Pop culture is a term that implies “this is what is most popular with people today.” As with any art form or genre, pop has its fans and its haters. Whether you love pop culture or hate it the truth still stands that “pop” means popular and certain performances, songs, writings, paintings, etcetera are deemed “pop” because of its appeal to large numbers of people. There is something to be said for mass appeal. Pop sells, right?
Even in the world of opera, which has a reputation for being anything but pop, there are popular performances as well as one that are considered deep cuts, as with music tracks, or sleepers, like some refer to good movies that have low viewings.
These are the top seven pop operas performed at the Metropolitan Opera.
#7 – Tristan und Isolde
Written by German composer Richard Wagner between 1857 and 1859 Tristan und Isolde was first performed in Munich at Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in 1865. Since then this ill-fated love story has been a popular choice for The Metropolitan Opera since 1883. We learn in act one that Isolde, an Irish Princess, is being taken to Cornwall, England by Tristan, the nephew and friend of King Marke, who Isolde is set to marry. Isolde and Tristan had a previous encounter when Tristan killed Isolde’s fiancé when he attacked him in Cornwall. Isolde regrets not killing him before and, not wanting to marry King Marke, she instructs her maid, Brangäne, to prepare a death potion for Isolde and Tristan. Brangäne mixes a love potion instead and, when they drink Tristan and Isolde fall madly in love.
The two lovers plan to meet in secret but are discovered by King Marke. There is a fight between Melot, a king’s knight, and Tristan. Tristan is wounded and taken back to his castle in Brittany. He loves Isolde and doesn’t want to live without her. Tristan rips off his own bandages and dies in Isoldes arms just as she comes to see him. Unable to live without her beloved Tristan, Isolde kills herself with hopes that the two will meet in the after-life.
#6 – Don Giovanni
Mozart’s legendary Don Giovanni is another opera the Metropolitan Opera continues to perform regularly. This decision is probably because Don Giovanni is an opera that continues to entertain since its premiere in 1787.
A hero in 17th Century Spain, Don Giovanni is Don Juan. He is known as a womanizer and before the first act is over Don Giovanni has already made moves on three unsuspecting women. He upsets his attendant Leporello, the father of one of the girls, and another’s fiancé.
By the second act, Don Giovanni hasn’t learned that his behavior will lead him down a bad path. Don Giovanni switches clothes with his attendant and goes off to find other women to seduce. Leporello, is mistaken for Don Giovanni and is apprehended by those looking for Don Giovanni.
In the meantime, Don Giovanni comes across a statue of the Commendatore. The statue comes to life and tells Don Giovanni he must repent for his sins. Don Giovanni refuses but invites the statue to his home for dinner.
At the end of Act II, the statue appears at Don Giovanni’s home for dinner and informs him he must repent otherwise his fate will be sealed. Don Giovanni refuses and the statue takes him by the hand and guides him to Hell
#5 – The Barber of Seville
You may remember some of the music from Bugs Bunny, but the showings at the Met of The Barber of Seville are not cartoons. Written in 1816 by Gioachino Rossini this opera was first performed that very same year.
Doctor Bartolo is keeping his niece, Rosina, at his house with hopes of marrying her. He became her guardian after her parents passed away and they left her a large fortune. Bartolo has sights on the pretty girl and her money.
An aristocrat in Spain, Count Almaviva, hides his identity as Lindoro, a poor student, and falls in love with Rosina. But his is unable to see her because Bartolo keeps her under lock and key. Almaviva asks Figaro, a local barber, to help him see his love Rosina. One plan where Almaviva dresses up as a drunken soldier doesn’t work well and they go back to the drawing board.
Almaviva then pretends to be a student of the music teacher Basilio, Bartolo’s closest friend, and the Count makes it into the house where he will find Rosina. When Almaviva sees her he promises to save her from Bartolo and marry her. But Bartolo becomes wise to their plan and tells Rosina that Lindoro plans to sell her to the Count Almaviva, not knowing they are one in the same.
Later that same night, Almaviva and Figaro break into Bartolo’s home and Rosina is angry with him, thinking he is Lindoro. Almaviva reveals the truth to her and she is relieved to know the truth. They marry in the room just in time before Bartolo gets there. But, when Almaviva gives Bartolo Rosina’s inheritance her uncle is happy.
#4 – La Traviata
First written in 1853 by Giuseppe Verdi is another popular Italian opera hosted by the Metropolitan Opera on a regular basis.
Act I starts at a party in Violetta’s house. She is a popular prostitute. Alfredo is a young man who has had eyes for Violetta for some times. He sings to her hoping to show how much he cares for her. Violetta becomes confused because she always felt true love was a luxury denied to woman of her profession.
