Parlando: The COC Blog


Parlando Asks: Opera for Beginners

As we continue to prepare for our 2013/2014 season, one of the most common questions we hear from patrons at the Canadian Opera Company is "What is a good opera for a beginner?" We put the question to our staff, some of our artists and our social media followers to see what the results would be!

We polled our Facebook fans about the best opera for a beginner and the answer was The Magic Flute, followed by Carmen and La Bohème! Other interesting suggestions included Lakmé and Rusalka! Read on to see what our staff had to say.

Gianmarco Segato, the COC's Adult Programs Manager agreed somewhat with the Facebook poll. "I often get asked this question – and the answer is deceptively difficult! My first go-to opera would be something like La Bohème or another Puccini tearjerker like Madama Butterfly. Certainly musically these pieces have immediately appealing, memorable melodies which are often very emotionally-affecting for a first-time listener. However, not everybody is comfortable with the over-the-top emotions that Puccini can supply! I’ve had more success taking people like that to a spectacularly produced opera, and not necessarily a piece one would immediately think of as “easy.” A prime example is a non-opera-going friend I brought to see the COC’s Siegfried a few years ago. She was completely mesmerized by the François Girard production (see image below) which I think she related to strongly as a visual artist herself. So, it really depends on the type of person you’re introducing to opera, and repertoire choices should be made accordingly!"

Vanessa Smith, School Programs Manager. "Start with whichever production piques your interest! Personally, coming from a theatrical background, I most enjoy operas when I enjoy the entire production. My first two operas were the first two on the mainstage when I started working here – Aida and Death in Venice. While I doubt many people would recommend Death in Venice as a “beginner” opera, I was so enthralled with the production that falling in love with the music followed suit. It may just be the visual learner in me, but when it comes to attending opera, I enjoy it most when the whole picture comes together."

Ensemble Studio member Clarence Frazer chimed in with a popular vote. "I would say most operas by Mozart would be great because (a) many people have heard of the composer so there already is a sense of familiarity in some capacity, (b) the majority of his music tends to be "lighter", very beautiful and have a memorable "tune" or melody which one might be able to sing themselves or hum once they're home, and (c) a lot of the librettos Mozart uses are stories which we all can relate to so understanding the opera and what is going on (with the aid of SURTITLES™) is not a dilemma."

Kristin McKinnon, our Assistant Publicist was also quite decisive. "Mozart’s The Magic Flute, without a doubt. Its catchy tunes and fun story make it the ideal introduction for opera newbies of all ages. Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale?"

Danielle D'Ornellas, Digital Marketing Assistant, added "I think I lucked out with my first opera, Le nozze di Figaro! I was very familiar with Mozart's music, but never really had a chance to explore opera. When I heard the familiar Mozart tunes tied in with the comedy onstage, I finally understood the unity of opera. It also didn't hurt that Ensemble Studio graduate Robert Gleadow played a mischievous and charming Figaro!"

Communications Assistant Claire Morley replied, "I think one of the best operas for beginners has to be Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. It’s a familiar fairy tale to many, it is not epically long, and the music is whimsical and beautiful. There is a fantastic and darkly comic production that Richard Jones directed for Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and it’s captured beautifully on DVD in the Met’s HD Series. The Met production stars some faces familiar to the COC these days (Alice Coote as Hansel and Alan Held as the father, Peter), and both give tremendous performances. Particularly notable is the wonderfully hilarious and terrifying Witch, sung by the late Phillip Langridge (see image above). The opera is wonderful for both adults and kids, and every time I see it, I swoon!"

When it came to recommending specific operas, Jennifer Pugsley, our Media Relations Manager went tragic. "Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček wasn’t the first opera that I ever saw, but it was the first one that made me love opera.  It was intense, thrilling and captivating from start to finish. What more could you want when exploring an art form for the first time?"

Gianna Wichelow, Senior Communications Manager, Creative. "I’d advise anyone who wants to experience opera for the first time to commit to a few experiences. I mean, if you see one movie and it doesn’t impact you, do you give up on all movies? No one opera can sum up the entire operatic experience. You can ask an opera-loving friend’s advice bearing in mind the sort of music and drama that you already find the most compelling. Having said all that, if I had to pick one, La Bohème is a generally good first opera. Carmen was mine, and it worked all too well!

Blanche Israel, Children and Youth Programs Assistant countered with "I say – go big or go home. I used to think a short, light Italian opera buffa would be the best way to introduce someone to opera, but ever since seeing the COC’s production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (which left me figuratively sprawled out on the floor) I’ve revised my opinion. Opera is designed to awe and inspire, so a beginner should feel that right off the bat."

