Evolution of the Opera in Europe
Ask a high school student about Opera and they would just shrugged their shoulders in lack of knowledge, or others would try to guess and say that it’s a musical play, something like Broadway. While others who may have a bit of familiarity with Opera would say, “those silly men with long beards and silly dresses that sings in a very high voice”. In reality, opera is related to all of these definitions given. The scope of this paper is to introduce Opera into the twentieth century audience. Naturally, the history of Opera, when and where did it start and who are the people that made Opera famous and made famous by the Opera would be discussed.
As well as the different forms of opera, and its different kinds or genre to be more specific. After which, an analysis of the whereabouts of Opera nowadays would be presented.
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II. What is an Opera? An Opera is a stage show that was only available for the European elites in the 1700s. It was sort of the ancestor of musical theaters like Broadway and West End in London; it is just that Opera themes are usually about Greek Drama. It includes musical numbers, solos by lead actors and sometimes even a ballet-like dance to emphasize the action and texts of the songs.
Opera dramas are predominantly about Greek Drama because Opera originated in Italy in the late 1600s, where Italian aristocracy fully enjoys performances in their own balconies and private theaters. Just like any beautiful thing, Opera spread to the common folk and took pride for its various performances and many composers from all over Europe, not just Italy, until everything was placed in a halting pause when wars emerged and the arts was put aside for some other important things. Opera before in the early ages was like Hollywood, stars were revered and composers were treated as royalties.
They held performances from the greatest capitals of Europe like Naples, Saint Petersburg, Rome, Milan, Vienna, Venice, Berlin and Paris; as well as in the opera houses newly established in New York City and New Orleans. The musicality of Opera has influenced other forms of music which are still thriving and used nowadays. An example is the usage of sinfonia, an instrumental prelude of the Opera which as now known as symphonies and the attempt to make piano and violin solos during a concerto was a clear indication of following through Opera’s cadenza (solos).
The masterful innovation of 19th century German composer Richard Wagner in his orchestration for his different compositions became a big influence in shaping the classical music of the 19th century. a. When did it start? Opera started in the late 1600s through a group of scholars, known as the camerata instigated a performance with the aim of promoting monodic musical declamations. Although musical stage play was already existent as early as the 12th century like The Play of Daniel, it was Jacopo Peri’s and Ottavio Rinuccini’s Euridice, that was considered as the first Opera in the 1600.
However, Jacopo Peri’s first composition Dafne was argued by other scholars as the first true Opera, though little of its text can be found now. Monodic musical declamations are recitals with free rhythm accompanied by a subtle music, and usually about Ancient Greek Drama and mythology. Just like the first Opera Euridice that was taken from the Greek mythology about Orpheus and his beloved Euridice. b. Where did it start? 1. Baroque (Italian) Opera originally came from Italy, wherein it was known as Baroque Opera or Italian Opera.
It had its first shows in Venice and Rome, where Sant’ Alessio by Stefano Landi established Roman Opera in 1632. The libretto was penned by Giulio Rospigliosi and Landi modified the narrative style of the monodic trend by creating recitative and aria. But Roman Opera had to await the arrival of Claudio Monteverdi for it to blossom. He was an educated man and performed in the lavish court of the Gonzaga family and finally directed a church choir, after which he created his first opera in 1607, his own version of the Orpheus and Euridice mythology entitled La Favola d’Orfeo.
Peri and Monteverdi’s version were so different that if Peri’s version was more of a monodic narrative with subtle accompaniment; Monteverdi’s version has more music in it. He expanded the accompaniment into a full scale orchestra with bowed and plucked strings, harpsichord and organ, trumpets and drums for more dramatic effects. He also gave each character his own musical identity and created a very poignant overture. It was the combination of lyric text and musical play as the term drama per musica (drama through music) had intended.
Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea) in 1642, was the first to tackle a very sensitive subject matter and staged a very powerful vocal composition that would soon be stereotypical of an Opera. Marcantonio Cesti and Pietro Francesco Cavalli heralded the next generation of Venetian composers. They created an international style wherein the recitative was given less part in favor of the aria and the chorus was replaced with solos. Cavalli continued Monteverdi’s innovative style with his own Opera L’Ormindo and La Calisto.
His Operas was known to include some charade and sexual content for the amusement of the viewers. Another Venetian composer, and also a predecessor of 18th Century Neapolitan School, Alessandro Stradella was also praised for having his own style in writing Operas. 2. English The Italian Opera became widespread in Europe and landed some its charms in England. Composers in England have begun working together to create masques, a court entertainment involving exaggerated speeches, dancing, ridiculous plots and costumes.
