I have an avid interest in classical music. I have studied and played trombone for twenty years and have been members of many orchestras, symphonic bands, wind ensembles, jazz bands, marching bands, and small ensembles. Most recently I was principal trombone for the North York Concert Orchestra and the Counterpoint Community Orchestra in Toronto, Canada. My wife and I enjoy all types of classical music, from small ensemble to symphony orchestra, and from opera to ballet. I have compiled a list of some of my favorite operas and ballets on this page with the hope that some will find it interesting. I find that there are many people who don't think they will enjoy these art forms, but have never given them a chance. I find opera to be a particularily powerful form as it combines drama, acting, choreography, and staging all with the special power that music has to speak directly to abstract emotions and concepts.
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
Even two hundred and twenty years after its composition, Mozart's final opera is one of the most frequently performed operatic works. Though most will agree that the music from this opera is both charming and stunning, it is also the belief among many that the story being told is nothing more than a non-sensical fairy tale. They see the Queen of the Night simply as a representation of evil and the Egyptian king Sarastro as good personified. However, there is a much more subtle and gratifying way of looking at it. Mozart was a man of the Enlightenment, when much of Europe was putting reason and knowledge above primitive superstition, and this opera can be seen as an exploration of this evolution. The Queen of the Night becomes a representation of man's irrational, uncivilized side and Sarastro represents reason. In fact, if one takes this view, it is also possible to see this opera as the story of how man moved from the unconscious instinct-driven world of nature to the thinking conscious world of civilization. The queen is not "evil" any more than Sarastro is "good", they simply symbolize different steps in the evolution of civilization. This is an optimistic work showcasing a deep belief in progress, however, this feeling did not last in Europe and almost one hundred years later Richard Wagner wrote the story of how the natural returns to conquer the rational and bring an end to civilization in his epic Ring Cycle.
"A work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection." This is how Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described Mozart's masterpiece. French author Gustave Flaubert wrote that "the three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni" (I wonder if He was saving the best for last). "The opera of all operas" is how this works was described by E. T. A. Hoffman, while the other giant of operatic history, Richard Wagner, asked, "Is it possible to find anything more perfect than every piece in Don Giovanni?"
The story of Don Giovanni (Don Juan in English) has been treated in many forms by many artists, yet somehow this final collaboration between Mozart and the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte endures as the definitive work. Perhaps it is because this is not an opera about Giovanni, but rather an opera about the people around him. Don Giovanni undergoes no noticeable character development at all in this work. From the first scene, when he seduces Donna Anna and stabs her father, to the penultimate scene, when Giovanni is faced with the chance to save himself from an eternity in Hell and still refuses to repent his ways, Don Giovanni is always the same scoundrel. It is through interactions with this anti-hero that everyone else on stage learns about themselves and their own weaknesses. Because these other characters are not simple one-dimensional caricature, as Giovanni is, they are much more relatable.
Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)
Richard Wagner is one of the most influential musicians of all time. He is credited with inspiring a musical revolution. Though this is one of his earliest works, it is fascinating because at times it is a very traditional opera and at other times it is evident that revolutionary ideas were already in the young composer's head. Wagner initially wanted to write works in which the drama and music were on equal footing. Rather than writing what would traditionally be called "songs", Wagner invented a style of music wherein the musical line follows the natural shape and rhythm of natural speech to a larger extent than what was done before. His operas cannot be divided into songs that are somewhat separate, but rather contain a continuous stream of music, a technique now known as "through-composition".
It is also interesting to see how much of Wagner's philosophy, which he could only fully describe after discovering the writing of Schopenhauer, was already evident in this early work. Were it not for the possibility of his redemption, the Dutchman would be a perfect representation of the insatiable "will" that Schopenhauer believed drives all that exists. Wagner later explores this "will" in his later works, most notably in Tristan und Isolde.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
This four-part story is the epic of the opera world. Wagner reshaped the old myths of northern Europe in order to advance his own philosophies. It begins with the dwarf Alberich stealing magical gold from the depths of the Rhine and forging a ring that will allow him to take control of the world. Initially this story, written during the throws of the industrial revolution in Germany, seems to be a story about the dangers of capitalism. Alberich steals the treasures of nature and uses his wealth to control others. As the story progresses however, it becomes apparent that the subject being treated is all of civilization and how a civilized society is inherently counter to man's nature.
This is also the work in which Wagner's use of leitmotifs is most prevalent. These leitmotifs (or "leading ideas") are short musical themes that are associated with characters, objects, or ideas within a larger work. Wager was not the first to use leitmotifs, however he did push their use to new levels of sophistication. The ring cycle contains hundreds of motifs which interact with each other and evolve throughout the work. One aspect of the use of leitmotifs that I find very effective is that they can show the relationship between events and ideas that may be separated by large amounts of time in this monumental work. For example, at one point the Valkyrie Brünnhilde saves Sieglinde by sacrificing her own immortality. When she does this a very distinctive theme is heard for the first time. This theme does not return again until the very last scene of the last opera when Brünnhilde has lit a giant fire that has engulfed her and spread over the entire world. It is through the music that the listener understands this to be the same act, Brünnhilde has again sacrificed herself, this time to purify and redeem the entire planet.
