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How to Listen to and Understand Opera

Discover the great beauty and high artistic achievement of opera with this brilliant course by acclaimed musicologist Robert Greenberg.
How to Listen to and Understand Opera is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 93.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Milestone Course This is one of the flagship courses at The Great Courses (TGC) and it is taught by Dr. Robert Greenberg, one of the best teachers in the TGC stable. Dr. Greenburg tackles the inscrutable topic of opera bit-by-bit. He takes the approach of unfolding the historical development of opera and thus ultimately its modern characteristics. • He starts by discussing the history of vocal music. He shows that, by the Renaissance, drama was enhanced by music between acts and then music *during* the drama. • He explains the invention of opera in Italy by analyzing Orfeo by Monteverdi. He shows that the singing is used to enhance the existing stage dramas. • He shows how this developed into a style – opera seria, usually about a mythic figure. He illustrates this style by analyzing Mozart’s Idomeneo • He shows that as opera seria came to be considered overblown and improbable, Italian opera developed opera buffa, a sort of comic opera. He illustrates opera buffa by analyzing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. • He shows that the music overshadowed the drama as Italian opera developed the bel canto style, which emphasized the beauty of the singing. He illustrates this by analyzing Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. • He shows that Verdi advanced opera by rebalancing and integrating the music with the drama. He illustrates this by analyzing Verdi’s Otello. • He then jumps from Italian opera to French opera, which developed independently and supported the aristocracy and emphasized dance. He illustrates the characteristics of French opera by analyzing Bizet’s Carmen. • He then jumps to German opera, which developed independently from the popular German singspiel. German opera came to consider opera a “music drama,” which totally integrated music and drama. He illustrates this by analyzing Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. • He dallies with Russian opera and the differences imposed by the differences of the Slavic languages and culture relative to the languages and culture of Western Europe. He illustrates this by analyzing Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. • He concludes with a brief foray into the twentieth century with an examination of dramatic truth and expressive realism. He illustrates this by analyzing Puccini’s Tosca. This appears to be one of the earliest courses offered by TGC. It is so old that Dr. Greenberg holds his notes rather than reading from a teleprompter. It is so old that Dr. Greenberg has black hair. It is so old that the lectures are 45 minutes long instead of the later standard of 30 minutes each. Dr. Greenberg is among the elite, among the very best at TGC. He is knowledgeable, humorous, and easy to follow. In my opinion, he is the standard by which all other TGC lecturers are measured. This appears to be an early experiment with course guides. It is written in paragraph form rather than the outline or bullet form used later. Often several lectures are merged into one section in the course guide. For instance, Lectures 5-8 get one chapter in the course guide. The course guide includes the libretti of the opera excerpts used. The appendix includes a timeline, a glossary, biographical notes for the major composers addressed in the course, and a bibliography. This makes it one of the better course guides offered by TGC. I initially used the audio (cassette tape) version but I retook it using the video version. The video version definitely enhances the learning experience. Most opera is not in English and it is helpful to follow along with the English translation of the words being sung in the opera excerpts. The course was published in 1997.
Date published: 2022-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Greenberg is always knowledgable, interesting and articulate. This course is Prof. Greenberg at his best.
Date published: 2022-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best lecturers! I am a total opera newbie, but want to learn. This course, as another reviewer said, is more so geared towards the development of opera rather than how to listen to it. With that said, I enjoyed this course very much! I absolutely loved Dr. Greenberg - his jokes might have been corny but I didn't mind at all. His obvious passion for his material made me enthusiastic and pay attention. I look forward to continuing my journey into opera. This was a great introduction! I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2022-01-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing We've purchased several courses featuring Dr. Greenberg and we are avid lovers of opera. However, this course is not about "understanding" opera. The professor spends much time literally reading the libretto of Puccini's opera Tosca. He holds about 20 sheets of paper and then reads each page, occasionally playing a short audio excerpt from the opera. We enjoy the other Great Courses that feature him, but this is not one of them.
Date published: 2021-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly Entertaining & Informative I recently became interested in Opera, and actively looked for a 'beginner's guide' type of course. This fit the bill perfectly. I find Dr. Greenberg's approach to be refreshing, light hearted, and captivating. I started knowing virtually nothing about Opera, and about halfway through, I feel like I have a much better understanding on Opera's roots, and I look forward to continuing my learning. I would definitely like to take more of Dr. Greenberg's courses when I am through with this one.
Date published: 2021-08-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The lecturer is too full of himself I bought this course after enjoying the How to Sing course which I like very much. That lecturer was an opera singer and although I have not been an opera fan I decided I should learn more about it and give it a try. I have listened to about half of this course and find Professor Greenberg so full of himself that I cannot go on. My older brother and his wife love opera but I fear I will never be into it.
Date published: 2020-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. G. does the impossible I've always said I couldn't understand how anyone could enjoy opera, especially if one doesn't speak the language of the piece. On a dare from a friend, I watched this course. Dr. Greenberg managed to convince me that opera can be every bit as enjoyable as a purely instrumental piece of music. He couldn't make me like Schoenbeg (in his other lectures), but he did convince me to give opera a fair shake. I wouldn't say this is Dr. G's best GC because there are so many really great ones. Still I'm giving it five stars because he managed the impossible -- once these shut-downs subside and live arts are possible again, I'm planning to attend a performance by our state operatic theater.
Date published: 2020-09-28
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
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Overview

For more than 400 years, opera has been one of the most popular performing arts. Professor Robert Greenberg can show you how you can learn to understand, appreciate&;amp;-even to love&;amp;-opera in just 32 lectures. With the knowledge of opera from this course, you will understand how opera is a unique marriage of words and music in which the whole is far greater than its parts. You will learn the reasons for opera's enduring popularity. And you will be able to explore in great depth the extraordinary and compelling world of opera.

About

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.

INSTITUTION

San Francisco Performances

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.

You can find more music content from Robert Greenberg on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic.

By This Professor

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Introduction and Words and Music, I

01: 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

02: 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

03: 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

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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