The first English Opera was The Siege of Rhodes by poet Sir William D’Avenant in 1656 and music by Lawes, Matthew Locke, Henry Cooke, Charles Coleman and George Hudson. John Blow wrote Venus and Adonis in 1684 but was not properly accredited as an Opera for some critics still call it a masque, but in 1689, Blow’s pupil Henry Purcell wrote the greatest English Opera of the 17th century entitled Dido and Aeneas. This Opera completely absorbed Italian influence and brought death to England’s masque.
However, the most famous English composer was not really English, but rather a German born composer who completely immersed himself in Neapolitan Italian style. He was George Frideric Handel, composer of the widely acclaimed Messiah. He composed Rinaldo, his first Opera in England in 1711 where he immediately attained success and followed it with Giulio Cesare in 1724, Rodelinda in 1725 and Alcina in 1735. Handel synthesized the castrati that attained popularity and was the thing to do at that time.
Aside from Handel making waves in England, there were also other local talents who are testing the waters like John Gay and John Christopher Pepusch who created The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. This form of Opera paved the way for ballad opera that ridiculed Italian opera and modern politics. 3. French Opera In French Opera, the form of aesthetics was firmly based on the visual, which is their concept of Opera was ballet transformed into musical theater. Eventually, Italian opera caught up with them and strong vocal performances found its way into their stages.
French opera formally began with Jean Baptiste Lully where he presented a modernized version of Cavalli’s Serse in the wedding of Louis XIV of France and his cousin Marie Therese in 1660. The ballet performance was carefully choreographed by Lully. Lully then established the Academie Royale de Musique in 1672 where he created operas known as tragedies lyriques or lyrical tragedies. Most of the themes that were used were about mythology and legends again as the French court deemed it inappropriate to depict real persons in their performances.
Lully’s theatre showcased fabulous ballet movements and abundant set designs that fully make the audience experience the story of the opera. Lully’s most outstanding operas were the Alceste in 1674, Atys in 1676 and Armide et Renaude in 1686. After Lully, another French composer, Jean Philippe Rameu attempted to make French Opera more harmonious and yet spontaneous at the same time. He wrote 32 operas that highlighted polyphony or the combination of multiple melodic lines. Rameu still maintained the dance factor in his operas as evident by the lengthy ballet numbers in his Les Indes Gallantes in 1735 and Dardanus in 1739.
His plays Hippolyte et Aricie and Castor et Pollux has been presented for so many times. 4. German and Austrian German opera took its root from singspiel, their comic opera with spoken dialogue that would later on be influenced by the ballad genre. Early German courts much prefer their Italian contemporaries, wherein Frederick the Great insulted the German opera and compared it to the neighing of a horse. So, in the 18th century, German composers tried to revive singspiel and transform it into a better one.
German composer George Phillip Telemann had based his Pimpione, a comic opera with only two characters on Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, in 1725. Another composer, Johann Christian Standfuss created Der Teufel ist Lost or The Devil to Pay, in 1752, in an attempt to resurrect singspiel. However, it was only the arrival of famous German composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that German Opera reached its peak. Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail or The Abduction from Seraglio in 1782 introduced singspiel internationally and made Vienna a music capital.
Mozart continued to place Vienna in front of the international music scene through his compositions, Le Nozze di Figaro or The Marriage of Figaro in 1786; Don Giovanni in 1787; and Cosi fan tutte or Women are Like That in 1790. However, these works were very controversial during those times that it upset moralists and the contributed to the revolutionary sentiments in France; that it was neglected until the early 20th century when it was revived and made Mozart the greatest composer of all. c. Who are the singers? Opera singers are classified according to their gender and range of their voices.
In a female singer, she can be classified as soprano, the highest range; mezzo-soprano as the middle range and contralto as the lowest range. In a male character, he can be classified as tenor as the highest; baritone the middle range and bass as the lowest range. The roles of actors would be dependent on the range of their voices and usually is assigned by the composers themselves. The choices would be strategically thought about by the lyricist and the composer and most of the times sopranos and tenors are reserved for the lead actors while the antagonists are played by bass or mezzo sopranos.
This stereotyping is still ongoing up to now. A legendary mezzo soprano was Faustina Bordoni whose ability to sustain a note was amazing. Italian tenor Enrico Caruso is probably the most famous opera singer in history. III. What are the characteristics of an Opera? a. Voice The main feature of every opera is the singing, so setting aside the musical accompaniments; it is the vocal prowess of the actors that would carry the performance up to its end. Therefore, the arias, duets and choruses are strategically placed to emphasize the growing drama.
