I've always had this somewhat romantic view of going to the opera ... it was glamorous and incomprehensible and probably just a bit too cultured for my farm girl roots. Plus, there's the cliche of the screechy soprano shattering all of the glass in her immediate vicinity as she reaches for that high A. However, I grew up listening to classical music (ironically, when you look at my first statement, since that's what Dad had on the radio in the barn), and I've always loved the melodies. So, on the idea that live performances are usually more powerful than recordings, I decided I should give opera a try.
Happily, I didn't need to save up for a trip to the Met in New York. There is a wonderful music festival/camp for extremely talented young people that happens every summer within easy driving distance, and they give performances for the public throughout the three week duration. International performers are invited both to participate in the shows and give classes to the students. This year, one of the featured programs was a short Puccini opera - Gianni Schicchi.
As a novice to the opera world, I would recommend this particular show as a starting point. It was a straightforward comedy about a rich dead man's relations scheming to change his will to favor themselves. They enlist the participation of a local con artist - Gianni Schicchi - who gives them each what they ask for and all of the rest of the estate (the best parts that none of them were gutsy enough to claim) to himself. The music festival did project subtitles (for those of us who don't speak Italian), but the simplicity of the storyline meant that if you were watching the action and missed a few lines, you could figure it out from the context. It's also a one-act opera; so if you decide that you don't enjoy opera, you won't have to sit there for hours.
In fact, there was even an "opening show" consisting of two pieces of chamber music performed by students. The first was Cristemi by Puccini. I found the mood of this piece to be rather bittersweet - a definite contrast to both the work that followed and the opera of the evening. The second was "Duetto for Cello and Bass" by Rossini. I thoroughly enjoyed this one ... I had never thought of either Cello or string Bass as particularly playful instruments, but this piece definitely let that side shine through. After an intermission where the lobby refreshments featured cannoli (yum!), we went back for the opera.
I enjoyed the show quite a bit. I even recognized the aria "O mio babbino caro". One of the friends that I attended the show with commented that sometimes the songs are more beautiful if you don't know the actual words. This song is a case in point - basically she's saying "Dad, he's cute and I want to marry him, so do something about it". The cast was lots of fun to watch as the greedy relatives scheme and Gianni Schicchi (who is of a lower class) ends up securing a dowry for his daughter to marry one of them.