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from the french revolution to italian and german unification
from unification to world war i

Opera as an art form emerged between roughly 1590 and 1610, created by composers, writers, and courtiers in Florence and Mantua who sought to revive the union of drama and music they thought characteristic of the ancient Greek theater. Outside of France, which developed its own form of musical theater after 1669 (founding of the Royal Academy of Music, or Opùra), Italian opera seria or serious opera, built around an alternation of bass-accompanied (or secco) recitative and three-part da capo arias, remained dominant across Europe down to the French Revolution, although the less prestigious opera buffa or comic opera was also spreading across the Continent during the second half of the eighteenth century. Opera seria owed its success principally to the extraordinary popularity of its star singers, both female sopranos and castrati (castrated males with soprano or alto voices). As in other areas of life, the tremendous transformation that engulfed the west after 1789 brought substantial and lasting changes to the world of opera as well.

from the french revolution to italian and german unification

The decades between the French Revolution and the Restoration of 1815 have been called a period of transition in Italian musical life. While the reform operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) may initially have had little impact in the homeland of the art form, the less rigid opera buffa with its natural voices (no castrati), greater use of ensembles, and extended dramatic finales proved a source of renewal for the classic opera seria, still at the center of theatrical life up and down the peninsula. A synthesis of the two genres can be found in the opere semiserie (sentimental operas with happy endings) by Ferdinando Paër (1771–1839), Camilla (Vienna, 1799) and Leonora (Dresden, 1804), and in Lodoïska (Venice, 1796) and Le due giornate (Milan, 1801; The two days) by Johann Simon Mayr (Giovanni Simone Mayr; 1763–1845). All of these works were also inspired by French models and are examples of "rescue operas," a popular category of the time to which Beethoven's far more famous Fidelio (1805–1806, 1814) also belongs. Significantly, Paër was an Italian who spent much time in Germany and Mayr a German who found fame in Italy, and both incorporated into their stage works advances in orchestration and harmony inspired by German chamber and orchestral music. The staging of Gluck's Paris operas and other French works in Naples during the rulership there of Napoleon's general Joachim Murat (1808–1815) was another avenue by which inspiration from abroad reached the peninsula.

Rossini and his heirs

The composer who drew on all of these influences and on his own native genius to renew both comic and serious opera in Italy was Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792–1868). Between 1813 and 1817 Rossini wrote four opere buffe that remain classics of the genre—L'italiana in Algeri (Venice, 1813; The Italian girl in Algiers), Il turco in Italia (Milan, 1814; The Turk in Italy), Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rome, 1816; The barber of Seville), and La cenerentola (Rome, 1817; Cinderella). Despite Rossini's best efforts, however, opera buffa was dying. Only three Italian comic operas written after 1819—Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore (1832; The elixir of love) and Don Pasquale (1843) and Verdi's Falstaff (1893)—all quite different from the classic opera buffa, have entered the repertory.

It was hence in the area of serious opera that Rossini's innovations had the more lasting impact. By applying structural features drawn from comic opera as well other changes already reflected in the works of contemporaries such as Mayr, Rossini formalized an organizational model for serious opera built around the extended, four-part scena or scene (rather than the combination secco recitative–da capo aria) consisting of an orchestral or choral introduction; a slow, lyrical aria or ensemble (cantabile); a bridging passage (tempo di mezzo); and a fast aria or ensemble (cabaletta or stretto). This "code Rossini" provided a revitalized basic framework for serious opera that Italian composers would draw on until the 1850s and beyond. Such a framework was a necessary component of an opera industry that demanded large numbers of new works every year—342 alone between the years 1838 and 1845, according to one contemporary estimate. Rossini first presented this framework in Tancredi (Venice, 1813), developed it further in the operas written for Naples between 1815 and 1822 such as Otello (1816), Mosè in Egitto (1818; Moses in Egypt), La donna del lago (1819; The lady of the lake), and Maometto II (1820), and perfected it in Semiramide (Venice, 1823), his last commission for Italy. While Rossini's serious works are less well known than his comic operas, the former can now be seen every summer at the festival held in the composer's home town of Pesaro.

Rossini's foremost heirs within Italy were the Sicilian Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) and the Lombard Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). While both adopted the new framework as a starting point, Bellini's ten and Donizetti's sixty-five stage works exhibit several significant differences when compared to those of Rossini. Thus while some of the latter's serious operas (Ermione, Maometto II) dispense with the happy ending typical of eighteenth-century opera seria, tragedy is the norm for his successors. Furthermore, while Rossini did set texts inspired by William Shakespeare (1564–1616; [Otello]) and Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832; [La donna del lago]), he was more attracted to classical subjects and sentiments, whereas the operas of Bellini and Donizetti are Romantic in sensibility. Bellini's masterpieces Norma (1831) and I puritani (1835), such as Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and countless other works of Donizetti, all center around the theme of love thwarted by adverse social or historical circumstances, and emotions are expressed with an almost overpowering immediacy. In part, both composers achieved this effect by employing more natural voices: the hero is usually a tenor (rather than the female contralto en travesti still sometimes preferred by Rossini) playing opposite a soprano leading lady and a villainous baritone. Both also made use of simpler melodies and removed from the vocal line the abundant ornamentation or fioritura preferred by Rossini. The one exception is the famous mad scenes so closely identified with both composers' works and first found in Bellini's Il pirata (1827). In these scenes, unhappiness in love has driven the heroine insane and this state is marked by her abundant use of vocal ornamentation, in contrast to the much plainer singing style of the other characters. Despite this difference in vocal writing between Rossini on the one hand and Bellini and Donizetti on the other, all three—along with their lesser-known contemporaries Saverio Mercadante (1795–1870) and Giovanni Pacini (1796–1867)—came to be seen in the late 1800s as exponents of bel canto. This was the fine art of singing taught during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that stressed even tone production, exceptional breath control, agile technique, beautiful timbre, and clear articulation—a style that would be increasingly lost with the rise in the last decade of the nineteenth century of verismo opera (seebelow) with its stress on pure vocal power and emotive delivery.

Rossini and Paris

It was not only on the future course of Italian opera that Rossini exercised a decisive influence. In 1824, having achieved everything he could in his native land, he settled in Paris and took over the directorship of the Théâtre Italien, where he assembled a top-flight company of singers and staged performances of his own works and those of his countrymen. At the same time, after writing Il viaggio a Reims (1825), a pièce d'occasion for the coronation of Charles X (r. 1824–1830), Rossini accepted the new challenge of composing for the Opèra. In 1826 he reworked Maometto II and presented it as Le siège de Corinthe (The siege of Corinth) and a year later adapted Moisè in Egitto as Moïse et Pharaon (Moses and Pharaoh). These pieces, together with the older Fernand Cortez (1809) of Gaspare Luigi Pacifico Spontini (1774–1851), an earlier Italian arrival in Paris, provided the inspiration for a new genre, the French "grand opera," first fully realized in La muette de Portici (1828; The dumb girl of Portici) of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782–1871) and in Rossini's own Guillaume Tell (William Tell) of 1829. Such works, mounted only at the Opéra, were generally five acts long with an extended ballet in act 3. The setting was a historical one in which the conflict of two groups or peoples (Neapolitans vs. Spanish, Swiss vs. Austrians, French Catholics vs. Huguenots) serves as the backdrop for one or more love stories. Above all, grand operas presented spectacular stage effects (e.g., the eruption of Vesuvius) combined with frequent crowd scenes for mass chorus.

The great master of this genre was Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864), a German-born composer who had moved to Italy at age twenty-five and written six operas in a style inspired by Rossini, who became his lifelong friend and supporter. After Rossini mounted Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto (Venice, 1824; The crusade in Egypt) at the Theéâtre Italien, the latter moved to Paris and in 1831 presented his Robert le diable (Robert the devil) at the Opéra. It was greeted with wild success. This was followed by Les huguenots (1836; The Huguenots), Le prophète (1849; The prophet), and L'africaine (1865; The african woman), all box office triumphs. The positive experiences of Rossini and Meyerbeer in the French capital soon brought Bellini and Donizetti there as well. Bellini premiered his I puritani at the Théâtre Italien in January 1835, just eight months before his untimely death outside Paris at age thirty-four, and

Donizetti wrote his Don Pasquale (1843) for the same theater. While his grand opera La favorite (1840; The favorite) eventually made its way into the repertory, neither Les martyrs (also 1840; The martyrs) or Dom Sébastien (1843), Donizetti's penultimate complete work, was well received. Indeed, aside from La muette de Portici, and La favorite only one other grand opera achieved the impact of Meyerbeer's works: La juive (1835; The Jewish woman) of Jacques-François-Fromental-Élie Halévy (1799–1862). By the early 1850s, the genre had passed the peak of its popularity and for the next two decades a smaller opera house, the financially embattled Thùâtre Lyrique, would be the true home of artistic innovation in the French capital, specializing in works such as Faust (1859) and Romùo et Juliette (1867) by Charles-François Gounod (1818–1893), characterized by a more human scale and greater emotional directness than the typical grand opera. After 1855, the Bouffes Parisiens theater of Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) offered serious competition to all four Parisian opera houses (the Opùra, the Opùra-Comique, the Thùâtre Italien, and the Thùâtre Lyrique) with its steady stream of sparkling, witty operettas.


