Great Courses: How To Listen To And Understand Opera: Part 3, instructed by Professor Robert Greenberg
In most of the courses I have listened to in this particular professor’s series, all of which deal with music in the Western concert tradition, I have been or at least considered myself as having a high degree of expertise in the subject in question. If I still learned quite a bit, I did not come into these courses largely unfamiliar with the subject at hand, whether it was a composer or the history of the Western canon of concert music in general. That said, opera is clearly not an area where I have a high degree of expertise and it has been gratifying if at least a little bit humbling to see just how little I know about opera, as well as about how I am familiar with more of it than I realized, if in strange and unfamiliar ways. Perhaps you, like me, are not particularly familiar with opera and have not seen many operas, but still wish to appreciate them and at least be familiar with the larger scope of opera as it exists in the contemporary repertoire, and if so, then you will find a lot to appreciate here.
These eight lectures form the third part (of four) of the author’s admittedly brief survey of the opera repertoire, and they are certainly very interesting. The author begins with a two-part series of lectures that introduces the Bel Canto period of 19th century Italian opera (17) and then provides some samples of Rossini’s excellent The Barber of Seville (18). After that the author spends four lectures discussing Verdi and Otello, in which Verdi’s life is summarized and not only quite a few samples of Otello are sampled, which are, it must be admitted, very beautiful, but also the author samples other operas by Verdi as well, where I found I was familiar with one of the arias of Rigotello (19, 20, 21, 22), much to my surprise and pleasure. After that the course closed with two lectures on French opera (23, 24), which clued me in on the need to become better familiar with Lully, Rameau, and Gluck, and even provided a bit of sampling of some of the operatic management of the much-maligned Meyerbeer, whose similarities to Andrew Lloyd Webber provided a link between the operatic repertoire and contemporary musical theater, something which I know a bit more about than I do with opera, as is likely to be the case with many listeners.
What does one gain from lectures like this? For one, one gets at least some familiarity with both Italian and French opera, both familiar operas like Bizet’s “Carmen” or Rossini’s “The Barber Of Seville” or Verdi’s “Rigoletto” or “Otello,” as well as the more unfamiliar operas of the French tradition before Gluck’s reforms. Greenberg is clearly aware of the wide scope of the opera repertoire and operas that could and indeed should be more familiar to audiences, and does a great job at introducing the subject, even if he often states that there are far more arias and recitatives that are worth listening to and even as he and the listener understand that this survey is admittedly very superficial and very limited in nature. What the survey does do, though, is demonstrate that even such a high culture matter as an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto can be repackaged as an advertisement for the not-particularly-high culture of Rick Dees’ Weekly Top 40, with an expectation that one will appreciate the role of opera as an element that has greatly influenced other aspects of culture both in the 19th century and even to this day. And knowing that influence is an encouragement to be more familiar with the operas themselves.