La Traviata (Verdi): The tragic love story of courtesan Violetta has resonated across time through films like Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge. Famed arias like “Sempre Libera” encapsulate the soaring, reckless passion that has inspired pop stars from Madonna to Lady Gaga.
The story follows Violetta Valéry, a famed courtesan in Paris who is the mistress of a wealthy nobleman named Alfredo Germont. They fall deeply in love, much to the surprise of Violetta's friends and high society. But Alfredo's family wants him to marry someone more appropriate. His father Giorgio convinces Violetta that she must leave Alfredo for the sake of his family’s reputation.
Heartbroken, Violetta splits from Alfredo and he is devastated. Months later they run into each other again at a party. Alfredo falsely believes Violetta has taken a new lover and he lashes out at her in front of the guests. Giorgio shows up and scolds his son while explaining to him why Violetta left in secret. Alfredo realizes his mistake and goes to apologize and reconcile with Violetta.
However, Violetta has tuberculosis and her health has deteriorated severely. The opera ends tragically with Alfredo arriving just moments too late—Violetta dies in his arms.
Carmen (Bizet): The provocative title gypsy's vibrant Habanera and sinuous themes have been referenced everywhere from Broadway to Hollywood. Her defiant free spirit has become pop culture shorthand for the untamable feminine.
Carmen is a fiery and free-spirited gypsy girl who works in a cigarette factory in Seville, Spain. A corporal named Don José is supposed to guard the factory but is mesmerized by Carmen's beauty and enchanting singing. Against his better judgement, he lets her escape instead of arresting her for attacking another woman. Don José is then demoted and imprisoned.
Carmen's eventual smuggler boyfriend named Escamillo later challenges Don José to a knife fight over her. But a trumpet call interrupts them - Escamillo has to go to the bullfight. Enraged with jealousy, Don José corners Carmen outside the bullfighting arena and pleads for her to take him back. She refuses and asserts her independence. Furios, Don Jose then stabs and kills Carmen.
The storyline depicts the destructive passion and obsessive love Don José develops for Carmen contrasted with her fierce independence and lack of interest to commit to him or anyone. Though the opera was controversial in its day, Carmen has become one of the most popular and frequently performed operas as audiences continue to be captivated by its dramatic storyline performed through beautiful and evocative music and dance.
La Boheme (Puccini): Mimì and Rodolfo's star-crossed romance in bohemian Paris continues to inspire youthful passion plays across all artistic mediums, echoed in everything from Broadway’s Rent to Baz Luhrmann cinema.
The story is set in Paris in the 1830s and follows a group of young bohemian artists and poets living in poverty. At the center of the story are Mimì, a seamstress, and Rodolfo, a poet. The two meet when Mimì's candle goes out and she comes to Rodolfo’s apartment to light it again. It's love at first sight and they quickly fall for one another.
The other main characters are Rodolfo’s roommates - Marcello, an artist, Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician. These friends face the struggles of poverty with humor and friendship.
Over the course of the opera, Mimì’s health deteriorates from tuberculosis. In the final acts, she is brought to the inn where Rodolfo and Marcello live. As Mimì dies, Rodolfo realizes how much he truly loves her. The opera ends tragically as Mimì succumbs to her illness and the devastated Rodolfo loses his beloved.
The Magic Flute (Mozart): From the hallucinatory imagery of Papageno’s avian fantasy to the occult Masonic trial by fire, this opera teems with otherworldly inspiration reinterpreted endlessly by fantastical literature, games and animation.
Prince Tamino is being pursued by a serpent, but three ladies in the service of the Queen of the Night save him. They show him a portrait of the queen's daughter Pamina who is being held captive by Sarastro, an supposedly evil sorcerer. The queen asks Tamino to rescue Pamina. He is given a magic flute to help protect him. Along the way Tamino acquires the bird catcher Papageno as a sidekick, and the Queen's ladies give Papageno magic bells to defend himself.