Meanwhile, in Italy a worthy successor to Bellini and Donizetti as leader of the Italian opera school had presented himself: Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi, born in 1813 in Le Roncole north of Parma. From 1839, when his first opera (Oberto) appeared at La Scala, until 1850 he operated under the constraints imposed by the opera industry in Italy, producing sixteen works in little more than a decade. Verdi would later famously describe this period as his "galley years." During them, he established his reputation throughout the peninsula with a number of historical operas such as I lombardi alla prima crociata (Milan, 1843; The Lombards on the first crusade), La battaglia di Legnano (Rome, 1849; The battle of Legnano) and above all Nabucco (Milan, 1842). These works with their powerful choruses (Nabucco's "Va pensiero" being the most famous) indirectly evoked the plight of an Italian people divided and suffering under Austrian hegemony and appealed strongly to liberals of all classes seeking unification. Verdi's most innovative opera from this epoch, however, was probably his setting of his beloved Shakespeare's Macbeth (1847; revised 1865).

Between 1851 and 1853, Verdi then presented three operas that within a few years had made him both world famous and wealthy—Rigoletto (Venice, 1851), Il trovatore (Rome, 1853; The troubadour), and La traviata (Venice, 1853; The fallen woman). While all three still honor the "code Rossini" broadly conceived, they move forward with a propulsive force and concision never before seen in the theaters of Italy. What is also striking about these operas compared to those of Bellini and Donizetti is both the relative paucity of vocal embellishments and the central role played by the duet, whether of confrontation or of love. With the money earned from these works, Verdi was able to free himself from the necessity of producing something new every year, as Donizetti had been forced to do throughout this career. Like his successful Italian predecessors before him, Verdi responded to his good fortune by moving for a time to Paris, where he took up the challenge of writing for the Opéra. Yet neither Les vêpres siciliennes (1855; The Sicilian vespers) nor Don Carlos (1867) established themselves in their French, grand opera versions. Rather, it was Un ballo in maschera (Rome, 1859; A masked ball), a thoroughly Italian treatment of the subject matter of an older grand opera, Auber's Gustave III; ou, Le bal masqueé (Opéra, 1833; Gustav III; or, The masked ball) that proved to be Verdi's most fully realized work of this period.

It was during the age of Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi that the German-speaking lands finally joined Italy and France as a great home of indigenous operas. Although a German-language variant of the Italian opera seria, exemplified by the works of Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739) and Johann Mattheson (1681–1764), had emerged in Hamburg following the opening there of the Oper am Gänsemarkt in 1678, it had disappeared with that theater's closure in 1738. For the rest of the century, Germany's numerous court theaters were content for the most part to commission Italian or French operas from internationally recognized composers such as Gluck or Niccolò Jommelli (1714–1774), or to import such works from abroad and present them either in the original or in German translation. In 1776, however, Emperor Joseph II (r. 1765–1790), dissatisfied with this situation, opened the doors of the venerable Burgtheater in Vienna to a form of German musical theater known as the Singspiel, which, like the French opéra comique, consisted of spoken dialogue with interposed musical numbers. The next decade and a half brought forth two masterpieces in this genre, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782; The abduction from the Seraglio) and Die Zauberflöte (1791; The magic flute), both by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). Mozart died prematurely only a few months after the premiere of Die Zauberflöte, thereby depriving German opera of its great hope for the future. Instead, Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary France's growing military hegemony brought a flood of French works, mainly opéras comiques—though often quite serious ones—by composers such as André-Ernest-Modeste Grétr (1741–1813), François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775–1834), Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763–1817), and above all Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842). The one great German-language work of this period, Fidelio (1805/1806/1814) of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), employed a libretto derived from the opéra comique Leonore; ou, L'amour conjugale (1798; Leonore; or, Married love) by the otherwise forgotten Pierre Gaveaux (1760–1825). It was also very much inspired by Cherubini's Les deux journées (1800; The two days), the score of which Beethoven is said to have kept on his desk. The true turning point in the development of German opera came, however, with the premiere at the Berlin Court Theater in 1821 of Der Freischütz (The free shooter) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826). Though heavily influenced by French works, especially those of Méhul, Der Freischütz quickly gained worldwide fame as the prototype of the Romantic, national opera. As such it inspired such composers as the Czech Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), composer of Prodaná Nevěsta (Prague, 1866; The bartered bride), and the Pole Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819–1872), who were seeking to establish an operatic tradition in their own languages. In contrast, the father of Russian opera, Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), was far more influenced by the music of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, with which he had become acquainted during a three-year sojourn in Italy (1830–1833), when he came to write his A Life for the Tsar (St. Petersburg, 1836). It was left to his successor Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881) in

Boris Godunov (first version 1868–1869) to forge an operatic style that was distinctly Russian.

The long-standing goal of many of Weber's contemporaries, the creation of a truly German grand opera free from the spoken dialogue of the opéra comique and the Singspiel, was only achieved by Richard Wagner (1813–1883) beginning with his Rienzi (1842), modeled directly on the works of Meyerbeer and on Auber's Muette de Portici. Thereafter Wagner sought to revitalize the entire genre with his Greek-inspired ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk or stage work combining music, drama, sets, and lighting on an equal footing, an ideal most fully realized in his Tristan und Isolde (1865; Tristan and Isolde) and in the four operas of his Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–1874, premiered 1876; The ring of the Nibelung)—Das Rheingold (The Rhine gold), Die Walküre (The valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the gods).

from unification to world war i

Wagner was undoubtedly the opera world's most influential figure from the 1870s until the outbreak of World War I. Though by 1874 he had completed all of his thirteen operas save one (Parsifal, premiered 1882), it was during this period, in the wake of the inauguration of the Bayreuth Festival with performances of the complete Ring in 1876, that his fame spread to every corner of Europe and to the wider world. Wagner's reception focused in general on five features of the composer's work: his conception of the music drama as an equal union of words and music; his consequent rejection of the old division between recitative and musical "numbers" in favor of fully through-composed operas; the central role of "leitmotifs" or musical phrases associated with particular characters, emotions, or key events that, through modification and repetition by a greatly expanded orchestra, serve to intensify the drama independent of the vocal line; the use of an advanced, often chromatic harmonic language, especially in Tristan and Parsifal; and finally a preference for grand mythical or medieval subject matter treated at great length. In all opera-producing countries, the last decades of the nineteenth century were dominated by this reception of Wagner's music and of his theoretical writings.

Nowhere was this more true than in Germany's great rival France. Though the performance of his Tannhäuser at the Opéra in 1861 had been a disaster, Wagner enjoyed strong support from many French intellectuals associated with the avant-garde, most notably the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). At the same time, Wagner's own outspoken German nationalism raised the ire of many French patriots in the wake of their country's devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Indeed, public pressure in 1886 forced the director Léon Carvalho to cancel his plans to mount Lohengrin at the Opéra-Comique, and when the work was finally presented at the Opéra in 1891, a large demonstration that quickly turned into a riot occurred in front of the theater. Despite this atmosphere, many progressive composers found Wagner's influence hard to resist. Beginning in the mid-1880s, they produced a number of noteworthy operas inspired directly by both Wagner's subject matter and his musical methods: Sigurd (Brussels, 1884) of Ernest Reyer (1823–1909), Gwendoline (Brussels, 1886) of Emmanuel Chabrier (1841–1894), Le roi d'Ys (Opéra-Comique, 1888; The king of Ys) of É douard Lalo (1822–1893), Fervaal (Brussels, 1897) of Vincent d'Indy (1851–1931), and Le roi Arthus (Brussels, 1903; King Arthur) of Ernest Chausson (1855–1899). Ultimately more successful than these composers were those who made judicious use of Wagner, combining some elements of his innovative musical language with subject matter and a style firmly rooted in the French drame lyrique of Gounod, Ambroise Thomas (1811–1896), and of course Georges Bizet (1838–1875), whose Carmen (Opéra-Comique 1875) Friedrich Nietzsche famously praised as the antithesis of Wagner's music dramas. Thus Samson et Dalilah (Weimar, 1877) of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), a good friend of Gounod, combined substantial symphonic development in the orchestra with still clearly identifiable musical numbers. This kind of synthesis was just as apparent in the work of Jules-Émile-Frédéric Massenet (1842–1912), a student of Ambroise Thomas and the most popular French opera composer of this period at the box office. In Manon (Opéra-Comique, 1884) and Werther (premiered at Vienna in 1892 after a fire had destroyed the Opéra-Comique) numbers are present, but so are leitmotifs and chromaticism, and the distinction between recitative and aria or duet has been more or less eliminated thanks to Massenet's ability to set conversation to music in an intensely lyric manner. Yet the greatest of all French operas of this period, Pelléas et Mélisande (Opéra-Comique, 1902) by Claude Debussy (1862–1918) achieved its effect neither by imitating Wagner nor by borrowing selectively from him, but rather by going beyond him. Through-composition is Debussy's starting point, but his brilliant orchestration ensures that Maurice Maeterlinck's enigmatic text remains far more comprehensible than is the case in Wagner's works. Furthermore, Debussy makes extensive use of the pentatonic and whole-tone scales to create an atmosphere of ambiguity and claustrophobia that is the perfect complement to the drama.