Tristan und Isolde
This work changed the course of opera and, really, all music. Wagner wanted to write an opera based on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner felt that Schopenhauer's belief that humans are driven by an insatiable "will" and desires that cannot ever be fulfilled closely matched his personal intuition. The story of Tristan and Isolde represents this view perfectly. The two heroes, after unknowingly drinking a love potion, are forced to long for each other. The fact that Isolde must marry King Marke is inconsequential; their desires can never be fully satisfied. The only release from their compulsion is through death.
Wagner needed a new musical language in order to properly portray this endless desire. Rather than utilizing traditional methods, where tension is built in a musical line only to be released relatively soon with a cadence, Wagner elected to build the tension continuously over the entire work, only to release it in the final notes. His radical new technique was immediately apparent when the first four-note line of the overture leads, not to the expected resolution, but to a strange tension-filled chord that defied classical analysis. This chord came the be known as the "Tristan-chord" and was a bold statement that something very new and challenging is in store for the listener. In fact, this opera is so revolutionary that the planned premiere in Vienna had to be cancelled. After more than seventy rehearsals over a period of two years, one of the greatest opera companies in the world declared the work to be unperformable. When the opera did premiere in Munich, after only four performances, the tenor singing Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, collapsed suddenly and died. It was speculated that the stress of the role contributed to his death. Over the following years, two conductors, Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth, both died while conducting the second act of opera.
The daring departure from classical tonality has lead many to regard this opera as the beginning of modern music. In fact some have gone so far as to say that this single work laid all of the groundwork for all of twentieth-century music. It is impossible to ignore the effect this masterpiece has had over all music that followed.
The Firebird and The Rite of Spring
These two ballets were the breakout works of Igor Stravinsky. The Firebird tells the Russian legend of a glowing bird that can bring both great fortune or great suffering to its captor. Stravinsky's neo-classical style brought a fresh new energy to the form and gave him the reputation needed to gain support for his his more daring works that were still yet to come.
For his work, the Rite of Spring, Stravinsky collaborated with a daring young choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was only twenty-three at the time. Stravinsky composed a piece that was a complete departure from classical ballets. His use of dissonances and complex rhythmical devices brought a new type of complexity to classical music. Nijinsky's choreography was also a complete departure from classical ballet. Rather than calling for elegant movements and long flowing lines, Nijinsky designed a jarring style in which dancers were often hunched over with bent arms and legs. This is not the story of elegant sophisticated heroes, but rather of a primitive pagan tribe completely at the mercy of their environment.
The Rite of Spring is partially famous for having the most disastrous opening night in classical music history. The story goes that, on the eve of the premier, the producer had apprehensions about how such a revolutionary work would be received. He therefore distributed tickets to students of the music conservatory and asked them to applaud, no matter what they actually thought. He also instructed the conductor to continue to performance regardless of the reception it received. Shortly after the first performance did began, boos began to be yelled from the audience. Supporters of the new work (possibly the students from the conservatory) began to cheer wildly and arguments in the aisles quickly degenerated into fist fights. By the time the work was half over, the Paris police had arrived and were arresting people and hauling them off the jail, all while the ballet continued. Partial order was eventually restored and the ballet concluded. The scandal helped establish the fame of both Stravinsky and Nijinsky.
After Wagner, the next evolution of German music was the work of Richard Strauss. He is probably best known for his shocking early compositions, Salome and Elektra, and his comic opera Der Rosenkavalier. Nevertheless, these operas were followed by a long series of beautiful works. I particularly like Arabella. Though classified as a lyric comedy, this opera has very complex and wonderful music as well as an interesting theme. For me, Strauss' music is a perfect mix of intricate polyphony and soaring melodies. These melodies seem to radiate more brightly because they often erupt from such complex tension-filled music.
The story of Arabella is that of a Count and Countess who have become bankrupt due to the waining influence of the privileged class in Europe. They are desperately trying to restore their former wealth and hold on to the vestiges of their former ways of life. They are raising two daughters, but because they don't feel they can afford two society weddings, they disguise their youngest daughter as a son. It seems to them that their only hope to recover their standing is to find a rich husband for their older daughter Arabella. They arrange for several suitors to meet their daughter. Arabella enjoys the attention, but insists that she has fallen in love with a stranger she saw on the streets of Vienna. Though she does not know it, this man is rich. Arabella does eventually marry him and the family is saved, but not before the desperate meddling of her parents (specifically their disguising of Arabella's sister Zdenka) nearly ruin everything.
