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Opera Playlist by Uranians author Theodore McCombs

Many years ago, a colleague challenged me to a friendly contest. We’d each prepare an opera playlist that could serve as a crash course: designed to introduce an open-minded but unfamiliar listener to this peculiar art form that inspires so much devotion in some but holds the uninitiated at arm’s length. 

There were, naturally, lots of rules. (Perhaps it’s relevant context that we were corporate lawyers.) The playlist had to fit on one CD, but cover each of opera’s four centuries (17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th), the five operatic languages (Italian, French, German, English, Russian), the seven vocal parts (bass, baritone, tenor, countertenor, contralto, mezzo-soprano, soprano), and a variety of classic forms (aria, duet, chorus, lieder or art song). Each of these taxonomical divisions carries its own tedious footnote, but let’s go with it, for now—though we’ll add the 21st century. 

For the run-up to publication of my collection, Uranians, it’s my pleasure to put together a new crash course. In addition to following the contest rules, this playlist includes the pieces referenced in the book; I’ve also been having fun unpacking those references in a video series over on TikTok. Because, as lofty and opinionated as opera buffs can be, we want other people to love this genre too. We know how it felt when someone first opened that door for us; we know a little initiation goes a long way.

I didn’t win my contest, I should say. I should make explicit that there is always someone ahead of you in opera—more musically educated, more obsessive, more promiscuous with the Baroque repertory. That’s the promise opera always honors: there is still some next magnificent thing to discover.

Toccata from L’Orfeo (Claudio Monteverdi, 1607). Jordi Savall conducting Le Concert des Nations. 

This banger opens L’Orfeo, the first masterpiece in the still-emergent genre. Ten years after Jacopo Peri’s Dafne—the first composition considered an opera—Monteverdi wrote up the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice as a court entertainment for the Carnival in Mantua, and you can hear that atmosphere in the energetic drums and trumpets. Not quite right for the tearjerker of a story, but perfect for a party.

“Cinque… dieci… venti” from Le nozze di Figaro (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1786). Bryn Terfel, baritone (Figaro); Cecilia Bartoli, soprano (Susannah); Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

Mozart’s great comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro, ditches the dukes and demigods for an ordinary couple in love, trying to squeeze some happiness for themselves into the callous, scheming environment of the Count’s manor. The opening scene couldn’t be more apt: the wily servant Figaro, measuring the room for his bridal bed; his fiancée, resourceful Susannah, showing off the wedding bonnet she’s sewn. The duet is tuneful and charming, letting its poignancy linger below the surface.

Prologue/“Skorbit dusha!” from Boris Gudenov (Modest Mussorgsky, 1874). Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Boris); Sofia Radio Chorus; Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. 

Russian maximalism at its finest. The incomparable Ghiaurov kills it as the tsar haunted by the murder of his brother on his fraught coronation day. The opera takes pains to show the crowd’s acclamations being haphazardly whipped up by Boris’s supporters—an early dissection of strongman propaganda—and Mussorgsky’s tonal lurches and asymmetric rhythms lend all this pomp a terrific instability. Plus: church bells! Crowd choruses! I love any spectacle that feels impossible to fit in an opera house.

“There was a roar” from Eurydice (Matthew Aucoin, 2020). Erin Morley, soprano (Eurydice); Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the MET Orchestra. (4 min.)

Based on a 2003 play by Sarah Ruhl, the opera follows Eurydice’s surreal descent into the underworld, where she’s greeted by a chorus of stones and (some of) the dead. Aucoin’s integration of 20th-century techniques usually positioned as rivals—the orchestra’s minimalist jangling texture, the soaring, atonal vocal lines layered on top of it—isn’t just clever composition, it’s a dramatic whirlwind, cutting to the raw emotion at the heart of the dream logic.

“Danse du Calumet de la Paix” and “Forêts paisibles” from Les Indes galantes, Act IV: Les Sauvages (Jean-Philippe Rameau, 1736). Natalie Dessay, soprano (Zima); Stéphane Degout, baritone (Adario); Emmanuelle Haïm conducting Le Concert d’Astrée.

At the same time opera was emerging in Italy, the French courts were developing the ballet de cour into something similar, and the best French opera remembers its symbiosis with dance. Certainly, Rameau’s totally-problematic-but-kind-of-sweet anthology of Orientalist and New World love stories does. The four acts are short operas set among the Turks, the Peruvian Incas, classic Persia, and some unrecognizable Native Americans, each with its spectacular ballet. Rameau’s “Dance of the Peace Pipe” (😬😬😬) and the lovers’ connected duet are so, so good, and this recording with superstar soprano Dessay and Haïm’s conducting is one of my all-time favorites.

“Di Provenza il mar, il suol” from La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi, 1853). Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Germont); Carlos Kleiber conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra.

The novella in my collection, “Uranians,” follows an expedition of queer artists and scientists on a long-haul interstellar voyage leaving Earth, and the central character, Arrigo, takes up La Traviata—its plot, its history, its musical structure—as a lens for examining his own experience as a sexual outsider. La Traviata is, after all, about a sex worker, a Parisian courtesan who falls for a provincial nice boy from a good family. Arrigo rips into this aria, sung by the boy’s bourgeois father, as a stand-in for everything retrogressive, plodding, and stale about conventional values. But Sherrill Milnes, a wonderful Verdi baritone, makes as good a case for “Di Provenza” as you could ask for.

“Ah fors’è lui… Sempre libera” from La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi, 1853). Virginia Zeani, soprano (Violetta); Radio Audizione Italiana. (10 min.)