The problem of Wagner's influence was naturally even more acute in his native Germany than in France. He spawned many imitators, including August Bungert (1845–1915), who planned a nine-opera cycle—four of which he completed—based on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The most famous imitator was Wagner's son Siegfried (1869–1930), who inherited the genius of neither his father nor his grandfather Franz Liszt (1811–1886). One neo-Wagnerian work did, however, enter the permanent repertory: Hänsel und Gretel (Weimar, 1893; Hansel and Gretel) of Siegfried's student Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921). As in France, the most successful opera composer in Germany in this period was the one capable of employing Wagner as a starting point but then moving off in an original direction: Richard Strauss (1864–1949). In his Elektra (Dresden, 1909), composed to a libretto by the famous Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), Strauss used a massive orchestra and a harmonic

language on the very edge of tonality to bring to life a brutal drama of revenge. Opera was now on the verge, propelled forward by works such as Tristan and Elektra, of abandoning the tonal harmony that had always been at its core. Yet aside from one passage in Elektra (illustrating, appropriately, a bad dream), Strauss himself was unwilling to make this break. This was left to Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) in his Erwartung (composed 1909; Anticipation), and to his student Alban Berg (1885–1935) in Wozzeck (Berlin, 1925), one of the twentieth century's seminal works. Instead, Strauss turned in his next opera Der Rosenkavalier (Dresden, 1911; The cavalier of the rose; also to a von Hofmannsthal text) to a musically sophisticated, neo-Mozartian pastiche that, in addition to achieving lasting popularity, anticipated the neoclassicism of the interwar period and even the post-modernism of the early twenty-first century.

Italy's artists had long been in the forefront of those working for their country's unification, but the completion of the unification process with the conquest of Rome in 1870 brought with it a period of intellectual anxiety and uncertainty in the new nation. No longer a fragmented collection of provincial states, Italy now had to compare itself with mighty neighbors such as France and Germany. This situation rendered the country both more open to the latest trends in those nations, especially in the area of music, but also raised doubts about its own ability to compete despite its glorious cultural heritage. It was under these circumstances that the now fifty-seven-year-old Giuseppe Verdi took up the task of defending what he saw as the defining features of Italian opera, the centrality of the voice and of melody, against influences from abroad. Yet in his last three works, Aida (Cairo, 1871), Otello (Milan, 1887), and Falstaff (Milan, 1893), Verdi's style developed in a direction also found in French and German opera of the time. Thus while voice and melody still may be primary, in Aida Verdi moved away from traditional aria form, and in Otello the recitative/aria distinction has begun to blur, only to disappear altogether in Falstaff, which is almost numberless. There is also a brilliance of orchestration and a harmonic complexity in these last works not present in the middle-period operas. While Verdi publicly avowed his admiration for Wagner, whose compositions began to be performed in Italy in the 1870s, it would probably be wrong to attribute these changes in the late Verdi to Wagnerian or any other influence. Rather, they seem to flow from Verdi's own artistic growth—which of course involved his study of the works of other contemporaries—once freed by financial success from the constraints of the old Italian opera industry with its pressures to produce one or more new pieces per year.

From the 1880s the publishers who increasingly dominated theatrical life in Italy searched for a successor to the aging Verdi. In the early 1890s it seemed as if they had found two contenders in the persons of Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945), the composer of the wildly popular short opera Cavalleria rusticana (Rome, 1890; Rustic chivalry), and Ruggero Leoncavallo (1858–1919), whose I pagliacci (Milan, 1892; The clowns) was equally successful. While these two works, eternally yoked together, have never left the repertory, none of Mascagni or Leoncavallo's other operas made a lasting impression. The long-sought heir to the three-centuries-old Italian opera tradition turned out to be Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), as the publisher Giulio Ricordi correctly realized. After his breakthrough with Manon Lescaut (Turin, 1893), Puccini next wrote three operas that have never lost their box office appeal: La Bohème (Turin, 1896; Bohemian life), Tosca (Rome, 1900) and Madama Butterfly (Milan, 1904). The works of all three composers are often characterized as examples of verismo (naturalism or realism) in music because of their gritty depiction of everyday life, but a more convincing common denominator is the emotionally overwrought atmosphere in all of them. Puccini developed further Massenet's techniques of expressing conversation lyrically, but his endless melody is punctuated by powerful, passionate outbursts in the form of loosely structured arias and duets. Puccini also employed a Wagner-sized orchestra to turn up the emotional volume yet further by the theatrically timed reiteration of snatches from numbers heard earlier in the work. His self-avowed goal was to produce a direct and immediate effect on the audience, and he does so by drawing on all of the tools available to a turn-of-the-century composer. This primacy of effect was in a certain sense necessary both because opera audiences were becoming less elite and because musical theater was forced increasingly to compete with other leisure time activities that demanded lower levels of concentration. Yet as the fate of opera during the interwar period across Europe would show, this art form would never be able to compete with the cinema on its own terms, despite Puccini's best efforts.

See alsoDebussy, Claude; Music; Offenbach, Jacques; Rossini, Gioacchino; Verdi, Giuseppe; Wagner, Richard.


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Thomas Ertman


views updated May 23 2018


Since its inception in early seventeenth-century Florence, Italy, opera has been the dominant form of staged musical storytelling in the European musical tradition. During the last two centuries of its evolution, African Americans and persons of African descent have played an important role in its development as an art form.

African settings and characters were often included in the plots of early opera. Indeed, the first important opera, Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607), included a female Moor in the finale. Cleopatra was a common role in early opera, most notably in George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare (1724), as was the Carthaginian princess Dido in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689), in numerous settings of Didone Abbandonata (as in Tommaso Albinoni's of 1725), and in later opera such as Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens (1858). Other operas from the standard repertory with an African setting or characters include Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (1791), Gioacchino Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (1813), Giacomo Meyerbeer's L'africaine (1865), and Giuseppe Verdi's Aida (1865) and Otello (1889).

African Americans have been active in opera as performers and singers since the early nineteenth century. In nineteenth-century America the boundaries between high and low musical cultures were not as rigid as they would later become. Like many of their contemporaries, black and white, trained singers often performed in minstrel and vaudeville shows, as well as in the concert hall or opera house. One of the first prominent African-American operatic singers was Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Born a slave in Mississippi but raised free in Philadelphia, Greenfield was known as "the Black Swan" and performed with a troupe of African-American opera singers in the United States, Canada, and England throughout the 1850s and 1860s. In 1854 Greenfield sang with tenor Thomas J. Bowes (1836c. 1885), whom critics called "the American Mario" or "the colored Mario," after Italian opera star Conte di Candia Mario. Bowers, possibly the greatest American male singer of the period, chose "Mario" as his preferred stage name and refused to sing to segregated audiences or in concert halls from which African Americans were barred. Opera selections were also included in the program of the multitalented Luca family, a father and four sons who performed as vocalists, pianists, and violinists. After the deaths of the father, Alexander C. Luca, and one brother, tenor Simeon G. Luca, the three remaining brothers joined with the Hutchinsons, a famous abolitionist singing family, for a concert tour of the Midwest that advertised a program of "Humor, Sentiment, and Opera!" In the late 1860s and 1870s, the two Hyers sisters, Anna

Madah and Emma Louise, achieved renown for concerts featuring scenes from such operas as Verdi's Il Trovatore and La Traviata, and Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Another prominent singer, soprano Marie Selika Smith (c. 18491937), who named herself Selika after the African princess in L'africaine, performed in the United States and Germany during the 1870s and 1880s. One of the most important performers of this period was Sissieretta Joyner Jones, known as "the Black Patti"after the great soprano Adelina Pattiwhose celebrity was established in 1892 when she was asked to give a recital at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison. In 1896 Jones formed her own troupe, the Black Patti Troubadors, which featured her in operatic excerpts.

