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History of Opera

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The word opera means "works" in Italian (from the plural of Latin opus meaning "work" or "labour") suggesting that it combines the arts of solo and choral singing, declamation, acting and dancing in a staged spectacle. "Dafne" by Jacopo Peri was the earliest composition considered opera, as understood today. It was written around 1597, largely under the inspiration of an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the "Camerata". Significantly, Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance. The members of the Camerata considered that the "chorus" parts of Greek dramas were originally sung, and possibly even the entire text of all roles; opera was thus conceived as a way of "restoring" this situation. "Dafne" is unfortunately lost. A later work by Peri, Euridice, dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present day.

Peri's works, however, did not arise out of a creative vacuum in the area of sung drama. An underlying prerequisite for the creation of opera proper was the practice of monody. Monody is the solo singing/setting of a dramatically conceived melody, designed to express the emotional content of the text it carries, which is accompanied by a relatively simple sequence of chords rather than other polyphonic parts. Italian composers began composing in this style late in the 16th century, and it grew in part from the long-standing practise of performing polyphonic madrigals with one singer accompanied by an instrumental rendition of the other parts, as well as the rising popularity of more popular, more homophonic vocal genres such as the frottola and the villanella. In these latter two genres, the increasing tendency was toward a more homophonic texture, with the top part featuring an elaborate, active melody, and the lower ones (usually these were three-part compositions, as opposed to the four-or-more-part madrigal) a less active supporting structure. From this, it was only a small step to fully-fledged monody. All such works tended to set humanist poetry of a type that attempted to imitate Petrarch and his Trecento followers, another element of the period's tendency toward a desire for restoration of principles it associated with a mixed-up notion of antiquity.

The solo madrigal, frottola, villanella and their kin featured prominently in semi-dramatic spectacles that were funded in the last seventy years of the 16th century by the opulent and increasingly secular courts of Italy's city-states. Such spectacles, called intermedi, were usually staged to commemorate significant state events; weddings, military victories, and the like, and alternated in performance with the acts of plays. Like the later opera, an intermedi featured the aforementioned solo singing, but also madrigals performed in their typical multi-voice texture, and dancing accompanied by the present instrumentalists. The intermedi tended not to tell a story as such, although they occasionally did, but nearly always focused on some particular element of human emotion or experience, expressed through mythological allegory.

Another popular court entertainment at this time was the "madrigal drama," later also called "madrigal opera" by musicologists familiar with the later genre. This, as can probably be guessed, consisted of a series of madrigals strung together to suggest a dramatic narrative.

In addition to opera in Italy, developing concurrently in the late 16th-early 17th centuries were the English masque and the French ballet au court, which were similar to the Italian intermedi in many respects. In both cases, the main difference apart from local musical style was a greater degree of audience (at this time, of course, the audience consisted only of invited nobles and courtiers) participation in the form of staged or processional dances. The English masque also featured a culminating "revel," in which the performers drifted into and cavorted with the audience. Opera was imported into both countries before the middle of the 17th century, where it fused with the local incipient genres. This led to the dominance of ballet in opera of the French tradition, while the thriving English tradition of incidental music, as well as the totalitarian Cromwell regime at mid-century, made it difficult for Italian-style opera to take hold there.

In earlier times, music had been part of medieval mystery plays, with the composer of these best-known to modern audiences being Hildegard of Bingen. Whether these are to be regarded as possible progenitors of opera is highly debatable. At the time of their original performance, they were easily regarded as liturgical accretions. Such accretions to the generally prescribed system of chants were quite common, and the liturgical ceremony was itself dramatic to a degree, often featuring elaborate processions, to which the actions associated with liturgical drama may have been considered merely a minor addition. A new, 17th century form of religious drama, the oratorio did arise shortly after the advent of opera, though it owes at least as much to the (originally secular) non-dramatic recititive-aria form of the cantata.