Strauss lived through a time of great change in Europe. Born during a time of intense industrialization and urbanization in Europe, he lived through two world wars and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. The message I get watching Arabella is that one must be open to change and trust that new opportunities will arise. Arabella's parents are so obsessed with protecting their former aristocratic way of life that they almost prevent the fulfilment of both of their daughters' love and the redemption of their family.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
There are many examples of artists who had tragically short careers because their lives were cut too short. Shostakovich did have both a long life and a long career. However, the operatic masterpiece, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which he wrote at the age of twenty-six, was his last opera. He didn't dare write another opera after his opera was denounced by the official soviet newspaper Pravda. This article was published two days after Stalin had attended the opera and it is thought that he ordered it. The article described the opera as "Muddle instead of Music" condemned it as formalist and music for the intelligentsia rather than the common man. This came at a time when many of Shostakovich's colleagues and friends were being imprisoned and even killed as part of Stalin's "Great Terror".
Fortunately Shostakovich continued to write. His symphonies and string quartets are particularly moving. I also really enjoy his collection of preludes and fugues. Unfortunately, Shostakovich did have more run-ins with the Soviets. He was forced to abandon his fourth symphony because it didn't properly follow the prescribed principals of soviet realism set forth by the government. Shostakovich responded by writing his fifth symphony which is much more celebratory and upbeat, though it is generally believed to be entirely sarcastic. In fact Shostakovich is said to have once described the final movement by saying "It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.'"
Alban Berg died in 1935 before this opera was completed. In fact, the first performance of the completed opera didn't happen until 1979. This is because, after Berg's death, his wife, Helene, sent the score to his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, and asked him to complete the work. Schoenberg declined saying that the task would take more time than he had originally thought. After this, Helene forbade anyone else from seeing incomplete score until her death in 1976. At that time, it was discovered that the opera was in fact almost complete and only some orchestration of the final act remained to be done. It is not known why Helene would not allow the opera to be completed during her life. It is known that Alban Berg's last completed work, his violin concerto, contains a coded love note to his mistress hidden within the music. Some people wonder if Helene decided the opera should not be finished because she knew or suspected it contained more such secret messages.
Like all kids, Chiara loves music. She gets her fair share of children's songs and Lani and I sing with her a lot. Her favourite CD is Rolf Zuckowski's Kinderfrühling. Fortunately she also loves to watch some kid-friendly operas and ballets. Sometimes, when Lani and I need a break from the kids songs, these recordings are really great. Here are a few I would recommend to any parents who would like to expose kids of any age to some more sophisticated, but still very fun, music.
The Magic Flute
It is very common to stage a version of Die Zauberflöte that has been created specially for children. It is then always translated into the native language. The opera is usually abridged to make it suitable for a child's attention span and some parts that sound sexist or racist to a modern listener are adjusted or removed. What remains in an adventure involving the prince Tamino, princess Pamina, and the colourful chimerical bird-man Papageno. The music for this opera is beautiful partially because of its apparent simplicity, a fact that makes it very accessible to every listener.
Hansel and Gretel
Engelbert Humperdinck wrote several operas intended for people of all ages. By far, his most beloved work is Hansel und Gretel. Humperdinck combines the famous Grimm brothers' fairy tale with romantic German music based largely on simple folk songs. The result is a lavish yet bouncy score that contains many Wagnerian techniques and yet maintains an off-the-wall energy; it is truly fun to hear. Though the work was always meant to be family-friendly, it should by no means be dismissed as unimportant. When this opera premiered in Weimar it was conducted by Richard Strauss who called it "a masterpiece of the highest quality". Though famous for his children's' music, Humperdinck was always a highly respected musician. When the premier of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, was being staged in Bayreuth and it was discovered that there was not enough music for a scene change in the third act, it was Humperdinck that was entrusted to expand Wagner's interlude. Hansel und Gretel has become a beloved opera all around the world and in German-speaking countries it is now a staple at Christmas time.
The Adventures of Pinocchio
There is an impression in many peoples minds that opera and ballet are art forms of the past. This is not true. There are many fine works being written and published today. In 2007 British composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton created an opera based on The Adventures of Pinocchio - not the Disney film, but the original Italian novel by Carlo Collodi. The result is both rhythmic and melodious. At times strong influences from Britten and Shostakovich are evident and at other Glass and Adams. The theme of this work, like the original, is that wanting or trying to be good is not quite the same as being good.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Another contemporary work that is a lot of fun for the whole family is the ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This work, first performed in 2011, was created by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot after a joint commission by the Royal Ballet in London and the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto. This ballet is fast-paced and immensely whimsical. Each character that Alice runs into is represented by a different style of dance and music, all of it tied together by a dreamy ethereal musical score. Alice is always open to adopt each character's style within her own classical-ballet techniques. It seems the theme of this ballet is that one should always be open to trying new things and not be afraid of having different experiences.