My father kept the gramophone on the top shelf, for a good reason. But I reached it anyway. As a child I used to scale the heights of a living room chair to place an LP on the turntable and set the needle in motion. Usually I wanted to put on ballet music. Twinkly instruments, magical atmospheres, sweeping Tchaikovsky that you could dance to.
But my first impression of opera, conveyed via the kitchen transistor radio, was that it involved disembodied voices singing in foreign languages, with an awful lot of wobble. Who’d want to listen to that?
One day a picture on a box of records caught my eye: a berobed queen surrounded by stars on a purple background. The lettering declared ‘Mozart: Die Zauberflöte’. My mother told me that that meant ‘The Magic Flute’. It sounded enticing – a fairy tale? I fell so in love with it – the romantic Tamino, the troubled Pamina, the wacky and heart-rending Papageno – that I listened to it every day for six months and I regret to say that I used to sing along with the Queen of the Night. What tolerant parents I had.
My next operas were The Little Sweep by Benjamin Britten - on LP - and then Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. This time my kind parents took me to see it – at Covent Garden. Kiri Te Kanawa was Tatyana, and Benjamin Luxon Onegin. They sang in English. But all I really remember is a vague disappointment. You had to wait ages for that incredible tune, instead of simply locating the right circle on the vinyl. And on that enormous stage, they didn’t seem to do very much except stand and deliver.
Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of others seem to think too. Many of the people I’ve talked to about how they first got into opera reveal that what hooked them was not a live performance, but a recording, or a story, or sometimes a visceral experience of sound that did not involve a theatre at all. When my niece was 14 I took her to see Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). She was enchanted. At the end she said: ‘Isn’t it incredible that such a beautiful sound can come out of a human body?’ I can’t put it better than that.
Here, well-known fans speak about their first experience of opera:
I was fortunate enough to be a teenager during the mid 1980s, with a mother who loved opera. She used to book the season at ENO. At that time you could get tickets very cheaply in the front row of the gods if you booked the whole season of shows, so we would see everything. It was the period which later became known as the 'Powerhouse' years at the ENO. Designers and directors including David Pountney, David Alden, Nick Hytner, Keith Warner, David Fielding, Tom Cairns, Antony McDonald, Stephanos Lazaridis, Richard Hudson and Nigel Lowery were creating psychological spaces, visually expressive worlds on stage. Some of them had seen work in Germany by artists such as Ruth Berghaus and Achim Freyer, as well as Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch, and the atmosphere at ENO felt very exciting - very connected to work going on in continental Europe.
In my memory, it seemed to reveal endless layers of mysterious doors and corridors
I honestly can't remember which was the very first production I saw. It might have been Jonathan Miller's Mikado production, or Nick Hytner's Xerxes. I was very taken with the Lazaridis's stage design for The Mikado. In my memory, it seemed to reveal endless layers of mysterious doors and corridors.
There are many images that have remained in my memory from ENO productions: chairs halfway up walls, the entire chorus onto one small square of light in Richard Jones's Mr Broucek, Nigel Lowery's animations in Blond Eckbert, Hildegard Bechtler's paintings for Lohengrin. I could go on and on.
The first opera I saw was Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District at ENO in that wonderful David Pountney production. It was a huge deal for me, because you don’t know what opera can do until you see all the parts of it together, working well – the music-making and the staging that reflects it. I was 13 – an amazing age to experience Shostakovich, who somehow speaks to the adolescent in us! The piece is extremely visceral anyway, but what the production did with its vivid images was extraordinary. And the matter of the music being reinforced by the staging made a massive impression on me. It’s what you aim to achieve in any opera production you’re doing.
Shostakovich somehow speaks to the adolescent in us
I don’t think you should go, as a first opera, to La bohème or a Mozart opera, where perhaps you need to have been a little indoctrinated to feel attached to what’s going on. I think Janáček’s operas are fantastic for first-timers: they’re concise and incredibly emotionally engaged. Those pieces show what opera can do better than any other art form. That quality of heightened emotion and heightened drama in a piece like Kát’a Kabanová or Jenůfa is what really does it for me.
I very much enjoy opera, though I would stress I am not an expert at all. My first links were through exposure in my childhood to very fine cantorial singing and my sister performing beautiful arias in choirs in our progressive synagogue in London’s East End. And our mum loved Mario Lanza.
Then singing training at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) as a 19-year-old hooked me, when I learnt ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
The taste and sensual experience of sound was my way in to opera
I had to taste the Italian open vowels and passionate sounds – and that opened the way later to the world of different genres and composers. But the taste and sensual experience of sound was my way in to opera. Thank heavens! My only regret, I think, is not having trained any further in the joy of opera singing. But it means that I always listen yearningly and with deep respect to fine singers.