African Americans were barred from performing in major opera houses in the United States. As a result, many well-qualified singers either pursued careers in Europe or confined their performances to recitals and the concert stage. Newspapers and magazines from the late nineteenth century stated that black artists were frequently exploited by their white managers, who garnered their financial support from both the white and black communities. Generally, African-American singers could count on two or three years of concertizing before white audiences ceased to find them novel or exotic, which forced them to turn to studio teaching as a means of making a living. There were two notable exceptions to this rule: Jones, "the Black Patti," who, in founding her own troupe, extended her singing career by fifteen years; and Nellie Brown Mitchell (18451924), who debuted in New York and Boston in the 1870s and, after becoming the leading soprano for James Bergen's Star Concert Company, created the Nellie Brown Mitchell Concert Company in Boston in 1886. One of Mitchell's unusual achievements was her staging of a juvenile operetta called Laila, the Fairy Queen, with an ensemble of fifty African-American girls ages five to fifteen, at a Boston musical festival in 1876. Mitchell's concert company lasted approximately ten years, after which Mitchell turned to private teaching in the mid-1890s.

The first known African-American opera company was the Colored American Opera Company of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which staged Julius Eichberg's Doctor of Alcantara for enthusiastic audiences in both cities in 1873 and returned in 1879 with performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. Twelve years later Theodore Drury (1867c. 1943), a highly trained tenor and impresario, founded his own company. Drury began by presenting operatic selections and expanded the company's repertory to include full operas at the turn of the century. From 1900 to 1910, as well as sporadically into the 1930s, the Theodore Drury Opera Company appeared in New York, Boston, Providence, and Philadelphia. Works performed included Georges Bizet's Carmen, Charles Gounod's Faust, Verdi's Aida, Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. The productions were advertised as social affairs attended by prominent social figures and concluded with supper and dancing to Walter F. Craig's orchestra.

Opera Supporter

Mary Cardwell Dawson (February 14, 1894March 19, 1962) was a teacher of voice, a pianist, and the founder and director of the National Negro Opera Company. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, her family having moved there from Meridian, North Carolina, early in her life. Her musical training included study at the New England Conservatory, in Boston, and at the Chicago Musical College. She taught voice, at first in a private studio and later at the Cardwell School of Music, which she established in Pittsburgh in 1927. In the 1930s, she toured as director of the Cardwell Dawson Choir, a prize-winning organization that made appearances at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and at the New York World's Fair. Dawson served as president of the National Association of Negro Musicians from 1939 to 1941.

After presenting Aida at a National Association of Negro Musicians convention in the summer of 1941, Dawson officially launched her National Negro Opera Company at Pittsburgh in the following October with a production of the same opera. The star was La Julia Rhea, one of many black singers who found with this company an otherwise unavailable opportunity to sing opera in the United States. Other cast members were Minto Cato, Carol Brice, Robert McFerrin, and Lillian Evanti. During its twenty-one years, the company had a difficult existence financially, but it mounted productions in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The Washington production of La Traviata starring Lillian Evanti drew audiences totaling more than thirty thousand and was favorably reviewed. Dawson spent her final years in Washington, D.C.

doris evans mcginty

One unique contribution that African-American singers made to vocal literature was the development of the concert spiritual, a fusion of melodies derived from African-American religious chanting with the harmonies of the European art song. For many African-American vocalists, the first exposure to classical singing occurred in church or while listening to a recital of sacred music and spirituals. Because they were not allowed on the opera stage, many classically trained African-American singers became primarily known as recitalists, and their repertories frequently included spirituals as well as European art songs and arias. One of the first recitalists to come to prominence in the twentieth century was the tenor Roland Hayes. Among those who followed in his path was contralto Marian Anderson. Initially barred from the operatic stage in the United States, Anderson became a peerless recitalist with a wide repertory of arias, songs, and spirituals. The most dramatic moment in her career occurred in 1939, when, after being barred from performing in a Washington, D.C., concert hall, Anderson gave an outdoor recitalintroduced by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickeson the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Nevertheless, major opera houses remained inaccessible to African Americans for another fifteen years. Other prominent African-American recitalists of the middle decades of this century included sopranos Inez Matthews (19171950), Ellabelle Davis (19071960), and Dorothy Maynor. Catherine Yarborough (19031986) appeared in the United States only in musical comedy but sang the role of Aida in Europe, where she was known as Caterina Jarboro. In the next generation, leading singers included Muriel Rahn (19111961), Carol Brice (19181985), and contralto Louise Parker (19261986), a favorite of both Leopold Stokowski and Paul Hindemith.

Outside the concert hall, African-American singers were often confined to operatic roles in works that had all-black casts such as Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts (1933) and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) or "ebony" versions of Carmen and other opera classics. Bass Paul Robeson and baritones Jules Bledsoe and William Warfield (1920), each used the character of Joe in Jerome Kern's Show Boat (1927) to launch their careers. Todd Duncan and Donnie Ray Albert (1950) also began by singing the role of Porgy in the Gershwin opera. Other singers, such as Lawrence Winters (19151965) and Charles Holland (19101987), the first black principal to sing at the Paris Opera (he debuted there in Aida in 1954), performed extensively in Europe.

Although some major companies, such as the New York City Opera, cast African Americans as early as the 1940s, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City did not drop its color line until 1955, when Marian Anderson sang Ulrica (traditionally a dark-skinned role) in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Louis Gruenberg's Emperor Jones, which calls for a character of African descent in the title role, had premiered at the Met in 1933; at the time, white baritone Lawrence Tibbett was cast over Paul Robeson, who was an obvious candidate for the part. Anderson's debut at the Met was soon followed by the appearances of baritone Robert McFerrin Sr., and coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs. In 1954 Dobbs, who had been signed two years earlier by La Scala in Milan, Italy, performed in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at New York's Town Hall before making her debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1955 and at the Met in 1956, where she sang Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto. In 1958 soprano Gloria Davy (1936) became the first African American to sing the role of Aida at the Met.

The engagement of African-American operatic singers without any limitation to a select number of traditionally dark-skinned roles did not fully occur with major opera companies before the 1960s. The career of Mississippi-born Leontyne Price marks the acceptance of the African-American diva by the operatic establishment in the United States. In 1955 Price's televised performance of the title role in Giacomo Puccini's Tosca caused a sensation; she debuted at the Met six years later, after having established a successful career in Europe. In 1966, Price opened the new Metropolitan Opera House at New York's Lincoln Center in a role especially written for her in the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. (The production was choreographed by Alvin Ailey.) From 1955 to 1965 ten African-American singers debuted at the Met: Price, Anderson, McFerrin, Davy, Dobbs, Grace Bumbry (1937), George Shirley (1934), Martina Arroyo (1939), Felicia Weathers, and Reri Grist (1932), who had appeared in the original cast of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story in 1957. Other black singers who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s were Margaret Tynes (1929), Betty Allen (1930), Hilda Harris (1936), Gwendolyn Killebrew (1942), Esther Hinds (1943), Faye Robinson (1943), and Shirley Verrett.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the recognition of numerous African-American divas, among them Carmen Balthrop (1948), Barbara Hendricks (1938), Leona Mitchell (1949), Roberta Alexander (1949), and Harolyn Blackwell. The two most prominent African-American women singing in opera in the 1980s and early 1990s were soprano Kathleen Battle and dramatic soprano Jessye Norman. Battle, who rose to fame after starring in a 1975 production of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha on Broadway, debuted at the Met as the Shepherd in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser in 1978; Norman sang in the major opera houses of Europe throughout the 1970s before her first appearance at the Met in Berlioz' Les Troyens in 1983. In 1991 the two singers performed together in a well-received concert of spirituals at New York City's Carnegie Hall.

African American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (1964) has also been hailed as one of opera's most electrifying performers. Best known for sultry stage performances including the title role in Bizet's Carmen, with which she established her name, and Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila, Graves enjoyed a meteoric rise in the 1990s.

