The Opera Goer's Starter Pack
An interview with Babatunde Akinboboye, a.k.a The HipHopera Guy.
Babatunde Akinbobye (Tunde) is a Nigerian-American operatic Baritone from California whose electric stage presence has built him a loyal following on stage and online. You might know him best as the Hop Hopera Guy. Back in 2018, Tunde took social media by storm with his innovative videos combining his love for hip-hop and opera. Who knew Mozart could sound so good with a hip-hop beat? His creative videos are helping to break down barriers between opera and audiences.
That’s why we asked Tunde to curate an opera collection for audiences who are new to the wonders of opera. We sat down with Tunde to learn more about his picks for this curated collection. ”A large portion of my following are new or unfamiliar with opera. I chose these titles because they all have music that might be recognizable to people who haven’t seen an opera, and I’ve found these operas to be the most easily digestible for newbies. I would almost call it an opera-goers starter pack.”
Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
”This is a great introduction to opera, and it was also the very first opera I saw.”
We love this groovy production of The Marriage of Figaro from Glyndebourne.
Le Nozze di Figaro, or The Marriage of Figaro, is one of Mozart’s most famous comic operas with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The opera takes place on one crazy day and centers around the gregarious barber, Figaro, and his marriage to the Countess’ maid, Susannah. The lecherous Count has decided that he wants to enact his ”droit du seigneur”, an outdated feudal practice where the lord is allowed to bed a servant before her wedding night. Needless to say, no one is having this and everyone works together to hatch a hilarious plan to foil the Count’s efforts.
”I think it’s hilarious and it’s one of those operas that’s still very entertaining. There’s not a lot you have to do to make it land with audiences today,” says Tunde. He’s right, to this day The Marriage of Figaro is one of the most-performed operas around the world. In 2017 it was even formally voted The Best Opera of All Time.
Puccini’s La bohème
”This is in my Top 3 favorite operas of all time, because, it’s one of the few operas I got to do as an opera singer that I felt was about me. ”
No one does a classic La bohème quite like The Royal Opera House.
La bohème is one of Puccini’s great tragic operas. It tells the story of six artists living in Paris. They live for art, but art does not a living make. Rudolfo, a poet, falls madly in love with the seamstress next door, Mimi who quickly becomes an integral part of their friend group. When she falls ill it becomes clear that their bohemian life of art and passion cannot support Mimi’s medical bills, and Rudolfo must let her go. Alas, his selfless sacrifice proves too little too late.
It’s a story about love, passion, and sacrifice that can really hit home for artists. In Tunde’s words, ”It’s about the ups and downs of being an artist, it could be any of us. That’s what makes the story so heartbreaking.”
Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
”This one has a lot of recognizable tunes in it, it’s another really funny story, and it’s another opera I always recommend to opera newbies. ”
Baritone Björn Bürger sings Figaro’s famous aria in Glyndebourne’s colorful production of The Barber of Seville.
Figaro, Figaro, Figaro! This opera is full of music you may have heard before, like the opening overture, and Figaro’s famous aria, Largo al factotum. Hearing this famous aria was one of the pieces that inspired Tunde to pursue opera. ”I’d always heard Figaro’s aria outside the context of this opera. That was one of the songs I heard that made me want to do opera, and finding out it was from this opera was really exciting.”
The opera is a kind of prequel to The Marriage of Figaro, and it is a comedic masterpiece. In this opera, we meet the fantastic multitalented Figaro who has been enlisted by Count Almaviva to help him win the heart of the beautiful Rosina. Of course, Figaro hatches a hilarious plan involving disguises, piano lessons, and plenty of antics. It’s not just the plot that makes this opera so good, Rossini’s music is absolutely timeless. ”The Act I finale is so fun, it’s one of those pieces of classical music that you could put a beat behind and you wouldn’t have to change a thing to make it sound like modern music.”
”Musically, this is one of my favorite operas.”
Carmen’s famous Habanera is always a crowd pleaser, especially in this production of Carmen from Teatro alla Scala.
Bizet’s Carmen is fun flirty and fabulous and as Tunde says, ”It’s got a great story, great characters, and great music.” It tells the tale of the beautiful Carmen, a cigarette factory worker with a taste for smuggling who escapes prison by seducing Corporal Don José. Carmen continues to lead him on and poor, naive, Don José believes her love is real, a belief that eventually leads to the unfortunate demise of the couple. Packed with rousing chorus numbers, handsome bullfighters, and fantastic arias, this opera is always a blast.
