Monthly Archives: February 2014

Kill Da Wabbit: Introducing the Opera Lists

Without realizing it, we listen to opera all the time – snippets of opera music are found in movie soundtracks, television advertisements and in the background of Web pages.  My first introduction to opera came via Chuck Jones, Elmer Fudd and Buggs Bunny, whose archly clever spoofs of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and The Barber of Seville got funnier as I got older. But Bugs Bunny didn’t invent opera.  Opera was born in Florence, Italy at the very end of the 16th Century.  Throughout the Renaissance, courts in the various city states of Italy put on plays and festivals for royal weddings and other events.  In keeping with the era’s fondness for all things classical, the plays were often Greek and Roman.  But by the mid-1500s, the princes had begun to commission musical interludes to spice up the Latin and Greek poetry.  A group of Florentine composers and musicians, having seen these interludes, decided they needed to go further and create a new art form in which the words and music were linked together, similar to what they believed the Ancient Greeks had done.  The first composer to attempt such a work (in Italian, oper), was Jacopo Peri, whose all-singing Daphne debuted in 1597 at a court event in Florence.  The first true masterpiece of opera came ten years later, when Claudio Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo for the Mantua court in 1607.  Audience members at this and other early operas received a little book (in Italian, libretto) with all the words so they could follow along. Like other early operas, L’Orfeo used a specialized type of singing, called recitative, that was less dramatic than full-throated singing but more melodic than speech.  Monteverdi’s operas also explored the use of full singing for certain musical sections, called arias and arioso.

In 1637, opera moved from the royal court to the public arena when the first public opera house opened in Venice, Italy.  For the next 300 years, opera would be one of the most popular art forms in Europe, as it spread out of Italy, first to France, England and Germany, and then to all of Western Civilization.  Baroque opera, while it could be sublime in the hands of someone like Purcell (Dido and Aeneas), Handel (Julius Caesar in Egypt) or Rameau (Castor and Pollux), quickly developed some troublesome affectations.  Female parts were usually sung by castrati, men who had been castrated before puberty to keep their voices high, and the operas became showcases for their voices.  These superstar singers (Farinelli was the most famous) would stop the show by singing every aria twice (a practice known as da capo) and they would improvise on the written music in order to dazzle the crowd with their technique.  As a result, the dramatic content of the opera became overshadowed by vocal acrobatics.

Enter a German composer named Christoph Wilibald Gluck.  Gluck took on the task of reforming opera so the music and words once again carried fairly equal weight, eschewing excess and frilly overkill.  He achieved this lofty goal with his first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, from 1762.  Also around this time, it became much more common for women to sing opera roles, much to the relief of the young castrati-to-be.  When Mozart produced a series of masterpieces between 1781 and 1791 in every major type of opera then existing (e.g., opera seria, opera buffa, singspiel), he put the crowning touch on Gluck’s reforms (e.g., The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute).

The major development in the first half of the 19th Century was the bel canto (beautiful songs) style promoted by Italians Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti in The Barber of Seville, Norma and Lucia di Lammermore.  In some ways, bel canto was a return to some of the best aspects of Baroque opera singing.  The next step was the magnificent productions of grand opera, promoted by Gounod (Faust) and Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots) in France and Giuseppe Verdi (Don Carlos, Aida) in Italy.  The Germans (e.g., von Weber’s Der Freischütz), meanwhile, practiced romanticism, which reached its culmination in the work of Richard Wagner.  Wagner sought to create Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art, a journey that would culminate in the four operas making up Der Ring des Nibelungen. His operas were longer and more serious, with few arias, but elaborate sets, costumes and complex and challenging orchestration.  Wagner was the first to insist that the audience quietly watch and listen, and so, for the first time in opera history, the house lights were turned down. Later in the 19th Century, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and others in the verismo movement sought to bring the real world to opera audiences with true-to-life characters, instead of stories from fantasy and mythology (e.g., Madama Butterfly, Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana).

While opera was still centered on Italy, Germany and France, by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century, national opera movements had arisen in Russia (Glinka – Ruslan and Lyudmila, Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov, Borodin – Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin, Rimsky-Korsakov – The Golden Cockerel) and what is now the Czech Republic (Janáček – Jenůfa, Dvořák – Rusalka, Smetana – The Bartered Bride).  Later on in the 20th Century, important operas came out of Hungary (Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle, Kodály –
Háry János)
and Poland (Szymanowski – King Roger).

In 1905, German Richard Strauss took Wagner’s experiments with complex tonal structures and applied them to a daring and scandalous retelling of the story of Salome and John the Baptist.  Four years later, he did it again with Elektra.  But then Strauss backed away from controversy with a delightful comedy, Der Rosenkavalier.  Twenty years after Salome, Alban Berg applied the new atonal approach to the story of a murderous protagonist in Wozzeck.  At the same time, Benjamin Britten revived English opera with his masterwork Peter Grimes, which managed to be wholly modern without abandoning tonality.  For one thing, Britten had all but abandoned the recitative/aria dichotomy, a path most modern opera composers would follow.

