger is what makes opera a source of such a powerful intense enjoyment that leads so many people in the world to fall in love with this great performing art.


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How to start listening to opera?

It is not recommended to start by simply acquiring a ticket for the next opera performance in your nearest theater.

On one hand, not every opera is a proper one for a first time. On the other, before being able to enjoy an opera, some effort will be required from your side. It is advisable to know the work that is to be performed in advance. Ideally, you should have "learnt" the opera before: in other words, knowing the story and having listening its music. That effort is to be, for sure, rewarded.


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How to "learn" an opera?

Learning an opera guarantees a source of fulfillment and enjoyment, both at the opera house and at home while listening to the wonderful recordings available.

The first thing to learn an opera is to know the story. Reading the synopsis can suffice, better yet, reading the libretto. Both libretto and synopsis are usually found with the CD set. You can find them as well in Internet.

Once you are familiar with the plot, it is time to  hear the music. Let yourself go by the feelings it arises, without going through a rational analysis yet.

Listen to music as you read the libretto, bilingual so that you can read the text in its original language and note the slight differences that singers may introduce in how they pronounce each word. By understanding the meaning of each sentence combined with its music you will realize how intimately together music and verses are. The character feelings are highlighted by the music. The emotional dimension is amplified far beyond what words by themselves can achieve. Furthermore, the effect created by a duo, trio or quartet when all characters sing ensemble, expressing at the very same time opposite feelings, offers an artistic potential that can not be imagined with only spoken theater.


Step by step. Once you have the opera CD set and the libretto, follow the next steps:


1. Read the first act synopsis. Read it only for this act an stop, so that the plot is fresh in your mind while listening to the act.

2. Listen to the first act at the same time you follow the libretto. Pay attention to both the original language and the English translation, so that you can associate the words in their original form with the meaning. As you read and listen try imagine the scenes, the situation and characters.

3. Just after reading the second act synopsis, listen to it with the libretto.

4. Repeat the steps with each of the following acts

5. The second time you listen to the opera, do it again by following the libretto. This time you will be able to recognize musical  themes, and perceive details you probably missed during the first listening.


Next time you listen to the opera you will experience an increasing pleasure with it. Before enjoying a night at the opera, it is recommended to follow the previous steps, and learn the opera to be performed in advance to going to the theater. Obviously, you do not need to do all steps within the same day. Take your time. First listening of an operatic work always requires some effort. Once you have done it, and learnt it, the work  will became an everlasting source of enjoyment


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What opera to listen to first?

There is not a fixed rule for the first opera to listen to. Some masterpieces are more suitable , anyhow, for a first encounter with opera than others that might require some previous experience with opera to fully appreciate them.

Rigoletto is our recommendation to start learning (La Traviata can be an alternative choice). In this opera you will find some of the basic elements that are part of the lyric drama, as we understand it today. Well-defined characters, a dramatic consistent plot, and music playing a key role in drama.


These are the first operas we propose you to start with. Two alternatives are provided.

  1. Rigoletto / La Traviata. Basic elements of drama in opera.

  2. Tosca / La Boheme. Puccini. Lyric drama as a musical whole without interruptions

  3. Lucia di Lammermoor / Il Trovatore. Romantic Opera (recitative, aria, cabaletta)

  4. D. Giovanni /Le Nozze di Figaro . Mozart. Classical opera

After that, go on with any of the greatest operas in the international repertoire (you can see a selection in our recommended recordings)

If you get to feel the passion for opera, prepare to experience memorable moments. Once you get to love it, the opportunities to go on discovering new things in opera will always be there. Sometimes you will suddenly find a fragment you had not highly regarded and that now moves you in a special way, maybe because you recognize in it a feeling you have experienced recently in your life. Or maybe a new artist performance or an undiscovered detail now is able to send you into states of ecstatic abandon.

If you really get to love Opera, congratulations! and welcome! See you in theater...


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Recommended Readings

If you are just discovering Opera we strongly RECOMMEND an excellent book to help you initiate into Opera:

Opera 101. By Fred Plotkin


If, in addition, you are searching for an Opera guide, more encyclopedia-like, then this might be your choice:

The Rough Guide to Opera. By Matthew Boyden


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(c) Jose Miguel Cansado Martinez, 2003.