And Phil Stephens, our Senior Manager, Customer Service and Sales had the final word! "It depends on the beginner. Understand your personal tastes as an audience member… are you drawn to dark dramas, light comedies or something in between? A great leap towards connecting with opera is to attend a few plays, musicals and live orchestral events beforehand. After that, trust your instincts and don't hesitate to attend your first performance on your own. La Bohème has the music, young singers and storyline that makes it easy for newcomers to get on board, but pieces like The Flying Dutchman, Elektra and Ewartung/Bluebeard's Castle are my personal favourites because they’re gritty, twisted and violent (don’t judge me!). Tosca is another good one for its unbridled Italian passion and sharply defined characters (argh, that Scarpia!) Finally, Box Office staff are a wonderful resource, so use them. Let them know what you might be looking for, and they can help with some great suggestions. Ask lots of questions about seating and sightlines before you commit to the tickets. Then take a deep breath, and dive in."

What do you think is the best opera for a beginner? Something beautiful and melodic like La Bohème? Something challenging like Siegfried? Something dark like Peter Grimes? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credits: (top) Adina Nitescu as Cio-Cio-San and David Pomeroy as Pinkerton in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Madama Butterfly, 2009. Photo: Michael Cooper; (middle) Laura Whalen as the Forest Bird and Christian Franz as Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Siegfried, 2006. Photo: Gary Beechey; (middle) Phillip Langridge as The Witch in the Metropolitan Opera's 2008 production of Hansel and Gretel. Photo: Metropolitan Opera; (bottom) Melanie Diener as Isolde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tristan und Isolde, 2013. Photo:Michael Cooper.

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The Big COC Podcast: Episode 14 - To ‘transladapt' ...or not to ‘transladapt’

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager


For Episode 14, the “To ‘transladapt’…or not to ‘transladapt’” edition, we welcome back Opera Canada editor, Wayne Gooding as well as opera blogger, John Gilks. For the first time we’re joined by two of the founding members of Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre: Joel “Ginger Ninja” Ivany, Artistic Director and Christopher “Matzo Ball” Mokrzewski, Music Director. Gianmarco Segato, the COC’s Adult Programs Manager is your host. 

Join us as we get into some heated discussion (and topple the microphone!) around this week’s top opera stories:

Are you out there listening? What would you like us to talk about next time? Let us know by sending us your ideas/comments by commenting here, on Facebook, Twitter or by e-mail (

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Travels with Alexander Neef

By Alexander Neef, General Director

Another excellent season at the COC has come to a close! The 2012/2013 season was deeply satisfying for me because we achieved what I’ve been working towards since I joined the company – consistency in our productions. All of the operas we presented were extremely well thought-through, with superb casts and great artists involved on stage, in the pit, and behind the scenes. The fantastic work by our orchestra and chorus is a testament to the great job our music director, Johannes Debus, has been doing since he arrived four years ago, as well as the expert stewardship that Sandra Horst brings to the chorus. Now, it’s time to move full speed into a fantastic 2013/2014 season.

Summer is the season for festivals and young artists’ programs, both of which are extremely important in long-range future planning. Big festivals like those in Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth, Salzburg, Glyndebourne, Saint Louis, and Santa Fe are very helpful for me because there’s a huge concentration of opera and talent available to see in a short period of time. Young artists training programs are equally important – for example, the Merola program at San Francisco Opera is one of the great resources for young operatic talent in North America – so I try to visit as many programs as I can. And even better are opera festivals like those in Santa Fe and Saint Louis that combine both mainstage work and training programs, so I can go for one week and see a lot of established artists as well as emerging talent all in one place – it’s a really good use of time.

This summer is unusual because I’ll be visiting some new places and a few that I haven’t gone to in a while. I haven’t been to Bayreuth in more than 10 years, and this summer I’m privileged to go during dress rehearsal week when I’m seeing several rehearsals of new productions, as well as part of their new Ring Cycle. Speaking of Wagner, I’m also going to BBC Proms nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall to see Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, both conducted by Daniel Barenboim with some pretty amazing casts. These productions and concerts involve a lot of singers that I’ve never seen before, and, with quite a bit of Wagner coming to the COC in the next few seasons, it’s great to catch up with that particular talent pool in Europe.

When I’m in Aix, I will revisit our co-production of Don Giovanni, which I’m looking forward to presenting in a future season. I saw it when it opened in Aix in 2010, then again when Teatro Real in Madrid presented it earlier this year, and it’s been great to see it develop and grow over the years. It’s an unusual production, but this Don Giovanni is a very good example of how invigorating an operatic experience can be when the richness of the material is explored, examined and questioned by talented artists.

As stimulating and inspiring as it is to be away, living out of a suitcase for weeks at a time is not my definition of pleasure. I’m moving apartments this week, and it won’t be long before I have to leave, so decorating and fixing it up will have to wait until I get back. Happily, the first two weeks of July are pure vacation, with a visit to see my family in Germany. Life can’t be 100% focused on work, after all!

Photo: © 2012 

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001