Throughout the history of opera in the United States, male African-American singers have not enjoyed the same success as their female counterparts. Many believe that this can be attributed to a reluctance to have black male singers in mixed-race casting. Among those who have been active in opera since the 1970s are Seth McCoy (1928), Andrew Frierson (1927), and McHenry Boatwright (19281994). Musical theater has been the dominant genre for Rawn Spearman (1924), while Thomas Carey (1931) and Eugene Holmes (1934) were primarily active in Europe. Bass-baritone Simon Estes, the first black male singer to star in the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, Germany, also made his name in Europe in the 1970s before debuting at the Met in 1981. Two singers whose promising careers were cut short, respectively by cancer and AIDS, were baritones Ben Holt (19551989) and Bruce Hubbard (19521991). Among the leading singers of the current generation are Kevin Short (1960), Antonio Green (1966), and Vinson Cole (1950).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, African Americans had also begun to compose opera, although the lack of financial support frequently made it impossible for their works to be staged. The first significant African-American composer was Harry Lawrence Freeman, who wrote fourteen grand-style operas including The Octoroon (1904), Voodoo (1911), and the early jazz opera The Flapper (1929). In addition to being one of the first African Americans to conduct a symphony orchestra in a rendering of his own workO Sing a New Song, presented in Minnesota in 1907Freeman founded the Freeman School of Music in 1911, the Freeman School of Grand Opera in 1923, and the Negro Opera Company in 1920. Among Freeman's contemporaries was Clarence Cameron White, whose opera Ouanga, set in Haiti in the early 1800s, was first presented in a concert version in New York City at the New School for Social Research in 1941. The opera was not staged until 1959, when it was performed at the Central High School Auditorium in South Bend, Indiana. Subsequently, it had a successful run with the Dra-Mu Opera Company in Philadelphia. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin never saw a performance of his three-act opera Treemonisha (1911) in his lifetime, although his first opera, A Guest of Honor, was staged in St. Louis in 1903 (its score is now lost). One of the most respected and prolific composers of the mid-twentieth century was William Grant Still, who collaborated with his wife, librettist Verna Arvey, and whose works include Troubled Island (1938)which takes as its subject the Haitian revolt at the turn of the nineteenth centuryBlue Steel (1935), A Bayou Legend (1941), A Southern Interlude (1942), and Highway No. 1, USA (1963). Ulysses Simpson Kay (1917) came to prominence in the late 1950s with The Juggler of Our Lady (1956), which was followed by such works as The Capitoline Venus (1971), Jubilee (1976), and Frederick Douglass (1986). In recent years two major operas have been composed by Anthony Davis, the founder of the instrumental group Episteme. Davis's X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X) (libretto by Thulani Davis) premiered at the New York City Opera in 1986; Under the Double Moon, with a libretto by Deborah Atherton, premiered at the Opera Theatre in St. Louis in 1989. In 1992 Davis's Tania, about the kidnapping and subsequent exploits of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, was premiered in Philadelphia by the American Music Theater Festival.

The development of African-American operatic talent has been furthered by the establishment of educational programs and opera companies for aspiring singers. Fisk University, Hampton University, Morgan State University, Virginia State University, and Wilberforce College, all traditionally black schools, have produced major operatic talent. By the mid-twentieth century, several African-American opera companies emerged, including the Imperial Opera Company (1930), the National Negro Opera Company (1941), the Dra-Mu Opera Company (1945), and the Harlem Opera Company (c. 1950). The 1970s witnessed a flourishing of African-American productions with the establishment of two major companies, Opera/South (1970) and the National Ebony Opera (1974), founded specifically to create professional opportunities for African-American performers, writers, conductors, and technicians. In addition to European grand opera, Opera/South has produced such works as William Grant Still's Highway No. 1, USA and A Bayou Legend (which, though written in 1941, had its world premiere in 1974), and Ulysses Kay's Jubilee and The Juggler of Our Lady.

As opera has become more accessible to African-American artists, major opera houses have produced new works and also revived lost or neglected works by African-American composers. Leroy Jenkins's The Mother of Three Sons premiered at the New York City Opera in 1991. In 1993, Duke Ellington's (18991974) unfinished opera, Queenie Pie, was performed for the first time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Lyric Opera of Chicago and the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia have jointly commissioned a new opera by Anthony Davis, Amistad, telling the story of the 1839 capture of the eponymous slave ship and the liberation of its captors. Amistad was premiered during the 19971998 season. African-American singers are widely recognized both for their artistic excellence and popular appeal. However, male performers continue to claim that they are not cast as readily as women in European opera. African-American composers continue to encounter resistance to works about African-American subjects. "The opera world is looking for fresh blood," observed librettist Thulani Davis. "Does a black composer have the same shot? I hope the answer is yes."

Jessye Norman became the youngest recipient of the United States Kennedy Center Honors in 1997. Willie Anthony Waters became the first African American to serve as an artistic director of a major opera company when he took over the Connecticut Opera Association in 1999.

See also Anderson, Marian; Price, Mary Violet Leontyne; Robeson, Paul


Duncan, John. "Negro Composers of Opera." Negro History Bulletin (January 1966): 7980, 93.

Heymont, George. "Blacks in Opera." Ebony (November 1981): 3236.

Kornick, Rebecca Hodell. Recent American Opera: A Production Guide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams, eds. The Negro Almanac. New York: Bellwether, 1989.

Rosen, Carole. Opera. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford, 1983.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1983.

Trotter, James M. Music and Some Highly Musical People. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1881.

dominique-renÉ de lerma (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005


views updated Jun 08 2018


OPERA. For much of the first three centuries of operafrom the early Renaissance to the time of Mozartthe art was never far from the seat of power. With few exceptions, the scale and expense of operatic productions required significant patronage from either the state or the moneyed few, an investment that in return elevated the prestige of regimes and sweetened the constraints of rule. From the mid-sixteenth century, rulers of Italian city-states sponsored intermedii, dramatic musical interludes that appeared alongside a welter of other entertainments such as banquets, balls, hunts, and ballets intended to commemorate, celebrate, and on occasion intimidate. A committee of poets recast Girolamo Bargagli's 1564 play La pellegrina, dedicated to Ferdinando de' Medici, as six intermedii for the 1589 marriage of the duke to Christine of Lorraine, which the maestro di capella at the Florence Cathedral, Cristofano Malvezzi, set to music. Other such intermedii marked similarly important events in the city throughout the sixteenth century. At the same time, a group of Florentine intellectuals called the Camerata set about re-creating ancient Greek drama, which they believed to have been a blend of chant, declamation, and dance. Funded by patrons like the wealthy Florentine humanist Giovanni de' Bardi and silk merchant Jacopo Corsi, the Camerata experimented with setting classic myths to music. This was the context that produced Orfeo (1607) by Claudio Monteverdi (15671643), a large-scale work of sophisticated design and dramatic mastery that many have called the first true opera. Initially staged "as a casual entertainment for courtiers" around Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, Orfeo was later staged to celebrate Margherita of Savoy's entry into the city before her marriage to Ferdinando Gonzaga.

The grandest alliance of opera and power came during the reign of Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), whose musicians went well beyond the associations implicit in intermedii to cast the king himself in productions. Cardinal Jules Mazarin introduced Italian opera to France in the 1640s, and the ItalianJean-Baptiste Lully (16321687) later received carte blanche in the title of surintendant de la musique. Lully was decisive in forging the "French style," a stately aesthetic of pomp and magnificence that depended more on sensuous vocal and stage effects than on taut drama. Lully's most enduring operatic form, the tragédie lyrique, took its subjects from chivalric tales and ancient myths, with simple plots that turned on the loves of kings, queens, and divinities. Audiences were overwhelmingly noble, and the atmosphere both on the stage and in the hall radiated the Sun King's glory. The prologue to Lully's Thésée (1675) is set in the gardens of Versailles as Mars sings of the king's victories in battle, and Love, Grace, and Pleasure regret his absence; in Isis (1677) Neptune sings of struggles with Holland and Spain. With the eighteenth-century operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau (16831764), references to the French monarchy receded, but the Opéraofficially called the Académie Royale de Musiqueremained closely identified with the state.

A more popular aesthetic developed elsewhere, with the state less decisive in operatic production. The first public opera house in Europe opened in Venice in 1637 with the help of private sponsorship. By 1700 there were ten theaters in the city, with a keen entrepreneurial competition fueling new productions. The luster of Venetian power and the renown of its culture drew composers and performers. Its annual Carnival season, running from just after Christmas to Lent, brought reliable audiences that were well-to-do and ready to be entertained. The absence of a Venetian court and the city's mercantile character helped to account for its more earthbound productions, with fewer stage machines, less scenic grandeur, and more historical and comedic subjects than in France or other Italian city-states. The cult of personality prevailed particularly where commercial interest was present, and prima donnas and castrati (especially numerous in Rome, where by papal decree women were banned from the stage) reversed the priority given to the text over the music.

Political and social factors that encouraged early Italian and French opera did not prevail in England, where the Protectorate's ban on public entertainments and a limited monarchy in the later seventeenth century slowed the appearance of opera and hampered its progress well into the eighteenth century. The Restoration's entertainments bore little trace of the Stuart masque, an opulent and thoroughly aristocratic mixture of dance, song, and instrumental music staged at court and in great houses for weddings, receptions, and royal visits. With a few notable exceptions, government support was minimal. Attempting to replicate the French model, Charles II commissioned Albion and Albanius (1685), with text by John Dryden and music by Louis Grabu, to celebrate the naming of the duke of York as his successor. As England's first Continental-style opera, it left little trace: Its premiere was overshadowed by news of the Monmouth Rebellion, and it quickly fell into neglect. More common were so-called semi-operas, which mixed singing, dancing, and dialogue, often in fantastical settings. Armed with a royal patent to "reform" the plays of Shakespeare, the composer William Davenant, working with John Dryden, produced some of the earliest semi-operas in Macbeth (1663) and The Tempest (1667). Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689), a miniature tragedy written for performance at a girls' school in Chelsea, was a rare instance of a fully sung work.

