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A Short History of Opera

What is it about the fusion of music, drama, visual arts, and dance that appeals to millions of people?

Opera, Italian for ‘work,’ is over 400 years old. History, mythology, fairy tales, folk stories, literature, and drama have inspired composers for centuries. Opera reaches beyond geographical and cultural boundaries as the most creative of all the performing arts. Where did it all begin?

During the Renaissance, in Florence, Italy, a small group of wealthy artists, statesmen, writers, and musicians, called the Florentine Camerata, gathered to discuss how to revive and transform Greek drama. They favored heightening the text by creating the solo melody or monody which would enhance natural speech. Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), composed the first acknowledged opera, Dafne, in the late 1590s. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is well known for his operas Orfeo (1607), Arianna (1608), L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642), and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1641). The latter two operas premiered in Venice, where the first opera house was built in 1637. By the mid-1600s, opera had spread to all of Italy and into France and Germany.

The Baroque period, ca. 1650–1750, brought the works of J. S. Bach (1685-1750), George Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) into circulation. Baroque opera flourished in the royal courts and opera houses in Europe with the Italian school at the fore. Handel’s operas dominated the landscape in England; his operas Rinaldo (1710), Giulio Cesare (1725), and Semele (1744) have enjoyed a recent rebirth on today’s opera stages.

From ca. 1750-1827, Willibald Christoph Gluck (1714-1787), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) emerged as significant opera composers. Opera developed by expanding in structure, harmony, and plot content. The orchestra played a more important role in providing harmonic depth and variety to accompaniments. Structure became more flexible, i.e., the form of recitative/aria or recitative/duet expanded to include chorus, solo ensembles, and descriptive instrumental passages. Haydn composed over 75 operas as entertainment for the Esterhazy court; Gluck, who returned to a simpler, leaner style whose plots reverted to mythological subjects, is best remembered for his timeless Orfeo ed Eurydice (1762); and Mozart, a supreme musical dramatist, composed operas in a variety of styles and languages. Mozart used music to specifically define his characters and plots, choosing specific keys, composing individual vocal lines in solo ensembles, and creating ingenious orchestrations to ‘paint’ emotions. Mozart brilliantly composed in several different operatic forms: opera seria (Idomeneo 1781), Singspiel (Abduction from the Seraglio 1782), and dramma giocoso (Don Giovanni 1787).

During the 1820s, after the French Revolution, a new middle class began to frequent the theaters in search of entertainment. Composers turned to the literature of Shakespeare, Hugo, Goethe rather than to Greek mythology, efforting to present operas that these audiences would appreciate. Grand opera incorporated all artistic elements: beautiful solo voices, chorus, ballet, elaborate scenery – spectacle, in short. Lighter opera fare, including Opéra Comique (Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole 1868) -- less pretentious and often more comic than Grand Opera -- and Operetta also emerged during this period. Opera buffa in Italy (Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale 1843), operetta in Austria (Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus 1874), and operetta in England (Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore 1878), developed loyal followings. Bridging the Classical and Romantic periods, Georges Bizet’s (1838-1875) Carmen (1875) provided exotic locations, romantic, evocative, and memorable musical themes, and high drama.

From ca. 1817-1900, Romanticism and Impressionism took the art world by storm. Italy’s native composers Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) composed operas in the opera buffa and opera lirica styles. These three composers inspired their singers to sing in the bel canto style, executing long, elegantly and beautifully phrased, often challenging, vocal lines. Their operas are vehicles for the expert singer. Rossini’s La Cenerentola [Cinderella] (1817) requires fioritura technique and comic timing from its entire cast; Bellini’s Norma (1831) demands a coloratura soprano with superb dramatic skills; Donizetti’s La fille du Régiment (1840) requires both a brilliant coloratura soprano and a tenor with limitless high C’s. Witty sung dialogue, sharply etched characters, and beautifully crafted vocal lines ensure the success of these operas. On the heels of these composers came Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) whose many operas remain the backbone of current opera house repertoire. In Italy, Verdi is lauded as a patriot, statesman, and the composer of politically controversial topics of his day. His operas are memorable because of the dramatically beautiful, challenging, and memorable vocal melodies he crafted for all of his characters. With the exception of Verdi’s last opera, the comic Falstaff (1893), his operas are based on dramatic plays and texts, among which are Shakespeare’s MacBeth (1847), Othello (1887), Falstaff (1893), Victor Hugo’s Rigoletto (1851), Alexandre Dumas’s La Traviata (1853), along with some of his politically-based librettos: Nabucco (1842), I due Foscari (1844) and Aida (1871).

