Conductor Ben Glassberg talks us through the five works that are perfect for first-time opera listeners...
L’elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper
This opera is wonderful for first-time viewers because the story at the centre is a story you’ll be aware of even if you’ve never been to the opera before. It’s this sort of boy-meets-girl tale; complications get in the way, there’s this alpha male figure who tries to stop things working out, but ultimately there’s a happy ending.
And then the music itself is really accessible, there’s nothing particularly dark about it; obviously there’s lots of variation in what the composer is doing, but fundamentally, it’s quite a happy story which is sweet and innocent at the centre. It’s about young people finding love and growing up.
The opera’s most famous aria is “Una furtiva lagrima” which happens towards the end of the show but, my favourite moment is actually at the end of the first act. It isn’t really an aria, it’s a quintet, with everyone singing different lines, and it’s the point where the tenor has been humiliated by this sort of alpha male figure in front of everyone and the whole town is ganging up on him. It just builds and gets faster and faster, and for me, it’s the most exciting bit.
The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
This one is great particularly for younger first-time viewers because it’s a bit ridiculous. You know, people sort of take the mick out of opera saying the stories are all absurd, and in the case of The Magic Flute it really is completely ridiculous, but there is something very charming and sort of comic-strip about it, so the production we have here at Glyndebourne is really inspired by comic strips—there are a lot of 2D cut-outs and things like that.
The opera is a bit extreme; the bass—who is the bad guy figure—is a very low bass, it’s very rumbly and operatic. And then you have the other potential “bad guy”, the Queen of the Night, and everything is really, really high, so what you’re getting here are the extremes of what the human voice can do. It’s silly and circus-y, but then also has really profound music in it.
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.
The Magic Flute is also what we call a "Singspiel" which means “sing and play” so there are arias but they’re interspersed with text, so it’s much more like a musical in the sense of what you’re used to as an audience; there are bits of text that further the drama, then there’s a bit of music to develop a character and then so on. Therefore, I think structurally it’s more relatable than certain other operas, particularly for younger viewers.
My favourite character in the opera is Sarastro, the bass, just because his arias are so noble, grand, they’re completely different to all of the other music that all the other characters sing. Normally the bass will play some old man, a ghost or a villain, but here, Sarastro gets two proper arias which, in a Mozart opera means you’re a significant character—it’s quite rare for a bass.
Carmen by Georges Bizet
People probably normally know more tunes from this one than they think. There's the Habanera of course, but also all sorts of numbers in it that people will just know because of their use in popular culture, adverts, films, TV. I think it’s one of those operas that you go to and you’ll constantly get surprised: “Oh, I know this one, I know this one, there’s something very familiar about it.” It’s of one of those operas where you come out humming the tunes which you can’t say about every opera.
And, of course, the story is really dramatic; at the end Don José kills Carmen and it all gets very dark. It’s a bit like EastEnders, that sort of level of ridiculous larger-than-life drama but with extraordinary music as well. It’s very much in that vein of “verismo” of trying to create real relationships on stage.
"It’s of one of those operas where you come out humming the tunes which you can’t say about every opera"
My favourite part of this opera is the scene in the taverns when Carmen sings with all the women around her. It’s a very, very simple idea but repeated over and over again, which sounds really boring, but actually it’s very inventive in the way he repeats it and it builds to a real frenzy. The whole orchestra is really going for it at the end and it just makes you want to dance, but then by the end of it it’s completely terrifying if done well.
La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Robert Workman
I think it’s probably one of the best operas ever written in terms of dramatic structure. It’s also a familiar story, it’s essentially the same story as Rent, the musical, it’s this idea of the struggling artist and boy-meets-girl, girl dies of tuberculosis, and this complex relationship between these four men trying to grow—it’s a very familiar story.
The music is also completely bewitching and extraordinarily beautiful. It really breaks your heart and just grips you in a way that’s completely immediate, I think even if you’ve never come across the idea of opera before, the music really speaks to your soul, it’s one of the first operas I saw as a kid and I was just completely blown away by it.
I like the way Puccini associates characters with musical ideas and keeps bringing them back so we know what’s going on early on. For example, there is this love duet that Mimi and Rodolfo sing together but then this music keeps coming back in different guises. It’s all fragmented when she’s dying, for example, but we know at the back of our mind that we’ve heard it before. This enhances the tragedy even further because the first time we heard it, it was beautifully sung in a full voice, but this time it’s broken and fragile. These little moments stay with you throughout the performance and you should definitely look out for them.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Robert Workman
It’s interesting: my wife is a Shakespeare teacher, and whenever I'd take her to an opera based on Shakespeare, she would struggle with it and not understand the point of redoing something “that’s already good enough.” And then she came to Midsummer Night's Dream, and said, “Well, this is extraordinary because it takes the play and makes it even better.” The setting of the text is so clear and every bit of music feels like it makes total sense for the character who’s singing it at the time.
Britten uses all these different instruments that you rarely hear in a conventional opera. It just captures the imagination and takes the play to another level. I’ve got two favourite moments in this opera—I can’t pick one. But I love the play within the play when the “mechanic" has performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta—it’s just so funny, the way he writes the music is hilarious. I also love the fairy chorus, it makes me cry every single time, it’s just so innocent and sweet.
It’s a legendary opera and the Glyndebourne production has been going since the 1980s. It was originally directed by Sir Peter Hall of the Royal Shakespeare Company and it comes back every few years or so which shows how popular this opera is.
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