Cropped image of the painting the Singer by Degas

Discover the joy of great opera.

At a Glance

  • Classroom course
  • 2 hours a week
  • Wednesdays 18:30 - 20:30
  • 20 weeks: October to March
  • Tutor: Dr Bruno Bower
  • Fees from £230 to £420
  • Imperial College attendance certificate (T&Cs apply)
  • Also available as an online evening class
Booking link

The aim of this course is to give you new ways of listening to opera, whether you are getting to know the form for the first time or you already familiar with it and are looking for something unusual.

Together we will explore a wide variety of operas and their social and cultural contexts, ranging from the eighteenth century to the present day, catering to all tastes. If you are new to the genre will get to hear some of the most famous works in the form. If you are more familiar with opera you will gain fresh perspectives on the works you already know, and will have the opportunity to discover some less well-known works as well.

The course will introduce the various elements of opera production in the first term, and will explore some of the more general ideas around opera in the second term. In each class we will take a single work as a case study, outlining some of the general history of the composer and of the background to the opera, looking at all of the relevant social and cultural context. We will also go into some depth on nuts-and-bolts the opera itself, discussing the plot, the characters, the music, and different approaches to staging, all illustrated with plenty of audio and visual examples.

This course is open to all and you do not need any qualifications to join the class. No prior knowledge of opera, music, theatre, or history is required. All classes will be supported by a PowerPoint presentation and plenty of audio and video examples of the operas, and there will opportunities for discussion around the material too, with all opinions welcome.

This course is also available, separately, as a live online evening class on Mondays from 18:00 to 20:00.

Attendance certificate

Those who attend at least 80% of the course sessions will receive an attendance certificate from Imperial College London upon completion of the course.

Course Information

Course Programme


1. Introduction: Puccini Madame Butterfly

This class takes one of the most famous operas as a case study for the issues that the rest of the course will cover, looking at practicalities, social and cultural context, and some of the more aesthetic ideas as well.

2. Singers: Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos

Starting with the basics, this class will talk in detail about the voices that appear in opera and the different styles of vocal tone they might adopt. The discussion will centre around an opera that dramatises the distinction between singers from different traditions, showing them bickering in a prologue set ‘backstage’ as well as how they interact in the ‘opera’ itself.

3. Dancers: Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie

Here we will see the important role that dance played in French opera in particular, highlighting the fact that singers are not the only performers to appear on stage for most of opera’s history. Taking a key example from the French Baroque, we will discuss how the demands of King Louis XIV shaped the future of much French opera to come.

4. Orchestra: Wagner Die Walküre

Most changes to the orchestra (unlike the Rameau from the previous week) happened very slowly over time. This class will explore how Wagner was able to exploit new technology and new instruments to expand the sonic palette of his operas, as well as to make some innovations of his own in how the orchestra interacts with the action on stage.

5. Staging: Meyerbeer Robert le Diable

This is the first of two classes that explores the visual aspect of an opera production, covering the full range of scenery, props, costumes, stage effects (particularly popular among in the world of French opera) and lighting. We will see how they all played their role in the stupendous success of one of the most famous operas of the nineteenth century.

6. Musical Structures: Rossini La Cenerentola

The structures that composers used to organise the music in opera are essential knowledge for anyone getting to know the form, as they provide an immediately accessible way to make sense of the longer sections. We’ll cover some of the structures from Baroque and Classical opera, as well as the ways that Rossini expanded them to produce a standardised ‘number’, allowing him to compose at speed.

7. Text: Verdi Otello

Adaptations of Shakespeare are common across the operatic canon, but huge numbers of changes need to be made in order to make the originals suitable for singing. Here we’ll explore the changes that Verdi and his librettist Boito made to Othellolooking at how they made it practical for opera but also how they transformed it into something ‘Italian’ in the process.

8. Direction: Mozart Cosi fan tutte

This is the second class to look at the visual aspect, but this time from the perspective of the person making the decisions, covering the aesthetic design and the behaviour of the characters towards each other. Mozart’s opera will serve as an excellent case study, as it contains lots of issues that need to be resolved in order for contemporary audiences to accept the events that happen on stage.

9. Technology: Machover, Death and the Powers

Here we will look at all of the practical aspects of technology that make a modern opera production possible, but also will start to make the transition into ideas around opera that will form the focus of next term’s classes. In particular, we’ll use Machover’s recent work as a way of thinking about why technology itself almost never forms the actual subject of an opera.

** Christmas break ***


10. Art: Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande

Formally moving into the world of ideas, this class will explore the ways that operas have interacted with the contemporary artistic movements happening around them. In particular, we’ll see how important it is to know the fine distinctions between artistic ideas that would have been clear at the time and that might have been lost now, such as between Impressionism and Symbolism in the case of Debussy’s opera.

