I am, admittedly, a newbie to opera as well. However, I would like to recommend to you a female vocalist by the name of Sara Brightman. She has been around awhile. She has the voice of an angel, with a range most singers would kill for. None other than Andrew Lloyd Webber has written music specifically for her. If you want a real treat, seek out her duets with Andrea Bocelli. Their harmony can bring tears to your eyes.
If you're into video at all, check out one of her concert dvd's. The production quality is splendid, and she's easy on the eyes.
I'd suggest purchasing the book The Rough Guide to Opera. They go through all the composers, all the way topresent day, and make recommendations on performances. Their recommendations lean toward singing quality, and not necessarily sound quality.
In terms of opera, there is a very wide range of music within this genre. Each country, whether it is German, Russian, Hungarian, French, or Italian approaches the music, singing, and subject matter drastically different. It's hard just to make a recommendation because of this.
Another consideration would be to rent opera videos from your library. I think seeing the full production makes it easier to understand the premise, rather than just listening to the singing. Also, be aware that many of the greastest operas need to be heard several times before truly appreciated.
Rigoletto. My very first opera. It hooked me. Should be just want you're looking for. If Pace Pace doesn't do it for you, there's no hope....pace, warren
I strongly second Rtn1's idea of getting a book. Besides the informational side, it will also be enjoyable reading.
Other than that, I would also recommend Mozart's Don Giovanni (Giulini is an easily available choice here). Not only is the musical composition great, the libretto is exciting, humourous, and haunting.
I recommend Sir Denis Forman's book a "Night at the Opera"-- it is very entertaining and has plot summaries, the authors ratings, and a discussion of the best moments from most of the major operas-- I don't think he recommends specific recordings but you can get that elsewhere once you decide what operas most interest you.
FYI...Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote songs for Sarah Brighman, because at the time she was Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber (no longer). That is also how she got the lead in Phantom...
While very pleasant, I don't consider her an opera singer, or Andrea Bocelli. Their voices are kind of light. Note that they both always sing into a microphone. Can you say Karaoke ??
There are recordings that have opera "highlights". They have all the favorite parts on a single CD; which saves you from spending a lot of money on a big 2 to 4 CD set. This might be a good place to start without breaking the bank. Your local library may also have some CD's you could check out...
You could also sample various soloists who put out CD's singing their favorite arias from a bunch of different operas. If you like what you hear, you can then try out the whole opera...
Another great one: Sweeney Todd by Steven Sodheim. Beautiful, brilliant, fabulous libretto/lyrics. Very user friendly for a first timer. Italian opera is the way to start out. User friendly operas are La Boheme, Aida, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata and Carmen (French). Go to the library and take them out. You'll get an idea, real quick, if this is for you. Won't cost you a cent....
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas (English, 17th Century)
Bizet: Carmen (French, 19th Century)
Both very melodic and easy to like.
You might try Massenet's "Werther" to go melodic and melancholy and French. I, personally, started out with Verdi's "Il trovatore" and loved it.
You should try Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande". Melancholy, introspective and absolutely gorgeous in every way. Several to choose from -- Boulez, Karajan, Abbado, Desormiere, Ansermet.
La Bohemme by Puccini! The most popular opera ever!!!!! Is a must for newcomers to opera. Beautiful music, great duets, great love theme, tragic death at end - its got it all. Was the background music in Moonstruck. I agree with the above recommendations re: go to your library and listen to singers and music from compilation discs to discover for your self which singers you prefer - the great ones are well known and the choice is very personal. And as Sugarbrie sez, they don't need to use a microphone.
CHANDOS Records (CDs) has an excellent series of operas sung in English. The recordings are of good quality and one can understand the plot as it develops. I recently purchased their recording of Wozzeck by Alban Berg and found it quite acceptable. Opera in English will get you started but the "sound" of the original language is what you eventually want and later you may want to purchase operas in their original language.
Thanks everyone for the thoughtful and detailed responses. I really appreciate all the help.
I will head out to the library some time next week and start borrowing CDs.
I would recommend something from Richard Wagner, one of the operas from "The Ring Cycle" would be nice. It's rather heavy music from the "Romantic" period and I like Sir George Solti's compositions the best.
"Opera for Dummies" was a good primer and the local library should have plenty of opera discs to borrow. Get a handle on what are considered the "standards" and after reading "Dummies" you'll have a working vocabulary to help you evaluate what works for you. Also, attend an opera. Standing Room and Day of Show tixs are always great buys.
I stumbled onto opera while visitng a stereo boutique and heard a voice that filled me with wonder. I went out and bought that CD, my first "opera" CD. It was Renee Flemming's "Beautiful Voice", a collection of her favorite arias. I have no idea what she's singing but you have to hear her that VOICE! It's a talent like...Carlos Santana-Stan Getz-Jimi Hendrix-Miles Davis-The Beatles-Michael Jordan-Babe Ruth, a "once-in-a-lifetime" talent that comes around once a generation. Since then, I've collected most of her CD's. Check it out.
Try Maria Callas "The very best of" on EMI Classics. Seventeen selections from various Operas. These are from older recordings but they sound very good and you can't beat the performances.
I think that If you really want to get into opera you have to see it also so I agree with the above suggestion about renting videos...or better yet...depending on where you live or can travel, go see the operas live...I have seen a dozen or so and find that it can be very hit or miss...but the experience is so much more than just the music...same way as a Grateful Dead show (with Garcia)...unless you go, you really dont get the whole experience.
I think the best introduction to opera has to be from the movie "Aria" This is available on cd. You get a little of everybody. Including the best female ever; Lyonteen Price.Jessy Bourling. Sorry if the spelling isn't right. This could be called "Opera's greatest hits" ---"by the greatest singers".
For a melancholic introspective opera try "Der Rosenkavalier" by Richard Strauss. Unrequited love has never been so melodically rendered as in this opera.