Baroque opera

Opera did not remain confined to court audiences for long; in 1637 the idea of a "season" (Carnival) of publicly-attended operas supported by ticket sales emerged in Venice. Influential 17th century opera composers included Francesco Cavalli and Claudio Monteverdi whose Orfeo (1607) is the earliest opera still performed today. Monteverdi's later Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) is also seen as a very important work of early opera. In these early Baroque operas, broad comedy was blended with tragic elements in a mix that jarred some educated sensibilities, sparking the first of opera's many reform movements, sponsored by Venice's Arcadian Academy (not a physical school, but rather a group of like-minded aristocrats and pedants), but which came to be associated with the poet Pietro Trapassi, called Metastasio, whose librettos helped crystallize so-called opera seria's moralizing tone. Once the Metastasian ideal had been firmly established, comedy in Baroque-era opera was reserved for what came to be called opera buffa. Before such elements were forced out of opera seria, many librettos had featured a separately unfolding comic plot as sort of an "opera-within-an-opera." One reason for this was an attempt to attract members of the growing merchant class, newly wealthy, but still less cultured than the nobility, to the public opera houses. These separate plots were almost immediately resurrected in a separately developing tradition that partly derived from the commedia dell'arte, (as indeed, such plots had always been) a long-flourishing improvisitory stage tradition of Italy. Just as intermedi had once been performed in-between the acts of stage plays, operas in the new comic genre of "intermezzi", which developed largely in Naples in the 1710s and '20s, were initially staged during the intermissions of opera seria. They became so popular, however, that they were soon being offered as separate productions.

Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian libretti were the norm, even when a German composer like Handel found himself writing for London audiences. Italian libretti remained dominant in the classical period as well, for example in the operas of Mozart, who wrote in Vienna near the century's close.

Bel canto and Italian patriotism

The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante and many others. Literally "beautiful singing", bel canto opera derives from the Italian stylistic singing school of the same name. Bel canto lines are typically florid and intricate, requiring supreme agility and pitch control.

This style grew out of earlier florid singing of which numerous examples can be found as early as Monteverdi. It continued, through contact with composers from the north, up to and beyond the music of Bach, right through Mozart (who should be classed with the greatest bel canto composers although the romantic German tradition was to slow his tempi down so that the big voices could sing it) and up to Spohr, whose Faust (composed in 1813) was performed in England by the Italian Opera company in London as late as 1852.

Following the bel canto era, a more direct, forceful style was rapidly popularized by Giuseppe Verdi, beginning with his biblical opera Nabucco. Verdi's writing demanded vocal endurance and strength more than the agility required in bel canto (although his work includes arias demanding great vocal agility); his works were also more demanding dramatically, and many listeners prefer to hear his work sung by voices with great expressive quality, even at the sacrifice of beautiful tone. Verdi's operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the patriotic movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical).

French opera

In rivalry with imported Italian opera productions, a separate French tradition, sung in the French, was founded by Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully arrived at court as a dancer and companion for young Louis XIV, that he might practice his Latin by conversing with a native speaker. Despite his foreign origin, he established an Academy of Music and monopolized French opera from 1672; and thus an Italian championed the French style in the struggle for supremacy between the French and Italian operatic styles, which raged in the French press for over a century. Lully's overtures, fluid and disciplined recitatives, danced interludes, divertissements and orchestral entr'actes between scenes, set a pattern that Gluck struggled to "reform" almost a century later. The text was as important as the music: royal propaganda was expressed in elaborate allegories, generally with affirmatory endings. Opera in France has continued to include ballet interludes and feature elaborate scenic machinery.

Baroque French opera, elaborated by Rameau, was in some sense simplified by the reforms associated with Gluck (Alceste and Orfee) in the 1760s. Gluck's arias and choruses advanced the plot, a significant innovation to the static, even irrelevant, arias and choruses common at the time. While the methods of Gluck were partially derived from those of the more progressive Italians (particularly in comic operas such as Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, which had been influential in France since its performance there in 1752), he also desired to strip opera of some Italian characteristics he considered superfluous and confusing. In this effort, he adopted such French tendencies as more syllabic text-setting, use of the chorus (still occasionally used in France, unlike Italy), and less adherence to the standard da capo aria form. Because Gluck combined Italian and French methods of undermining opera seria, his reforms united those styles, his response to an ever-continuing controversy. Gluck's example was followed by composers such as Méhul, Cherubini and Spontini. Early in the first half of the 19th, French opera was influenced by the bel canto style of Rossini and other Italians. This international synthesis of styles leads directly into 19th century French "Grand Opera," the most grandiose operatic genre of the 19th century with the possible exception of some Wagner works.

Other "comic" styles

French opera with spoken dialogue is referred to as opéra comique, regardless of its subject matter — it can include serious and even tragic plots, such as Bizet's Carmen and Massenet's Manon. German opera of this type is called Singspiel. Depending on the weight of its subject matter, opera comique shades into operetta, which arose as a wildly popular form of entertainment in the second half of the 19th century. Along with the music-hall potpourri called vaudeville, this gave rise to the 20th century genre of musical comedy, perfected in New York and London between the wars.

