For those who are new to opera and are curious about how differently the operas from different periods and countries sound, here are links to a few sample clips from the different sub-genres of opera. As you'll see, this is such a huge musical-theater genre that it really has something for everyone.
Renaissance Opera: (1400-1600) The earliest operas are from the late Renaissance period... with minimal instrumentation accompanying the voice. It is as much 'singing' as it is 'sung declamation': speech lifted to a higher emotional content in melody. Until Monteverdi's last opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) came along, operas from this period usually dealt with mythical figures and stories (Poppea in the opera is, of course, based on the 2nd wife of Nero, Rome's favorite bad boy emperor).
- Di misera regina from Monteverdi's il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ullyses to His Homeland)
- Pur ti miro from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea
Baroque Opera: The Baroque period (1600-1760) saw the transformation of singing-theater into theater of singing extravaganza and spectacular stage spectacles. On the musical front, this was the age of the castrati, virtuoso vocal acrobats who, willingly or not, had traded their virility for the preservation of their boy soprano vocal range. The story of the operas from this period reverted back to the fantastic rather than the realistic, with magical fireworks, dragons, and griffins, and enchantress and exceedingly amorous leading ladies facing off prodigious knights. Baroque operas tend to be really long and overfilled with spectacular arias that show off the star singers' assets (opera was a socializing event back then and the audience were up and about eating and catching up with friends in the open amphitheater rather than condemned to silence and confined to fixed seat like we are nowadays).
The Baroque singers really could sing anything from the most heart-breaking of melancholic ballads to feverishly furious rage arias that would rival any of today's heavy metal rock idols. The practice of castrating young men to preserve their singing voice is now (thankfully) illegal, so nowadays opera from this period feature either female mezzo-sopranos or male counter-tenors in the main male roles that the castrati used to sing (their voice range was too high for the tenor. Mezzo-soprani are preferred in heroic ex-castrato male roles because they have a more imposing lower range than most counter-tenors do).
- When I am Laid in Earth from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
- Lascia ch'io pianga from Händel's Rinaldo
- Qual guerriero in campo amato from Broschi's Idaspe
And here is 'Con ali di constanza' from Händel's Ariodante
Classical Opera (1760-1820): Even spectacular music gets old on you after a while if the collection of it doesn't keep you involved in the main story, so Christoph Willibald Gluck came along to reform opera - turning away from showy music to one that is there to serve the function of telling a compelling story instead. The music of operas from the Classical period is more restraint and less tolerant of the showy improvisation (ornamentation) that was the bloom of the previous period. With Mozart, this period also sees the proliferation of beautiful and drama-oriented ensemble numbers (duets, trios, etc) and orchestration, as the opera story became more relatable to real life (at least the comic operas were, if not the seria ones).
Also in this period the tenor and baritone emerged as the male leads in the opera (castration was beginning to be discouraged then), though many leading male roles were still sung by castrati.
- Orphée - Eurydice duet from Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice
- Ach, ich fühl from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
- Der Hölle Rache from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte
- Soave sia il vento from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte
- Se al volto mai ti senti from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito
- Act IV finale from Mozart's Le nozze di FigaroBel Canto opera: (Italian opera from 1810-1835) What Mozart left off, the bel canto composers (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti) developed into a brief period of vocal wonder at the opera. Bel canto operas were composed by voice-loving composers to the voice-worshiping audience... it pushed to the limit what singers could do with their vocal cords and lung capacity. Long and spun out melodic line both subtly and supply navigated, with fiery virtuoso ending cadenza that reminds of the glory of the Baroque period (but it has to also fit with the story now, and not just done for show).
Castration of singers was banned in the early 1800's, but the audience of those days were still very used to hearing the male soprano voice from the heroic male lead role, so the composers assigned some prominent male roles to the coloratura contraltos/soprano sfogatos instead (these were the equivalent of today's coloratura mezzo-sopranos). Male roles composed for the female voice are what we call 'trouser roles'. Toward the end of the bel canto period, the focus shifted toward making high tenors the romantic lead in the opera.
