Preposterous Plots and Silly Synopses

Bluff your way through the world of opera with this guide to the stupid plots.

Cosi Fan Tutti

Two young men argue with an older man that their fiancées, who are sisters, would never betray them.  The sisters' maid helps the men to test the women's loyalty.  They disguise themselves as soldiers and woo each other's lovers.  The women seem incredibly thick as they fail to see through the light disguises and succumb.  Then the lads feel guilty and admit the truth.  The four reunite, and – er – that’s it.  Jolly good little romp, though.

The Marriage of Figaro

This is a sort of sequel to Rossini's opera, The Barber of Seville.  Figaro's master, a Count, is married, but the randy sod goes after his wife’s maid Susanna, who is engaged to Figaro.  He tries to stop her marrying Figaro.  He is helped by a woman called Marcellina, who is trying to blackmail Figaro into marrying her as he owes her money and can’t pay it back (charming).  Unluckily for Marcellina, Figaro accidentally discovers that she is his long-lost mother.  Lots of jokes and sub-plots later, Figaro and Susanna get together again, and the count goes back to his wife and apologises for cheating on her; he’ll probably be doing the dishes for the next ten years. 


Carmen, a pretty gypsy girl who smuggles fags, sings outside a ciggy factory in Seville.  All the men love it, but their girlfriends are jealous and think she’s a scrubber.  She throws a flower at a soldier called Don Jose.  The jealous women kick up a row and Carmen is arrested by Jose.  She soon has her way with him and escapes.

Jose gets slung in clink for a month for letting her get away, and when he gets out goes to meet her in the pub, still clutching the flower, though it’s not explained how it has stayed fresh all this time.  Carmen asks him to go AWOL and join the gang, and Jose falls for it, the prat.  Once he’s agreed, he finds out that Carmen is already bedding a bullfighter called Escamillo. 

Then Jose has to go home to see his sick mother.   Next month, at the bullfight, Carmen is watching Escamillo in the arena, but Jose asks her to leave with him.  She tells him to bugger off, so he stabs her to death.  What else would he do?


La Boheme

Three students live a bohemian life in a Paris attic.  They are desperately poor, but not so poor that they don’t get pissed whenever they can.  One of them comes into some money so they can pay the long overdue rent, but of course they spend it on booze. When the landlord asks for his rent they get him pissed as well.

Rudolpho stays behind to finish a poem while the others go off to a fair.  He is interrupted by the eponymous Mimi, who faints at the door, dropping her key.  Rudolpho fancies her, and while groping in the dark (supposedly for the key), their hands meet.  He tells her that her tiny hand is frozen, and instead of saying “the rest of me isn’t exactly boiling, either” she tells him her name. They go outdoors, which you would imagine would make her tiny hand even more frozen.  At the fair they join his friends, who are - guess what? -  getting pissed again.

Later, back at the flat, Rudolpho is feeling sorry for himself (presumably hung over), when he is told that Mimi is outside, and about to pop her clogs.  They bring her in and stick her on the bed. The other students come in and decide to pawn their coats to buy more booze, on the dubious grounds that it will make her better.  But it’s too late, and she tells Rudolpho she loves him before kicking the bucket.


A Yankee sailor wants to bed a geisha calling herself Madame Butterfly, so he goes through a dodgy marriage ceremony.    At the reception her relations kick up a fuss because she’s given up her religion for him, but the sailor gets rid of them so he can have sex with her.   Naturally, she ends up in the club, so he buggers off back to the USA.  

Three years later, with a young son, she’s still pining.  Things get worse; she gets a letter telling her he has married a girl as American as apple pie.  His ship is due to dock again though, and she’s convinced he’ll come back to her, so she tarts herself up to wait for him.  Next morning, of course, she’s still waiting.

She goes off for a kip, having been up all night.  Soon after, the Yank and his new wife turn up. He finds out that Butterfly has been waiting for him all this time and suddenly gets a conscience.  He therefore does what comes naturally to him and runs away.  Wifey 2 now offers to adopt her husband’s son, and Butterfly tells her “OK, if he comes to fetch him in in half an hour”.   Wifey 2 turns on the waterworks and agrees, so Butterfly sends the kid out to play and commits Hara-kiri.   The Yank comes in and finds her dead.  The end. 