Romantic opera and French grand opéra

The synthesis of elements that is French grand opéra first appeared in Daniel-François-Esprit Auber's La muette de Portici (1828), Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829) and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable (1831). Grand opera is usually in four or five acts and includes dance interludes for a complete ballet company. While this genre is regarded by some as having reached its apotheosis in a Giuseppe Verdi masterpiece, Don Carlos, the most famous opera in the French grand opera tradition may be Gounod's Faust, particularly in the United States where it was a favorite at the Met for the better half of the 20th century. But it should be noted that Faust started out as an opéra comique, and did not reach grand opera status until later. By mid-century, "opera", to all intents and purposes, meant Grand Opera; the works of Verdi, supposedly a quintessential Italian composer, owe much to this genre, as do those of Wagner, who was both influenced and made acceptable by the sheer extravagance of scale involved in such productions. The similarly extravagant production, including ballet set pieces, of such Russian works as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin can probably be traced back to the grand opera tradition as well.

German-language opera

Before the late 18th century, German-language opera was largely a copy of the Italian, although in early-century works of such composers as Reinhard Keiser, the German-speakers achieved a seriousness of tone and grandeur of scale rarely approached in Italy. The above-mentioned singspiel also flourished at this time, being descended from the school dramas with interpolated songs that the students in Lutheran church-schools often produced.

Mozart's German Singspiel Die Zauberflöte (1791) stands at the head of a German opera tradition that was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven (who wrote only one, which actually stands more in the French Revolutionary "rescue opera" tradition of Balfe and Gretry), Heinrich Marschner, Weber (composer of the great Der Freischütz, containing elements of both singspiel and melodrama, and a major influence on several Romantic composers) and eventually Wagner.

Before Wagner, there had been little all-sung German language opera of any account for several decades. Though very much inspired by the works of Weber, Wagner pioneered a through-composed style, in which recitative and aria blend into one another and are constantly accompanied by the orchestra; this results in a sort of endless melody, which is perpetuated by the avoidance of any clear cadence until moments of great articulation. Wagner also made copious use of the leitmotif, a dramatic device which associates a musical line with each character or idea in the story. Weber had used a similar device earlier, and was hardly the first to do so; in Wagner's work, however, leitmotifs are a main building-block of his scores, rather than mere recurring motifs.

Other national operas

Spain also produced its own distinctive form of opera, known as zarzuela, which had two separate flowerings: one in the 17th century, and another beginning in the mid-19th century. During the 18th century, Italian opera was immensely popular in Spain, supplanting the native form.

Just as it was in Spain, Italian opera was highly popular in Russia. In the 19th century, Russian composers also began to write important operas based on nationalist themes, national literature, and folk tales, beginning with Mikhail Glinka (e.g. Ruslan and Lyudmila) and followed by Alexander Borodin (Prince Igor), Modest Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko), and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin). These developments mirrored the growth of Russian nationalism across the artistic spectrum, in part as a function of the more general Slavophilism movement.

Czech composers also developed a thriving national opera movement of their own in the 19th century. Antonín Dvořák, most famous for Rusalka, wrote 13 operas; Bedřich Smetana wrote eight (The Bartered Bride being the most famous); and Leoš Janáček wrote ten, including Jenůfa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Káťa Kabanová.

The key figure of Hungarian national opera in the 19th century was Ferenc Erkel, mostly dealing with historical themes. Among his most often performed operas are Hunyadi László and Bánk bán.

Verismo and after

After Wagner, all opera for many decades laboured in his gigantic shadow. Nearly all composers felt they must react or respond to him in some way, and opera in the early 20th century took several paths. One path was the sentimental "realistic" melodramas of verismo operas, a style introduced by Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci that came virtually to dominate the world's opera stages with such popular operas of Giacomo Puccini as La Boheme and Tosca. Another reaction to Wagner's mythic medievalizing can be seen in the psychological intensity and social commentary of Richard Strauss (e.g. Salome, Elektra).

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, opera has enjoyed tremendous appeal and has been performed around the world. But only a few twentieth-century operas premièred after the first performance of Puccini's Turandot in 1926 are regularly performed: Strauss's Arabella and Capriccio, Berg's Lulu, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Britten's Peter Grimes and Billy Budd and Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites are among these.