An aria is a soliloquy or a monologue wherein the actor sings alone as in narrating through rhythm the events or his feelings. It is difficult to maintain an opera through an aria by itself but some composers found it to be the best way of relaying the plot of the story and conveying fast events, like fast talking but with a musical beat. b. Orchestra The orchestra serves as the backbone or the supporting structure of the Opera. Its strategic rhythm and melodious tempo helps the story unfold and captures the audience’s attention and carries them along as the opera develops.
It helps in the escalation of feelings and provides dramatic sequences throughout the entire opera. c. Overture Overtures are theatrical introductions or short musical preludes that are usually coming from the theme of the opera itself. It sets the emotion of the audience in preparation for the first act and could run anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. However, this style was later on disregarded to give way to preludes or sometimes totally overlooked in some operas. IV. What are the forms of an Opera? a. Dramatic The term drama pertains not only for the lyrics or the texts of the opera but also about the feelings the music eludes.
The original Italian composers called their works as dramma per musica and this tradition can be traced back from religious plays that also utilize music to relay their accounts. In a musical play, although complete by itself already, cannot be all together called an operatic drama unless it employs music that helps heighten the emotion. In writing dramatic operas, composers usually make use of situations that involves sadness and eludes a distressing sentiment, at the same time applying higher registers of voice (soprano) to indicate passion or cacophonous mixtures to depict fear.
Although there are points in which voices do occasionally rise from excitement and anger, the skilled composer would turn the music to become identical with the feelings arose by the character. b. Romantic The beginning of the 19th century inspired an artistic movement called romanticism and became widespread in literature, art and music. It spells imagination, creative freedom and subjectivity of interpretation. During this period artistry became luxuriant and flamboyant, employing large scale orchestras, higher notes, enormous choruses and more passionate solos.
The theme as well was all on the subject of longings, faraway places, unrequited love affairs, intense romances, melancholic characters, nostalgia, tempestuous romances, nationalistic themes and magical beings. Gioacchino Rossini of Italy was inspired and created an opera based on Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake or La Donna del Lago in 1819. However it was Giuseppe Verdi whose works lamented the Austrian oppression of Italy highlighted patriotism in its utmost romantic fervor. German romantic opera was made famous by two outstanding composers in the personality of Richard Wagner and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio in 1805 introduced romanticism in Singspiel. The difficulty Beethoven went through while composing Fidelio was reason enough for him to never make one again. Wagner composed the romantic drama Tristan Und Isolde in 1865. In his final masterpiece, Parsifal, about the quest for the Holy Grail, Wagner created such beautiful music that other opera houses took it in immediately and it was considered as a very successful work suitable to end such a wonderful career. V.
Twentieth Century Opera The romantic period of Opera ended when harsh times came with the war, this ushered twentieth century opera in a very peculiar way. Although Wagner’s Parsifal is still being played, Richard Strauss created Salome in 1905 based on a play by Oscar Wilde. Strauss was regarded as Wagner’s successor when it comes to creating beautiful music. Other successors are Arnold Schoenberg and Albag Berg and became known as the second Viennese school. Berg created Wozzeck in 1925 and Lulu in 1937.
Schoenberg composed Expectation in 1909 and Moses und Aron in 1957. English opera looked on to the Indian epic Mahabharata to derive the Opera Savitri by Gustav Holst in 1916 and Ralph Vaughan Williams composed Sir John In Love in 1929, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Igor Stravinsky, a Russian born composer who settled in the United States composed a remarkable collection of Operas, ranging from the romantic The Nightingale in 1914, the Greek drama Oedipus Rex in 1927 and The Rake’s Progress in 1951.
VI. Conclusion Opera nowadays is still being played by various theater houses all over the world, not just Europe anymore. Opera became widespread and more and more contemporary composers deep their hand into producing operas and making it available for public. However, it seems that Opera had come back to its previous state of being patronized only by elites and socialites way back in Italy in the late 1600s.
Opera had become unreachable and in the present situation of the world right now, it is hard to depict the poverty, the terrorism and the hunger that occupies the humankind presently. Opera can not be flexible and it would be absurd to see artists dancing and singing in an attempt to depict hunger in Africa. Unlike other stage shows wherein they could properly address this issue and show the reality that they want to portray. Opera can never be mainstream, it enjoys a position at the top of the musical industry and it shall stay there forever.