Guided by three spirits, Tamino and Papageno find Sarastro's temple and discover he is not evil after all, but rather the leader of a priesthood that stands for wisdom and righteousness. Sarastro refuses to release Pamina, believing she will be better off with the brotherhood. In a series of trials, Tamino is forbidden from speaking to prove he is worthy of entering the temple and uniting with Pamina.
Meanwhile, the increasingly desperate Queen enlists her daughter to kill Sarastro, but Pamina cannot do it. After passing his trials, Tamino professes his love for Pamina and both undergo an initiation into the temple, guided by the spirits. The lovers are eventually united. Papageno also finds his true love Papagena, and their happy ending is celebrated along with that of the united Tamino and Pamina.
Rigoletto (Verdi): Its themes of powerful depravity and revenge laid groundwork for generations of tragic antiheroes from Darth Vader to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Its dramatic scope is rivaled only by Verdi’s equally ubiquitous Aida.
The opera follows Rigoletto, a bitter court jester serving the libertine Duke of Mantua. Rigoletto has a beautiful daughter named Gilda whom he keeps locked away and secret from the lecherous Duke. However, the Duke discovers her and poses as a poor student named Gualtier Maldè to seduce her.
Rigoletto is unaware of their encounters until courtiers who resent his biting humor help the Duke abduct Gilda. When Rigoletto finds out, he swears revenge. He hires an assassin named Sparafucile to kill the Duke. Sparafucile agrees - for the right price.
Sparafucile later on brings the Duke back to his inn after luring him there with his sister Maddalena, a prostitute. Gilda, still in love with the Duke, overhears Maddalena suggest that since the assassin already killed someone earlier, he spare the Duke and kill the next person who comes to the inn instead.
To save her beloved Duke, Gilda sacrifices herself and knocks on the door to be killed. A mortally wounded Gilda later dies in the arms of her father Rigoletto, revealing she loved the Duke too much to let him be killed, leaving Rigoletto a broken man having lost all he loved.
The Barber of Seville (Rossini): Count Almaviva’s serenades and Figaro’s mischievous machinations toward uniting young lovers have become comedy archetypes referenced across all media. From Bugs Bunny outwitting Elmer Fudd to every modern romantic farce, they cast long shadows.
Set in Seville, Spain, the story follows the scheming Figaro, an energetic barber and jack-of-all-trades. Figaro devises a plan to help Count Almaviva win the hand of beautiful Rosina, who is the young ward of elderly Doctor Bartolo. Bartolo keeps a close watch over Rosina because he seeks to marry her himself to gain access to her dowry.
Figaro helps the Count sneak into Bartolo's home to introduce himself to Rosina by pretending to be a poor college student named Lindoro. After romancing her with sweet words and music, Rosina returns Almaviva's affection. Bartolo suspects something is up and wants to marry Rosina immediately.
Rosina writes a letter explaining she has fallen for poor "Lindoro" and plans to sneak out to marry him that night. But Bartolo intercepts the note instead. After some comical twists and turns, Almaviva reveals his true identity to Rosina and Figaro arranges a plan involving disguises, notaries, and ladders to rescue her.
Despite Bartolo nearly foiling their ploy, the resourceful Figaro outsmarts him. The young lovers are married at last.
Madame Butterfly (Puccini): Cio-Cio San’s agonizing choice between love and honor at the hands of callous foreign power has made Butterfly an anthem for marginalized, exploited and immigrant experiences from Miss Saigon to latest calls for cross-cultural empathy.
The young Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San, nicknamed Butterfly, enters into an arranged marriage with American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton, who is stationed temporarily in Nagasaki. Though Pinkerton casually enters the marriage for convenience and diversion while in Japan, the innocent Butterfly genuinely falls in love with him.
After Pinkerton departs back to America shortly after their wedding, Butterfly faithfully awaits his return for three years, rejecting offers from other suitors in the meantime. Unfortunately, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his American wife Kate to collect Butterfly and take her son away.