”If you sit outside a hall after a performance of Carmen you’ll hear people humming songs from the opera, it’s full of earworms,” says Tunde. Bizet’s catchy music has worked its way into tons of TV and movie soundtracks. Even if you haven’t seen the opera, you’ll probably recognize Carmen’s famous Habanera from Act 1.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute
”This is like a right of passage for opera-goers, it’s one of opera’s greatest hits.”
Soprano Sabine Devielhe sings the famous Queen of the Night aria in The Royal Opera House’s production of The Magic Flute.
This opera is totally unique. Unlike most operas, the characters actually stop singing to speak between songs. As Tunde says, ”it’s an experience similar to musical theater” which makes it a familiar format for those looking to dip their toes into the world of opera. It’s also packed with memorable tunes like the famous Queen of the Night Aria.
The story itself is a bit wacky and wonderful. The Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, has been captured by the ”evil” Sarastro. Prince Tamino and the bumbling birdcatcher Pappageno are sent to Sarastro’s kingdom to rescue her. The Queen of the Night has prepared Tamino for a land of evil and darkness, giving him a magic flute to aid in his quest. However, along the way, Tamino discovers that Sarastro’s kingdom might not be so bad after all.
”The story is really easy to follow, the music is captivating, the drama is engaging, and it’s one of my favorite examples of grand opera.”
This outdoor production of Aida from Opera Australia is nothing short of grand.
Verdi’s epic tragic opera is the perfect digestible bite of grand opera. It’s a monumental showcase of music, opulence, and drama without the complicated intricacies of something like Wagner. ”It’s like being thrown into the deep end of opera without the risk of drowning,” says Tunde. It’s the perfect opera for people who are looking for ”a certain type of experience from their first opera.”
The opera was commissioned by Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House in the 1870s. It tells the story of the Ethiopian princess, Aida, who has been captured by the Egyptians. The commander of the Egyptian army, Radamès falls in love with Aida and struggles to reconcile his passionate love with his loyalty to the Egyptian King. Performances of this opera are always a feast for the eyes and ears with stunning Egyptian sets, large chorus numbers, and even an on-stage military band.
Verdi’s La traviata
”You have to see La traviata at least once.”
You might recognize this famous costume from The Royal Opera House’s production of La traviata.
What can we say, Verdi knew how to make a hit. During his lifetime, La traviata became Verdi’s most-performed opera, and its popularity has continued to endure. As Tunde pointed out, ”Most of the time when you see a picture of an opera scene, you’re seeing a picture from La traviata.”
The title means The Fallen Woman, and it tells the story of a famous, tuberculosis-ridden courtesan, Violetta, who falls in love with the provincial Alfredo. She abandons her flashy life as a courtesan to live a simpler and happier life with Alfredo in the county. Still, her happiness is cut short by Alfredo’s father who believes Violetta’s reputation is tarnishing the family and convinces her to leave Alfredo. When the couple eventually reunites, it’s all too late and Violleta tragically succumbs to her illness.
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
”Pagliacci is one that I recommend for newbies because it’s one of the shorter operas, the music is engaging, and it’s such a beautiful and heartbreaking story.”
Tenor José Cura channels his inner Pavarotti in this production of Pagliacci from Teatro alla Scala.
Crying clowns and complicated love triangles. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is a dramatic opera that clocks in at just over an hour making it one of the shorter operas on offer, perfect for anyone wanting a quick taste of the power of opera. The opera is loosely based on a true story from the composer’s childhood. A troupe of actors is caught in a deadly love triangle with Cannio’s wife, Nedda, at the center.
The aria at the end of Act 1, Vesti la giubba, is one of the most famous tenor arias in the repertoire, made famous by Pavarotti. The aria is sung by Canio as he prepares to appear as the joyful clown, Pagliaccio, despite having just learned of his wife’s infidelity. Alas, the show must go on. Ultimately, it’s a tragic tale of love, passion, and vengeance that will leave you teary-eyed. After all, says Tunde ”you have to cry in opera at least once.”
Feeling ready for your first opera? You can watch all of Tunde’s picks anytime on Marquee TV. And, if you like Tunde’s take on opera, be sure to follow @babatunde_Hiphopera on socials to see more of his fantastic hiphopera content and excellent opera explanations.