11. Politics: Adams Nixon in China

Politics might form a deep and important layer to most operatic plots, but it’s interesting that recent politics almost never make it to the stage, and we’ll explore some of the reasons why that might be so. Adams’s opera on Richard Nixon’s visit to China is rare example, and shows how difficult it is for opera to negotiate the latest events without descending into satire.

12. Nationalism: Weber Der Freischütz

This class will discuss an especially important topic for the nineteenth century, the period in which many of the modern nations we now recognise emerged. Germany is a particularly important example, unifying in 1871. Until that point, operas by German composers such as Weber navigated an interesting middle ground, signalling changes that were to come but showing their allegiance to the ideas of the past as well.

13. Religion: Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites

Here we will explore the role that religious ideas have played in opera throughout its histories, mostly taking a very ambivalent position in the background rather than being a subject in its own right. Poulenc’s opera show’s how these ideas were changing into the twentieth century, particularly in post-WW2 France, with a new need to promote and defend religious ideas shown in the way that the characters openly discuss their faith on stage.

14. Other times: Prokofiev War and Peace

This is the first of a series of three classes that outline the various kinds of escapism that operatic plots engage with, starting with works that look to the historical past for their subjects. The idea of treating real historical events on stage seems to have particularly emerged during the nineteenth century, but political plots also caused issues with the authorities of the day. Prokofiev in particular shows how tricky it could be to make a plot about war acceptable in the middle of an actual war.

15. Other places: Bizet Carmen

We continue our theme of escapism by looking at operas which happen in foreign lands, thinking about how they portray other people as excitingly different, but also how these topics are used as a way of safely thinking about matters closer to home. The Spain depicted in Carmen is a particularly useful example to think about this dual nature, especially the way that Carmen herself is shown to be an outsider within an already foreign place.

16. Other worlds: Haydn, Il Mondo della Luna

The third and final class in this set will look at operas set in worlds altogether different from reality, either occupying some fairy-tale world or nowhere-places (such as psychological dramas). Haydn’s take on the idea of life on the moon might seem like a good example of sci-fi opera in this context, but actually engages with very few of the really important ideas behind it, in keeping with the ideas we discussed in the class on opera and technology.

17. Class and Status: Donizetti L’Elisir d’amore

At the root of so many opera plots is the fine distinctions between the ranks and classes of the different characters, dramatised on the stage but also across the different genres and even the physical theatres of opera itself. The plot of L’Elisir d’amore hinges on so many of the different societal positions of its characters, even featuring songs on the subject, showing how crucial this topic is for opera audiences.

18. Gender: Puccini Tosca

Here we will explore a topics that has been especially important for opera scholarship, looking at how the characters in opera embody societal ideas about femininity and masculinity, with the latter being somewhat neglected. In particular we will see how the two sides of the coin interact with each other, with the character of Tosca demonstrating the way that a death at the end can mean more than it seems.

19. Anti-Opera: Shostakovich The Nose

This class covers an important topic for anyone getting to know the form, as the persistence of works which actively make a mockery of opera as a form might be easy to miss, perhaps coming across as more general satire. We will see how twentieth-century composers went about attacking the genre and what it stands for, with Shostakovich’s utterly bonkers opera based on Gogol serving as an excellent example.

20. Opera on Screen: Britten Death in Venice

The final class in the course will look at some of the mediums in which present-day audiences might encounter opera, and how the phenomenon of operas made into films or broadcast ‘live’ in cinemas or on DVD shapes what they end up looking and sounding like. Tony Palmer’s version of Britten’s last opera shows both the possibilities and complications that arise when the medium changes from the original.

Additional Reading

There is no compulsory reading required for this course, and there is no set course text.

Your Tutor

Photograph of Bruno BowerDr Bruno Bower is a lively and enthusiastic tutor whose love of music is infectious. He is a musicologist, performer, composer, and music editor, as well as a highly experienced teacher. He has taught at Cambridge University, University of Surrey, Brunel University, and the Royal College of Music, and his innovative teaching methods have been recognised by Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Alongside his courses at Imperial, he currently teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 

He has written and presented on subjects as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan, John Cage, and Victorian polymaths, and he is the General Editor for critical editions of music by Peter Gellhorn and Norman O’Neill, as well as editorial consultant on the AHRC-funded ‘Music, Migration and Mobility’ project at the RCM. He is also the principal oboist of West London Sinfonia and the cor anglais player for Chelsea Opera Group.

Course Delivery: Classroom Taught Courses

Courses delivered in-person in a classroom*

This course takes place at our South Kensington Campus and will be classroom taught.

All courses lasting two hours have a 10-minute break in the middle. For one hour courses there is no break.