Contemporary, recent, and Modernist trends


Perhaps the most obvious stylistic manifestation of modernism in opera is the development of atonality. The move away from traditional tonality in opera had begun with Wagner, and in particular the Tristan chord, but after his death no further innovations in style were introduced for a considerable length of time. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Puccini, Paul Hindemith and Hans Pfitzner adapted and worked within Wagnerian parameters but did not go very far beyond them.

Operatic Modernism truly began in the operas of two Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and his acolyte Alban Berg, both composers and advocates of atonality and its later development (as worked out by Schoenberg), dodecaphony. Schoenberg's early musico-dramatic works, Erwartung (1909, premiered in 1924) and Die Gluckliche Hand display heavy use of chromatic harmony and dissonance in general. Schoenberg also occasionally used Sprechstimme, which he described as: "The voice rising and falling relative to the indicated intervals, and everything being bound together with the time and rhythm of the music except where a pause is indicated".

The two operas of Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg, Wozzeck and Lulu (left incomplete at his death) share many of the same characteristics as described above, though Berg combined his highly personal interpretation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique with melodic passages of a more traditionally tonal nature (quite Mahlerian in character) which perhaps partially explains why his operas have remained in standard repertory, despite their controversial music and plots. Schoenberg's theories have influenced (either directly or indirectly) significant numbers of opera composers ever since, even if they themselves did not compose using his techniques. Composers thus influenced include the Englishman Benjamin Britten, the German Hans Werner Henze, and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich. (Philip Glass also makes use of atonality, though his style is generally described as minimalist, usually thought of as another 20th century development.)

However, operatic modernism's use of dodecaphony sparked a backlash among several leading composers. Prominent among the vanguard of these was the Russian Igor Stravinsky. After composing obviously Modernist music for the Diaghilev-produced ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky turned away from these trends to produce small-scale works that do not fullly qualify as opera, yet certainly contain many operatic elements, including Renard (1916: "a burlesque in song and dance") and The Soldier's Tale (1918: "to be read, played, and danced"; in both cases the descriptions and instructions are those of the composer). In the latter, the actors declaim portions of speech to a specified rhythm over instrumental accompaniment, peculiarly similar to the older German genre of Melodrama. In the 1920s Stravinsky turned to Neoclassicism, culminating in his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. When he did compose a full-length opera (after his Rimsky-Korsakov-inspired work The Nightingale (1914), and Mavra (1922)) that was without doubt an opera, in the The Rake's Progress he continued to ignore serialist techniques and wrote an 18th century-style "number" opera, using diatonicism. His resistance to serialism proved to be an inspiration for many other composers.

Other trends

A common trend throughout the 20th Century, in both opera and general orchestral repertoire, is the downsizing of orchestral forces. As patronage of the arts decreases, new works are commissioned and performed with smaller budgets, very often resulting in chamber-sized works, and one act operas. Many of Benjamin Britten's operas are scored for as few as 13 instrumentalists; Mark Adamo's two-act realization of Little Women is scored for 18 instrumentalists.

Another feature of 20th Century opera is the emergence of contemporary historical operas. The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China by John Adams, and Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie exemplify the dramatisation on stage of events in recent living memory, where characters portrayed in the opera were alive at the time of the premiere performance. Earlier models of opera stuck to more distant history, re-telling contemporary fictional stories (reworkings of popular plays), or mythical/legendary stories.

The Metropolitan Opera reports that the average age of its patrons is now 60. Many opera companies, have experienced a similar trend, and opera company websites are replete with attempts to attract a younger audience. This trend is part of the larger trend of greying audiences for classical music since the last decades of the 20th century.

From musicals back towards opera

Also by the late 1930s, some musicals began to be written with a more operatic structure. These works included complex polyphonic ensembles and reflected musical developments of their times. Porgy and Bess, influenced by jazz styles, and Candide, with its sweeping, lyrical passages and farcical parodies of opera, both opened on Broadway but became accepted as part of the opera repertory. Show Boat, West Side Story, Brigadoon, Sweeney Todd, Evita and others tell dramatic stories through complex music and are now sometimes seen in opera houses. Some rock musicals, beginning with Tommy (1969) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), have been written with recitative instead of dialogue, or instrumental underscoring, telling their emotional stories predominantly through the music, and are styled rock operas. Some of these begin with a "concept" album and are later produced on stage and as films.


On the West End

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