- Una voce poco fa from Rossini's il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)
- Oh patria/ di tanti palpiti from Rossini's Tancredi
- Spargi d'amaro pianto from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
- Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues)
French Grand Opera (1820's - 1880's): The 1800's was also known as the Romantic period in classical music for good reasons. Gone is the formal restraint of the Baroque and the Classical eras. We are now in for a colorful exploration of emotion and melodrama. Add to that a French flair for the exaggerated (and the fetish for the ballet), and you end up with a really long evening at the opera house (at least 3 hrs a piece... sometimes closer to 5 hrs). So, the music has got to be good enough to keep you in your seat. Also, the orchestra has emerged as a singing force all its own and not just background music accompanying the voice.
- Ah, leve toi soleil from Gounod's Romeo et Juliet
- D'amour, l'ardente flamme from Berlioz's la damnation de Faust
- O ma lyre immortelle from Gounod's Sapho
- Seguedilla from Bizet's Carmen
And here is the Bell Song from Delibes' Lakmé
German Opera (1800's-1920): French grand opera without the ballets (well, mostly without the ballets) and with the Teutonic sense of forboding rather than the French flamboyance... German opera, starting with Richard Wagner, uses the orchestra a lot in their story telling. Listen for 'Leitmotiv', or recurring themes when you listen. These theme represent certain characters or certain motivations or ideas, and the composer liked to wove them in specific sequences to get specific points across, sometimes developing them as the story moves along. Also, there no longer is any 'recitative' or clear cut 'songs'. The music is through-composed, flowing from start to finish to focus on maintaining the drama of the story rather than to allow soloists to show off.
- Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
- Hab'mir's gelobt from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier
- Gluck, das mir verblieb from Korngold's die tote Stadt
Verismo Italian opera (1875-1920): This was a really brief musical period where people flocked to the theater not to escape from everyday life but to get an overdose of it in an ultra condensed hour and a bit of musical blood and gore.
- Voi lo sapete from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana
- Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo's il pagliacci
Italian opera (1860-): This is something of a bridge from the death of bel canto opera to the searing theatrical operas of Puccini. It's love, lust, and death... in music so beautifully emotive that you keep coming back just to see the soprano dies over and over again...
- Va, pensiero sulli dorate from Verdi's Nabucco
- Celeste Aida from Verdi's Aida
- Brindisi from Verdi's La traviata
- O soave fanciulla from Puccini's La boheme
- Quando m'en vo (Musetta's waltz) from Puccini's La boheme
Slavic Opera: This.. is romantic musical theater for the melancholic among us...
- Moon song from Dvorak's Rusalka
- Excerpt from Janacek's Jenufa
- Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spade
- Letter scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
Operetta: The lighter side of musical theater. Finally! This sub-genre of comic satire with sublimely spunky music is for those who would like to be able to walk out of the auditorium at the end of an opera performance without blood spatters on their coat.
- Olympia's doll song from Offenbach's les contes d'Hoffmann
- Barcarolle from Offenbach's les contes d'Hoffmann
- Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol from Zeller's Der Vogelhändler
And this is from Offenbach's La belle Helene.
Modern opera: (1920 - ) Ever since Richard Strauss showed the world how effectively an opera story can be conveyed with minimal tonality, many of the modern composers have been afflicted with the distaste for melody. Granted, there are some who still allow songs into their work, but most have opted for atonality and abstract sounds and patterns. It's interesting stuff if you can understand it. If not... ughhh.
- Excerpt from Berg's Lulu
- Excerpt from Fortner's Bluthochzeit (Blood Wedding)
- Excerpt from Britten's Billy Budd
- Excerpt from Glass' Satyagraha
- Excerpt from Picker's Emmeline
Though, there are always exceptions like this melodic tune, Surabaja, Johnny, from Weill's Happy Ends.
So, hopefully after having sampled a few clips from these different sub-genres of opera you would now have a better idea of the sort of opera you would or would not enjoy. I should caution against having too fixed an opinion on what opera to avoid, though. Our musical taste can change over time. Some works do grow on you after a while... so, keep trying the operas you don't now like. You never know, maybe some will become one of your favorites many years from now.
Other opera-related essays you might find of interest: A Few Words To Opera Newbies, Commandments for the Operafans, 10 Beginners-Friendly Opera, Bel Canto Is NOT About Sounding Beautiful!, Do Today's Opera Singers Measure Up to Past Legends? -
Interviews: Juliette Galstian (mezzo-soprano), Christiane Karg (soprano), Elizabeth Tryon (soprano),