Covid-19 and Safe Distancing for Classroom-based Courses

Please be aware of covid-19 safe-distancing requirements and adhere to them. We ask if possible that participants on this course take a home swab test (lateral flow test) before joining each session of the class. Swab tests can be ordered free of charge prior to the start of the course from or obtained free of charge from many pharmacists.

* In the event of the government or Public Health England requiring further lockdown measures the class will transfer online and any remaining sessions will be taught entirely online.

Course Fees and Rate Categories

HoursWeeksStandard RateInternal RateAssociate Rate
 40  20  £420    (Early Bird Rate: £380*)
£250    (Early Bird Rate: £230*) £330    (Early Bird Rate: £300*) 
* The Early Bird rate is available for enrolments made before the end of 30 September for courses starting in October only  |   All fee rates quoted are for the whole 2-term course.

Rate Categories and Discounts

Standard Rate

  • Applicable to all except those who fall under the Internal Rate or Associate Rate category, respectively.

Internal Rate

  • Current Imperial College students and staff (incl. Imperial NHS Trust, Imperial Innovations, ancillary & service staff employed on long-term contracts at Imperial College by third-party contractors)
  • Individuals enrolling under our Friends & Family scheme
  • Staff of the English Chamber Orchestra
  • Current Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC) staff, current CLCC PhD students, Science Communication (Sci Comm) postgraduate students, and students enrolled on an Imperial College 'Language for Science' degree programme should contact before completing the online enrolment form

Associate Rate

  • Alumni of Imperial College and predecessor colleges and institutes
  • Austrian Cultural Forum staff
  • City & Guilds College Association members
  • Francis Crick Institute staff, researchers and students
  • Friends and Patrons of the English Chamber Orchestra
  • Harrods staff
  • Historic Royal Palaces staff
  • Lycee Charles de Gaulle staff
  • Members of the Friends of Imperial College
  • Members of the Kennel Club
  • Members of the London Zoological Society
  • Members of the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI)
  • Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
  • Natural History Museum staff
  • National Health Service (NHS) employees
  • Residents of postcodes SW3, SW5, SW7, SW10 and W8
  • Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council staff
  • Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music tutors and other staff
  • Royal Geographical Society staff
  • Science Museum staff
  • Staff of Exhibition Road Cultural Group (Discover South Kensington) organisations
  • Students (non-Imperial College)
  • Teachers and other staff of UK schools
  • Tutors and other staff of institution members of the Association of Colleges
  • Tutors and other staff of other universities and higher education institutions
  • Victoria and Albert Museum staff

Late enrolment

It is possible to enrol on many CLCC Evening Class and Lunchtime Learning programmes after the course has started. For non-language courses this is subject entirely to agreement by the tutor. For language courses it is subject to agreement by the language Coordinator conducting level assessment. If you want to join a course late do bear in mind there might be work you will need to catch up on, particularly in language courses.

Applicable terms & conditions

Please read the Terms and Conditions [pdf] before enrolling on any course.

Term Dates

HoursWeeksAutumn termSpring termSummer termSummer School
 40  20 18 Oct - 18 Dec 2021 (9 weeks)*  PLUS 10 Jan - 26 Mar 2022 (11 weeks) n/a n/a
* Followed by the Christmas break

Enrolment Process

Web enrolment starts 2nd August 2021

Enrolment and payment run through the Imperial College eStore. Please click on the blue booking link on the relevant course page noting below instructions:

  • Our rate categories are explained on the course page and your applicable rate category must be selected on the eStore
  • First-time eStore users please create an account by entering an email address and password. These credentials should also be used for future bookings. Imperial College users please note the eStore is not a single-signon College system
  • The booking process involves entering payment details after your course choice and applicant details are collected via an in-built questionnnaire
  • The following email notifications are sent:
What is sentWhen is it sentWhat does it contain
1. Payment confirmation Is sent instantaneously following submission of your online application
  • This is a receipt for your payment and includes payment date, order number and course title
  • Confirmation of your place on your chosen course will follow later
2. Enrolment confirmation Is sent within 10 working daysPlease treat your payment confirmation as confirmation that your applicant details and payment have been received
  • Re-confirms your course choice
  • Shows your course's term dates
  • Confirms the day and time of your course
3. Programme information Is usually sent on Friday late afternoon the week before term starts
  • Contains joining instructions for your course, incl. tutor contact details
If you need further help with the above information please ring 020 7594 8756

Any Questions?

  • Questions regarding the content and teaching of this course should be sent to the tutor, Dr Bruno Bower at
  • Questions about your enrolment and payment should be sent to the Programme Administrator,

If you have enjoyed this course, why not look at other arts and humanities evening class courses at Imperial College. This includes courses on the history of western art from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century, Understanding Modern and Design, the history of film and cinema and Greek and Roman mythology in art. We also run practical courses in art and photography and creative writing classes, and a growing programme of science based evening classes.