Eleven Songs to Make You Fall in Love with Opera – Cita Utami

Eleven Songs to Make You Fall in Love with Opera

Eleven Songs to Make You Fall in Love with Opera

In an unprecedented move due to an unexpected chance I had last year, I fell in love with the opera. I was already listening to classical music for some years, but never opera. I always felt intimidated by operas and I somehow feel like the opera is a whole another beast I have to take time to meet, understand, and finally embrace.

My impression of the opera is like that old stereotype of how people see opera in the modern pop culture: played in old theaters, a strict dress-code, goes on forever, and grand opera singers with voices so loud it might break some glasses. As such, I long believed opera as something exclusive, inaccessible to many common people, and requires some kind of knowledge to enjoy. Yet when an old friend suddenly called me one year ago asking me to join a choir that was planning on performing some opera songs for a charity concert, I never hesitated to say ‘yes’. I jumped right in despite never seeing a single opera nor having a slight understanding of what an opera is.

In the six months that followed that chance encounter, I learned things beyond my expectations about the opera. I obviously learned about the music that I was going to perform. But I also learned about the different storylines in an opera, about the different characters in an opera, about how to sing and act at the same time, and about the complexity of producing an opera.

It was one of the hardest six months in my life due to all of the practices and pressure of producing the opera. Nevertheless, that long six months allows me to develop a new appreciation for the opera that eventually grows bigger over time.

Now that the concert had already passed, my appreciation for the opera lingers on. So much so that I now want to share this love with others. I want other people to enjoy opera as much as I do, but without feeling intimidated like I was before.

Photo by Gwen Ong on Unsplash

It took me a while to figure out how to present an opera as something people can directly relate to. There were many things I take into consideration when doing this.

First, I only present songs. An opera last for hours and it consists of many songs. It would be hard for someone to listen and enjoy a whole opera on their first sitting, so I would start with some songs from particular operas. The songs are generally enough to give a glimpse of what the opera is like, and once you come to enjoy these songs it’s actually easier to listen to a whole opera.

Second, I noticed that during my time learning about the opera the songs were already familiar to my ears because I’ve unconsciously heard them through modern pop culture, like through pop music, television contents, or in movies. So I figure I will start there, and I started to carefully choose songs that have. relevance in modern pop culture. It would be songs that have been predominantly featured in pop culture or because it is directly comparable to pop music.

Lastly, I also realized that to understand – and subsequently enjoy – the opera, one must find a common interest with the opera. Think of it as the process of falling in love with your partner: first, you must find a common interest between the two of you and you slowly develop your relationship from there. Luckily, the opera offers a lot of interesting things to appeal to your interest. There’s the music itself and musical capabilities of the artists involved in the opera like the singers, orchestra members, or the conductor. Like how do you sing over an 80-piece orchestra in a room full of 2,000 audiences without needing any microphone at all? There is also the plot of the opera, which ranges from comedy to tragedy or horror, and most ends in death. There are also the technical aspects of producing the opera, like how do you organize hundreds of people involved in opera production and how do you exactly make that stage elevator work in Aida?

Based on these considerations, I choose the following eleven songs from ten different operas as an introduction to the world of opera. I will explain briefly why I chose the particular songs, and you can hear all of them in the playlist I specifically made for this post. I also include several videos of the songs being performed because opera is first and foremost a form of theater that needs to be visualized to be properly enjoyed.

1. The Overture from La nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

(And while we’re at it: 2. “Se a caso madama la notte ti chiama” from the same opera)

An overture in the musical introduction of an opera. It’s that first music you hear when the opera starts, and what better way to start this list with the most famous overture from the most famous opera around: La nozze di Figaro (in English: The Marriage of Figaro).

La nozze di Figaro has been hailed by many as the greatest opera, which makes it perfect for opera virgins to see as their first opera. It has beautiful airy music, a compelling story, and some great humor splattered here and there during the scenes.

The Overture to La nozze di Figaro is a particularly famous piece that is sometimes performed by itself without the whole opera. You might have heard it in movies like the 2010 historical drama The King’s Speech when the future King George VI was recording himself reciting Hamlet over loud music. You might also have heard in many cartoon series like Tom and Jerry or Larva.