Rome’s chief of secret police, Scarpia, loves chucking republicans in clink. One of them, Angelotti, escapes and meets a mate, Cavaradossi, who agrees to hide him.  Scarpia arrives too late to catch them, but meets Cavaradossi’s current squeeze, opera singer Tosca.   Scarpia tricks Tosca into going to Cavaradossi’s house, and tells the plod to follow her.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Scarpia is told that his men can’t find Angelotti.  They’ve got Cavaradossi though, so Scarpia tortures him, but he keeps schtum.  Scarpia shows Tosca what he’s done to her lover, and she tells him the route to the secret hideout.

Then Napoleon wins the Battle of Marengo, and thing are looking dodgy for royalism.  The news cheers up Cavaradossi no end, but Scarpia throws his toys out of the pram and condemns him to die in front of the firing squad.

Tosca begs Scarpia to save her lover's life.  Scarpia suggest the usual compromise: have sex with me and your bloke goes free.  Seems reasonable, but as he’s about to do the dirty deed with her she stabs him to death.

Tosca runs to Cavaradossi in prison, but the execution orders have been carried out, and he’s toast. When the cops arrive to arrest Tosca for Scarpia's murder, she climbs to the castle roof and tosses herself off.



An Ethiopian princess, Aida, is held prisoner by the Egyptians, who don’t realise who she is, and make her a slave of Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter.  They’ve both got the hots for the Egyptian General Radames.  He fancies the pants off Aida but thinks Amneris is a spoilt brat.  Then he gets appointed by the Pharaoh to lead the fight against Ethiopia.  Tough choice for Aida; she loves her country, but still fancies Radames.

Radames thrashes the Ethiopians, and comes home in a Sweet Chariot. The Egyptian King rewards him by saying he can marry Amneris and become his successor.  Amneris is all for this, but Aida is not a happy bunny.

Aida recognizes her dad, the Ethiopian King, among the prisoners. He makes Aida betray Radames by eliciting his military secrets during pillow talk.  Aida and Radames decide to escape from Egypt by a secret route and live together.  Amneris appears and arrests him, and Aida and her dad run away via the secret route.

Amneris makes Radames an offer she thinks he can’t refuse: marry me or I’ll have you buried alive.  It’s a novel way of proposing, but he decides he’d rather die than marry the scheming cow.  He is duly buried alive in a deep grave, only to find Aida there already, having snuck into the grave earlier.  Instead of grabbing the last chance for a bit of the other, they sing together – well, that’s opera for you.


The Magic Flute

If you’re too young to remember the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, then think Masonic Teletubbies on acid.   Prince Tamino stumbles into the land of the Queen of Night, where he is attacked by a giant serpent.  With me so far?  Three women rescue him and show him a picture of a girl called Pamina, and Tamino instantly falls in love.  Protected by a golden flute (don’t ask), he sets off with a seriously weird bird-catcher called Papageno to rescue Pamina from the clutches of a sorcerer. 

This sorcerer, who in fact turns out to be a priest (what?), tells Pamina that if she and Tamino want to get together they must first prove their love. When the gods make Tamino take a vow of silence, Pamina fears that without her lover’s tongue all is lost, but some kind spirits who happen to be around help her guide her prince through various ever more unlikely tests.  In the end the goodies beat the baddies and they all live happily ever after.

...and, for the purists - Wagner’s Ring

Wagner's four-part Ring cycle follows the fortunes of gods, giants, gnomes and humans as they fight to reach a final redemption. It’s in four parts, so hang on to your hats.

Das Rheingold

A dwarf called Alberich steals some special gold from the Rhine maidens and makes a ring out of it that grants him mighty powers.  Meanwhile Wotan, king of the gods, needs to reward the giants for their help in building Valhalla, home of the gods. Wotan asks the dwarf to show him his ring, and immediately nicks it and gives it to the giants. But the ring is cursed, and now all the gods are too.


