Great Opera Hits
by Guy Noble
Love List is our Spotify series where we ask friends of the Opera House to curate a playlist dedicated to a subject of their choice.
To celebrate Opera Australia's return season of Great Opera Hits, host extraordinaire (and composer, conductor and broadcaster) Guy Noble walks us through his opera favourites, and what makes them so special for audiences and performers alike.
Know your Nessun Dormas from your Habaneras? Read on for this Love List dedicated to the best of opera.
▷ Puccini, 'Nessun Dorma' from Turandot
"This really is one of the most magnificent pieces of music ever written. It is nighttime and Calaf knows he will be able to win the hand of the Princess Turandot in the morning. The chords at the beginning are almost jazzlike as he says “none shall sleep”, then gradually the music builds until we get to the triumphant “vincero!” - I will win! No wonder Pavarotti made this a number one hit during the World Cup of 1991. It is goosebump material and our audience always go mad with applause after Simon Kim sings this in Great Opera Hits."
▷ Bizet, 'Au fond du temple saint' from The Pearl Fishers
"It is quite unusual in opera to have a duet for two male singers – tenor and baritone. There really aren’t that many of them, and none of them as beautiful as this duet from The Pearl Fishers. It’s about friendship, and when that friendship can be tested by the appearance of a pretty woman. The accompaniment is all ripply harp to suggest water, shimmering strings. Always a crowd favourite and the perfect way to end the first half of our show."
▷ Verdi, 'Rittorna Vincitor', from Aida
"Opera characters are always falling in love with the wrong person – if they fell in love with the right ones they would live happily ever after and the arias would be called 'Shall I put the dishwasher On?' Aida, the Ethiopian Princess is in a terrible bind in this aria – she has made the mistake of falling in love with Radames who is captain of the guard of the Egyptians – the very people who hold her captive. The aria goes though all the various stages of emotion, and when Petah Chapman sings it you feel Aida’s pain."
▷ Donizetti, 'Ah! mes amis', from Daughter of the Regiment
"Some arias become famous because of their technical difficulty. This is the singing equivalent of a reverse 4½ somersault in the pike position in the diving pool. It features nine top C’s in a row, which is about as high a tenor can go before losing consciousness. Our tenor Shanul Sharma tosses these off with great ease, which might have something to do with the fact that he actually began his singing career fronting a heavy metal band. A larynx of steel."
▷ Bizet, 'Habanera', from Carmen
"Sexy, seductive, dangerous. This aria is Carmen’s calling card, speaking of love as a rebellious bird that cannot be tamed, over the rhythm of the Habanera, which is quite similar to a tango. When we used to perform this pre-Covid, our mezzo-soprano used to drape herself over me at the keyboard in a suggestive manner, but sadly now it is seduction at a distance of 1.5 metres"
▷ Bizet, 'Votre Toast', from Carmen
"This is an aria in the tradition of a character introducing themselves to the audience. Escamillo is a bullfighter and the music has all the swagger of someone who works in that profession. He talks about the bulls and love in the same breath. We have three excellent baritones (Luke, Haotian and Alexander) who sing this aria in Great Opera Hits. Maybe one day we could put them all together and have The Three Toreadors."
▷ Delibes, 'The Flower Duet' from Lakme
"This is a duet that turns up all the time in popular culture, in TV ads for food programs or British Airways (in the days when we all used to fly). There is nothing nicer than the sound of two female voices (a soprano and the slightly lower voice of the mezzo soprano) travelling at a distance of a third. Whether it’s Petah or Sharon or Agnes or Celeste, all our female Great Opera Hitters blend together so beautifully in this song about the pleasures of flowers."
▷ Rossini, 'Largo al factotum' from The Barber of Seville
"Another wonderful “here I am” aria. Figaro is a barber who does everything round the house of his master the Count. He’s busier than a Chief Medical Officer. This famous aria has so many words that fly past at great speed, in Rossini’s wonderful light and energetic music, propelling us to the final note. Often times we begin the concert with this aria and it always brings the house down."
▷ Puccini, 'Vissi d'arte' from Tosca
"I think Tosca is the perfect opera. If you took away all the music it would still work as a drama, whereas some opera plots are worse than The Bold and The Beautiful. There’s a lot at stake, there’s the character of Scarpia, the Darth Vader of opera, and the amazing resilience and beauty of Tosca herself, an actress put in a terrible position bargaining for the life of her lover with her own body. This aria is such a plea for decency, simple but very powerful."
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