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5 opera scenes to sweep you off your feet

Opera singers (left to right) Elīna Garanča, Helen Donath and Tamar Iveri perform in Mozart's opera <em>Così fan tutte</em> at the Salzburg Opera Festival.
Andreas Schaad
AFP via Getty Images
Opera singers (left to right) Elīna Garanča, Helen Donath and Tamar Iveri perform in Mozart's opera Così fan tutte at the Salzburg Opera Festival.

Humans love to celebrate. Each year, special days are set aside internationally to exalt everything from Nutella (Feb. 5) and turtles (May 23) to UFOs (July 2) and pharmacists (Sept. 25).

Opera mavens — also humans — are no exception. We've claimed today, Oct. 25, as "World Opera Day." And in light of the grand occasion, it's worth revisiting just why so many of the art form's fanatics continue to revel in costumed people vocalizing at the top of their lungs to each other on a stage. "Educated yelling," is what a friend of mine once called it, and it can be divine and transformative.

If you've not yet succumbed to the pleasures of opera, this list is especially for you. Perhaps one of the five operatic scenes below will become your special elixir, your fall-in-love-with-opera potion.

The Beauty of the Human Voice

The human voice is the most personal of instruments. Soprano Jessye Norman once said, "We can all sing and we should all try," and while no one can sing like Norman, many of us do indeed try. The advocacy group Chorus America estimates that 32.5 million adults and 10.1 million children sing in choirs in this country. Opera is all about the voice and its ability to color and shade notes to deliver drama. The video below is a perfect example of the sheer beauty that can be found in the human voice. Oh, and there's razzle-dazzle too. Stick around for Norman's final high B-flat on the phrase "Je t'aime," plucked out of thin air and soaring like a rocket. The aria, from Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns, is one of opera's greatest seduction scenes.

The Act of Singing

Opera is really drama set to music. So while they're busy enough hitting all the high notes, opera singers have to act as well – not easy. But in this 1964 scene from Puccini's Tosca, two of opera's very greatest singing actors make it all look effortless and natural. Baritone Tito Gobbi plays Scarpia, a corrupt and lecherous chief of police. Maria Callas, perhaps the most dramatically dynamic singer of modern times, sings the title role, a literal prima donna who bargains for the life of her beloved, whom Scarpia has captured. Let's just say Scarpia was bargaining with the wrong woman. Watch the hateful and anguished looks Callas gives, and her expressive hands. Her big aria, "Vissi d'arte" (I Lived for Art), is a breathtaking portrait of frustrated grief. Gobbi, stentorian in his smug commands, is pure evil.

Opera Now

Opera plots don't always center on mythological tales or ancient kings and queens. The American composer John Adams has staked his ground as something of an operatic docudramatist. He's written operas about the making of the atomic bomb, the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, the Gold Rush of the 1850s and President Nixon's historic visit to China. Nixon in China, which debuted in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, was bold and game-changing work, fueled musically by a combination of Philip Glass-styled interlocking repetitions and beautiful lyricism. Critics either loved it or hated it. The spectacle of Nixon descending from the presidential plane to meet Chou En-lai is one of the opera's most theatrically thrilling scenes, giving way to Nixon getting swept up in the moment with his frenzied aria "News Has a Kind of Mystery," sung with brilliant commitment by baritone James Maddalena. To paraphrase the director of the opera, Peter Sellars, who came up with the original idea for Nixon: Opera is not only not dead, or about the dead, or for the dead; it is alive as the collaborative form of choice for our interdisciplinary, intercultural, interdependent generation.

Verdi the Dramatic Genius

Long before the great film director Robert Altman was shooting multiple conversations at once, there was a genius named Giuseppe Verdi. Near the end of his heart-wrenching opera Rigoletto, from 1851, Verdi weaves together the vocal lines of four characters, each with their own agenda. Rigoletto, a lowly single father, hides with his daughter, spying on the young duke she wants to love, who is seducing another woman. The music is rigorously structured, the melodies will have you whistling afterward, and as a compact piece of drama, it's pretty unmatched. This 1987 performance from a Metropolitan Opera gala features Luciano Pavarotti as the duke, Isola Jones as his latest conquest, Leo Nucci in the title role and Joan Sutherland as his daughter (though she and Nucci look a little too close in age). The quality of singing here is sky high --including Sutherland's final note, which she pushes higher than the written score indicates — as is the applause that follows.

Artful Adaptations

Opera is full of moving parts: the written story, the music, the acting, the set and lighting design, and often dance. The one person with the master plan, who keeps all cylinders firing creatively, is the director. Purists tend to scoff at any director who tries to update an opera set in the past. Some can pull it off, others can't. In the 1980s, Peter Sellars took three operas by Mozart and turned them on their heads in such a way that they spoke to audiences in a new contemporary theatrical language. He set The Marriage of Figaro in Trump Tower, Don Giovanni in Harlem, with a kind of Blaxploitation vibe, and Così fan tutte moved to a seaside diner on Cape Cod. Così is a twisted little opera that traffics in greed and infidelity. In this opening scene, a bitter older man, Don Alfonso, hatches a plan, forcing two young gents to bet against the loyalty of their girlfriends. Things go way downhill from there. Sellars plays comedy off the darker aspects of the opera, which is set to some of the most sparkling music Mozart wrote.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.