A Valkyrie

Die Walküre 

A traveller called Siegmund wanders into a hut, presumably mistaking it for a public toilet.  He finds Sieglinde, who is unhappily married to Hunding.  It’s not long before they are at it, unaware that they are brother and sister (Wotan being the dad).  Wotan commands Brünnhilde, his daughter and sort of Akela of the Valkyries,  to defend Siegmund against Hunding. 

 It should be added that Brünnhilde would probably beat Giant Haystacks in any contest.  She is not small. 

Wotan’s wife reminds him that Siegmund has had it off with someone else’s missus, not to mention his own sister, and must die.  King of the gods he may be, but Wotan meekly does what his wife tells him and orders Brünnhilde to help Hunding kill Siegmund.  Brünnhilde defies her father and tries to help Siegmund, but Wotan spoils the fun and kills him anyway.  To punish his daughter, Wotan puts her to sleep on a rock inside a circle of fire. Meanwhile, Sieglinde has hidden in the forest to have her baby, who will eventually help the gods defeat their enemies.




Sieglinde conveniently dies while giving birth to her son, Siegfried, who is raised by another dwarf.  He wants Siegfried to grow up and kill the giant Fafner and get the ring back.  Siegfried slays Fafner, and then does the dwarf in as well.  There’s gratitude for you.  Meanwhile, Wotan is fed up and decides to retire, leaving the world to humans.  Siegfried battles through the flames at the rock and at last manages to climb the north face of Brünnhilde.  Inspired by his passion, Brünnhilde renounces her magical Valkyrie powers, and he puts the ring (it’s cursed, remember) on her finger.



Hagen, son of the evil dwarf Alberich, wants his ring back.  He hatches a plot to kill Siegfried and steal the ring from Brünnhilde's finger. He gets his half-sister Gutrune to feed Siegfried a potion to make him forget Brünnhilde and lust after Gutrune instead. (Are you keeping up?)  Siegfried, filled with lust and amnesia, agrees to kidnap his former lover as a bride for Gutrune's brother Gunther. Siegfried snatches Brünnhilde’s ring.  She calls him a dirty dog, but he still can’t remember anything, so enters a plea of Not Guilty.

After the double wedding, the Rhine maidens ask for their ring back, but he refuses, not knowing that he is under its curse.  To get the Ring, Hagen kills Siegfried. But when he tries to steal the Ring from the corpse, the dead man's hand shakes him off, and Brünnhilde appears on her magic horse, who you have to feel sorry for given her size.  Grabbing the ring, she lights a funeral pyre and rides into it, ending the reign of the gods.  The Rhine maidens get their ring back and the world is put to rights.  Believe that if you will.


Don't be put off...

Despite the above, it's worth a try.  First, you don't have to concentrate on the words.  You'll have looked up the plot beforehand, and have possibly bought a programme.  There are surtitles - yes, just like in pantomime - so you know what they're singing about, and you can just enjoy the tunes. (Never, ever, go to watch an opera in English unless it was written in English.) 

Second, the voice of a trained opera singer is truly astonishing.  Unlike musicals, there is no need for microphones

Third, the spectacle can be breathtaking. No longer are you expected to dress up; wear what you like. There are 40 to 60 musicians in the orchestra pit, and soon enough they strike up the overture.  If it happens to be something special such as The Marriage of Figaro, you'll be bowled over before you even hear those wonderful voices, see the colourful costumes and experience the special magic that opera brings.

Last, the price of admittance, thanks to subsidies, is surprisingly reasonable.  I once took my wife to an opera with a cast of over 100 at the Albert Hall.  We had the best seats in the place.  The following year we went to see a famous comedian in the provinces and paid 50% more.

So, if you're new to this, which ones should you start with?  Americans like Madama Butterfly because it's got an American in it, but to be honest, apart from a couple of seriously good tunes, there's a lot of shouting.  Carmen is an obvious contestant: great tunes, splendour, and a good old-fashioned story line.  Aida, as mentioned, is another mighty work, or if you prefer something lighter (and shorter) try Cosi Fan Tutte.  If you're happy to go straight in at the deep end, the dramatic tragedy of Tosca could fit the bill.    Go, then, and give opera a try; you'll enjoy it.