London's first public opera house, Dorset Garden Theatre (1671), depended heavily upon semioperas and comédies-ballets in the French style. Charles II's efforts to bring an Italian company to London in the 1670s met with public indifference, but thirty years later Italian opera seria came to dominate the English lyric stage. Advanced by the Italian dramatist Pietro Metastasio (16981782), opera seria reduced the baroque extravagances of courtly opera by streamlining plots, eliminating extraneous love intrigues, and peopling the stage with historical rather than mythic heroes. George Frideric Handel (16851759), drawn to London on the urging of the English ambassador to Venice, used the conventions of opera seria to fashion a highly individual idiom that combined a quickened dramatic pace with stunning vocal displays.

Italy continued to set the terms for operatic development elsewhere in Europe. Inspired by the irreverence of commedia dell'arte, comic intermezzi and buffa operas mocked the arrogant with fast-paced patter, sprightly tunes, and simple plots involving ordinary mortals. The appearance of a buffa troupe from Italy at the French Opéra in 1752 produced outrage and indignation among France's cultural conservatives and gave the philosophes an opportunity to bait their opponents. Citing Italian intermezzi as his standard, and with the ideological apparatus of the Académie Royale his unnamed target, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, "I conclude that the French do not have music and can never have it; if they ever do, it will be all the worse for them." In the German-speaking lands, opera buffa fused with an older tradition of mystery plays in the form of the Singspiel, a blend of highbrow and common that combined spoken dialogue, dances, marches, and narrative song. Die Zauberflöte (The magic flute, 1791) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (17561791) is in this tradition, and its popularity is in part a reflection of the genre's enormous popular success: In its first ten years at Vienna's Theater auf der Wieden, it enjoyed 223 performances.

Mozart's operas, without precedent and unrivaled in so many aspects, cannot be called revolutionary in either dramatic content or musical execution. In Le nozze di Figaro (The marriage of Figaro, 1786), called by Mozart an opera buffa, Count Almaviva, the nobleman thwarted in his attempt to exercise his droit du seigneur, is more laughable than tyrannical. Whatever reversals might be implied in Figaro's menacing vow to teach the count to caper are quickly erased with the opera's happy ending, which articulates a moderate, secular view that affirms social differences and sanctifies forgiveness. Don Giovanni (1787), whose original title was Il dissoluto punito, o sia Il Don Giovanni, ultimately depicts the limits of radical Enlightenment sensualism, a message that Mozart's richly seductive and resolutely nonmoralizing music does much to complicate.

See also Dryden, John ; Gluck, Christoph Willibald von ; Handel, George Frideric ; Haydn, Franz Joseph ; Lully, Jean-Baptiste ; Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus ; Music ; Purcell, Henry ; Rameau, Jean-Philippe ; Songs, Popular .


Anthony, James R. French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau. Portland, Ore., 1997.

Charlton, David. French Opera, 17301830: Meaning and Media. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1999.

Heartz, Daniel. Mozart's Operas. Edited by Thomas Bauman. Berkeley, 1990.

Isherwood, Robert M. Music in the Service of the King: France in the Seventeenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973.

Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley, 1991.

Till, Nicholas. Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart's Operas. London and Boston, 1992.

Tomlinson, Gary. Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance. Berkeley, 1987.

James Johnson


views updated May 14 2018



In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the prospects for opera as a viable twentieth-century art form looked bleak. The climate of sweeping political and cultural change brought about by the desire for postwar renewal and reassessment looked set to consign opera to Europe's imperial and monarchist past. Opera's spectacular combination of media (theater, music, dance) had always equipped it to mirror the status and ambitions of the European centers of power. Privileged as one of the pillars of official culture in the nineteenth century, opera evolved into ever grander proportions, partly in response to the growing prestige of the cities and nations in which it was performed. This excessive cultural artifact, together with the grandiose theaters built to present it, stood as a monument to a now discredited past. Opera, in short, was tainted by its political legacy.

There were other ominous signs for opera. How could Europe's wrecked postwar economies afford this most lavish of cultural traditions? And how would this multimedia art form compete against the emerging technology of cinema, which, in its "silent" era, closely resembled opera by combining dramatic narrative with live music? The message from commentators, historians, critics, and practitioners seemed clear: the era of opera, which had begun in a spirit of theatrical experimentation in the Italian courts of the early seventeenth century, had come to an end. When in the 1920s the theatrical director and reformer Bertolt Brecht singled out opera as synonymous with the old order, he arguably spoke for many.

Powerful factors, however, would weigh against this predicted decline. Among them was a creative tradition, rooted in prewar culture, which did not lightly discard its inheritance. For composers and directors who had learned their craft at the turn of the century, opera represented one of the pinnacles of personal achievement: an opera premiere in Paris or Berlin was a highly public and widely publicized event with the potential to establish or seal a reputation. Another factor was the institutional legacy of opera. Too much had been invested in the operatic infrastructure (theaters, management, publishing) to allow it to disappear meekly from the scene, while opera audiences included a core of loyal devotees. That these audiences often represented the most powerful and wealthy elements of European society meant that opera could depend on a degree of financial support even in the absence of sufficient government funding or wider public interest. And finally, technology, far from sealing opera's fate, would soon make it available to an audience unimaginable in the nineteenth century. Through sound recording and later video, opera freed itself from its dependency on the theaters of the large metropolitan centers and became a mass-media phenomenon. The century that should have witnessed the demise of opera actually gave it new life.


If any event symbolized the transition from the old to the new order in opera, it was the premiere of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot at Milan's Teatro alla Scala on 25 April 1926. Puccini had died before completing the final act, leaving the relatively unknown Franco Alfano to set the final scene to music. The La Scala production was to feature Alfano's completion, but the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, planned a special gesture for the opening night. When the performance reached the end of Puccini's music, Toscanini put down his baton, bringing the performance to an abrupt end. It was a mark of respect from a longtime colleague and a moment of supreme theater in its own right. It also seemed to signal, nostalgically, the end of an era, leaving only a reverent silence in its wake.

Yet something new had also been heard, for Puccini's score pointed to a musical language that had not been heard in his earlier work. The soaring lyrical lines audiences associated with Puccini were still to be heard—the tenor aria "Nessun dorma" proved an immediate success—but this traditional Puccini sound was supplemented by echoes of a more dissonant and fractured music reminiscent of contemporaries such as Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. In Turandot a composer of the operatic mainstream had embraced, if only guardedly, the sounds of modernism. Other composers went much further, challenging traditionally conservative opera audiences with new musical idioms and hitherto unthinkable dramatic material. In the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934) and the Austrian composer Alban Berg's Lulu (1937), sex and death, long staples of the operatic stage, seemed more graphically represented than ever, while the music shocked early audiences.


The real creative shift of the interwar years, however, is not to be found in the rise of the modernist avant-garde. Radical operas attracted headlines but did little to persuade opera audiences to forgo their established diet of Mozart and Verdi. Premieres were one thing, repeat performances quite another. A more influential trend can be seen in subtle shifts toward the new by creative figures who, like Puccini, could appeal to the opera houses of Europe and North America. Richard Strauss, whose Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) had scandalized prewar audiences with lurid subject matter and gargantuan orchestral forces, now turned toward a more restrained, often neoclassical musical language and more intimate themes. Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; revised 1916) summoned the spirit and language of the eighteenth century, while the comedy Intermezzo (1924) offered a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait of the composer's domestic life. Strauss's new sphere formed part of a broader shift away from the grand musical forces and epic subject matter of nineteenth-century opera. The neoclassicism of Ariadne returns as at he me inmuch of the new repertoire of the 1920s and 1930s, notably in Paul Hindemith's Cardillac (1926) and Stravinsky's Oedipus rex (1927). Equally, the celebration of the everyday in Intermezzo returns in a variety of forms, most famously in the so-called Zeitoper (opera of the times), in which modern urban life found musical expression in the sounds of the city, contemporary dance music, and jazz. Although the embrace of popular music is often superficial and even condescending, operas such as Jonny spielt auf (1927; words and music by Ernst Krenek) gave the impression that the gap between opera and contemporary life had all but collapsed.