When Butterfly finally faces the reality of Pinkerton’s abandonment, she commits ritual suicide by seppuku while embracing her young son one last time. A heartbroken Pinkerton arrives too late to stop her death.
Tosca (Puccini): Its high-stakes twists and political intrigue popularized the term “Tosca's Kiss." Sopranos everywhere aim for the stratospheric notes amplifying diva defiance.
The opera is set in Rome in 1800. The story follows Floria Tosca, a famous opera singer, and her lover Mario Cavaradossi, a painter and revolutionary sympathizer. The chief of police, Scarpia, is determined to find an excuse to arrest Cavaradossi.
When Cavaradossi helps a political prisoner named Angelotti escape, Scarpia seizes the opportunity. He arrests Cavaradossi and sentences him to death. Scarpia then blackmails Tosca - he will pardon Cavaradossi if she gives herself to him. Tosca initially refuses but eventually gives in to save her lover.
After obtaining Tosca's favor, Scarpia writes a fake pardon for Cavaradossi and arranges his execution by firing squad. He is confident Tosca won't talk since it would reveal her affair. However, after Scarpia finishes writing the pardon, Tosca stabs and kills him.
At the execution, Tosca awaits Cavaradossi, expecting his pardon. But when the shooting happens and she realizes the pardon was fake, she is horrified. In the final scene, Tosca throws herself from the prison wall to her death.
The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart): Figaro’s madcap improvising spawned countless comedic successors. From fleet-footed farce pacing to misunderstandings surrounding complex love triangles, its outline echoes anything from vaudeville to sitcom formula.
The opera follows Figaro and Suzanna, servants to Count and Countess Almaviva. Figaro and Suzanna want to marry, but the philandering Count Almaviva has been demanding the traditional right to bed a servant girl on her wedding night, threatening to reinstate this abandoned "rule" to bed Suzanna.
After finding out about this, Figaro and Suzanna conspire to outsmart the Count and expose his scheming intentions to the Countess. A young boy named Cherubino, a page with a crush on the Countess, becomes caught up in their schemes. After much witty banter and comedic confusion due to disguises and mistaken identities, the Count is publicly embarrassed for his unwanted advances on Suzanna.
All is ultimately revealed, Countess Almaviva is made aware of her husband's infidelities, and Figaro marries Suzanna after foiling the Count’s unwanted advances. The Count asks his wife's forgiveness, and the couples are happily reconciled by the finale.
Don Giovanni (Mozart): Few archetypes have entrenched themselves as firmly as the brooding, rakish seducer bringing disaster to female conquests. From Romantic literature to soap operas, Don Giovanni’s shadows lurks behind bad boys everywhere. What dramatic figure doesn’t aspire to stop shows like his chilling cemetery scene climax?
Set in Spain, wealthy young nobleman Don Giovanni is a notorious womanizer with servant Leporello acting as his accomplice. After an attempted rape of Donna Anna, her father Commendatore confronts the masked Giovanni and challenges him to a duel. Giovanni kills the Commendatore and escapes into the night with Leporello.
Later at a party meant to seduce peasants, Giovanni meets guests including spurned lover Donna Elvira who warns others about his malicious ways. He then encounters young newlywed brides Zerlina and Masetto, promising Zerlina a life of luxury if she leaves Masetto and becomes his lover. This further upsets Elvira.
As Giovanni's devious plans are uncovered, Anna and Elvira demand justice from authorities. But Giovanni remains unrepentant. Finally the ghost of the Commendatore returns and orders him to repent. Giovanni refuses and is dragged down to hell by the statue come-to-life.
 Though the theatrical trappings may modernize, the emotional essence at their core persists in connecting with audiences as much today as when first premiered to enraptured crowds who laughed, gasped and wept alongside ill-fated protagonists. In essence, great opera reminds audiences of the most tragic yet wonderful truth – our shared humanity.
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