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Introduction: I've often tried to instill a love of opera in some of my family and friends, and, as is often the case, I end up advising them on what operas to start with, or how to find great deals on Blu-Ray operas, DVDs, books and more. As an opera fan myself (though I still consider myself a neophyte!), I'm finding more and resources online to get my opera fix, so to speak. And, I thought I might share some of my findings, and recent purchases here. So, if you're looking for a totally incomplete and completely biased personal view of an opera neophyte, you've come to the right place.
This really is a sneak peek into a part of my library, but only new additions in the relatively recent past (~year??) are mentioned. If you REALLY want to go back in time, I could talk about my past LaserDisk purchases of operas. In days gone by, if you wanted high quality opera recordings (there were no DVD's or Blu-Rays at the time), the only way to go was LaserDisks. They're now long obsolete. (And, don't get me started on how disappointed I was that the recording companies didn't provide any kind of upgrade policy for buyers to trade in their old LaserDisks for credit towards the newer DVD's. Ahhhh, but I digress...)
NOTE: On this page, I often point you to the applicable page on Amazon.com where you can purchase or learn more about the item being discussed. If you look carefully at the Amazon page for any item, you will note that they not only list the price of the item if purchased directly from Amazon, but they also list the lowest New and Used prices for the item as sold by 3rd Party Sellers through Amazon. Of late, I've purchased many books, DVDs and Blu-Rays from 3rd party sellers on Amazon, and only rarely am disappointed. The shipping is slower (that's almost always the case) but sometimes getting the better deal outweighs the convenience of speed especially if you (or I) plan on making many future additions to our libraries.
I have another purchasing secret to share with you. I routinely visit all kinds of second hand book stores, library sales, town fairs (with book sales), consignment shops and more. Turns out (in a way this is a blessing, in a way, not so much) that after all the good books are gone, and the book dealers have picked off all the books of value to them...what remains is often "priceless" books on opera...and theoretical physics too (another hobby of mine, but that's another story.) I remember once missing a library book sale that had started weeks before, and only a handful of books were left...and lo and behold, I did get a couple of great opera books, and physics books too. Gotta love it! One man's trash is another's gold...
Opera-on-the-Cheap: Blu-Ray!: Yes, it's possible. These days more and and more of my friends and family have HD flatscreen TV's, a Blu-Ray player and a solid stereo (or surround) sound system. If this is you, there really are a lot of inexpensive avenues to start your journey into opera. I'll list some here. And, when I say, inexpensive...I mean it...the ones listed here are about US$10. How I wish all high quality Blu-Ray discs were so cheap!!
For starters, here's Puccini's Tosca, Verdi's Rigoletto, Verdi's La Traviata, Wagner's Ring Without Words and Tutto Verdi - The Complete Operas - Highlights. The first three of these operas are Blu-Ray discs by Arthaus Musik, and each includes, in addition to the complete opera shown on the cover, a wonderful bonus section including dozens of short snippets from various operas, ballets and documentaries in their catalog. The next one (the Ring Without Words) is also a Blu-Ray of some of the best of the music only (no singing) from Wagner's four operas that comprise The Ring Cycle. The last one (Tutto Verdi - Highlights) is a highlights-only single Blu-Ray disc of an absolutely awesome complete set of Verdi Operas. (The huge set sells for upwards of $500. It's on my wish list, but I don't own it...yet.) To me, all of these inexpensive discs are an all-too-rare and tremendous value. I own them all.
More Opera-on-the-Cheap: Blu-Ray!: The discs mentioned here are also all high quality Blu-Ray discs. All of them retail for about ten dollars.
The Blu-Ray discs shown here include two "snippet" disks, The Nutcracker Ballet and a very unusual Wagner's Ring highlight disk. The Opera and Ballet - The Blu-Ray Experience and the Opera Ballet and Theatre - The Blu-Ray Experience Volume II discs both include dozens of short (a few minutes each) snippets from various operas, ballets and theatre pieces. They are a great way to sample various productions before deciding on a later purchase.
The Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King Ballet is a fun, hi-def, holiday disk...though it doesn't really belong on a web page devoted mostly to opera, it IS a wonderful recording, fun for all ages (and cheap!) And, it also contains dozens of samples from other titles in the catalog.
The Wagner's Ring Highlights (Valencia) disc is a hightlights-only Blu-Ray disc of Wagner's Ring Cycle. I intend to talk a lot more about Wagner's Ring in another section of this page, but suffice it to say here that one of the fun things about The Ring is that it is ALWAYS controversial. Every single production of The Ring is controversial in one way or another. We're talking about a production encompassing four operas with a total duration of 15 or 16 hours or so, that took the composer himself fully decades to complete. And, each production of the cycle takes years of planning and preparation. In this particular Ring, what stands out the most is the "Cirque du Soleil style" staging. You really won't believe it. (Just take a look at the cover of the disc and you'll immediately see what I mean.) Even if you don't purchase the full Ring set of 4 Blu-Ray discs (available here), this one disc of highlights is definitely worth the price. Though I prefer the MET's latest Ring cycle with "la Machine", I must admit I do own both the highlights disc and full set for this Ring too.
More Opera-on-the-Cheap: Regular DVDs!: The discs mentioned here are all regular DVDs. (Just "regular" DVDs. Darn! How quickly we become spoiled after enjoying Blu-Ray!) All of them also retail for about ten dollars.
The three DVDs shown here are all "sampler" DVDs. They each contain dozens of short snippets of various operas, ballets, concerts, documentaries and more. The Taste of the Arts - Volume 3 and the Taste of the Arts - Volume 4 are both from BBC and OpusArte. There are earlier volumes of these disks but they are only available, as far as I know, from 3rd Party sellers. The DVD Video Sampler III disc is another hightlights-only DVD from Arthaus Musik.
Opera Sets: OK, these are mostly in the not-so-cheap column, but if you're an opera enthusiast just getting started, this is a way to quickly obtain a collection at less than the cost of the operas purchased separately. I recently purchased two sets myself (The La Scala and James Levine collections.) The Complete Verdi collection is on my wish list for the moment.
The La Scala DVD Set (and yes, unfortunately, these are regular DVD's not Blu-Rays) includes the following 11 operas on 12 DVDs: Pergolesi: Lo frate 'nnamorato, Puccini: La Fanciulla del West, Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor, Rossini: Guillaume Tell, Mozart: Don Giovanni, Mozart: Così fan tutte, Verdi: I due Foscari, Verdi: I vespri siciliani, Rossini: La donna del lago, Verdi: Attila, and Cilèa: Adriana Lecouvreur. I purchased this set because many of the operas included were new to me, and, frankly, because I got a good deal buying it via 3rd Party sellers on Amazon.
The James Levine 40th DVD Set (and yes, unfortunately, these, too, are regular DVD's not Blu-Rays) is a set that I couldn't help purchasing...11 operas plus a bonus on 21 DVDs. Really, who doesn't love James Levine! And, so many of the DVDs included are absolutely wonderful, historic performances. The set includes the following operas: Berg: Lulu, Berg: Wozzeck, Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles, Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro, Puccini: Il Trittico, Smetana: The Bartered Bride, R. Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos (Virgin Classics release), R. Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier, R. Strauss: Elektra, Verdi: Don Carlo, Weill: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and In Concert at the Met (Highlights). And, while I was in my weakened quick-to-purchase condition, I just had to get the book commemorating James Levine - 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera. The book is really beautiful, and includes some wonderful pictures, memories, anecdotes, remembrances, etc. (As stated above, I ended up purchasing the book for much less than the regular Amazon price by buying through a 3rd Party seller.)
The Tutto Verdi - The Complete Operas Set. This one is on my wish list. It sells for upwards of $500 and might just remain on my wish list for a long time. But, if I weaken and buy it, I might let you know. (I might be too embarrassed to admit it, but we'll see.) But, can you imagine this set? ALL of Verdi's 26 operas plus his Requiem, ALL on 27 Blu-Ray discs! WOW!
Three Books, Same Publisher: The first book I purchased was the Opera Lively - The Interviews book. What a fantastic book. The book is filled with interviews not only of opera stars, but opera directors, stage managers, musicologists, and more. These interviews are obviously a labor of love, and those being interviewed know that interview is being conducted by an extremely knowledgable opera person. As such, the answers given are often much more technical in nature than might have been given on interviews elsewhere. Each interview was a pleasure to read. After reading the book, I found myself going back to the operas I already had on CD or DVD, and re-visiting who was in it, or produced it, that I may have just read about. Things became very much more personal as I had gotten to know so many of those involved with the production of operas.
The second book is an autobiography by Jay Hunter Morris called Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger. This is a most amazing opera story unlike any you've ever read, that's for sure. JHM is one part redneck and one part hippy and three parts opera singer. (Others, I'm sure, will question the proportions.) Anyway, he's a very cool dude, and I'm so happy that he's made it as a top tenor! I've become a big fan. I'll mention more about him in the section on Wagner's Ring and on Moby Dick! (Yes, there's an opera called Moby Dick, and Jay Hunter Morris is Ahab!)
The third book I bought is an Opera Companion Book (Les Troyens - The Opera Lively Guides), hopefully in a long series of such books yet to come. I must admit Les Troyens is NOT a favorite opera of mine. It never was, and to be honest, it's still not. But, I'm trying. And, because it IS a favorite of so many learned opera fans, I'm extremely open to be convinced. And, what better way than to re-watch the opera with this guidebook in hand.
I'm a huge fan of Handel's Messiah. I remember when I went to college, I spoke with one of my music professors in a moment of excitement and asked him why the world wasn't as positive as I was that this really was a masterpiece. He assured me I wasn't alone in this thought. (Duhhhh!) Anyway, one day I read about a new Messiah release. This was a Blu-Ray release of a "staged version" of Handel's Messiah. Most Messiah's (in fact, ALL that I've ever seen) were the standard concert version with orchestra, chorus, and soloists. But, this staged version actually acted out a stage play version of the Messiah. So, I bought it. And, it IS very good. To tell you the truth, I think I prefer the "old-fashioned" concert version of The Messiah, but I'm always open to new productions. Before long, a lot of experiments mount up, and before you know it, you have a new collection brewing!
I recently reviewed a huge number of raves for an opera called Giulio Cesare, that's Julius Caesar (in case you don't speak the language!), and also by Handel. Hmmm, Baroque Opera. That was rather new to me, and I love Handel, so I gave that one a chance too. The production was superb, and what's not to like. Will this be the beginning of a new spring into Baroque opera for me, I doubt it, but I'm delighted to have this "on the record books" so to speak.
Another opera that often appears in favorite opera lists (but not necessarily my own) is Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. I already knew this opera, but have never seen this production. I bought it, I saw it, I loved it, and it's a nice addition to any collection. And, well, to tell you the truth, you can never have enough Mozart...for emergencies! Sometimes, you can get into these "heavy" modes of opera listening where you are listening to one Wagner opera after another. Anything "less" than a Wagner just won't cut it. But, then, you put on a Marriage of Figaro, or a Cosi fan Tutte, and you can get a breath of fresh air again. Or so it sometimes seems.
Opera CDs: In days past, I used to purchase tons and tons of CDs. Now, in the iPod-era, my CD purchases are few and far between. But, every now and then, I indulge my desire for a real physical CD with an actual booklet to enjoy. Here's four recent purchases...
The first three choices are from some of the hottest opera stars around, or so it certainly seems to me. The CDs are: Jonas Kaufmann - The Verdi Album, Anna Netrebko - Verdi and The Best of Joyce DiDonato - Rejoyce!. I'm only just now beginning to appreciate Jonas Kaufmann. His Verdi Album is just superb (and the extensive liner notes and text with translations of every aria is a welcome bonus.) Anna Netrebko is everywhere these days, always seeming to bring in each season at the MET too, surely quite an honor. Truth is, though, I think I made a little mistake when I bought this CD. I've since learned that she also released a Deluxe Edition of this CD, with a companion DVD. Had I known that, I'd have surely purchased that instead. And, Joyce DiDonato is tremendous as well...and generous too (2 CD's for the price of one.) As it happens, I just saw her in a BBC Proms concert where she just brought down the house. (In addition to operatic pieces, she also did Somewhere Over the Rainbow...don't laugh, it was great!)
The last CD shown above is a new opera called Written on Skin by George Benjamin. This is one of those "take a chance" CDs I bought after hearing raves about it elsewhere. I'm not sure how this will pan out for me. The jury is still out. I'm intrigued enough by the comments I've seen, and hearing the CD itself and reading the libretto, to await the release of the DVD, which, I hear, is slated for around January 2014. We'll see. This is an opera I'm biased to like, but we'll see. Like I said, jury is still out. (The opera stars Barbara Hannigan who I just happened to see recently on the Berlin Philharmonic's streaming service. More on such services elsewhere on this page.)
[Updated February 18, 2014] I did finally get the Opus Arte Blu-Ray of Written on Skin, and it's very intriguing. I'll say at the outset, I did NOT love it, but I liked it enough to want to see it again. Lots of modern operas aren't immediately "gettable", and this is in that class, so further watchings are surely in order. The singing of the three main characters was astoundingly good. Barbara Hannigan, as Agnes, is amazing. Christopher Purves, as the Protector, was wonderful too. I even liked Bejun Mehta, even though I've never quite gotten used to counter-tenors. (For those not aware, a counter-tenor is a man singing in the vocal range of a soprano.) I've seen Bejun Mehta before in a very interesting version of Handel's Messiah mentioned elsewhere on this page. The story is somewhat eerily reminiscent of Hannibal Lechter, but I won't tell you why, you'll see if you decide to try this opera. The music makes a lot more sense now that I've seen the opera, rather than just hearing it...it's very dramatic, atmospheric and follows the action of the opera...you just won't leave the opera whistling a tune from it, that's all. Anyway, now that I've seen it once, I am looking forward to reading "the liner notes" (if that's what they're still called), learning more about it, and then watching it again.
[Updated August 16, 2015] It obviously took a while, but I did ultimately watch Written on Skin again, and this time, I must admit, I very much enjoyed it. The music is really quite exquisite (and name another opera with a glass harmonica in it, if you can!) I also purchased a guidebook to the opera which made this watching a lot more enjoyable. While watching and listening, I was shuffling back and forth in the guidebook with the text, the musical analysis and the synopsis. Now, I'm a fan. A wonderful contemporary opera!
Doctor Atomic by John Adams: One opera I've always liked (and purchased, on Blu-Ray, but of course!) is: John Adams' Doctor Atomic. I'm not just an opera fan, I'm also a big physics enthusiast, and as such, I was obviously open to an opera about an atomic bomb featuring a cast of characters including physicists such as Oppenheimer, Fermi and more! I'm also a fan of John Adams. I read and very much enjoyed his autobiography a few years ago. This opera is, for me, a wonderful example of an "operatic intersection" for lack of a better expresion...where many singers whom I've come to know from many other operas somehow converge on this one. This must happen to all opera fans who've seen more than a few operas.
I can start this game of intersection with James Maddalena. James Maddalena plays Jack Hubbard here in Doctor Atomic. But, I first met James Maddalena when he played Count Almaviva in a wonderful (and then very controversial) production of The Marriage of Figaro. The production, in Boston, was controversial because it was directed by Peter Sellars, and was staged as if it took place in Trump Tower in modern day New York city. I usually prefer seeing operas in their original settings and their original times, but I must admit that I surely loved this performance. This was back in 1991. Wow, how time flies.
[A Little Side Note: what a great night at the opera that was...seeing the Peter Sellars production of The Marriage of Figaro. At the time, I lived up in Manchester, NH. And, the Currier Art Gallery (also in Manchester), for whom I was a volunteer computer person at the time, sponsored a most marvelous trip to the opera in Boston. We'd meet up with a chartered bus in the parking lot at the Art Gallery in Manchester, and be driven to Boston to the opera (in the middle of winter!) We were given box lunches to eat on the way down to Boston, and even treated to a short lecture about the opera during the ride. We were dropped off directly in front of the theatre, left our coats in the bus, enjoyed the opera, and got to meet the cast afterwards. What a night to remember. And, in one of the instances where you end up making your own luck, I happened to meet the woman who would end up recruiting me to ultimately become a member of the Board, and the founding Webmaster for the Opera League of NH.]