While most of opera’s development has occurred in Europe, in 1935, George Gershwin penned the first all-American opera, Porgy and Bess, although its portrayal of black Americans offended some.  The Americans came into their own later in the century, when minimalist composers Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach) and John Adams (Nixon in China) created critically-acclaimed operas.  At the same time, Judith Weir of the UK composed A Night at the Chinese Opera, making her one of, if not the first woman opera composer of the modern era.

The current state of opera is mixed.  Even though new operas are composed and staged every year, the operas most often staged for public consumption consist of a fairly narrow range of older masterpieces.  Surveys reveal that the most produced operas in recent years have been: La traviata (Verdi, 1853), La bohème (Puccini, 1896), Tosca (Puccini, 1900), Madama Butterfly (Puccini, 1904), The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart, 1786), Don Giovanni (Mozart, 1787), The Barber of Seville (Rossini, 1816), Carmen (Bizet, 1875), The Magic Flute (Mozart, 1791), Così fan tutte (Mozart, 1790) and Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1835). On the other hand, farther down the list are more challenging and more recent works, indicating that there is still a place in the repertoire for operas of all sorts.

All this history forms the preface for my latest lists, which, as you might have guessed, have to do with opera.  I hope you enjoy them:

The Best Operas of All Time – The Critics’ Picks
The Best Operas of All Time – Chronological
The Best Operas of All Time – By Composer


What’s Up? Docs.

The documentary film has been around as long as the movies.  When the Lumière brothers filmed their workers leaving the factory at the end of the day in 1895, that was a documentary: a depiction of real people engaged in non-fictional activities.

When the Lumières filmed a train arriving at a station, that, too, was a documentary – it was a real train and a real station with no script or actors – but there was a twist: they filmed the train at such an angle that it looked like it was going to crash through the screen and into the theater, causing some to run, according to some accounts, or at least jump in their seats.

The documentary, or non-fiction film, then, often creates the illusion of giving us a glimpse of the truth, of real life, but the Lumières showed that choosing the perspective (literally or figuratively) for presenting the subject involves conscious or unconscious choices on the part of the filmmakers.  We easily identify Triumph of the Will as Nazi propaganda, but propaganda comes in many forms.  When propaganda happens to promote a viewpoint that you already agree with, it just seems like common sense.  And maybe it is.  Politically-charged documentaries like those of Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) and Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight; Inside Job) lead some to cry foul, while others (myself included) find them rousing indictments of a corrupt system.  But one important role of the viewer is to separate facts from opinion and understand that the emotional impact of powerful images can cause us to leave our rational minds behind us.

The techniques of documentary filmmakers are myriad.  Some take found footage created by others for other purposes (newsreels, home movies) and fashion them into contemporary accounts of personal lives or historical events.  Alain Resnais shaped World War military films into a haunting memorial of the Holocaust in Night and Fog.  Some interview participants or others with a personal connection to the facts and present their subjects as ‘talking heads’ (e.g., Errol Morris’s The Fog of War.)   Others, as in One Day in September, The Thin Blue Line or Touching the Void, recreate events using techniques ranging from low to high tech.  Nature documentaries like Planet Earth, Winged Migration and Microcosmos involve dozens of technicians working all around the globe using the most sophisticated equipment.  Personal essay films like Tarnation require only a camcorder and a computer with a movie-making program – plus a willingness to bare your soul and expose all your family members’ deepest flaws.  Many documentaries follow some sort of narrative – often chronological – while some, like Man with a Movie Camera, are free-form or even surreal in their structure and imagery.  Cinéma vérité filmmakers like the Maysles brothers (Grey Gardens), D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back) and Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies) reject traditional documentary formats, eschewing narration and explanatory titles in an attempt to present reality, unadorned and unjudged, for the viewer to interpret.  Other documentarists (e.g., Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World), insert themselves consciously into their films to emphasize the subjectivity of the creative process.  Essay films like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, where a fictional narrator reads letters from a fictional traveler while we watch documentary images, blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.  Of course, many documentaries combine several of these techniques.

The goal of the documentary filmmaker may be to inform, to educate, to challenge, to expose evil, lies and hypocrisy, to speak truth to power, to amuse and entertain, to celebrate, to warn, to question, to present the artist’s personal creative vision.  Rarely do the best documentaries simply document reality.  The conscious and unconscious choices of these filmmakers inevitably shape that reality, creating art in the process.

Here, then, are my documentary lists: