The most common question any of us in the business are asked is, "what would be a good first opera?" Since we spend so much time persuading people to try it, that isn't a great surprise and the answer doesn't often go beyond a list of the great classics; La boheme, La traviata, Le nozze di Figaro etc.
I take a different view.
It does of course depend on the person asking the question who may be culturally active in other areas so can take a more open minded view of things but a person who never visits theatres or concert halls at all is another prospect entirely. The assumption - and it is a fair one - is that we should send the novice to an opera that has great "tunes". That is why Carmen would get the vote for many but personally I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. But if we assume that the novice will enjoy an opera that is, shall we say' 'accessible' then the list of possibilities extends far beyond the obvious Puccini, Verdi, Mozart troika of composers. In fact, I know people who saw Kat'a Kabanova as their first opera and were blown away by it (and here, the quality of productions also comes into it but I won't complicate things too much for the sake of this blog).
It seems to me that if a person has no knowledge or experience of opera at all, we can send them off to see pretty much anything at all that we know to be beautiful, dramatic and engaging. Why might a novice not enjoy Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re? He would have nothing to reference it to and need only absorb what is in front of him? Erotic, beautiful, monumental orchestration fantastic drama, short? Seems to me that if the viewer is going to like opera at all he is just as likely to be ensnared by something like that as he is something from the top 10. Same applies to a whole host of operas in that vein. This leads one on to the issue of existing audiences for opera who can themselves be infuriatingly narrow in their tastes, reluctant to go beyond the 10 or so operas they know and love.
Our 2013 season is a very good case in point and could provide the novice with a complete crash course in standard operatic experience. Cav and Pag opens the season so there might even be a couple of tunes the total novice has heard before. Same with Pearl Fishers and L'elisir d'amore and Madama Butterfly would be at the top of most "must see" lists. But the opera I would send all eager but anxiously curious novices to would be Wolf-Ferrari's violent, sacrilegious (for its time) slice of life among the slums of Naples I gioielli della Madonna. Why wouldn't a first timer love the gorgeous music, the drama, the thrilling choruses, the spectacle, the orchestral suites that out Cav the intermezzo in Mascagni's one-acter? Who wouldn't love the death and misery, the reckless passion and the sentimental (in a good way) mother/son counselling? It has it all and I would lay money on it hitting the spot.
Think about it. If you make a big point of listing only a few famous operas, the chances are the novice, should they wish to explore further, will only work his way through that list. If we send him to something out of the "ordinary" that will be the exploratory mindset going forward. The one caveat is that there are certainly operas it wouldn't be a good idea to send the initiate to lest we put them off for life. Carmen, for example. But we must try to start our new audience members off on a varied journey because it can only pay dividends in the end.
Consider this choice;
You have the option of two operas;
1. A gypsy girl emotionally winds up a sap of a soldier who really fancies her. A bullfighter gets in the way and the soldier throws a tantrum and kills her. A few rum te tum tunes in the operatic equivalent of Allo Allo
2. A step-brother and sister live in the crazy and vibrant Neapolitan slum. The sister is a bit of a rebel, wants to break out of her mundane domesticated life and falls for the local Camorra boss. The boss gets the hots for her too and says that he is so keen to sample her delights he would even steal the jewels from the statue of the Madonna that is carried through the streets on holy days. Her step brother also has the hots for her (I know) and when he tells her this she laughs and conveys the promise her Camorra boss suitor made. So the brother goes off and steals the jewels instead. Step-sister succumbs. Everybody starts to fight. Step-sister kills herself. So does brother, by plunging a knife into his own chest in the southern Italian version of Harakiri (we go for the heart, not the belly). Lots of beautiful music.
For the HBO, Wire, Sopranos generation, I know which one most would choose!