How to Listen to and Understand Opera

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Robert Greenberg is one of my favorite lecturers. He is well informed and entertaining. He has taught me a lot about opera and its evolution over the years.
Date published: 2020-08-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Course, but not One of Greenberg’s Best I have taken many, many of Dr. Greenberg’s courses, including two others that focus on opera: “Operas of Mozart” and “Life and Operas of Verdi”. Although I had a few reservations on those two, I still gave them five star marks. And as much as I like Dr. Greenberg and as much as I love opera, this course (for me) just misses the mark. As with another reviewer, it seems that Dr. Greenberg has not quite hit the lecture stride that he brings in many of his other courses. For example, much of his trademark humor and hyperbolic comparisons fall a bit flat. And unlike his course on Mozart’s operas, the balance between music and background seems a bit off. In particular the incessant reading of much of the libretto before listening to the same musical selection becomes a bit wearing after a few lectures. To be sure, I also disliked this in the other two course on opera, but here it just seemed at times to dominate. While I understand that listening to an audio version, necessitates a bit more plot summary than a video version with its onscreen libretto translation, I do think that the accompanying course material with it complete translations of the musical selections would take care of the audio only audience—except those driving, of course. I would have liked a bit more of an analysis of the music vis-à-vis the libretto, something that could have been accomplished had there been less reading. Even so, there is much to love in this course. The first four lectures dealing with the pre-opera world and with many of the element of opera, set the stage for what is to come. Perhaps a bit too much detail for experienced opera lovers, but even for this crowd, I think there is much that can be learned. Then Dr. Greenberg chooses to spend four full lectures on the beginnings of opera in general and specifically, Monteverdi’s Orfeo. While I am still not converted to being a fan of Orfeo, I feel much more knowledgeable about it than I was before, and would now attend (or watch a video) performance given the chance. Perhaps I need to take the Wagner course in order to get a better idea. The course then deals with two of the most popular opera composers in some detail: Mozart and Verdi. Both of these four-set lectures are very good, but both also left me wanting more analysis of the music and less libretto reading. Dr. Greenberg’s discussion of the background and music was so good that I wanted more. By this time in the course I was mentally saying to myself while he was reading, “just get on with it”. In between Mozart and Verdi we are treated to a couple of lectures on Bel Canto opera, with “The Barber of Seville” as the focus. Here I thought that I got a good simple explanation of Bel Canto, and it is the one time that a performer is identified in the course music, in a sort of “the dog did not bark” way. Once again after listening to the lecture set on Wagner, I am even more convinced than ever that I’ll never really understand what is going on musically, even though I’m a Wagner fan. OTOH, the lecture on Richard Strauss’s Salome is an absolute home run, while the set on Russian operas left me somewhat cold and unconvinced about the music. The closing set on Puccini (mostly Tosca) let us in on Greenberg as a fanboy. Acknowledging that Puccini might (and could have) done better in many respects as fitting the score to the text, Dr. Greenberg dismisses the many Puccini critics putting himself squarely in the “have a good time with the music and tear-jerking story” side. That is where I am as well, still shedding a tear while watching “Butterfly” for the umpteenth time. It is just great to know that an expert mirrors my amateur reactions. Recommended, but just as “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” went though a couple of new editions, so too should his “How to Listen to and Understand Opera”. Give this course a chance to match that high point.
Date published: 2020-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I Didn't Expect to Like It I’m not an opera fan. I loved this course. In his witty, lively, sometimes funny and always engaging way, Prof. Greenberg shows the average Joe and Josephine what opera is all about. What is opera? Where did it come from? How did it start? How has it changed, and why? What makes a good opera? What makes a bad one? Greenberg answers all this and more. Personally, I found these lectures like potato chips: it was hard to watch just one. I recommend the video version, not only because of the visuals but so that you can read along with what is being sung. Opera is a field much too wide to be covered adequately in 32 lectures. A lot of selectivity was needed. By necessity, some worthy composers and their works were given short shrift or passed over entirely. I give Prof. Greenberg props for his intelligent selection of time periods, composers, varieties, and specific operas. You really do cover all the essentials in this course. And more. Greenberg’s insights into The Marriage of Figaro are phenomenal. It’s a work filled with what the internet age calls “Easter eggs” and Greenberg shows us where to find them, even if time permits only a look at the first two acts. There are a couple of places where the course falls short. They are minor and by no means deal-killers. But they’re worth mentioning. 