More genuinely infused with popular culture is the work of Kurt Weill, whose collaborations with Brecht challenged many of the traditions and assumptions of opera. With its popular-style songs written for singing actors rather than opera singers, The Threepenny Opera (1928) represents a kind of antiopera. But, like the more intimate theatrical works of prominent composers such as Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, it is also a gesture toward a new kind of music theater that would ultimately extend the idea of opera in the latter half of the century. What the interwar decades showed was that the term opera was more flexible than had been imagined. Alongside the new intimacy, grand opera survived: the French composer Darius Milhaud's Christophe Colomb (1930) is a multimedia epic that requires film projection and simultaneous staging on separate platforms. And while contemporary life was a popular theme in opera of the period, the mythical and fantastic proved an enduring fascination, one that opera's resources seemed tailored to explore. Sergei Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges (1921) presents a vivid fairy-tale world brought to life in part by a musical language of extraordinary energy and color. The combination of the mundane and unreal can even be found clashing within individual works. In Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), the animals of the forest are given operatic voice with a vocal style that accentuates the patterns of earthy everyday speech in the composer's beloved Czech language.

If developments in repertoire shaped opera's reputation, so too did the phonograph. Although complete operas were available, the 78 rpm record required no fewer than fifteen disks (with thirty sides) for a two-hour opera, while the multimedia dimension of opera was reduced to sound alone. Excerpts suited the gramophone record better, and a market emerged for individual arias sung by the most celebrated singers. The reputations of the singers Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tauber, and Tita Ruffo were greatly enhanced by, if not dependent on, the dissemination and commodification of their recorded voices. It was a market that would survive into the era of the compact disk, when these early-twentieth-century singers would be joined by Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Maria Callas, and Jessye Norman. Whatever else opera has been about in the twentieth century, it has always been about the voice.


That all of these singers strenuously resisted twentieth-century music only serves to highlight the tension in opera between the popular demand for established classics and the development of new repertoire. By the 1950s it was becoming increasingly obvious that the generation of twentieth-century composers whose work could still find at least some favor with opera audiences was dying. In its place came a generation whose musical education had been less steeped in opera and who were determined to distinguish themselves sharply from their predecessors. Tellingly, some of the most important premieres of the decade—Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951), Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1957), Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957)—introduced work by composers whose reputations had been formed largely or wholly in the interwar years. There were exceptions, of course. The decade marked the emergence of Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, and Hans Werner Henze, composers whose creative energies were heavily, and successfully, devoted to opera.

But more than ever opera was characterized by a split between conservative audiences and a modernist creative agenda that found its most extreme form in the composer Pierre Boulez's polemical call to burn the opera houses to the ground. While many of the leading figures of postwar music were drawn to the idea of musical drama, their work did not take a form that opera audiences tended to welcome. Composers and their collaborators took their cue, rather, from the antiopera of Brecht/Weill and the music theater of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The 1960s, in particular, saw the emergence of radical ideas that seemed set to reshape the very notion of music for the theater. For his Aventures and Nouvelles aventures (1966), the Hungarian composer György Ligeti developed a "language" of affective vocal utterances that attempted to bypass traditional language barriers while maintaining a semantic ambiguity not unlike music itself. Presented in combination with Ligeti's vivid music and a carefully choreographed set of gestures, the works successfully construct a narrative that lacks specific content but remains nevertheless meaningful and theatrically effective.

The British composer Peter Maxwell Davies offered another kind of experiment in his Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969). Here the language is English, but the singer/actor is required to deliver the text (a poetic arrangement of the words of King George III of England during his bout of mental illness) with a range of advanced vocal techniques. The result is a disturbing theatrical exploration of insanity. As late as the 1970s it seemed that music theater of this kind might form a viable alternative tradition in musical drama, but, as with the most uncompromising operas of the interwar years, sustained public support failed to materialize, and its subsequent decline seems in retrospect inevitable. That music theater often took opera as its subject—Opera (1970), by the Italian composer Luciano Berio, and the set of five Europeras (1985–1991) by the American experimental musician John Cage, dismantle the tradition from within—served to confirm its status as the outsider looking in.

The decline of music theater needs to be viewed, however, in the context of a broader shift in contemporary music. The radical polemics of the 1950s and 1960s gave way to a more conciliatory approach. Alienating dissonance and rhythmic fragmentation tended to give way to more familiar and comprehensible sounds, a trend best illustrated by the rise of a musical language with American roots: minimalism, as the term implies, plays with the repetition and subtle manipulation of brief melodic and rhythmic ideas. Two of its most successful practitioners, the American composers Philip Glass and John Adams, have demonstrated that a mediation can be found between the opera house and the contemporary composer. Glass's Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Adams's Nixon in China (1987) marked the beginning of each composer's ongoing commitment to opera. While they do not quite challenge the place of Carmen or La traviata in the operatic repertoire, minimalist operas have been embraced with some enthusiasm by European audiences: in 2004 alone Glass's operas were staged in five European cities.

Even a number of the composers associated with radical music theater have maintained links with opera. Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the leaders of the postwar avant-garde, has invested much of his career in the mammoth Licht cycle of seven operas (1977–2004), while Maxwell Davies, Ligeti, and Berio have all written more traditionally conceived operas. Even Boulez has ultimately spent a great deal of time conducting opera in the very institutions he once condemned. In part, the once angry young men of music have simply responded to shifting ideas about culture and experimentation. The more conciliatory path of the last decades of the century was in part a reaction against the perceived excesses of postwar radicalism. But there was something else that brought contemporary composers back into the opera house.


For all the enthusiasm twentieth-century composers demonstrated toward the most radical developments in theater, the conservative tastes of opera audiences and administrators tended to stifle the introduction of new ideas about direction and staging. The demands of singing had always imposed limitations on directorial choice, leading to an approach best captured by the phrase "stand and deliver." It would be misleading to tar all of opera with this brush (clearly there have always been singers who are also talented actors), but the ability of directors to impose a particular theatrical vision on a production has often been hindered by the star status of lead singers, who see no reason why their performance (with all its mannerisms) should be subject to interference. The problem was made acute in the twentieth century by the celebrity that leading opera singers enjoyed thanks to the medium of recorded sound, and tales abound of divas storming out of rehearsal when asked to alter their gestures or timing.

What is telling in accounts of early-twentieth-century productions is that the one figure deemed capable of competing with the singer's authority is the conductor. Director and designer were comparatively low in the pecking order, suggesting that the performance was construed in large part as a musical, rather than theatrical, event. Set designs adhered to naturalistic and pictorial principles: locales tended to be represented in a literal fashion, with often clichéd imagery painted on flats, perspective effects achieved through light and paint, and foliage and decoration in abundance. Signs of change were slow in coming, especially in relation to developments in spoken theater. The carefully considered, eclectic vision of the Austrian director and impresario Max Reinhardt was instrumental in establishing a stronger role for director and designer in opera. Reinhardt drew in part on the theories of the Swiss theorist Adolphe Appia, who proposed new approaches to the staging of the operas of that towering figure of nineteenth-century opera, Richard Wagner. In place of the detailed naturalism espoused by Wagner and adhered to by his successors at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Appia imagined abstract spaces in which light, rather than props and backdrops, would summon an atmospheric and dreamlike space in keeping with Wagner's spacious and moody music. Yet the approach was emphatically rejected by Wagner traditionalists, who insisted that Wagner's own detailed directions and descriptions should be observed almost literally.

It was only after the war that broader change became apparent, and it was the Bayreuth festival, oddly enough, that served as a catalyst. Wagner's grandsons had now taken charge and introduced sweeping reforms of the staging of Wagner's work. Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner argued that Wagner's stage directions were essentially historical relics that no longer bore any relevance to the meaning of the music. In place of these directions they offered an abstract vision of the psychological, rather than pictorial, truth of Wagnerian drama.

A quite different vision emerged from the work of Walter Felsenstein at the Komische Oper in Berlin beginning in the late 1940s. Emphasizing the actor's rigorous immersion in the psychological state of the character and the need to avoid allowing the act of singing to detract from the gestural communication of the actor's body, he established a new theatrical intensity and focus in operatic staging. His East German successors—figures such as Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer—would fuse these ideas with the acute contemporary social and political awareness foregrounded in Brecht's theater. The results were not always coherent or convincing, but the impact of these ideas and practices on the staging of opera in Europe is difficult to overestimate. Direction and design were increasingly being taken seriously in the opera house, and directors such as Patrice Chéreau, Alfred Kirchner, David Pountney, and Peter Sellars began to attract the sort of attention previously granted only to singers and conductors.

So complete was the transformation that a backlash was inevitable. Critics and audiences who viewed the operatic score as an almost sacred text resented what they saw as directorial intrusion. In Germany the term "director's opera" was applied to the new trend, implying that directors had taken possession of opera at the expense of composer, librettist, or musicians. The charge was not completely unfounded: there was often an indulgent aspect to the productions of the 1980s, as though directors viewed the opera as a vehicle for their own ideological message, regardless of its own connotations. But "director's opera" matured. Directors are now more subtle in their interpretation and realization, and only the most hardened traditionalists would deny that their work has revitalized opera. Perhaps attracted by opera's considerable resources and its fertile recent history, directors and designers from stage, film, and the visual arts now regularly accept invitations to work in the opera houses of Europe.