The symbiotic relationship between literature and music strengthened as the 19th c. unfolded. Richard Wagner (1813-1883) created a new genre of opera whereby the function of music was to serve dramatic expression. The Ring Cycle used Norse mythology and leitmotifs to cohesively bind four operas together using musical themes for characters, situations, and ideas. Wagner composed for massive orchestrations, increasing the orchestra size from 50-60 to 90-100 players. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) followed in Wagner’s footsteps using even more lush orchestrations, introducing dissonance (clashing tonal centers) as an expressive and descriptive tool to underline the drama. Among his most well-known operas are Salomé (1905), Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912).

Toward the end of the Romantic period, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) explored musical impressionism by stretching tonality and form. Debussy’s one successful opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), is based on the symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlink, and Ravel’s delightful opera L’enfant et les Sortilèges [The child and the spells] (1925) places singers in the orchestra pit to vocally depict the items in the child’s room as they come to life on stage. Meanwhile, in Italy, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) had taken up Verdi’s challenge. Puccini composed in the ‘verismo’ [truth] style, choosing to present everyday people caught in extraordinarily challenging and melodramatic circumstances. Puccini’s operas are musically visceral and emotionally bold. He composed for larger voices using rich, full orchestrations. Some of his most well-known operas are Manon Lescaut (1893), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and La Fanciulla del West [The Girl of the Golden West] (1910). Other Italian verismo composers are Francesco Cilea (1866-1950) who composed Adriana Lecouvreur in 1902, Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) known for his opera Andrea Chénier (1896), Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) remembered for I Pagliacci (1892), and Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) who composed Cavalleria Rusticana in 1890. The latter two operas are frequently performed on a double bill. All verismo operas require mature voices and dramatic singers who are convincing on stage.

As drama became more important to the portrayals of characters on stage, composers of the 20th c. began to create operas for the actor/singer. Kurt Weill (1900-1950), known for Lost under the Stars (1949), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who composed The Rake’s Progress in 1951, and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) remembered for Peter Grimes (1945) and Albert Herring (1947) among many others, all composed in a less tonal idiom with more focus on the drama of the story. The operatic singers who tackle these roles need to be excellent musicians, vocal technicians and superb actors. Opera composers of the 20th c. experimented with polytonality (more than one key occurring simultaneously), minimalism (music with repetitive structures), and theatricality. Austrians Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), who composed the monologue opera, Erwartung [Expectation] in 1924, and his pupil, Alban Berg (1885-1935), who composed the chiller, Wozzeck, in 1925, turned to psychological dramas. In contrast, American composers George Gershwin (1898-1937), beloved for his Porgy and Bess (1935), Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926) who set the Tennessee story, Susanna in 1955, and Aaron Copland (1900-1990) whose mid-western setting of The Tender Land (1954) was originally conceived for television, composed operas on historical and social Americana themes. In further contrast, Philip Glass’s (b. 1937) Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Akhnaten (1984), and John Adams’s (b. 1947) Nixon in China (1987) and Death of Klinghoffer (1991) explore minimalism more in depth while John Corigliano’s (b. 1938) The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Mark Adamo’s (b. 1962) Little Women (1998), and William Bolcom’s (b. 1938) A View from the Bridge (1999), continue to explore ensemble operas, where the focus is on the ensemble rather than the solo singer.

In the 21st c., opera composers to note are: Jake Heggie (b. 1961) for Dead Man Walking (2000), John Adams for Doctor Atomic (2005), Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) for Ainadamar 2005), and Tan Dun (b. 1956) for The First Emperor (2006). All these operas have enjoyed recent successful productions in major US opera houses.

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