But, I digress. Back to Doctor Atomic. In addition to my James Maddalena connection (whom you probably cannot see these days without thinking of his portrayal of Nixon in Adams' Nixon in China), there's also a Jay Hunter Morris connection and an Eric Owens connection. I first learned of Jay Hunter Morris when he came in at virtually the last minute to play Siegfried in the MET's latest Ring production, when the original tenor had to back out. I saw the Wagner's Dream movie (which was all about the making of the MET's Wagner Ring cycle), loved it, ended up buying the whole Ring set, and thought Jay Hunter Morris was just wonderful, talented, and lucky as hell too! He plays Captain James Nolan in Doctor Atomic.
In that same Ring cycle (most of which I saw at the MET's Live in HD at the Capital Center in Concord, NH), I came to know and love Eric Owens. Eric Owens played an astoundingly great Alberich, the dwarf who tries to steal the gold from the Rhinemaidens. I hope one day Mr Owens find his way to this site and reads this, because he couldn't not love what I'm about to say (though he's probably heard it before).
When you watch an opera Live in HD in the theatre, it's great, but it's NOT exactly like being at the real opera. When the singers take a bow in the Live in HD theater, they're taking a bow in what appears to be a movie, not in real life like in the MET itself, even if it is in real-time. In some productions, people will feel very free to just leave when the "movie" (the opera) is over, where they wouldn't if they were in the opera house itself. Anyway, when Das Rheingold, the first opera in the Wagner Ring cycle, ended in the theater, no one left early. And all the stars (Wotan, Fricka, Fasold, Fafner, etc) got a fair share of applause from within the theater, but when Eric Owens as Alberich came out to take a bow, the theater went nuts. To all of us (and I assume in the MET itself too!), he was really the star of the show. Great singing, great makeup, great costumes, great growling grimaces, etc. A perfect Alberich. AND...he plays General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic.
It's really fun to think about all those operatic intersections that happen so often. (And, better yet, there are even scenes in Doctor Atomic where Eric Owens and Jay Hunter Morris are in confrontation with each other. And, so I hope I can be forgiven for at least momentarily thinking that Siegfried and Alberich somehow got transported to the set of Doctor Atomic!)
Jay Hunter Morris and Moby Dick: And, speaking of "operatic intersections", now that I've learned about Jay Hunter Morris via The Ring and Dr Atomic, I learned that he was starring in a new opera called Moby Dick. How cool is that. Jay Hunter Morris plays Captain Ahab, and does indeed appear obsessed and menacing every time you see him. I first learned of this opera, as it was broadcast on my local PBS channel...a production of the San Francisco opera. I very much enjoyed it...the music by Jake Heggie was dynamic, and if you'll pardon the pun, sea-worthy too. The production is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. After seeing the opera, I was initially re-energized to actually read the book, but I compromised with myself and decided I'd listen to the book in my car instead. If you'd like to give it a try, you can download MP3's of Moby Dick here. I'm about half way through the book as I write this. I loved the beginning of the book that detailed how Ishmael (the narrator of the book) met up with Queequeg (a harpooner), and was sorry that so much of that wasn't in the opera. Of course, considering the length of the book, this was no surprise. I'm now learning more about whales than I ever really wanted to know, but I am continuing with my pledge to finish the book while driving! And, I'm delighted all the technical info on whales which is part of the book is NOT part of the opera! (I'm also now convinced that Ishmael, or maybe Melville himself, was a zoologist, biologist or botanist!)
Eugene Onegin: This year, the Met's Live in HD series began with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. I was hoping to make it there in person, but I missed my opportunity...so, instead, I bought myself a Blu-Ray of Eugene Onegin and loved every minute of it. I had forgotten how beautiful this opera is, and with a MET performance featuring Renée Fleming, Ramon Vargas and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, you can't go wrong. Sometimes you get in a Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Mozart mode, and you forget there are other great operas too. This is one of them.
A Lucky Trip to a Consignment Store: I've mentioned above how opera enthusiasts might just find some "operatic gold" at library sales, used book stores and more. I actually found a couple of interesting opera-related books in a local consignment store...
I knew immediately when I saw the first book that Rienzi was the name of an early Wagner opera, but I had never heard of Bulwer Lytton before. I did a little searching and lo and behold, this was indeed the book upon which Wagner based Rienzi. It's a very old book in superb, protected condition (with a dedication dated 1835 and a second printing in 1848.) I've no idea what it's worth, and I know I'll never read it, but for two bucks, it was worth every penny. (Go ahead! Make me an offer!)
The second book was also a nice find. It's a children's book of Siegfried from Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. (There are four books in the series, one for each opera in The Ring. But, I only found the Siegfried one...Darn!) It's Copyright 1939 by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Very cool. I think the next time I watch Siegfried (the opera) I'll be watching it with Siegfried (the children's book) in hand. Why not?
Opera-related Magazines (real paper!): Ahhh, real paper magazines. They're going out of style, but I still prefer them. The first here is Opera News, a publication of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. It's even (amazingly enough) affordable and I do subscribe to it. The next, Opera Magazine, is a magazine I would love to subscribe to, but the cost is rather off-putting. It hurts NOT to have it, as it is so well respected, but I might splurge one day. (And, elsewhere on this page I describe how you can read the digital iPad version of it on an as desired basis.) BBC Music is another great classical music related magazine with a lot of opera coverage too. This is one I don't subscribe to, but occasionally purchase at the newsstand. Listen Magazine is a very affordable magazine and I've subscribed for the last few years, and enjoy it very much. I can judge magazines by how many pages (articles) I earmark for future reading, and this magazine is always chock full of bent over page corners. (Try THAT with an ebook!)
Opera on Apple's iTunes Radio: If you're running a pretty up-to-date version of iTunes on your Mac or PC, or running iOS7 on an iPad or iPhone, you might have noticed that Apple has an option called iTunes Radio. Some might say Apple is trying to out Pandora Pandora or out Spotify Spotify. This new service is free and easy, I tried it, and it works like a charm. And, yes, you can get OPERA! In iTunes, Apple listed many default ready-to-go radio stations, none of which (no surprise) was OPERA. But, just click the "+" plus sign to create your own station and then once you do that, one of the genres you can choose is indeed OPERA, and it works. In 2 seconds, you'll be listening to opera. You do get occasional ads (making it by default very similar to many other "free" internet radio stations), but it's very nicely done. It's well integrated with the rest of iTunes, it shows you the history of the songs (arias) you've heard and more. It's not perfect, and it might repeat itself after a while, and the repertoire isn't exactly vast, but I still like it. It's surely worth a look if you enjoy opera. (I also created Contemporary Classical stations, and more.)
Opera-Related Apps on Apple iPad (Free): One day, just for fun, I was searching around Apple's App Store on my iPad, and I put in a search term of "opera" just to see what came up, and I had a very nice surprise. There's actually many opera-related apps available. Turns out that many opera houses around the world have apps, that are automatically updated as are most apps. Many of the apps are simple one or two page listings of the current schedules, but other apps are much more substantial, multi-page and magazine-like with nicely informative articles about opera. In my search, I found iPad apps for Vancouver Opera, San Francisco Opera, Sante Fe Opera, Atlanta Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Florida Grand Opera, Opera San Jose, Sarasota Opera, Seattle Opera, Lyric Opera Kansas City and more. You can also try searching the App Store for various opera personalities...Renée Fleming has one, for instance. A little searching pays off with lots of free operatic info. Of course, if you just search for "opera" or "wagner" you'll also find non-free apps. But, all the ones I've mentioned in this section are indeed free.
Opera-Related Magazines on Apple iPad: Apple's iPad (and presumably other tablets too) includes an app called Newsstand. This is the app where you can subscribe to (that is, purchase) various magazines and newspapers...and this includes opera-related magazines. I did a little searching and now have Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera Magazine, Listen Magazine, Opera America and more on my Newsstand. But, without paying a dime, what I really have is just an entry point into each magazine. What's nice (well, relatively nice) about this is that, in most cases, you can easily see the first few pages of each issue. You'll see the cover, maybe a few ad pages, maybe a page from the editor about the issue, and then a Table of Contents of that issue...and then, most likely, nothing more! So, it gives you a chance to see what you would get IF you decided to purchase that issue. And, you can usually purchase a single issue or a yearly subscription. To tell you the truth, I very much prefer real paper magazines than digital ones. The same with ebooks...I wish I were more modern, but I still prefer paper books. Anyway, if you have the time (and an iPad), look for some opera-related magazines. You might be in for a pleasant surprise.
Opera-Related Podcasts on Apple iPad: In the Apple App Store, you can also search for "opera" in the Podcasts category. I won't list all the podcasts that I've found, but one I'm happy to list is the: San Diego Opera Podcast. This podcast (video) is given by Nicolas Riveles, who is a very personable and obviously very knowledgeable opera guy. He will often talk of current or future operas at San Diego Opera, but you surely don't have to be visiting San Diego to get a lot out of his talks. As you'll see, all of his talks (177 of them as I write this!) are archived, free, fun, and informative.
More Streaming Opera: I've found some streaming services that offer opera (and often other classical-type concerts, documentaries, etc.) Fortunately, you can try each of them for free, but unfortunately, after any free trial runs out, you do have to pay up to keep things running. At the moment, I subscribe to none of them, but would love all of them! What can I say, that's the truth. Most of these services, naturally, assume you're a pretty techie person, and have access to iPads, and WiFi, and can set things up accordingly. (It's not very hard, and worth any effort to try it.) Some services to note are: The MET's Opera On Demand, The Berliner Philharmoniker and Medici.tv.
These days, many Blu-Ray and DVD players include all sorts of WiFi channels that you can choose from...YouTube, Netflix, etc. But, some are just loaded with dozens of options you can try. I just recently purchased a new Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-Ray Player for a little under $90 and I love it. It can handle all sorts of discs (including even 3D Blu-Ray, but I don't have a 3D TV) and has a vast array of WiFi abilities. And, happily, included in the cost of the Blu-Ray player was a 30-Day free subscription to the Berliner Philharmoniker streaming service. So, I gave it a good workout. I loved it while I had it, lots of great choices, beautiful HD sound and video. The bad news is that both the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Medici.tv channels are both approximately $200 per year. The MET streaming service is more like $150. For the moment, all of these services are on my wish list, and may one day be realized.
Wagner's Ring Cycle Blu-Ray Discs: Wagner's Ring (taken as one work, even though composed as four separate operas) is surely one of my favorite operatic works. I wouldn't say Ring-itus is exactly a sickness, but sometimes (when I'm wearing Wagner-colored glasses), I do see the world as The Ring and everything else! The scale of the work itself, the decades that it took Wagner to research and write it, as well as the man hours of planning and creativity just required to mount any production of it always boggles my mind. A new Ring production is always the talk of the town. I'm lucky enough to own three different Ring productions, all on Blu-Ray.
At the moment, my favorite Ring is the latest Ring production from the NY Metropolitan Opera: Wagner's Ring (The MET). There's so many aspects of this Ring that I love. For one, I was lucky enough to watch (in person at The Met Live In HD in Concord, NH) the film called Wagner's Dream, which documents the making of The Ring, and especially the vast, incredible machine made of two dozen huge rotatable planks (known as "la machine") that was part of every opera in the Ring. In this movie, I got to see many of the stars (Deborah Voight, Bryn Terfel, Eric Owens, Jay Hunter Morris and more) up close and personal. By the time I got to see the actual operas (some of which I also saw at the MET Live in HD in Concord, NH), I felt I knew the participants. A real nice feeling. The MET Blu-Ray set of this production fortunately includes FIVE discs: Wagner's Dream (The Making of the Ring), and the four operas themselves that comprise the Ring itself.
Many trusted opera buddies, though, often recommend The Barenboim Ring as the one to have (if you could just have one!) I did end up buying it, but I haven't watched it yet. I must admit, though, that I did play the first few minutes, just to catch how this Ring handled the beginning of Das Rheingold. I don't even want to spoil it for you, but it was very laserly green, let's say, a very interesting effect. I just love to see so much creativity in the production of operas. This is one reason why opera is such a superb art form, there's so much to it, so much more than just the words and music. As I write this, this will be the next Ring cycle that I watch. I'm looking forward to it.
I bought another Ring set, known as The Valencia Ring. This is a very interesting Ring...but a little too wild for me. The production involved having the Gods in costumes, sometimes with a kind of miner's light or flashlight that would be pointing to their faces, all while being driven around the set in vehicles (pushed by visible stage hands) that just might have been the same vehicles designed to hold those painting the sets. It was clever, but a little off-putting too. To tell you the truth, I would NOT recommend you get this complete set, as I did, but instead why not buy the much cheaper Highlights-Only disc.
Books on Wagner (The Ring and more): Wagner was such a controversial man, it should be no surprise that there's a huge number of books about Wagner, the man and his music. I'll list here many books that are special to me in one way or another. Most I still own, many I've read, and many are on my endlessly growing soon to be read list!
The One Wagner Book: My desire on this page was to present some of my RECENT operatic discoveries or purchases, but, as the saying goes, I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention a few other Wagner books in my library that were purchased long ago. If you were new to Wagner, and could only purchase one book about Wagner and his operas, I would choose The Wagner Operas by Ernest Newman. Though somewhat dated, it is, to me, still pretty much the bible of Wagner books that I always end up coming back to. I recommend it highly.
The One Wagner GIFT Book: Barry Millington's The Sorcerer of Bayreuth - Richard Wagner, His Work and His World is an absolutely beautiful book. If you are, or know, a Wagner fan, this book just screams out as a perfect gift. It's an easy book, too, it's not a hard philosophically dense book. Not only that, and for me maybe best of all, the book is filled with old photos, pictures, diagrams, figures on just about every page. When you page throught this book, the pictures are so important as they so meaningfully add to the feeling of the times of Wagner. Many of the other books on this page are able to be purchased relatively inexpensively if you don't mind second-hand books from 3rd parties. This one might be tougher to find at a deal, but as a splurge, it's well worth it.
This book, Finding an Ending - Reflections on Wagner's Ring, I happened to run across in August of 2013. I was enjoying a few days off and found myself in Great Barrington, MA with family and friends. So, there, right on Main Street, on the way to dinner, I came across a wonderful little second hand book store called Yellow House Books (252 Main Street.) How I wish I could have spent more time there, but I only had a few minutes before they were closing. They had a wonderful section of music and opera books. I could have spent hours there. I wanted to support their store, so I had to quickly find a book, and "Finding an Ending" is what I found. I haven't even started it yet, but it looks great. It takes on the Ring from the perspective of two current philosophers. Now, when I look at this book, I always think of my visit to Great Barrington. If you're a book fan (not just an opera fan), you'll know what I mean.
I just finished and very much enjoyed this book: Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, by Father M. Owen Lee. (I have become a big fan of M. Owen Lee, and will list more of his books in another section of M. Owen Lee books NOT specifically about Wagner.) This book is actually a retelling of three lectures he gave about Wagner. You can read more about the book by clicking the link to Amazon, but for now, how can you not like words like this: "The Ring, a saga of trouble, of incomrehensible loss, of death and rebirth, is equally about the powerful forces of nature wondered at by primitive man and about the unfathomed forces battling within the soul of each conscious individual at the current state of our evolutionary development. It is the story of a soul writ large, the most astonishing mining of myth since Aeschylus."
The first book shown here is called Wagner Moments...a Celebration of Favorite Wagner Experiences by J. K. Holman. It's a very quick easy, fun read, and it's exactly what it says. There's over 100 very short chapters (or even just single pages) where various people (composers, conductors, singers, writers, etc.) explain one of their favorite Wagner moments. If you can remember the day when you first thought or said "Ahhhhh Wagner" (to misquote Radar from M*A*S*H), you'll enjoy this book. The next book shown here is The Tristan Chord by Bryan Magee. This is NOT a light and easy book, at least not for me. This gets heavily into the philosophy of Wagner, how Wagner came to be what he was, whom he associated with, the figures and times that molded his philosophy. I'm only about a quarter of the way through the book, but not giving up on it.
More Wagner Ring-related Books: Here are three very popular Ring books I purchased quite a while ago. A real favorite of mine is the M. Owen Lee book called Wagner's Ring - Turning the Sky Around - Commentaries of the Ring of the Nibelung. No Ring library should be without it. Also recommended is Deryck Cooke's I Saw The World End - A Study of Wagner's Ring and George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite - A Commentary on the Niblung's Ring.
Other M. Owen Lee Books: If you're an opera fan, you've no doubt heard of Father M. Owen Lee....an extremely bright, articulate, learned author. I've become a big fan of his of late. His books on Wagner (see elsewhere on this page) are legend. But, listed here are four books NOT specifically about Wagner. The first book to make me a fan of Father Lee was his First Intermissions - Commentaries from the Met Broadcasts. If you remember the old Met radio broadcasts, you probably already know Father Lee. At the moment, for fun, I'm trying to watch or listen to every opera he discusses (in order!) from his First Intermissions book. Hey, why not, it's as good as any other method of renewing an interest in many operas. The next book on my list of M. Owen Lee books is his A Season of Opera - From Orpheus to Ariadne. He mostly intended this book to be a sequel both to his First Intermissions book and to his book on Wagner's Ring called Turning the Sky Around. And, if you need a really handy guide to 100 operas, how could you go wrong with his The Operagoer's Guide - One Hundred Stories and Commentaries. And, while I was in my M. Owen Lee mode, I noted that his autobiography called A Book of Hours - Music, Literature and Life - A Memoir was also still available. I've not yet started it, but I've added it to my ever growing to be read list! [Note: And, do remember that most of these books are available second-hand from 3rd Party sellers on Amazon. I think I got all four of these books for under $20 total with a little searching. Your mileage may vary!]
More Special Opera Books: These books are all special to me in one way or another, and so even though I haven't finished them all (or some even started), I can't help listing them. The first is Opera and Ideas - From Mozart to Strauss by Paul Robinson. This is a widely regarded excellent book by an excellent author. If you want to dig deeper into Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and even Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, this is the right book. I'm delighted that Schubert is included and can't wait to get into it. The Leonard Bernstein Letters - Edited by Nigel Simeone is a book I've long been hoping for. I've been a big fan of Bernstein for years and years, and I can't wait to dig into this book too. Michael Rose's The Birth of an Opera I must admit I purchased on a whim (it's not the first such book, and surely won't be the last.) This book details the creation of 15 masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck. Looks like fun. I also purchased Divas and Scholars - Performing Italian Opera by Philip Gossett. I read an interview with Philip Gossett where he discussed the book and I learned so much about Italian opera just from that one interview. I actually knew before purchasing the book that the content would be way over my head, but I bought it anyway. One of my other interests is physics, and many of the books I love to buy in that category are also over my head, for instance, any book by Stephen Hawking. But, I consider these books "10 Percenters"...if I am able to understand even just 10% of what Hawking (or in this case, Philip Gossett) says, I'm better off for it. I'll take the chance. The last book, Bravo! A Guide to Opera for the Perlexed by Barrymore Laurence Scherer, with an Introduction by Thomas Hampson, was a very pleasant surprise. As I write this, I just finished the book, and I loved it. It's NOT a very difficult book, in fact, it's a very easy-reading, conversational, approachable book about opera...from the beginnings of opera to today. He surveys Italian, German, French, Russian, American opera and more. It's a really excellent introduction to opera. (And, I found it for a buck at a library sale too. Nice!) If you are already a dedicated opera fan, you might not learn all that much from this book, but if you're relatively new to opera, I can't think of a better book with which to start.
The Opera Gala (Dec 5, 2013): The Opera Gala, though a very recent purchase, is actually a few years old, and it is a tremendously enjoyable concert. It stars Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca, Ramon Vargas and Ludovic Tezier. I am already a fan of Anna Netrebko and Ramon Vargas, but Elina Garanca and Ludovic Tezier were both new to me (and now firmly on my operatic radar!) If you're not already a fan of Anna Netrebko, you sure will be after seeing this concert. There's even one aria where she was actually quite hysterical (funny) when she was getting very friendly with the first violinist! You have to see it to believe it. This is just a very enjoyable evening of opera, with many great and famous arias. Well worth getting.
Die Fledermaus (Dec 5, 2013): Die Fledermaus, which I happened to purchase at the same time as The Opera Gala and thus link them together here, is an easy-going operetta by Johann Strauss II. If you've not already seen it, it's a fun piece through and through, played for laughs, with lots of confused identities and disguises (which is very typical of so many operas.) Even if you haven't seen this operetta, I'll bet you've heard many of the themes and melodies.
Verdi's Macbeth (Dec 7, 2013): Verdi's Macbeth is an opera I've always loved, but haven't watched in a really long time. My only copy of it was from an old Laserdisc which I transfered to VHS tape and then, later, transferred to a DVD using a DVD Recorder as was then the trend. Sadly, it's almost unwatchable. So, now, slowly, I'm re-buying many of the operas I used to have on Laserdisc on Blu-Ray. How I wish the recording companies had offered some kind of upgrade policy. Anyway, this Macbeth, in truly gorgeous HiDef video and superb sound is an absolute treasure. This opera, from the Royal Opera House, stars Simon Keenlyside, Liudmyla Monastyrska and Raymond Aceto.
Shakespeare's Hamlet (Dec 7, 2013): Shakespeare's Hamlet is NOT an opera, at least this disc isn't an opera. (There is an opera of Shakespeare's Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, but I've not seen it yet.) This disc is the (non-operatic) Shakespeare play of Hamlet, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. It's a BBC Blu-Ray disc, very high quality as you might guess, and being a fan of Patrick Stewart (yes, from Star Trek), I thought I'd give it a try. And, glad I did. (It's also a very inexpensive Blu-Ray disc which is always a rarity.) I must admit watching so many operas lately, when watching this disc, I kept thinking "this sounds like the opportunity to start an aria", but no.
Verdi's Shakespeare (Dec 7, 2013): Verdi's Shakespeare - Men of the Theatre is a book by Garry Wills about Verdi's Shakespearean operas: Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff. I hope to report on this book later, after I've watched or re-watched all the operas. At the moment, I'm all the way up to Chapter 1...made it through the Introduction without a problem...a tough book I hope to grow into.
The Nibelung Ballad (Dec 7, 2013): The Nibelung Ballad - The Story From Wagner's Ring is a little book (more like a pamphlet actually!) "told" by Richard Morris and illustrated (reminiscent of a comic book) by Hatty Morris. It's a retelling of the Nibelung story in (sometimes) rhyming verse. It's a very short, very simple book, easily read in one sitting. If you love The Ring, you might find it enjoyable. I actually did enjoy it, but had I known it was such a slight volume, I probably would have passed on it. (Luckily, the price was less than ten dollars for this sight-unseen purchase.)
The Highest Level (Dec 9, 2013): I purchased this Blu-Ray disc from ArkivMusic.com. (I'm not sure why it doesn't seem to be available from Amazon.com yet?) And, yes, it's not even an opera disc, so please forgive me for including it here. Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto has always been a favorite of mine, and this is both a "Making Of" and a "studio concert" of this work, starring Lang Lang with Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. This concerto is just a mind-blowing work, start to finish. If you haven't heard it (and seen the mechanical skill of the pianist necessary to play it), you're really missing out. If you happened to see an old movie called The Competition starring Richard Dreyfus, Amy Irving and Lee Remick, you might remember that this concerto played a very big role in the movie. This disc also contains Bartok's Piano Concerto #2, but apparently just as high-res stereo, rather than the full video. That was disappointing, but even so, the whole disk (only $15) was a pleasure and a bargain!
Live From Red Square Moscow (Dec 11, 2013): Live From Red Square Moscow is a superb concert (guess where) featuring Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, both of whom are in fine form, and both looking like they are having a fine old time, at home, relaxed, and smiling. Add the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia and an upcoming sunset, and you have the ingredients for a fine concert. The beginning of the concert featured mostly Verdi, but as you might guess, towards the end of the concert there was surely a move into some Russian operatic and folk songs. Very nice indeed.
Verdi Requiem (Dec 26, 2013): Verdi's Requiem is a masterpiece not to be missed. Not exactly an opera, but I've listed it here both because it is such a wonderful, choral work, but it does also include operatic soloists including Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape among others. This a Blu-Ray disk featuring the Orchestra E Coro Del Teatro Alla Scala conducted by Daniel Barenboim. To me, one of the most remarkable aspects of this work is the percussion! If you've not seen it, wait until you see and especially hear the huge base drum used to great effect. Can a requiem be fun? Well, if you like big bass drums, this one can sure be fun. OK, let's call it dramatic, rather than fun, but you get the idea.
Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame - The Queen of Spades (January 14, 2014): The Queen of Spades is probably the second most well-known opera of Tchaikovsky (the first being Eugene Onegin) and includes some very beautiful music. I've always thought very highly of Tchaikovsky for his more famous non-operatic works so it was a pleasure to become familiar with his most popular operatic works. This opera (and Onegin) are both based on the stories by Alexander Pushkin. This is a Blu-Ray Opus Arte disk and the first version of this opera I've seen. An interesting story involving love, ghosts, gambling and more.
Verdi vs Wagner (June 4, 2014) Click here to watch a short (6 1/2 minute), funny, animated video on Verdi vs. Wagner.
Elektra by Strauss (June 28, 2014): Elektra by Richard Strauss is a tragic opera in one act, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal after Sophocles. I must admit that what drew me to this disk is not only that it is both inexpensive ($10) and a high quality Blu-Ray disk, but that it also includes a bonus feature of almost 2.5 hours of short clips of 50 other available Blu-Ray (mostly) operatic titles. A great value. Enjoy!
Transcendence - Schubert's String Quartet #15 in G Major - The Miró Quartet (October 5, 2015): Transcendence - The Miró Quartet - Again proving this is not a strictly opera page, I would be totally remiss if I didn't mention my new favorite Blu-Ray disk, and it's a string quartet, not an opera! I went to Amazon a few weeks ago, searched for "Blu Ray String Quartets", got some hits, but not as many as hoped for. But, I did find this one, of Schubert's last string quartet by The Miró Quartet. It's an astounding work. One of the reasons I like string quartets is that they were rarely written for large venues, no one hooped and hollered when a new string quartet was produced (unlike maybe new symphonies.) It's as if string quartets were more personal creations of the composers, maybe even intended more as an intellectual or creative exercise than anything else. Anyway, Schubert's last quartet, to me, is surely in that realm. It's a fantastic work, and played to perfection by The Miró Quartet. But, there's even more that makes this such a special disk for me. One of the best surprises is the obvious care that went into the video and audio production. Not only is the performance flawless, but the video seems to be about as high a resolution as I've seen and the audio is super crisp too. You'll feel like you're in the first row. I hope they release many more such Blu-Rays in the days ahead!
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