By Alexia Pantanizopoulos

How to Grow an Opera Fan

I have loved Opera from a very early age.  I was around 8 or 9 years old when I was first introduced to it by my parents. They would play Mozart Operas, Pavarotti’s operatic roles, and operatic overtures during dinnertime.

I can also remember the first time I saw Knoxville Opera’s performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the gorgeous Tennessee Theatre with my parents, and how incredible it was to hear the music intertwined with the stellar cast of incredible singers.  Specifically, the role of Don Giovanni sung magnificently by UTK Music Professor of Voice, Baritonist Andrew Wentzel.   Another profound operatic experience was seeing Knoxville Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme and Tosca with my sisters.  I cried almost all the way through La Boheme and I was only about 12 or 13 years old.  It was like all of my senses were being elevated at the same time through the beautiful singing and Puccini’s lush orchestration.  It was simply magical.

On my first day of 6th grade strings class at Cedar Bluff Middle School, we were suppose to pick a stringed instrument we wanted to learn to play. Our teacher, the late Phyllis Steen, played the “Star Wars” theme on cello, and, at that point, I knew what instrument I would be playing from then on!


The cello has a Baritone, Tenor, and Soprano range. In many operatic arias it is used to accompany the singer in unison or in harmony.

In Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, 3rd movement, Offertorio-Domine Jesu Christe, the entire cello section starts the piece with an upward then downward arpeggio in Eb major, which mimics what the singers are about to sing.  And about 1 ½ minutes into the piece, the celli are playing in unison with the Bass soloist.  It truly is a sublime piece of music.  (Recommended music recording, Verdi’s Requiem with Herbert Von Karajan conducting, Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, 1967)

Verdi became highly popular in the 19th century with his epic operatic work Nabucco. In 2009, an Italian senator proposed to replace Italy’s National Anthem with Nabuuco‘s famous chorale part “Chorus of the Hebrew Salves” (Va Pensiero: “Fly, thought, on wings of gold”).

It is Verdi’s 200th birthday anniversary this year so please listen to more Verdi in memory of his beautiful contribution to the music world.  Giuseppe Verdi wrote, “I adore art…when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.”

Monteverdi, Handel, and the Castrati

Opera in Italian literally means “work,” and I think Opera is the “Olympics” of all the Arts because of the simultaneous music, singing, acting, and dancing.  Going to an opera in its prime, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century, was the equivalent of going to the movies today.

One of the first Operas composed was in 1607, L’Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi. It featured Castrato singers, prepubescent boys who were castrated to retain their soprano voices. Women were not allowed to sing in the Catholic Church, so young boys took the place of female singers.  (Recommended music recording excerpts:  L’Orfeo Act 1 Prologue Dal mi Permesso-conducted by Jordi Savall at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain, sung by a Soprano in this recording, but originally the character “La Musica” was sung by a male Castrato voice.  George Frideric Handel was another famous composer of Castrato singing, and his vocal stylings were written for the best castrati to sing. These vocally demanding parts required the singer to sing one note with acrobatic embellishments for over a minute. The most famous Castrato singer, is  Carlo Broschi, aka “Farinelli.”


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his operas composed in the 18th century were the beginnings of perfecting the Opera art form/song structure.  Of the 22 operas he composed, 10 of them were written when he was a teenager.

I recommend 4 Mozart operas:

  • The 3rd opera, which is probably my favorite, is Don Giovanni pronounced” Don Joe-Va-Nee” which is an Opera seria (dramatic and serious opera).
  • Lastly, Mozart’s “ahead of His time” Opera, Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) which is a Singspiel in two Acts.

Pavarotti singing Donizetti and Puccini

Luciano Pavarotti is a favourite Italian tenor singer of mine, and these recordings are testaments to his truly amazing talent. In this Gaetano Donizetti opera recording of La Fille Du Regiment he sings 9 high Cs!  A “high C” is when a singer sings the note “C” above middle C on the piano.  I watched the documentary“Portrait of Pavarotti” on YouTube, and learned he was very superstitious.  He would not sing at a theatre if he did not find bent nails on the stage! We all have our quirks.

Donizetti’s,  La Fille Du Regiment with Pavarotti/Sutherland recording

Giacomo Puccini was an Italian opera composer of the Late 19th and early 20th century. His operas are most widely known and regularly performed by opera companies all over the world.  From his most popular La Boheme, to his last opera Turnadot, they all share the same Puccini style – giving the background supporting character roles full-length melodically strong arias, and showcasing real life situations of the human condition.  For example, in the famous La Boheme tenor aria Che Gelida Manina (How cold your little hand is!), the character Rodolfo has just met Mimi, and he explains his poor but “rich” life to her.  Puccini’s “common everyday people” operatic writing style also reminds me of Mozart’s operatic style.  Especially in Don Giovanni where Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, has two famous full-length arias, Madamina il catalogo e questo and Notte e giorno faticar.

See you at the Opera, tutti!

Puccini’s “La Boheme” the Pavarotti/Karajan recording

Can’t get enough Pavarotti? KnoxZine can’t either. Here he is singing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma.

Please see Alexia’s Beginner’s Guide to Classical Music.

Alexia Pantanizopoulous is a member of the Johnson City Symphony and Norwegian Wood. To book Norwegian Wood for special events please contact Alexia at norwegianwood.strings@gmail.

© Alexia Pantanizopoulos, 2013.

Comments are closed.