In “Uranians,” Arrigo’s unpacking of this double aria is a key to his own ambivalence around the outsider experience. In the slow cavatina, Violetta contemplates the meaningful love she could have with Alfredo alongside her own loneliness and mortality—she’s secretly dying of tuberculosis—while, in the fast and brilliant cabaletta that follows, she seems to throw off the idea and embrace the freedom and hedonism of her wild, fleeting life. Virginia Zeani, whom we just lost, absolutely eats this impossible aria.

“Prendi, quest’è l’immagine” (Act III finale) from La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi, 1853). Anna Netrebko, soprano (Violetta); Ramón Villazon, tenor (Alfredo); Thomas Hampson, baritone (Germont); Diane Pilcher, soprano (Annina); Luigi Roni, bass (Dottore Grenvil); Carlos Rizzi conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

Arrigo’s last foray into La Traviata takes up its gut-wrenching finale, as Violetta prepares herself for death, revives for one final high note, and falls dead with the curtain. It’s a brutal, melodramatic ending, with some terrific ensemble writing and a nimble, constantly shifting orchestration that shows off Verdi’s ear for dramatic momentum. 

“O dolci mani” from Tosca (Giacomo Puccini, 1900). Wookyung Kim, tenor (Cavaradossi); Hee-Chun Choi conducting the Hanyang Philharmonic Orchestra. (2 min.)

As I said in my TikTok: I don’t love this aria. But I do love this performance of it. Plus, it’s short.

“Qu’on sauve Jonathas” from David et Jonathas (Marc-Antoine Charpentier, 1688). Pascal Charbonneau, tenor (David); Ana Quintans, soprano (Jonathas); William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants. (9 min.)

Opera can get gay, and two things make it gayer. One, the prevalence of trouser roles, in which female singers perform in male roles, often as horny but inexpert young men chaotically wooing women. (It is very hot.) Two, the Baroque insistence that the proper range for kings, knights, and other manly heroes was super fucking high: roles like Julius Caesar, Orlando, and Xerxes were originally played by castrati, and these men were rock stars. Charpentier’s David et Jonathas activates both gaying factors in staging the Very Special Friendship of its two biblical heroes: David is a passionate haute-contre, basically a very high tenor, Jonathas an angel-voiced soprano in pants. Charpentier’s music for David mourning the dying Jonathas is exceptionally beautiful, and kudos to Les Arts Florissants for recognizing it can also be very, very hot.

“Einsam wachend in der Nacht” from Tristan und Isolde (Richard Wagner, 1865). Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano (Brangäne); Karl Böhm conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra.

Act II of Tristan und Isolde is built around the monumental love duet between its thwarted lovers—about 200 pages of music—and it’s some of the most transportive music ever composed, a churning, dreamlike ocean of feeling. Meanwhile, Isolde’s maid, Brangäne, keeps watch on the merlon, lonely and anxious for her mistress. Her brief and wonderful intrusion into the duet showcases the lush orchestration that swirls through the act, as well as Wagner’s restless progression of harmonies that never resolve or finish, only escalate.

“How All Living Things Breathe” from The Fall of the House of Usher (Philip Glass, 1988). Anthony Roth Costanzo, countertenor; Jonathan Cohen conducting Les Violons du Roy.

Costanzo is a national treasure and deserves all the attention he’s getting for his powerhouse turn in Glass’s Akhnaten. He also has a great album of Glass and Handel pieces (all those great 18th-century castrati roles were rescued by the 20th-century countertenor revival, in which Glass is an important player), and this is one of the standout tracks. I haven’t seen The Fall of the House of Usher, and there doesn’t seem to be a countertenor in the opera, so I don’t know what to say about this piece, except: wowzers.

“La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse… O terra addio” (Tomb Scene) from Aida (Giuseppe Verdi, 1871). Placido Domingo, tenor (Radamès); Mirella Freni, soprano (Aida); Emil Tchakarov conducting the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. (15 min.) 

Discussed in my TikTok on “Unkillable Women in Opera.” Verdi isn’t anyone’s favorite composer in opera—that’s usually Mozart or Wagner—but he had unsurpassed dramatic instincts. This scene, in which the condemned Egyptian general Radamès discovers his love Aida has hidden herself in the tomb to die with him, is one of his absolute triumphs.

“Non temer! D’un basso affetto…” from Maometto secondo (Gioachino Rossini, 1820). Ewa Podleś, contralto (Calbo); Pier Giorgio Morandi conducting the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra.

I don’t care for Rossini. His galloping themes and vocal fireworks can sound garish in the wrong scenario, more suited to Annie Oakley than the Queen of Babylon. But I love this deranged piece, and really, only Rossini could make a contralto sound like this: virtuosic and ludicrous. The great Polish coloratura contralto Ewa Podleś makes art out of so much nonsense. The less you know about this opera’s plot, the happier you’ll be.

“Im abendrot” from Vier letzte Lieder (Richard Strauss, 1948). Leontyne Price, soprano; Erich Leinsdorf conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra.

Richard Strauss composed his four last songs knowing he was dying, and knowing 20th-century opera had already raced past his own, once-shocking innovations. “After Sunset” faces into this double finitude with a serenity that’s almost unimaginable for the years immediately following World War II. And maybe it’s a false grace—Strauss’s record under Nazi Germany was at best timid, aloof—but I don’t hear anything false or aloof here. Especially not when the divine Miss Price, prima donna assoluta, sings it.

Excerpt from “Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort” (Brünnhilde’s Immolation) from Götterdämmerung (Richard Wagner, 1876). Jessye Norman, soprano (Brünnhilde); Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic. (7 min.)

Jessye Norman, gone but never forgotten, remains my favorite Wagnerian interpreter. Her regal stature and her cathedral of a voice could draw from even Wagner’s most cataclysmic music a nobility of spirit that the composer always pretended to but sorely lacked… I’m sorry, I’m crying. Aren’t you crying? Just watch my TikTok here.