Those seeking an introduction to the world of opera can't go wrong with any of these ten
masterpieces. They are opera's greatest hits, performed and enjoyed all over the world, and very much present in popular culture. They are not, however, the only operas worth discovering. The world of opera is rich and varied, and these works are often only the beginning of a lifelong exploration.
Turandot by Giacomo Puccini
Set in China, though based on a Persian story, Turandot centres on the attempts of a clever prince to win the heart of a cold-hearted princess. Puccini died before finishing the opera, which was later completed from his sketches by Franco Alfano. If you haven't heard Luciano Pavarotti's powerful rendition of “Nessun dorma”, you probably live under a rock on Mars. Since it's safe to assume that you don't, you've probably heard other versions as well: “Nessun dorma” might be the most performed opera aria by people who should refrain from singing opera in public. But that's just an opinion.
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
A tragic love story set in Ancient Egypt, Aida appropriately premiered in Cairo, in 1871, and has been popular with audiences ever since. The best known pieces from the opera are the Triumphal March and Radames's aria “Celeste Aida”—where the Egyptian warrior expresses his love for the enslaved Ethiopian princess, a love destined to come into conflict with duty. While opera productions are rarely modest, especially when it comes to grand opera, performances of Aida are often among the most spectacular, with lavish costumes and sets, which contribute to the opera's appeal.
Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conceived as a Singspiel—a German form that blended music and spoken dialogue— The Magic Flute tells a complex, intriguing story of good and evil, influenced by the ideas of Freemasonry and the Enlightenment. “Der Holle Rache”, better known as the Queen of the Night's Aria, can chill the blood when well-performed and will stick in your head for months if you let it. One of the most popular operas today, The Magic Flute has been made into several films, including one by acclaimed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi
Based on a play by Victor Hugo, with a libretto by Verdi's long-time collaborator Francesco Maria Piave, Rigoletto tells a story of love, deceit, and revenge turned sour. Many are familiar with “La Donna e mobile”, the famous canzone about the fickleness of women, but few know that it's from Rigoletto, where it serves an ironic purpose. Gilda, tragic heroine of the opera and daughter of the title character, proves quite the opposite of fickle, which only leads to her unfortunate ending. The quartet “Bella figlia dell'amore” is another acclaimed aria, prominently featured in the 2012 film Quartet.
Il Bariere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) by Gioachino Rossini
After three tragedies, it's time for a comedy on our list. The Barber of Seville is based on the Beaumarchais play of the same name, the first in a trilogy which also includes The Marriage of Figaro. “Largo al factotum” may just be the most easily recognisable aria from the entire opera repertoire, though it has plenty of competition. Everybody knows Figaro, the resourceful barber. Cartoons may have something to do with that—and that's fine as far as it goes, but it's always good to experience the real thing. “Una voce poco fa” is another lovely aria from this delightful opera.
Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Based on the character of Don Juan, the infamous heart-breaker, Don Giovanni combines comedy and dark-flavoured drama in a way that makes it quite unique. French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote in one of his letters that Don Giovanni was one of the three finest things God created (Hamlet and the sea were the other two). Just listening to the wonderful overture might be enough to make you agree. But don't stop there: it only gets better (and might just be the greatest opera ever written.)
La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini
Set in 19th century Paris, in a charming but harsh world of poverty-stricken artists and bon-vivants, La Boheme tells a story of love, friendship, jealousy, and ultimately death. Its most beautiful arias include “Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi”, “Che gelida manina”, and Musetta's Waltz. If you make it through the last act of La Boheme without shedding at least a metaphorical tear, chances are you're either made of ice or genuinely dislike opera. La Boheme was the inspiration behind 90s musical Rent.
La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi
Another tragic love story, La Traviata is based on the novel and play La Dame aux camelias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The same work inspired, among other things, a Greta Garbo film and several ballets. “Libiamo ne' lieti calici”, the famous Brindisi (drinking song), has become a staple of classical and opera concerts, usually performed at the very end, although it's sung in the first act of La Traviata. It's another of those arias difficult not to know, whether you can actually identify them or not. There's many of them on this list. Other memorable moments in La Traviata include Violetta's exuberant aria “Sempre libera” and her deeply affecting “Addio del passato”.
Carmen by Georges Bizet
Adapted from a novella by Prosper Merimee, the story of the Gypsy femme fatale has captured the imagination of many opera-goers since its debut in 1875. Despite being a critical flop at the time, it has won a place all of its own in the opera repertoire, not surprisingly considering the fascination of its sensual and tragic heroine. Carmen has even left her mark on popular culture, having inspired a number of films, and even a hip-hopera. The Toreador Song and Habanera are two arias that everybody knows, whether they know it or not.
Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart's delightful masterpiece is a comic opera—opera buffa—probably the greatest and most famous of its genre. From the instantly recognisable overture to the many famous arias, such as Figaro's “Non piu andrai”, Cherubino's “Voi che sapete”, or Contessa's “Porgi Amor”, The Marriage of Figaro overflows with brilliance. It's also quite entertaining, featuring lots of funny moments, a good dose of satire, and a plot filled with twists and turns. The libretto, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, is based on a play by French writer Pierre Beaumarchais.