1. This is not Prof. Greenberg’s fault, but just once I would like to hear an authentic madrigal performance. We hear so much about period instruments, but no one seems to care about period voices. What we now consider a professional (classical) singing voice developed as music outgrew the salons and moved into theaters, where a hyper-powered voice was needed to reach every seat. Renaissance and early baroque singing would have been lighter, more intimate - more John Denver or Nat King Cole than Pavarotti. 2. Professor Greenberg, I love ya, but on your next birthday I’m sending you a pronunciation dictionary. Pergole”zay” for Pergolesi; rena-zance for renaissance; Co”mee”dia dell’Arte; “clack” for clique. St. Petersburg’s river is the Neva, rhymes with “hurrah”; Greenberg calls it the “Neev.” Reading from his notes, he repeatedly refers to Emperor Joseph II from Mozart’s day as “Franz Josef,” the much later emperor during World War 1. From anyone else these would fly right over my head. But something about them coming from an expert who really should know better stabs my brain like a badly aimed lawn dart. 3. Greenberg knows his Marriage of Figaro far too well to be telling us that the boy Cherubino is “very promiscuous.” Prego, paysano! The libretto could hardly be more clear that Cherubino is a barely pubescent virgin losing to an onslaught of teenage hormones. He’s got a mad crush on every female in sight, from Barbarina to Susanna to the Countess herself. Figaro’s “Non piu andrai” isn’t a catalog of Cherubino’s conquests, it’s an ironic rag on the boy. Cherubino’s signature aria is even: “You who know what love is like.” ‘Cause he sure doesn’t. 4. Greenberg repeats the canard that Italian is “ideally suited for singing” and German, which he calls “spiky,” lacks the clear vowels for melisma (one syllable held over several notes, like the first word in “Silent Night”). This is the sort of myth that makes linguists look for a nice solid wall to bang our heads against. Let’s get this clear. German has every vowel that Italian has, plus a couple more, and they’re every bit as “pure.” Italian has every “cluster” (actually affricates) that German does, and uses them in at least as many places: sh, ch, dj, ts. German ill-suited to melisma? Bach had no trouble with it in his cantatas. Beethoven had no trouble with it in his oratorio "Christ am Ölberg" or in the “O Freude, nicht diese Töne” prologue in the 9th Symphony. Brahms and Schubert had no trouble making German melismas sound beautiful in their Lieder. If an even balance between consonants and vowels is what makes the perfect singing language, we should be writing all our operas in Mandarin Chinese or Samoan. Italian is ideally suited to Italian opera for the same reason that English is ideally suited to rock and roll: the music was created with the language in mind. German opera did not take a more “syllabic” route because of the language’s limitations, nor did it favor mythological themes on the example of Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” German 19th-century opera was informed by German romanticism - the quest for a common German identity. As defined, for example, by uniquely Germanic folk music (folk music tends to be syllabic in any language) and by uniquely German legends and folklore. Mozart’s mythology was Masonic; Wagner’s and von Weber’s was Teutonic. We're talking apples and orangutans. 5. All too often, Greenberg does not give us the translation of the libretto we are hearing, but a rewrite in English, complete with English rhymes. This sometimes results in the ridiculous spectacle of having us read something completely different from what is actually being sung. Worst instances: The Magic Flute. None of these, however detracts from the value of the course. Worth the price alone: The Marriage of Figaro dissection, and Greenberg’s explanation of Russian opera, which is the best I’ve seen anywhere. And I’ve lived in Russia. If you like opera, get this course. If you don’t like opera but are curious, get this course. If you don’t like opera and aren’t curious, get this course and you will be.
Date published: 2020-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So interesting. I have learned a way to understand opera. I am halfway through and am enjoying the lectures immensely.
Date published: 2020-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Greenberg I loved this course. Professor Greenberg is an incredible teacher bringing opera to life. I just streamed La Traviata from the Met and felt I had a much greater appreciation of the opera. I have now purchased his course on Wagner, and cannot wait to start listening.
Date published: 2020-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A wonderful balance of words and music A beautiful course that provides the background to enjoy opera. I liked very much the historical perspective to understand more than 400 years of opera.
Date published: 2020-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorite courses Greenberg is always entertaining, and just always so right and interesting! I have as many of his courses as I can afford! Have loved his courses for years! I have always been interested in Opera and know some well but this course will make you a fan!
Date published: 2020-02-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from What Opera Is The content was excellent BUT opera is not just hearing, it is seeing and video of the operas would have enhanced the overall understanding and enjoyment. I was disappointed that it was audio only.
Date published: 2020-02-03
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Introduction and Words and Music, I
1: Introduction and Words and Music, I

