How YouTube Helped Me Learn About Opera

I’ve loved opera since high school. It started with classical music in general when I first heard Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Mrs. Rosenblum, our French teacher, made us listen to all five movements as a reflection assignment when we read André Gide’s La Symphonie Pastorale. That opened a new world and soon I began listening to other pieces in my father’s record collection. It took a few months to venture into opera, Carmen at first, and then on to Tosca, La Traviata, my still favorite Madame Butterfly, and a handful of others, mostly Italian and French.

Over the years, I began going to operas, whether during travel to places like Vienna and Rome, or at home in NYC, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera, where I could pick up cheap standing room tickets on my way to work. I got to see the well-known opera stars of the 80s – Pavarotti, Domingo, Mirella Freni and many more. Later, when I lived in Paris, I would go to the Opera Bastille, usually with my younger daughter, the only family member I could talk into giving opera a chance, and that was because she was still under ten. My familiarity with operas remained limited to the well-known repertoire of Puccini and Verdi, and the singers whose recordings I sought out were the international stars – Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón.

I discovered opera on YouTube as I was looking for clips of Pavarotti when he passed away in December 2007. I had just moved to San Diego but my CDs and music player were still in containers crossing the Atlantic. I read YouTube comments and learned to appreciate other tenors of the past and present – Franco Corelli, Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda, Jonas Kaufmann, Vittorio Grigolo – and learned about other voice types like the staggering depths of Ferruccio Furlanetto’s bass and the beauty of Ettore Bastianini’s baritone. Clips of these famous masters brought me endless pleasure on days when all I wanted was to be surrounded by breathtaking music.

About three or four years ago, I discovered, probably from comments on YouTube, that whole operas were available on the site. This is where my real education in opera began. A 1981 San Francisco Opera production of Aida with Luciano Pavarotti, Margaret Price and Simon Estes? On YouTube. La Traviata from a Salzburg 2005 production with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón? On YouTube. Il Trovatore from Berlin in 2013 with Domingo and Netrebko? On YouTube. The list can be ever-changing, even daily, as new productions are uploaded and others removed, often because of copyright infringement issues.

My world grew again. I have watched Massenet’s Werther, and compared Jonas Kaufmann’s 2014 Metropolitan Opera performance to his own earlier performance in Paris in 2010. I have watched versions of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier with Placido Domingo and Marcelo Alvarez and learned that a beautiful aria that I had heard many times before – Come un bel dì di Maggio – came from that opera. I’ve watched Borodin’s Prince Igor with its beautify ballets and I’ve grown to love Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin more and more. As I started appreciating the talent of Jonas Kaufmann, I made the leap to German opera – I watched all 5 parts of Wagner’s Parsifal from the Met in 2013 on YouTube.

During a brief window of availability, I caught the audio of the Vienna production of Eugene Onegin with Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin. It was quickly removed as publicity built-up for a new production at the Met in 2013. I had to see it, and so I purchased a ticket for the Live at the Met in HD presentation on October 5 at a local theater. What a disappointment! HD turned out to be a fuzzy screen and there were serious audio problems at the start. It could be so much better on YouTube, if it ever found its way there.

For those who might want to say that YouTube is not bringing any royalty revenue to the artists – it’s true but I am sure there is substantial indirect revenue as the number of opera lovers grows. Because of my opera education on YouTube, I’ve purchased season tickets to the San Diego Opera year after year, where I finally saw Ferruccio Furlanetto in person in Massenet’s Don Quichotte and Verdi’s Requiem in 2014 and in a solo recital in 2015. Piotr Beczała, whom I had only seen on YouTube in a Salzburg recording of La bohème with Anna Netrebko, sang in San Diego in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. With Los Angeles so close, I have driven there again and again to see Placido Domingo in Massenet’s Thaïs and in Verdi’s La Traviata as well as in Macbeth last fall. In fact, I’ve decided to get a subscription to the LA Opera for next year, along with my subscription to the San Diego Opera. YouTube is great but live opera is even better.