Other than the Overture, there are also many great songs from La nozze di Figaro. But for the second song, I chose to go for a lesser-known one instead because I think it brilliantly shows how dialogues are being sung in an opera. “Se a caso madama la notte ti chiama” is a dialogue between the two central protagonists, Figaro and Susanna, who were having a fight about where they should live after they got married. Figaro wants to live in their master’s house, but Susanna wanted to live as far away as they could. They both belted out their arguments throughout the song. It’s fascinating to see and hear.

3. “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi

It was somewhat difficult to choose a Giuseppe Verdi opera song for this list because there’s just so many. Most people will be more familiar with “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”, or “The Drinking Song” that is often performed separately in many classical concerts. Or perhaps “La donna è mobile” that became so famous because the opera Rigoletto was made into a movie starting the Luciano Pavarotti.

But in the end, I chose “Va, pensiero” because of how relevant it feels to the current state of the world. “Va, pensiero” is a song about remembrance: of a homeland, of a time of happiness where things were different. It is also a song about hope. Hope for a strength to carry on and hope for a better tomorrow. It seems like it a perfect song as we continue to grapple with a worldwide pandemic and its devastating consequences.

Hearing this song allows you to take a moment to yourself, and lessen that strained shoulders. It allows you to exhale and just let go of all the burdens that you carry. The song just carries you into a memory of great happiness, and it eventually leaves you softly, empowers you to lift your head up again and face the day.

4. “Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs … Dôme épais, le jasmin” (or simply known as the “Flower Duet”) from Lakmé by Léo Delibes

I am not going to lie that the first time I heard this song was actually on a song titled “Black Black Heart” by David Usher that was released in 2001. The song features a sample of the song as a hook and it just haunted my mind ever since. I didn’t know then that it was a sample taken from a different song, I assumed that it was part of the song. I only found out some years later that it was actually taken from the opera Lakmé.

The song has its long credit in pop culture. Many TV shows featured the songs in their episodes. Same with movies. My favorite, nevertheless, is when it was featured in The Angry Birds Movie when Chuck and Bomb performed a water routine when they reached The Lake of Whiz-dom. It was perfect.

The sampled hook in David Usher’s song was sung by a particularly heavy voice, the type that you might imagine how an opera singer would sound like. But as I learn more about opera and classical music, I figure out that I prefer voices that appeared to be more soft and natural to produce. Almost like pop vocals. So for this song, I purposefully chose a version that is seemed more pop than other versions, which you can enjoy it in the video below.

5. “Habanera: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet

Or in short, “Habanera”. Habanera itself is actually a music and dance style that comes from Cuba.”L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” was created by Bizet by adapting another habanera song from a different composer because he was enamored by the style.
“Habanera” is a love song about love, sung by the ferocious leading character Carmen. The song gained worldwide popularity with the opera, and have been featured in many movies and television series. It is also a song that needs to be seen in its operatic form to fully understand the appeal. That is why I chose this particular video below to illustrate the forceful appeal of this song in how seductive and carefree Carmen when she sang. Enjoy!

6. The Overture from Guillaume Tell by Gioachino Rossini

Or more specifically, the last part of the Overture from Guillaume Tell (in English: William Tell). The Overture itself is composed of four different parts, all played continuously without a break. But the most famous part is the fourth part, which is often called the “March of the Swiss Soldiers”.

This fourth part gained popularity because it was used as the theme music for the Lone Ranger radio (and later television) series in the 1930s. Since then, the song is more associated with cowboys galloping with their horses rather than, you know, an opera. In the video below you can hear only the fourth part of the Overture. But in the playlist at the end of this post, you can hear the whole Overture and hear how different the four parts of the Overture really is.

7. “Nessun dorma!” from Turandot by Giacomo Puccini

How can you not know this opera song? “Nessun dorma!” is basically the opera song that you think you can sing because countless people have sung it before. And I’m not talking about classically trained opera singers, but I’m talking about pop singers who tried to take this song out of its opera context and spun it using their own style. Like Aretha Franklin who sang this song in lieu of Pavarotti during the 40th Grammy Awards in 1998. Or like Michael Bolton. God knows why.

