The Greatest Opera You've Never Seen

Confessing to Your Musical Omissions

Thursday, April 26, 2012 - 08:02 PM

I have a scandalous confession to make: Despite it being one of the most-performed works in the repertory, I have never seen Aida live. Same goes for Lohengrin, Parsifal and Pagliacci (I have, however, seen Cavalleria Rusticana—go figure).

It’s not that I have anything against Verdi, Wagner or Leoncavallo. And I love all of these works as I’ve experienced them on DVD or CD—I’m completely enamored of the Jonas Kaufmann Lohengrin on the former and the recent Gergiev recording of Parsifal on the latter.

But it’s the Aida that is a glaring lacuna. It’s seen in New York practically every year, in one season or another, and I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve almost bought tickets to see it when traveling. Perhaps the greatest disappointment to that end was when I came very close to seeing it in Rome, at the same arena where my grandmother saw the work in 1950, sitting a few rows behind Ingrid Bergman. That plan was derailed by a Trenitalia strike.

Opera fans and cognoscenti love to talk about what they have seen, comparing programs and cast lists built up over lifetimes and stored with accouterments and reverence not unfamiliar to stalwart comic book collectors (I still have my grandmother’s program from the Terme di Caracalla: the Aida was Marianna Radev, Amneris sang Maria Pedrini and tenor Roberto Terrini was Radames, singing the role squarely in the middle of his short, spitfire career).

But perhaps the more entertaining party talk comes not from what people have seen, but what they haven’t. It’s a conversation similar to writers and literary critics disclosing their own reading-list omissions. In a Slate feature that ran nearly five years ago, we learned such factoids as Margaret Atwood never getting around to Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata or John Crowley skipping out on To Kill a Mockingbird. The trend hit meta proportions in 2007 when Pierre Bayard released his own tome, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

New York magazine’s Sam Anderson argues that Bayard’s book was written not as a kind of cheat sheet, but rather to "cure us of the deep cultural neuroses that govern our reading." He adds: "Our reading is governed by a corrosive idealism that fills us all with secret shame: We believe we should be doing it more and better, and that, until we do, we fully deserve to be sneered at by college dropouts at the Strand.”

And, in a way, opera isn’t so far off from reading. Even in discussing this post, I heard from a colleague that they had never seen La bohème live and in-person, to which my immediate response was (verbatim): “WHAT. You've never seen Bohème?!” Because, really, does it actually matter if you haven’t had the chance to sit 20 feet away from a seamstress expiring of consumption? And does that make you more or less of a man/woman than if you were among the fewer, prouder audiences to witness a bureaucrat search for his nose, a princess turn into gold or an ocean liner hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front?

Over the weekend and purely by his own admission, a friend confessed on Twitter to not only never seeing Il Trovatore (poor Verdi getting short shrift once again) but also being unfamiliar with the work. The ensuing conversation, carried out in 140-character spurts was not a barrage of “how could you's", but rather an outpouring of love. Unencumbered by comparisons of performances, the tweets instead focused on the beauty of the music, the steaminess of the over-the-top plot and the spiciness of the intrigue. And it was fun to see others sell the merits of the opera itself rather than pick apart one specific incarnation's strengths or weaknesses.

It is perhaps undeniable that nothing can compare to the thrill of theater as it’s happening, live and in-person. But whether you get that supernatural spine-tingle from seeing Lucia revel in a dreamlike state of madness or in seeing Philip Glass’s Orpheus navigate a Cocteau-ian underworld, who is anybody to judge? Apart from an inevitable tomb, Aida isn’t going anywhere.

Confess: What operas have you never seen? Leave your dirty secrets in the comments below.


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Comments [17]


I'm missing three of the biggies, composed by three of the biggies:




But honestly, I've heard so much of the music that, given the choice, I'd probably rather see a less familiar opera for the first time than knock off one of these. I figure there'll always be another production of these warhorses, so what's the rush?