In the first two lectures we develop a methodology for listening to and understanding opera. We are introduced to the concept of opera as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts in its combination of soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, action, and continuous music. We see how music can evoke what words cannot express; the composer is the dramatist. This combination of words and music endows op...

47 min
Introduction and Words and Music, II
2: Introduction and Words and Music, II

In the first two lectures we develop a methodology for listening to and understanding opera. We are introduced to the concept of opera as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts in its combination of soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, action, and continuous music. We see how music can evoke what words cannot express; the composer is the dramatist. This combination of words and music endows op...

45 min
A Brief History of Vocal Expression in Music, I
3: A Brief History of Vocal Expression in Music, I

Throughout the history of European music, style and form have changed constantly. Beginning in ancient Greece, we trace the history of vocal music through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We focus on the rise of popular secular music in a world hitherto dominated by the music of the Roman Catholic Church. Renaissance composers turned increasingly to the ancient Greek ideal for inspiration. The...

44 min
A Brief History of Vocal Expression in Music, II
4: A Brief History of Vocal Expression in Music, II

Throughout the history of European music, style and form have changed constantly. Beginning in ancient Greece, we trace the history of vocal music through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We focus on the rise of popular secular music in a world hitherto dominated by the music of the Roman Catholic Church. Renaissance composers turned increasingly to the ancient Greek ideal for inspiration. The...

47 min
Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, I
5: Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, I

In Lectures 5 through 8 we review the Greek idea of music as it related to music of the Renaissance. We see the evolution of intermezzo as a precursor to the first real opera. We look at the role of the Florentine Camerata in the development of opera, and we examine in depth the first real opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607....

46 min
Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, II
6: Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, II

In Lectures 5 through 8 we review the Greek idea of music as it related to music of the Renaissance. We see the evolution of intermezzo as a precursor to the first real opera. We look at the role of the Florentine Camerata in the development of opera, and we examine in depth the first real opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607....

45 min
Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, III
7: Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, III

In Lectures 5 through 8 we review the Greek idea of music as it related to music of the Renaissance. We see the evolution of intermezzo as a precursor to the first real opera. We look at the role of the Florentine Camerata in the development of opera, and we examine in depth the first real opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607....

45 min
Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, IV
8: Invention of Opera and Monteverdi's Orfeo, IV

In Lectures 5 through 8 we review the Greek idea of music as it related to music of the Renaissance. We see the evolution of intermezzo as a precursor to the first real opera. We look at the role of the Florentine Camerata in the development of opera, and we examine in depth the first real opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607....

47 min
The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, I
9: The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, I

Lectures 9 through 12 review the main features of early opera and trace its growth from the early 17th century up to Mozart's Idomeneo of 1781. As opera became a public entertainment, its literary and dramatic substance deteriorated. We learn how the formulaic rigidity of opera seria led to vocal abuses, and how Gluck represented a new wave of reform, creating the model for the next generation of ...

45 min
The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, II
10: The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, II

Lectures 9 through 12 review the main features of early opera and trace its growth from the early 17th century up to Mozart's Idomeneo of 1781. As opera became a public entertainment, its literary and dramatic substance deteriorated. We learn how the formulaic rigidity of opera seria led to vocal abuses, and how Gluck represented a new wave of reform, creating the model for the next generation of ...

45 min
The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, III
11: The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, III

Lectures 9 through 12 review the main features of early opera and trace its growth from the early 17th century up to Mozart's Idomeneo of 1781. As opera became a public entertainment, its literary and dramatic substance deteriorated. We learn how the formulaic rigidity of opera seria led to vocal abuses, and how Gluck represented a new wave of reform, creating the model for the next generation of ...