The song has also been a crowd favorite in many singing or talent shows over the years. There should be a tally on how many times this song has been used in such shows. It’s usually from a contestant you least expect could belt an operatic voice, like the goth guy or something like that.

But how the song blew up in popularity has got to be because of the recorded version sung by Pavarotti himself, that then became the soundtrack for the 1990 World Cup coverage by BBC. The song was so memorable for audiences worldwide that Pavarotti was invited to sing this aria at the televised concert before the final match of the tournament. This was the moment in pop culture history where we could look back and say that that was the moment opera was exposed to millions of audiences who have never heard an opera before in their life.

8. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni

This is another song that has a long credit in many movies and television series. One of the most notable uses of the song is from the opening credits on the movie Raging Bull starring Robert De Niro. But the song and its whole opera were more prominent in use in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III.

The opera was made into the movie’s story-plot, where Michale Corleone’s attended his son’s opera debut in Cavalleria Rusticana. The Intermezzo was then used when Michael discovered his daughter Mary was shot outside of the opera house, where it perfectly accompanies Michael’s agony over his daughter’s death.

9. “Ride of the Valkyries” from The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner

Oh Wagner… Yes, yes, yes… I am all too aware of Wagner’s controversies in his life. And I also wince at the hypocrisy of making a list of songs to make people fall in love with opera using a Wagner opera.

You see, Wagner is a racist and an antisemitic. He writes articles that demeans the abilities of Jews. He also torments and harasses many of his Jewish colleagues. He even created a space in his home to cater to the development of anti-Semite ideas and ideologies.

But his works does have its place in musical history. The only word that can describe his music is grandeur. Especially “Ride of the Valkyries”, which is a battle-cry. The melodies are easily uplifting, and it makes sense when it is used in pop culture as a piece of encouragement music. The song originally has woman vocals in it, but we are more used to only hear the instrument version of the song. That is why I included both versions: the original version in the video below and the instrument version in the playlist.

10. “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin

Many would think that opera was only produced in the old days. But operas are also being produced in the modern days as well. Like the following opera. Many would know “Summertime” as a jazz standard made super famous by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in 1957. But the song was actually taken from the opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin who was heavily influenced by New York jazz roots.

The opera is considered as a contemporary opera, having only premiered in 1935. I think that is why many of its songs are more relatable for the general audience and thus have been recorded and released in a more pop form.

11. “Hymn” from Akhnaten by Philip Glass

The last song for this list is taken from my favorite opera Akhnaten by Philip Glass. Philip Glass is arguably one of the greatest living composers these days. He is known for his minimalism, a form of music that uses limited music components and instruments. If you compare Philip Glass with Mozart’s work like in the first song of this list, you can hear how Mozart uses different melodies throughout his songs, different volumes of the sound, different tempos, and different instruments to produce different sounds. Minimalism is the opposite of that, using as limited music elements as possible, relying on repetitions to create the effects.

Glass’s operas also use minimalism, and the right production makes for the most memorable work of all. Akhnaten is part of The Portrait Trilogy, three operas that centrals on the journey of a prominent person: Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Akhnaten. Akhnaten is the Egyptian pharaoh known to be the first-ever ruler to introduce a monotheism religion in the world.

The song that I choose from this opera is called “Hymn”, which is an aria sung by Akhnaten about how he worships the only god Aten. It is a long song that starts rather slow. You can immediately hear the repetition early in the song, and how it brilliantly serves as a haunting background for the counter-tenor voice of Akhnaten. Akhnaten sings in English, but the song also includes a chorus in Hebrew in the end. You can hear the song on the playlist at the end of this post.

Since Akhnaten is a rather new opera, it hasn’t been performed as much. As such, there isn’t that much video around for me to show. However, there is this video that explains the production of Akhnaten by Phelim McDermott that was performed in the Metropolitan Opera last year. This production has got to be the most memorable opera that I have streamed watched. The costumes, the casts, everybody was moving in slow motion, and did I mention there were jugglers? There were jugglers in the opera! It was mind-blowing. You can see a video of that production below.

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