Apr. 30 2012 11:05 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Born and living in Jersey City, NJ I had the distinct advantage of proximity to the Met Opera and the New York City Opera to attend, at minimum cost, two to three times weekly, at standing room, from age 15, performances of a wide rep by major singers whose like simply does not exist today. At age 10 I heard on WNYC a broadcast of the recording of Toscanini's conducting the New York Philharmonic in the Rhine Journey and Funeral Music. This recording was made long, long before his recording with the NBC Symphony. That hearing encouraged me to borrow from our major library in Jersey City, on Jersey Avenue, the piano vocal scores of all the Wagner operas from Der fliegender Hollander to Parsifal and the full orchestra scores of the RING and TRISTAN. I started studying composition, composing, and as an autodidact at that time, singing. Taking at different comfortable octaves, I studied, "sang" all the major male roles, marginalizing the David, Mime, Alberich, Young Sailor, and their peer brothers whose roles did not interest me. MY professional career started at age 17. My study of voice with Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Margarete Matzernauer, Frieda Hempel, Martial Singher, Mack Harrell, John Brownlee and Karin Branzell, all leading singers at the Met Opera before they retired, prepared me for my rep decisions. Schorr, Kipnis and Singher I saw in performances at the Met long before I got to study with them. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, a Wagnerian heldentenor and an opera composer of "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare." THE OPERA THAT I HAVE NEVER SEEN AND WOULD WANT TO SEE IS "EURIDICE" BY JACOPO PERI, THE FIRST OPERA EVER, COMPOSED IN 1600, THE YEAR SHAKESPEARE WROTE "HAMLET." I SANG ORFEO'S ARIA "INVOCAZIONBE DI ORFEO" IN MY 10 LANGUAGE SOLO DEBUT CONCERT IN THE ISAAC STERN AUDITORIUM OF CARNEGIE HALL, STARTING THE CONCERT WITH THAT SELECTION.

Apr. 29 2012 09:51 AM
Carl Friedman from Baltimore

Living in Baltimore, one can't get to see everything one would like, but my most glaring misses to this point are Parsifal and Lohengrin. Maybe next year at the Met for Parsifal. And I've only seen 2/3 of Macbeth, as an elderly gentleman elected to jump from the balcony during the 2nd intermission one Saturday afternoon in 1988, ending the performance.

Apr. 29 2012 12:01 AM
Amanda Newman from London

Pfitzner's "Palestrina"...


Apr. 28 2012 01:45 PM
Judith from Brookline, MA

There are oh-so-many operas that I've never attended live because finances prohibit it, but, courtesy of live from the Met broadcasts (which I shamelessly record), DVDs, and CDs, I feel that I've been in the audience nonetheless. I can't begin to tell you how many operas I've heard that I would never have been able to cough up the money to see that have become dear friends of mine. I can't sufficiently express my gratitude for the opportunity to experience those live performances at no cost. Hardly surprising that I contribute to public radio's fundraising. Where would I be without it?

Apr. 28 2012 10:01 AM
Lee W. from NYC

I Capuleti ed I Montecchi by Bellini. I heard it on WQXR but have never seen it! I love the music.

Apr. 28 2012 09:52 AM
Terry from NYC

Oh my Olivia,

* Aida live: well, it's an extravaganza. So difficult, if not impossible, to do with any sort of taste, what with the hundreds of extras and the usually garish sets. You're fine without it.
* Pagliacci: I'd say the same for this one. It devolves into preciousness very, very quickly. (I would love to see either of these produced by Robert Carsen or, even better, Willy Decker.)
* As to the Wagner, I have no opinion. I can't get into Wagner and I don't know why.

My Moby Dick is "Le Nozze di Figaro." Maybe one of these days.

Apr. 28 2012 08:56 AM
Fred Plotkin

Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring." Not only have I not seen it live, but have never seen a video, heard a recording or radio broadcast, cracked open the score or even read the synopsis. The beauty of this, of course, is knowing that there is always something to look forward to and think about, just like the city you dream of visiting, feel you know well, but have not yet seen (for me that is Capetown).