46 min
The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, IV
12: The Growth of Opera, the Development of Italian Opera Seria, and Mozart's Idomeneo, IV

Lectures 9 through 12 review the main features of early opera and trace its growth from the early 17th century up to Mozart's Idomeneo of 1781. As opera became a public entertainment, its literary and dramatic substance deteriorated. We learn how the formulaic rigidity of opera seria led to vocal abuses, and how Gluck represented a new wave of reform, creating the model for the next generation of ...

46 min
The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, I
13: The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, I

In this study of comic opera-opera buffa-we see how comic opera, with its roots in popular folklore, developed separately from the opera seria of the aristocracy. We learn how the more accessible, populist opera buffa was championed by Enlightenment progressives such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Opera buffa character types and conventions are discussed, and one of the greatest examples of opera buffa...

46 min
The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, II
14: The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, II

In this study of comic opera-opera buffa-we see how comic opera, with its roots in popular folklore, developed separately from the opera seria of the aristocracy. We learn how the more accessible, populist opera buffa was championed by Enlightenment progressives such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Opera buffa character types and conventions are discussed, and one of the greatest examples of opera buffa...

44 min
The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, III
15: The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, III

In this study of comic opera-opera buffa-we see how comic opera, with its roots in popular folklore, developed separately from the opera seria of the aristocracy. We learn how the more accessible, populist opera buffa was championed by Enlightenment progressives such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Opera buffa character types and conventions are discussed, and one of the greatest examples of opera buffa...

46 min
The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, IV
16: The Rise of Opera Buffa and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, IV

In this study of comic opera-opera buffa-we see how comic opera, with its roots in popular folklore, developed separately from the opera seria of the aristocracy. We learn how the more accessible, populist opera buffa was championed by Enlightenment progressives such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Opera buffa character types and conventions are discussed, and one of the greatest examples of opera buffa...

47 min
The Bel Canto Style and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, I
17: The Bel Canto Style and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, I

Lectures 17 and 18 discuss bel canto, the dominant style of 19th-century Italian opera. Its features of appealing melodies and florid melodic embellishments are suited to the Italian language. Bel canto operas are based on comic, predictable plots and one-dimensional characters to indulge the contemporary Italian taste for pure entertainment. Our frame of reference is the landmark bel canto opera,...

46 min
The Bel Canto Style and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, II
18: The Bel Canto Style and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, II

Lectures 17 and 18 discuss bel canto, the dominant style of 19th-century Italian opera. Its features of appealing melodies and florid melodic embellishments are suited to the Italian language. Bel canto operas are based on comic, predictable plots and one-dimensional characters to indulge the contemporary Italian taste for pure entertainment. Our frame of reference is the landmark bel canto opera,...

48 min
Verdi and Otello, I
19: Verdi and Otello, I

The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and opera seria are the focus of Lectures 19 through 22. We learn how Verdi dominated the operatic scene in Italy for more than half a century by the power of his beautiful melodies and his focus on human emotions and psychological insight. We see how Verdi gave the orchestra an increasingly important role in the drama, and how he used technique to endow his ope...

46 min
Verdi and Otello, II
20: Verdi and Otello, II

The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and opera seria are the focus of Lectures 19 through 22. We learn how Verdi dominated the operatic scene in Italy for more than half a century by the power of his beautiful melodies and his focus on human emotions and psychological insight. We see how Verdi gave the orchestra an increasingly important role in the drama, and how he used technique to endow his ope...

46 min
Verdi and Otello, III
21: Verdi and Otello, III

The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and opera seria are the focus of Lectures 19 through 22. We learn how Verdi dominated the operatic scene in Italy for more than half a century by the power of his beautiful melodies and his focus on human emotions and psychological insight. We see how Verdi gave the orchestra an increasingly important role in the drama, and how he used technique to endow his ope...

46 min
Verdi and Otello, IV
22: Verdi and Otello, IV

The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and opera seria are the focus of Lectures 19 through 22. We learn how Verdi dominated the operatic scene in Italy for more than half a century by the power of his beautiful melodies and his focus on human emotions and psychological insight. We see how Verdi gave the orchestra an increasingly important role in the drama, and how he used technique to endow his ope...

