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Everything You Need to Know About
Europe’s Grandest Art

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Growing up in Detroit, I was fortunate to be raised by two school teachers who were passionate about many things—one of which was sharing art and culture with their children. My parents purchased season tickets to the opera every year and I would happily get dressed up and sit in awe at these elaborate musical productions that are just a feast for the senses.

Our trip to Vienna made me nostalgic for those beautiful nights at the opera. The city has been a leading center for opera since the time of Mozart (who composed many of the art form’s greatest hits) and it’s still a proud part of the local identity. Staying just steps from the gorgeous State Opera House in the heart of the city, I was inspired to learn a bit more about it.

Opera literally means “work” in Italian. Considered a blend of all the arts—music, dance, poetry and painting—it was first developed in Florence in the late 16th century by a band of Renaissance thinkers who wanted a way to make the old Greek tragedies fresh and exciting.

The new art of musical storytelling quickly caught fire in the royal courts of Europe. By the early 1600s kings, princes and noblemen all across the land were busy outdoing each other with more and more extravagant shows and scores. It wasn’t long before the opera became ticketed entertainment.

Wherever you are in the world, I think a night at the opera is always a beautiful opportunity to get dressed up, escape into the story and experience a bit of magic and grandeur. If you’re like me then you like to know what you’re getting into—in which case we’ve got you covered. Read on to get a sense of what Europe’s grandest art is all about.
 
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The Essential Eras
Baroque —1600-1760
Music became more complex and ornate during the baroque period. Tragic, serious operas dominated the form, especially for upper class audiences.
KEY COMPOSERS

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Classical —1730-1820
A refined era of beauty and intellectualism. Classical operas tended to be more about everyday people than Greek gods or kings and humor came back to the stage.
KEY COMPOSERS

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Romantic —1780-1910
A return to a more splendid, grandiose aesthetic. Operas became bigger, with heightened melody and drama, more instruments and more elaborate sets.
KEY COMPOSERS

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Modern —20th Century
The modern era of western music introduced atonality and chromatic harmony. Opera followed suit.
KEY COMPOSERS

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Classic Shows
The Most Influential
Operas Through the Ages

Orfeo ed Euridice
(Orpheus and Eurydice)

Italian
Christoph Willibald Gluck
Vienna, Austria, 1762

The classic Greek myth became an important moment in the history of opera as Christoph Gluck introduced his revolutionary new take on dramatic Italian opera.

Le Nozze di Figaro
(The Marriage of Figaro)

Italian
Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart
Vienna, Austria, 1786

Considered one of Mozart’s finest operas and one of his most daring, Le Nozze di Figaro is a fun story with a ton of heart.

Fidelio
Italian
Ludwig van Beethoven
Vienna, Austria, 1805

Beethoven’s only opera takes place against the backdrop of revolution.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia
(The Barber of Seville)

Italian
Gioachino Rossini
Rome, Italy, 1816

A delightful high-energy opera written in just two weeks by one of Italy’s most prolific composers.

Guillaume Tell
(William Tell)

French
Gioachino Rossini
Gioachino Rossini
Paris, France, 1829

The overture to this opera about the fight for Swiss Freedom is one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world.

Rigoletto
Italian
Giuseppe Verdi
Venice, Italy, 1851

Based on a play by Victor Hugo, this melodramatic story of an immoral king who meets his downfall is considered one of Verdi’s best.

Tristan und Isolde
German
Richard Wagner
Munich, Germany, 1865

The ultimate tragic love story, this extravagant romantic drama from Richard Wagner does not hold back.

Carmen
French
Georges Bizet
Paris, France, 1875

The most popular, sexy and catchy opera of all time, Carmen is the comedic story of a gypsy dancer who gets involved in a dangerous smuggling ring.

La Bohème
Italian
Giacomo Puccini
Turin, Italy, 1896

They say Puccini himself cried after composing the final scene of La Bohème—you’ve been warned, it’s that beautiful.

Madama Butterfly
Italian
Giacomo Puccini
Milan, Italy, 1904

This Puccini classic tells the story of a Japanese teenager who falls in love with an American naval officer.

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Languages of the Opera

Glorious operas have been penned in English, Spanish, Russian, Dutch and many other languages, but at the end of the day the majority of works (and certainly the most famous ones) are in Italian, German or French. Through the Baroque period, Italian opera was seen as the superior form (it originated in Florence after all). Even famous German composers of the era, like George Frideric Handel, wrote mostly Italian operas.

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German opera regained prestige thanks to Classical period Austrian composers like Hadyn, Mozart and Beethoven, who wrote complex, beautiful operas in German. During the Romantic period Italian opera reigned supreme once again as the bel canto movement flourished under composers like Rossini, who would would travel to Paris to revamp the opera in 1823 and be received like a modern celebrity.

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Opera Etiquette
Dress to Impress
Yourself

The opera houses will tell you not to worry about what to wear—you won’t get kicked out if you show up in jeans. However we wouldn’t recommend it, as there is nothing more fabulous than dressing up for the opera. Though anything goes these days, a beautiful dress that rests around the knee is always de rigeur in our book. However if you want to play with a more dramatic, statement-making look, check out the Met’s fashion blog for inspiration.

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A+ Audience

First, turn off your cell phone. Talking and noise isn’t so appreciated at the opera as there’s typically no amplification. During the overture at the beginning, reverential silence is expected, but as singers and dancers take the stage cheers and applause are appropriate responses to an incredible performance. Just make sure you give the right Italian gender nouns: “brava!” for a woman, “bravo!” for a man and “bravi!” for everyone. Or, just whistle and clap.

Go for the Bubbles

The opera is all about treating yourself to a grand night, so we say make the most of the intermission. It’s time to get a glass of champagne, explore the opera house and mingle with friends in this glamorous setting.

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