Opera: where to start

Why should opera be an impenetrable genre? Read our beginner's guide and get to grips with this exciting, dramatic and occasionally silly art form.

First things first, don't be scared. If your mental image of opera is sitting in uncomfortable seats a kilometre from the stage and not understanding what on earth the tubby chap is singing about, then it's time we took a step back. 

True, from first impressions, opera has all the hallmarks of a ridiculous genre, but if we look a little deeper then, like learning a language, you start to get more fluent the more you listen. Still, probably best to bring a cushion.

Where to start

We recommend starting with some of the big hitters. Whatever you do, don't start by getting yourself a copy of the Wagner's Ring Cycle and attempt the whole fifteen hours in one go. It's a one-way ticket to a new set of CD coasters. No, the best thing to do is dive in at one of opera's most accessible points: Mozart.

Discover more about Mozart's life and works

Known chiefly for his comedies, Mozart was extremely good at fusing perky tunes, ridiculous situations and, occasionally, some real heart-wrenching all together into one digestible whole. The Marriage of Figaro has a breathless overture to kick it off, and the story itself is a bonkers farce. If you've got a CD, keep the translation handy (think of it like a match day programme) if you want to follow word for word. If, on the other hand, you're lucky enough to be seeing it live, most opera houses will run subtitles at the top of the stage. Either way, it's really easy to follow.

While you're on a Mozart tip, you might want to give Don Giovanni a go if you're after something slightly more adventurous. This terrifying tale begins as a bawdy romp, but (spoiler alert) our anti-hero ends up being dragged to the pits of hell at the very end. But amidst all that, there's some amazing music and hummable tunes – so steel yourself and get involved. 

If that doesn't float your boat, try Beethoven's Fidelio – it was his only opera, and he worked insanely hard to perfect it. It's an epic tale of cross-dressing, prison, heartbreak and has some pretty serious tunes in it too. 

Explore Beethoven's greatest works 

And there's always Puccini if you fancy something a little more romantic - La Boheme is a good place to start, with its Parisian bohemia, lovesick couples and shattering conclusion. Puccini is probably best-known for Nessun Dorma from Turandot – think Pavarotti at the World Cup – so that's another great place to start. The key is to start small – find some arias you like, and gently get into the whole work.

Other famous operas to try

Why not give Verdi a go? As one of the most perennially popular opera composers around, you're bound to find a story that suits you, whether you want the grand stylings of Aida or the historical bluster of Otello

Which brings us neatly on to Verdi's arch rival, Richard Wagner. Now, like we said before, it's probably best not to dive straight into his gargantuan Ring cycle for your first taste of opera. The story is dense and mythical, and it was custom-designed for Wagner's own opera house, where the staging was more epic than a West End show. Oh, and back to back, the four operas of the Ring cycle generally take about fifteen hours to perform in total.BUT, there are some memorable moments – the famous Ride of the Valkyries among them

You can explore opera's origins and go all the way back to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, or you can bring yourself up to date with Nico Muhly's Two Boys, or why not give Britten's Peter Grimes a try if you want something challenging but peculiarly English? Or, if you want something perfectly light and frothy, give one of Rossini's classics a go – The Barber Of Seville and William Tell both have cracking tunes throughout and suitably silly plots. Russian operas like Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov remain popular too, as does the phenomenally well-loved Seville-set epic, Bizet's Carmen.

Live or recording?

If you've got the opportunity to go to the opera, jump in! We've got nothing against listening to a recording at home, but you honestly can't beat a live performance. Most of the top opera houses charge a fair bit for tickets, but nearly all of them offer either standing or restricted view tickets that can be a bargain. And if you're under 30 or a student, many opera houses also offer cheap tickets.

Thankfully, we're living in innovative times – it's not not uncommon to see operas taking place in pubs, parks, in flashmobs and various unexpected places across the world. Many of the major opera companies now also beam their performances direct to cinemas as well, so you can get the full effect for less.

So… what are you waiting for?

It's time for you to get stuck in. Listen to our playlist below, watch a few videos online, check out our picture guides to the famous plots, download some recordings, but most importantly – get yourself to a live performance. We've barely scratched the surface, but hopefully there's enough here to inspire you to explore the often bizarre, always magical world of opera.