45 min
French Opera, I
23: French Opera, I

In Lectures 23 and 24 we give an overview of the evolution of a distinctly French style; explain why and how French opera is different from Italian opera; and emphasize that operatic content, both musical and dramatic, is most often a function of the language, politics, and economic class of its consumers. French opera composers discussed include Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jean-Jac...

45 min
French Opera, II
24: French Opera, II

In Lectures 23 and 24 we give an overview of the evolution of a distinctly French style; explain why and how French opera is different from Italian opera; and emphasize that operatic content, both musical and dramatic, is most often a function of the language, politics, and economic class of its consumers. French opera composers discussed include Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jean-Jac...

46 min
German Opera Comes of Age
25: German Opera Comes of Age

In this lecture we learn how German opera owed its evolution to German folklore and the requirements of the German language. We see how it came into being with Mozart's The Magic Flute of 1791, and how it was indebted to the traditional German entertainment of singspiel. Weber's Der Freishütz is examined as the work that established 19th-century German opera....

48 min
Richard Wagner and Tristan und Isolde, I
26: Richard Wagner and Tristan und Isolde, I

Lectures 26 and 27 examine the contribution of the paradoxical Richard Wagner to operatic history. Wagner's life and career is summarized. We look at Wagner's theories, his admiration for ancient Greek drama, and his invention of leitmotif. Schopenhauer's philosophy and its influence on Wagner's concept of music drama are also discussed. Finally, we examine Wagner's landmark opera Tristan und Isol...

45 min
Richard Wagner and Tristan und Isolde, II
27: Richard Wagner and Tristan und Isolde, II

Lectures 26 and 27 examine the contribution of the paradoxical Richard Wagner to operatic history. Wagner's life and career is summarized. We look at Wagner's theories, his admiration for ancient Greek drama, and his invention of leitmotif. Schopenhauer's philosophy and its influence on Wagner's concept of music drama are also discussed. Finally, we examine Wagner's landmark opera Tristan und Isol...

46 min
Late Romantic German Opera-Richard Strauss and Salome
28: Late Romantic German Opera-Richard Strauss and Salome

In this lecture, Richard Strauss's opera Salome is discussed as an example of late romantic German opera. After an overview of Strauss's early life, we examine his psychopathological and erotic Salome and the reasons why it is one of the most controversial operas of all time....

46 min
Russian Opera, I
29: Russian Opera, I

This lecture on Russian opera traces the causes, history, and character of Russian musical nationalism. Glinka and his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila are discussed as the foundation of Russian opera leading the way for The Russian Five and the pinnacle of Russian nationalist opera, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov....

46 min
Russian Opera, II
30: Russian Opera, II

This lecture on Russian opera traces the causes, history, and character of Russian musical nationalism. Glinka and his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila are discussed as the foundation of Russian opera leading the way for The Russian Five and the pinnacle of Russian nationalist opera, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov....

42 min
Verismo, Puccini, and Tosca, I
31: Verismo, Puccini, and Tosca, I

The final lectures examine opera verismo: its origins, character, and greatest exponent-Giacomo Puccini. Puccini's virtues and faults are discussed-especially his marvelous power of lyricism, sometimes pursued at the expense of dramatic reality. The second act of Tosca is analyzed as an example of his style and as one of the most powerful acts in all opera. The study concludes with a musical illus...

46 min
Verismo, Puccini, and Tosca, II
32: Verismo, Puccini, and Tosca, II

The final lectures examine opera verismo: its origins, character, and greatest exponent-Giacomo Puccini. Puccini's virtues and faults are discussed-especially his marvelous power of lyricism, sometimes pursued at the expense of dramatic reality. The second act of Tosca is analyzed as an example of his style and as one of the most powerful acts in all opera. The study concludes with a musical illus...

46 min
Robert Greenberg

For thousands of years cultures have celebrated themselves through their music. Let us always be willing and able to join that celebration by listening as carefully as we can to what, through music, we have to say to one another.

ALMA MATER

University of California, Berkeley

INSTITUTION

San Francisco Performances

About Robert Greenberg

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions-which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles-performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres. Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.