Welcome to the World of Opera

Opera is one of my passions. On this page I hope to make it one of yours, as well; at the very least I hope to convince you to give it a try. Below you'll find links to sites around the Web, a discography for introducing yourself to the glory that is opera, and an overview of the Baltimore Opera Company's current season.
Opera is about music and emotion. True, the plots, especially if reduced to one of those three-paragraph-blurbs you find in a program, don't always make the best of sense; often there are plot holes big enough for the proverbial Mack truck, and the characters don't always make rational decisions.
But, hey, this isn't real life. (Of course, that bit about making rational decisions could come from real life, don't you think?) This is entertainment. It is music with drama.
And it's among the very best of entertainment, too. Onstage, opera is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, but even (or especially) in recordings, opera is wonderful. (I say "especially" because one of the most common complaints one hears about opera is "how can anyone think that fat lady is sexy?" Well, the fact is, fat ladies can be sexy ... but that's beside the point right now.) Opera doesn't depend on what the singers look like, but on their voices.
And what voices! What music! It's the absolute distillation of emotion into sound ... yeah, what does that mean?
This: a soprano's range is such that for one third of it the listener cannot understand what she is singing. You may think you can, because you know the words (see a couple of paragraphs down for 'all that foreign language' stuff), but in fact, you cannot. Her voice has passed into a frequency range where the vowels cannot be distinguished from each other. A good tenor is in that place for almost a quarter of his range, too. The words become pure sound, and the sound is pure emotion, melding with the music of the orchestra to produce an experience unequalled.
Wagner once wrote that in opera, the words were "the obedient daughter of the music." Peter Allen, longtime announcer, writes "the miracle of music can transform a seemingly unworthy story into a profoundly satisfying emotional experience. And even successful stories and plays have been given deeper and more lasting success by transformation into operas--La Bohéme, Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, are but a few examples."

For a better evocation of this than I could ever accomplish, I suggest you rent "Philadelphia" and watch the scene where Tom Hanks's character Andrew Becket plays Maria Callas for Denzel Washington's character Miller. The opera is Umberto Giordano's drama of the French Revolution Andrea Chénier; Callas is singing Maddalena's aria "La mama morta", in which she describes how love for Chénier came to her in the midst of the greatest sorrow she had ever known. As Becket, Hanks evocatively demonstrates the emotional resonances of music, voice, and words, and the way they intertwine around the heart and soul of the listener-- and La Divina's voice soars and falls gloriously throughout.

Okay: it's all in foreign languages. Well, that's not entirely true, for one thing, and for another, so what? I mean, really, so what? There are many plot synopses available, full librettos, sub- and sur-titles; it's not possible for anyone to go to an opera and not have the opportunity to know what the plot and, usually, the dialog, is.
Three hundred years ago Henry Purcell wrote for English, wrote lovely Baroque stuff, including Dido and Æneas. For whatever reason, after Purcell's death, English composers didn't write opera. So we don't have the tradition of opera in our own language: if we want to hear classic operatic renditions of Shakespeare, we have to turn to French (Gounod's Roméo et Juliette), to German (Nicolai's Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor), to Italian (Verdi's Macbeth). Even "The Girl of the Golden West" and Sir Walter Scott are in Italian! (Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor).
Deliberately provocative paragraph: But are you really less flexible than foreigners? After all, Italians don't stick stubbornly to Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti, refusing to listen to Bizet because it's French; similiarly, Russians listen to more than Tschaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Glinka. The French don't deny themselves Der Rosenkavalier, Die Zauberflote, Fidelio, and the Germans queue up for La Traviata, Turandot, Eugene Onegin.
There are composers today working with English librettos (today in the loose sense, some of them are dead): Britten, Tippett, Stravinsky, Moore... opera in English is out there, if you think that's your best introduction.
In fact, here's a recommendation for starting out: Henry Purcell's Dido and Æneas (Les Arts Florrissants, conducted by William Christie. Erato 4509-98477-2). It's a perfect introduction: it's in English, it's short (51 minutes and 54 seconds), and it's lovely.
But don't be put off by the foreign language: as I remarked above, you won't understand the passionate arias of the sopranos and tenors even in English.

There are some conventions:
the romantic leads will generally be the tenor and the soprano. These aren't necessarily the leads; for example, in Eugene Onegin, Onegin is a baritone and Lensky, the doomed poet, is the tenor. Occasionally, in fact, the male romantic lead is a baritone, as Æneas in Purcell's Dido and Æneas, or even a bass, as in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmilla.
In some operas, the romantic male lead is played by a mezzo-soprano; why? Well, it depends: in the early days of opera (Baroque) up through Mozart and the end of the 18th century, young men with brilliant voices were castrated to preserve that voice; no countertenor has ever matched the depth and the pitch of a castrato. As an example, in Mozart's Idomeneo [1781], the role of Idomante was originally written for a castrato. Every one of Handel's operas had a castrato as the lead (Tolomeo has 2!)-- or a mezzo; Handel was interested in range and pitch, not sex. But castrati were the embodiment, musically, of the "young hero" as depicted in the other arts, painting and sculpture, of the day. The deeper tones of the "male" voices were reserved for old men, buffoons, and villains.
In fact, listening to Tolomeo, one can get a faint echo of what they must have felt. Araspe, the baritone, does not appear until almost the end of the first act, after we have had arias and ariosos by contraltos playing the young, heroic men. His deep tones strike our ears with an almost ominous tone, we know he's the villain. We aren't at all surprised that he wants to kill Tolomeo to acquire his wife, and we never believe that Alessandro means his brother harm.
In later operas, it was either to preserve what had come to be seen as the tradition of "pants roles", or because the composer had a favorite mezzo for whom he wished to write a lead; thus, in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier [1911], Count Octavian is played by a mezzo though castrati had passed from the scene more than a century earlier.

The characters frequently sing loud monologs that are unheard by the rest of the cast: but that sort of thing happens in Shakespeare, too. Not to mention half the tv shows on today ...
There are women pretending to be men that not even blind people could buy, but again, that's a stage convention too.
There are last-minute rescues, time-compressions, time-expansions, mistaken identities ... in short, all the classical serious and comedic stage turns, only with music added.
None of the conventions are hard to understand. Like all performing arts, all it requires is a willing suspension of disbelief.
Here are some links to pages where other people's guides to opera, sometimes quite humorous: