Opera is making a comeback. When Peter Gelb became the general manager of The Met, he undertook a controversial and risky endeavor: screening live performances from The Met in local movie theaters. It has been such a success that opera houses around the world are following suit. Audiences get the equivalent of orchestra seating that most could only dream of affording at an opera house.

The irony is that, had I not become sick, I could have cared less about these live performances. But now I'm too sick to attend. I was a rock n' roller with not the slightest interest in opera. In fact, I can safely say I was scared of it. But in April 2005, from my bed, I decided to face my fear.

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Marriage of Figaro
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I picked a DVD of The Marriage of Figaro because it was by Mozart. I gritted my teeth as the curtain rose. On hands and knees, a guy was calling out numbers to his fiancé as he measured a room while she was telling him to pay attention to her instead as she modeled her wedding hat. "Cinque, dieci, venti..." he sang, while she, also in song, pleaded, "Hey, over here; look at me." They teased each other for a bit and then launched into sweet harmony, singing about their upcoming wedding. "This is opera?" I thought. I was hooked.

Opera buffs turn out to be a highly opinionated lot, sometimes obnoxiously so. To my surprise, I've joined right in. And so, here are mostly opinions, offered as if they're facts.

Wolfgang Mozart and Guiseppi Verdi are unsurpassed at setting the human experience to music. Mozart is the genius at using musical composition—its rhythm, tempo, key, melody—to delineate and flesh out the characters in his operas. Verdi is the genius at tapping into our own emotional landscape—love, despair, greed, joy, envy, sorrow. Both composers explore the human condition, Verdi in a heightened and intense way, Mozart with extraordinary precision and clarity.

Mozart. As soon as the overture to a Mozart opera begins, I feel a joyful anticipation because his music always sounds brand new, as if I'm hearing it for the first time. His operas stay as fresh and young as he was when he composed them; they make me feel fresh and young. And I love that he never judges his characters. He just brings them alive musically with all their admirable qualities and all their faults.

Mozart's Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte are comedic and serious at the same time. How Mozart pulls this off musically is part of his genius.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cosi Fan Tutte This is my favorite opera. The music is sweet and heavenly, with that tinge of indefinable sadness, just like life. Cosi also has its share ofcomedic ensemble pieces. Its plot is very contemporary, examining the tenuousness of relationships (a troublemaker makes a bet with two guys that, within 24 hours, he can get their fiancés to cheat on them). It might seem as if Cosi's light and dark moods can't be reconciled, but Mozart balances and unifies it all, creating a score that is, at various times comic, heartbreaking, amorous, and heavenly.

If you're game, here's a famous trio from Cosi, Soave sia il vento. Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Don Alfonso ask that a gentle breeze and a calm sea protect their loved ones on their journey. While the voices convey a gentle calm, the muted violins and woodwinds suggest the murmur of the wind and waves.

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Don Giovanni
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Don Giovanni From the ominous opening chord of the overture, Don Giovanni grips me and never lets go. I'm under the opera's demonic spell, much as the women in the opera are under the Don's spell. The opening scene is a shocker: before we can catch our breath after the overture, the title character has committed murder most foul. Many consider it to be the greatest opera ever written. Gustave Flaubert famously said: "There are three things in the world I love most—the sea, Hamlet, and Don Giovanni."

Verdi. When I listen to Verdi, I feel as if his music is breathing my body, a physical sensation I didn't understand until I read this comment: "Verdi discovered the musical analog to the essential biorhythms of human life." Verdi's music, whether for solo voice or for ensemble, is at once big in sound and intimate in feel. And he knows how to rock and roll. Some of his chorus pieces can compete with the best rockers.

Il Trovatore The plot reminds me of those scare-me-to-death campfire stories we told as kids. It fits the wild feel of the music. "Fire" is the key because the music of Il Trovatore is on fire. It's so intense that it often feels out of control (although of course the orchestra and singers can't be). And when Verdi turns down the heat, he gives his troubled characters the most exquisite and moving arias.  

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José Cura as Otello, 1999
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Otello I'm in awe of how the 73 year-old Verdi had the energy to compose such a musically complex opera. Picking one piece from Otello is like picking one phrase out of a symphony. Otello is not a series of memorable songs; it's a single intense experience from beginning to end. Otello contains the most sensual love duet I know of, even though it has no hummable tune. Sung by Otello and Desdemona at the end of Act I, one of its motifs returns to haunt us at the end of Act IV, as Otello lay dying by his own hand after realizing he has killed an innocent Desdemona.

If you're still game, here's Desdemona's Ave Maria Prayer from Act IV. She's in a state of shock and confusion over Otello's behavior towards her. Before getting into bed, she sings this prayer, sensing it may be for the last time. She asks forgiveness for herself and others. It's performed by the great soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa.

Like a good opinionated opera buff, I could go on to write about the composers I don't particularly like. But I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.

© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010) 

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.

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