Apr. 28 2012 02:26 AM
william Pagenkopf from Flushing, NY

Its not the greatest but: As a young pianist I rehearsed the singers at the composers apt. for a concert perforance
at Carnegie Hall of"Dobina Nikitch." The composer was 90 years of age at the time and as all composer do changed tempi and dynamics with the piano and 5 sprinicpal singers at those rehearsals. He came to the performance in a cold winter in 1949 or thereabouts, Oh yes, as we settled in on stage the conductor came out and passed the overture part to me, first time I saw it. Composer: Alexander Gretchaninoff.

Apr. 28 2012 12:46 AM

There was a time when I knew Traviata and Tosca almost note for note, but I have never seen either of them live. They were my favorites as a wee girl, and constituted the soundtrack of my childhood. It was perhaps because I knew and loved them so well that I was always reluctant to attend performances of them. There were sacrosanct memories of historic recordings and an ideal of perfection in my head, which I was loathe to compromise in any way.

Apr. 27 2012 10:03 PM
isolde blum from new york city

Believe it or not, with a name like mine..I have never seen 'Tristan and Isolde'..When I was younger, the thought of sitting through a Wagner opus was so daunting, I avoided it. My tastes ran to more melodic, familiar choices, and instead of seeing one namesake opera, I chose to see repeats of La Boheme, La Traviata, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Magic Flute....and my all time favorite Der Rosenkavalier.

Now, in my senior, more reflective years, I am filled with some remorse, yet not quite enough to get me there , not quite yet,

My much larger confession is that , I, too, have never seen Aida live!

Apr. 27 2012 09:04 PM

See your first Aida at the Arena di Verona.

Apr. 27 2012 07:34 PM
William Stribling

Never seen Bohuslav Martinu's Julietta,though through little fault of my
own. It is a dream of a magical work, gorgeous music, just waiting for a
hi tech production propelled by love and respect. I adore the old Supraphon
recording of it. Will someday a company do it here in New York? The Met? Take a chance folks, could be a stunner!

Apr. 27 2012 07:12 PM
Sarah Baker from New York

Tonight I am going to see an opera that I have never seen, at the Met; The Makropulos Case by
Leos Janácek. I was going to see it in 1996 the night the Met closed because of a huge snow storm, which was the performance after the ill fated opening, when Richard Versalle died on 5 January 1996, while portraying Vitek only a few minutes into the performance, and after singing the line "You can only live so long" while halfway up a 20-foot (6 meter) ladder, he suffered a fatal heart attack, and fell onto the stage. ( I just want to say he had been brilliant the 1995 run of the RISE AND FALL OF THE CITY OF MAHAGONNY)
For the spring of 2006 run I got late in life chicken pox and was quarantined for the run. I am glad the Met saw fit not to have this opening on Friday, April 13th. Maybe I'll see you there tonight. Sarah

Apr. 27 2012 06:07 PM

Meyerbeer's 'Les Hugenots.' In my nearly 40 yrs in NYC, the only

Meyerbeer opera I've seen is 'Le Prophete.'

I realize 'Hugenots' requires 7 first-class singers. Certainly, if

the MET can afford 'Troyens' & Wagner's Ring, it can scrape up the

$$$ for 'Hugenots.'

Apr. 27 2012 05:10 PM
Missy from Jackson Heights, NY

Let's see--never seen? Boris Gudonov! And I'm misspelling it too.
Your article reminds me of recent tweets from Vancouver Opera. They were performing Aida! Every few minutes, a tweet covering the plot would go up. It made me wonder--do we need to see it then, or just read the posts? Is this replacing a libretto or a synopsis? who's reading this--are there--god forbid but possible--tweet seats in the audience? If so, are they actually WATCHING the opera or glued to their twitter feeds? This leads to another topic entirely...clearly, the way we are experiencing opera now is changing....if we're going!

Apr. 27 2012 11:47 AM
DJK from The palace of shame

Though I have a picture of Verdi hanging over my writing desk, I too have never seen Aida live. I've seen three Attilas (two full and one concert), but alas, no Aida!

Apr. 27 2012 11:45 AM

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