Italian, German, and Russian are all languages whose vocabulary is well suited for classical music. And if an opera is in English, you may still have trouble hearing exactly what words the singers say, simply because the music requires a different rhythm than spoken text. The syllables may be accented differently or spoken very quickly.
After a while, it becomes easy to look up to the supertitles and back down to the stage without missing anything important. Hopefully, the singers are also using their facial expressions and body movement to illustrate the emotions of the music.
Unlike in a musical, though, principal singers don’t break into flashy dance numbers while they’re singing. They need to keep eye contact with the conductor in the orchestra pit so that they can communicate with him about the speed and phrasing of the music. Their solos also have a special term: arias.
An aria is a complicated melody sung by one person, such as the famous “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. A recitative, on the other hand, counts as the dialogue of opera. The singers speak in much more conversational manner, with a tendency to talk about what is happening onstage, rather than reflecting on past events, as an aria would do. Sometimes the orchestra accompanies recitative, but there isn’t as much of a tune.
At the core, operas are really just about people. Granted, these people sing more beautifully than the general public, but the songs in opera are there for the integrity of the score and the purpose of the story. A character sings when he or she has made a decision, or is in love, or is trying to hide from an enemy, or at any other important moment.
Opera plots often come from famous books or a country’s myths, so there are many exciting twists and turns. In Don Giovanni, a giant statue comes to life to drag the main character down to his doom, while in Das Rheingold, a dwarf morphs into a toad to impress a god with his powers. Das Rheingold is actually one of four operas that Richard Wagner based on ancient tales of gods and powerful objects.