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