My mother and stepfather used to take me to English National Opera. I hated it, but I never worked up the courage to tell them. But the first opera I found for myself was Mozart’s Don Giovanni. At university, I used to take loads of records out of the music library, record them on to cassette – as one did then – and listen to them on my white Walkman, which I eventually left on a bus. I absolutely fell in love with Don Giovanni. There are some fantastic tunes – the catalogue song for Leporello, for instance – but also I loved the character of Don Giovanni himself. He doesn’t give in. He’s consigned to hell and it’s not ‘OK, right, let’s deal with this...’ It’s ‘Repent!’ ‘No!’ ‘Repent!’ ‘NO!!!’. I loved the sheer ‘fuck you’ aspect of it.
I loved the sheer ‘fuck you’ aspect of it
Generally in classical music you have to do a fair amount of work to get on board and start to recognise the structures around it and it can be difficult if you’re just presented with a very long stage piece. But when I’m on tour and have a day off I always go to the opera. When you get a hold on the structures and what you should be listening for, that enables you to follow the piece and pace your enjoyment of it.
I think the first opera I became conscious of was The Magic Flute. I love Mozart and Janáček operas, but I usually don’t go to Wagner or the big Italian operas – or even little Italian operas, except for Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which is wonderful. One of my best experiences in opera was Julietta by Martinů at ENO last year. I’ve just recorded the Martinů sonatas and I love the composer, but this shows a completely different side of him. I thought it was a wonderful piece.
It was also a wonderful production by Richard Jones, which does help. In some operatic productions I end up wanting to kill the director, because they’re not at all about the music. Some opera directors manage to ruin the music. What was so great about the Martinů at ENO is that the music and the production really went together: the production reinforced the message of the music and the words, which is as it should be. Directors so often spoil it! And it really is important.
The production reinforced the message of the music and the words, which is as it should be. Directors so often spoil it!
I don’t like operas where I can’t identify with any of the characters – for instance, if they’re emperors who are tortured by everything and emote about it all evening. Mozart’s operas, though, are about people I recognise. The only time I played continuo in a Handel opera I got very involved, even though the plot was about gods and Romans, because the music was so wonderful. Janáček, even though it’s full of violent emotion, somehow lets me understand the characters. And I love Schumann’s Genoveva – there’s such poetry in the music. I saw a bad production, which was a shame because it could be done wonderfully.
If you’re trying opera for the first time, I’d say start with the great Mozart operas. But make sure it’s with surtitles – I do like to know what they’re saying. And start with an opera that’s not about gods, superhumans or emperors, but something like The Marriage of Figaro, which is so human, or The Magic Flute, which is a fairy story.
Go with an open mind. Ignore the rest of the audience if they’re dressed up in dinner jackets. I dress up enough for playing concerts, so I don’t like dressing up if I’m in the audience. You go to listen and watch music – and don’t be afraid to laugh. A lot of the best opera is very funny. Gianni Schicchi is hilarious, for instance. And don’t be put off by TV close-ups of singers and their tonsils. It’s not a pretty sight!
When I was a child, my elder sister’s favourite opera was Puccini’s Turandot. We had a wonderful LP with the most beautiful cover, showing Birgit Nilsson in an astonishing headdress. I remember I could gaze at it for hours, listening to this amazing music. It was definitely the family favourite. Puccini remains to this day my favourite opera composer.
I found it tremendously exciting attending my first live opera, which was Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I was about nine years old and a group of us went from the Yehudi Menuhin School. We had seats way up in the gods, so everything on stage was a tiny little dot, but I felt incredibly exhilarated to be in the London Coliseum, which was one of the most beautiful buildings I’d ever seen at that point, so magnificent and opulent and romantic.
It was like being in a horror movie. The hairs on the back of my neck went up – the music was very frightening
It seemed frightfully posh, and I felt I’d come of age attending an opera there. But the sound is tremendous and even though the action was a long way off, the music carried me along. I didn’t know anything much about it, so when the scene at the end with the massive statue of the Commendatore happened, it was like being in a horror movie. The hairs on the back of my neck went up – the music was very frightening! It was so dramatic to see an opera in the flesh, and have it all happening in front of me.
'Take me to see a great opera,' I pestered my opera loving and Wagner-obsessive husband. ‘I'll think about it, but don't expect a Ring Cycle,’ he replied. ‘Start at the bottom.’
A few weeks later, the tickets arrived in the post for perhaps the pinnacle of the opera buffa, or comedy, genre – Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Next stop, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden where, tissues in pocket, I waited for this high art to whisk me up and hold me tight to its heavenly bosom.
it's Bayreuth or nothing for me from here on!
Well, what a farce it was. First up, the lead tenor had lost his voice and was allowed to mime his part on-stage. So, as he perched high up in a tree, his voice was substituted by an understudy, stage right, in full view of the audience. Bizarre enough? No, it got worse. I was astonished that as the performance trundled on it was periodically marked by the harrumphs and guffaws of the audience ‘regulars’, desperate to let newcomers like me know they knew where the funny bits were in the script (obviously through their impeccable command of the Italian language...). The comedy itself was slapstick humour, trite and almost insulting, garnering an audience reaction akin to the canned laughter synonymous with bad US TV comedy. It couldn't get worse. Only yes, it could! For then came the pièce de résistance: lead mezzo Joyce DiDonato came on in a wheelchair, broken leg protruding forwards towards the audience. Her voice was unimpaired, but she was obviously uncomfortable in her efforts to transport us into the heart of an 18th-century tale. The only thing positive thing I took away was the thought of how beautiful the Floral Hall was. ‘Wagner next,’ I hissed at my other half as we entered the tube station.
However, a few days later we ventured along to an ENO production of Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor, and there I felt the stirrings of magic happening. In fact, that evening was life-changing, as we now have Opera Sundays with the children at home (DVDs guaranteeing a fully fit and able cast!). Verdi's La traviata, sung by Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko, is the family favourite at the moment. I'm also in training for my first experience of Wagner's Ring cycle, although I'm not sure if the other half will get away with taking me to Covent Garden for it, though. For Wagner, it's Bayreuth or nothing for me from here on!
The first opera I heard as a child was Puccini’s La bohème. We had the recording and I saw it on stage for the first time when I was eight or nine. It made a massive impact on me. I, my brother, my best friend Helena and her brother used to re-enact the story – and Helena and I were quite competitive about who could be the frailer Mimì.
The catch-phrases seeped into everyday life – I remember Dad (the composer Andrzej Panufnik) always taking my hand and saying, ‘Your tiny hand is frozen!’ in his strong Polish accent. That romantic, dying heroine became the subject of many, many games through my childhood. After all, there’s no one quite like Mimì.
La bohème gave me a lasting legacy of being the drama queen
I don’t know if it gave me a lasting taste for opera, but it certainly gave me a lasting legacy of being the drama queen! I became a terrible hypochondriac after that and didn’t grow out of it until I was in my twenties. It also instilled a great love for music of intensity: intense passion, intense beauty, doing everything to the max, qualities I hope I can evoke to some extent in my own music. And it was a fantastic backdrop to growing up in a musical household. It affected so many things in so many different ways.
What would I say to people looking for a way in to opera? Well, I think there’s a Mimì in all of us. I’d encourage you to look at the story and find your inner Mimì. Then go and see it.
When I was about eight, our local secondary school put on Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, done, I'm guessing, by sixth formers, and we were all taken as a primary school class. What was nice in a way was that I didn't think that I was watching something called opera. I didn't know that word. I don't think I even thought, oh, they're singing all the way through. It was just another way that a group of people were acting out a story in the same way as if I'd watched an adaptation of a Dickens on the TV, or someone was reading a story on Jackanory, or if I went to the cinema and saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I think to adults people bursting into song in a film or drama seems quite unusual, but in most kids TV and films people do exactly that. So, being a kid, I didn't think it a weird thing that people would sing. And some of the tunes in Hansel and Gretel are quite catchy. I remember picking up some of them and humming them on my way home.
I think to adults people bursting into song in a film or drama seems quite unusual
As an adult, I saw a production at English National Opera in the 1980s, and then saw it again a few years ago at the Royal Opera House, when I took my mum and dad. I think it's great that musically and dramatically it still really stands up for an adult. As a production it's got that Gothic darkness. The recent ROH production had Hansel and Gretel in what was almost an abattoir. It's also musically really rich. I had thought going back to it as an adult, having responded to it immediately as a child, that maybe it would be quite cloying or sweet, but actually even if you take away the visual of the abattoir, it's still musically satisfying.
I was very little when I first saw an opera. I was brought up in the theatre and we did see quite a lot of opera as well as dance. When I was about 15 I started singing a little bit myself – and I have ended up married to an opera singer [the baritone Simon Keenlyside], so I think the connection between me and opera was meant to be!
I’m lucky being part of the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House because opera is so accessible for me. At Covent Garden, I have next to no direct contact with the opera side of things – although we work in the same building, we have separate administrations – but I see the making of things and hear opera on the tannoy constantly. It’s work in progress that I follow from time to time, and even if I don’t, it’s always there. I have friends in opera whom I’ve met through Simon. And I go to see opera just because I like it.
I’m quite a softy for Britten’s operas. I love the crude reality of them
If you are coming to opera for the first time it is probably a good idea to start with something like Puccini’s La bohème: it’s succinct, it has a wonderful story and it’s full of great tunes. And the stage direction is very important too when you see an opera for the first time – rather like a ballet.
Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande has to be one of my ultimate favourites. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is another and I’ve really enjoyed Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. But in general, I’m quite a softy for Britten’s operas. I love the crude reality of them – I may be wrong in saying this, but they’re not dreamy. They seem very up-to-date with the reality of life. There are no heroes. Billy Budd, Peter Grimes – I really love them.