By the beginning of Act II Violetta has left her place and is living with Alfredo outside Paris. Yet, when Alfredo leaves the apartment, his father, Germont, insists she breaks up with his son because of her past. Violetta does what Alfredo’s father wants even though it breaks her heart. She leaves without letting him know and Alfredo’s heart breaks because she betrayed him. Later that same evening, Violetta goes back to her old life and Alfredo confronts her there.
Act III starts a few months later and Violetta is severely ill. While her time on Earth is coming to an end, Alfredo comes to ask her forgiveness after learning the truth about his father’s pressure on her to break up with him. They proclaim their love just before Violetta dies.
If watching this classic live at the Met is very out-of-hand for you, you can easily watch an Austrian version of La Traviata online and today with Cennarium, check it out!
#3 – Carmen
French composer Georges Bizet created the widely recognized music to this popular opera in the mid-1870’s. It begins with our heroine Carmen, a sexy gypsy woman, is with the woman she works with at a cigarette factory is somewhere near the plant. Carmen sings and all the young men are captivated with her. Don Jose, a soldier, is the only man unmoved. She tried to entice him to no avail.
The woman all go back to the cigarette factory and Carmen is arrested for causing trouble, but she is able to charm Don Jose and get away.
After a month in prison for letting Carmen escape is released from jail. He goes to meet her and brings her a flower. Don Jose tells Carmen he loves her and she insists he not show up for roll call and stay with her. Against his better judgment Don Jose, does what she wishes and they get mixed up with some smugglers.
The final act finds Jose with heartache and regret because Carmen has left him for Escamillo, a bullfighter. That is when Micaela, Jose’s friend from childhood, visits him. Micaela tells Jose that his mother is serious health decline so he leaves to go home.
A month later, Escamillo is in front of the bullfighting arena and enters while Carmen, his lover, waits in the square. Jose confronts her and says she must be with him. Carmen rejects him and hurls a ring away that he gave her. In a fit of rage Jose kills Carmen and finds himself confused by what he had done.
PS: On a different note, there is an amazing Flamenco version of Carmen performed by the Teatro Real & Fundación Antonio Gades – check it out here.
#2 – La Boheme
Somewhere between 1893 and 1895 Puccini penned this next opera that has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera far over twelve hundred times since 1900.
It all begins in Paris with four Bohemians. Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline who share an attic apartment. They have nothing but don’t care. On Christmas Eve they all go out but Rodolfo, a writer, has not finished a poem he was working on. He promises to meet up with them later. Mimi, their neighbor, comes to the door and she asks him to help her light a candle. While searching for a light their hands brush each other and they fall madly in love. Radolfo brings Mimi to the bar to meet his friends. Musetta, girlfriend to Marcello joins them and they are merry.
Two months later Mimi goes to Musetta and Marcello wanting to know why Rodolfo has been cold to her. Suddenly Rodolfo shows up and Mimi hides. She learns that Rodolfo does love her but, as a poor poet, he is ashamed he can’t pay for her medicines and take care of her. Mimi is revealed to be in the room and they decide it best to split.
The final act finds the four roommates living together, happy and carefree, until Musetta bursts into their apartment with Mimi, who is dying. She wants to see Rodolfo and die with him. The other men leave to find money for medicine. Rodolfo and Mimi sing and reminisce. Mimi dies in Rodolfo’s arms as the men return.
#1 – Aida
Not only has Aida. the most popular opera performed at the Met, it is the second piece on this list by composer Giuseppe Verdi. Written between 1870 and 1871, Aida is set in Egypt. Aida, an Ethiopian princess, is being held prisoner but do not know her identity because she lied. Aida works as a slave. Radames, a General in the Egyptian army, is in love with Aida and she loves him. Ramades is appointed to lead a war against Ethiopia. Aida is hurt and is torn between her love for Radames and her loyalty to her home.
The Egyptian King’s daughter, Amneris, loves Radames too. They win the war with Ethiopia and the King offers Radames his daughter as a thank you. This makes Radames next in line for the throne. Aida is crushed.
Amonasro, Aida’s father and King of Ethiopia, is prisoner and Aida finds him. He convinces his daughter to find out what she can from Radames. Instead she runs away with Radames and he is caught. Aida escapes with her father and Radames is sentence to death for treason. They bury Radames alive and he is surprised to find Aida in his deep grave with him. They die together.
These are the 7 pop operas played the most at the Met. Just so you have an idea, the following infographic shows for how long these pop operas were staged by the Metropolitan Opera. And that’s right, for more than a century and a quarter!