The Most Popular Operas

I teach a course at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies called “The Most Popular Operas”, a great excuse to watch and listen to some of the most wonderful music ever composed.

“Popular operas”? While the first video you get on Youtube when you search “Justin Bieber” has over 93 million views, when i typed “Three Tenors” I found a link exceeding 4 million: not too shabby.   Yes opera singers can be stars.

But “popular” is still sometimes a bad word. Cinematic excellence is sometimes ignored by the Academy Awards, even though worthy of consideration. Robin Williams made us laugh, but at Oscar time? A more serious film such as The Fisher King (for which Williams was nominated), or Good Will Hunting (including the role for which Williams finally won honours) earned him more respect.

Similarly, operas can be tear-jerkers or comedies that sell every ticket.  Or opera  can be serious art that earns critical respect without selling all the tickets.   You may not realize just how popular opera has been: in past centuries, and even now in some parts of the world.  I use—an international website capturing box office statistics—as my authority on popularity.

The objective of this course is a pain-free introduction to opera, using popular operas as a natural lead-in, the same way that we’d study drama via Shakespeare or the symphony via Beethoven. I avoid needless jargon because i want you to understand.  We engage in each work on its own terms, exploring the cultural background. The word “opera” has meant something different in every century, and continues to evolve with changing styles & tastes.

In the process of being introduced to the form of opera, meeting the stars who you can find on DVDs & recordings, you’ll also be introduced to the operas being presented in the coming season by Toronto companies:
• Handel’s Alcina (Opera Atelier—October).
• Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (OA—April)
• Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Canadian Opera Company—January/February)
• Rossini’s Barber of Seville (COC—April/May)
• Verdi’s Falstaff (COC—October-November)
• Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (COC—October-November)
• Wagner’s Die Walküre (COC—January/February)
A double bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (COC—May)

Some of these operas are nothing more than vehicles for brilliant singing, some are intense psychological explorations through music, but they’re all magic, opportunities to lose yourself. There’s no right way to enjoy opera, but my aim is to help you find your own favourites while exposing you to beauty & pleasure.

Don’t blame me if you develop a new habit: going to the opera. I believe it’s contagious.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company/Opéra National de Bordeaux (ONB)/Houston Grand Opera co-production of The Barber of Seville, 2012, ONB. (Photo: Guillaume Bonnaud). Click on picture for more information.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Most Popular Operas

  1. Is it just me, or is that Ensemble Studio production going for a “puppetized” effect?

    • barczablog says:

      Hm… the way those hands are posed is definitely suspicious. I shudder to imagine how big the puppeteer must be, standing above the stage. Hopefully benevolent?

      …although they may also be doing the clockwork toy thing, which is similar (no strings required).

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