It is this new creative vitality that has opened the door for contemporary composers to return to the opera house. The core repertoire is as limited and old as ever, but it is interpreted with thoroughly contemporary theatrical means and it is now occasionally supplemented by new work in which contemporary musicians and theater practitioners join forces. In a way the story of twentieth-century opera comes full circle in a production of Turandot at the Salzburg Festival in August 2002. Featuring an imaginative production team including the director David Pountney and the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, this was the sort of collaboration of equals that now characterizes the best opera productions. Not least, the production was released on DVD, a technology that, with its multilingual subtitles and high-quality image and sound, seems tailor-made for opera. But there was a place here, too, for the contemporary composer. Luciano Berio had been invited to replace Alfano's completion of the opera with one of his own. Consulting the original sketches, he promised a completion that would incorporate Puccini's plans, but, importantly, he did not erase his own compositional voice in the process. Rather than complete the score as though he were Puccini, he allowed his own sound-world to come through, thus acknowledging the historical and cultural gap separating the two composers. The juxtaposition, though unsettling, is a vivid symbol of the journey opera had taken in the twentieth century and a reminder of its double existence as historical artifact and living tradition.

See alsoBayreuth; Britten, Benjamin; Callas, Maria; Orff, Carl; Salzburg Festival; Schoenberg, Arnold.


Abbate, Carolyn. In Search of Opera. Princeton, N.J., 2001.

Dellamora, Richard, and Daniel Fischlin, eds. The Work of Opera: Genre, Nationhood, and Sexual Difference. New York, 1997.

Dolar, Mladen, and Slavoj Ž ižek. Opera's Second Death. New York and London, 2002.

Gilliam, Bryan, ed. Music and Performance during the Weimar Republic. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. London, 1992.

Spotts, Frederic. Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Sutcliffe, Tom. Believing in Opera. London, 1996.

Tomlinson, Gary. Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera. Princeton, N.J., 1999.

Christopher Morris


views updated May 09 2018

opera (It., work, but actually plural of Lat. opus, a work; Fr. opéra; Ger. Oper). The term is an abbreviation of opera in musica. Opera is a drama set to mus. to be sung with instr. acc. by singers usually in costume. Recit. or spoken dialogue may separate the numbers, but the essence of opera is that the mus. is integral and is not incidental, as in a ‘musical’ or play with mus.

Although literary dramas and sacre rappresentazione were its precursors in some respects, opera is generally said to have originated in Florence towards the close of the 16th cent. (see Camerata) with the earliest examples by Peri and Caccini. Recit. was the dominant feature, but with Monteverdi, whose operatic career extended from 1607 to 1642, opera developed rapidly, borrowing elements from the madrigal and from the ornate Venetian church mus. The aria became an important element, and in L'incoronazione di Poppea, the insight shown into the humanity of the characters anticipated 19th-cent. developments. Cavalli followed Monteverdi's lead, but a more formal approach was reintroduced by A. Scarlatti, who comp. 115 operas between 1679 and 1725. He introduced instr. acc. for recit. in 1686. During the 17th cent. opera was pioneered in Fr. by Lully and Rameau and in Ger. by Schütz and Keiser. But the next great figure in operatic history was Handel, whose operas were mostly comp. for London (between 1711 and 1741) in the It. opera seria style. His glorious solo arias were written for the brilliant techniques and skills of the great castrato singers of his day and for equally fine sops.; in addition, he imparted a lengthened degree of dramatic tension to the form both in arias and recits. It was left to J. C. Bach in his London operas of the 1760s to restore the ch. to a place in opera, as was done also by Gluck, whose operas were written between 1741 and 1779. Gluck's Orfeo, written for Vienna in 1762, is a revolutionary opera because it exploits to the full the mus. and dramatic possibilities of the lib. Gluck scrapped the da capo aria, which was a primary cause of holding up the dramatic development of the plot, and in his preface to Alceste (1767) he wrote of reducing mus. to its true function ‘which is that of seconding poetry in the expression of sentiments and dramatic situations of a story’. Although opera seria was to reach its culmination with Mozart's Idomeneo (1781), Gluck's reforms effectively killed it off, even if fashion still prevented him from carrying out his theories fully.

Haydn's operas, mostly written for Eszterháza, are rich in mus. content but were eclipsed by the works of genius with which Mozart ended the 18th cent., operas which brought the orch. into the forefront of the art, giving it a whole new dimension. Moreover they were works which defied classification under the old headings of opera seria and opera buffa. After Don Giovanni almost anything was possible.

The beginning of the 19th cent. was given a post-Mozartian sparkle by the brilliance, wit, and zest of Rossini's comic operas, and a generation of remarkable singers was served by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. In Ger. the romantic movt., with its interest in folklore and fantasy, found an operatic spokesman in Weber, whose Der Freischütz, Oberon, and Euryanthe opened the way for the colossal transformation wrought by Wagner, who in his maturity dispensed with the established number opera and converted recit. and aria into a seamless, continuous, and symphonic web of mus., with the orch. almost an extra character on the stage. He preferred the term ‘music drama’ to ‘opera’, wrote his own libs., and viewed opera as an amalgam of all the arts. In one sense his operas were a reaction against the spectacular ‘singers’ operas' of Meyerbeer which he had seen in his Parisian youth. Meyerbeer was Ger., but it is with Paris that he is assoc., enjoying success while the much more talented Berlioz had little operatic success in his lifetime, though his Les Troyens is now recognized as a major masterpiece. The operas of Massenet, Gounod, Bizet, and Saint-Saëns dominated Fr. mus. in the latter half of the 19th cent. But next to Wagner the outstanding figure was Verdi, also born in 1813, who learned much from Donizetti and refined and developed his art, keeping to a number-opera format, from Oberto of 1837–8 to the magical Falstaff of 1889–92.

Nationalist opera was principally an E. European development, beginning with Glinka's A Life for the Tsar in 1836 and continuing with Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Borodin's Prince Igor. Tchaikovsky's operas, of which Eugene Onegin is the best known, were not overtly nationalist, however. Smetana in Bohemia with Dalibor and The Bartered Bride est. a Cz. operatic tradition which reached its apogee in the first quarter of the 20th cent. with the powerful, realistic, and orig. operas of Janáček.

In Ger. the greatest post-Wagnerian figure in opera was Richard Strauss, whose first opera, Guntram, was prod. 1894 and his last, Capriccio, in 1942. He was continually trying to find new ways of reconciling words and mus., several of his works having the advantage of fine libs. by the Austrian poet Hofmannsthal. Other major operas from Ger. and Austria in the 20th cent. were written by Berg (Wozzeck and Lulu), Schoenberg, Pfitzner, Schreker, Korngold, Einem, Orff, and Henze.

After Verdi in It. came the verismo (reality) movt., in which operas, often but not necessarily in contemporary settings, strove to present the harsh realities of the situations with which they dealt. In many cases these derived from the realistic novels of Fr. literature in the late 19th cent., e.g. Zola, but like all such categorizations, verismo is hard to define and it could easily be said that Verdi's La traviata is verismo. However, the term is generally applied to the works of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Montemezzi, Leoni, and, though he is a special case, to Puccini, whose operas achieved and have retained a wide popularity because of their mus. and dramatic colour and immediate appeal. La bohème in particular is among the most frequently perf. of all operas, with Madama Butterfly running it close.

Opera in Eng. was for many years mainly an imported commodity. Only Purcell's short Dido and Aeneas (1683–4) and the ballad-opera The Beggar's Opera (1728) were of any quality among native products, although Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (1843) achieved popularity. Sullivan wrote a grand opera (Ivanhoe) but won immortality through the light operas written in collab. with Gilbert in which his flair for parody and pastiche could be exploited to the full. Vaughan Williams comp. 5 operas which have excellent mus. qualities but are still held to be dramatically weak. Britten, with Peter Grimes in 1945, showed that Eng. had at last produced a natural operatic composer, as was shown by the eagerness with which these works were also staged abroad. He wrote several operas which needed only a chamber orch. and also developed a genre which he called ‘church parables’. These are midway between opera and medieval morality play. The example of Britten was followed by Tippett, Bennett, Walton, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Oliver, Tavener, Weir, and many others.

In the USA, native opera took even longer than in Brit. to find its feet. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess has a claim to be the first successful Amer. opera. Operas by the It.-born Menotti and by Barber and Argento followed the European tradition, and qualities of exuberance, raciness, and wit which the Americans bring to mus. have been channelled most effectively into the genre of ‘musical’ such as Oklahoma! and Kiss Me Kate. This genre was sophisticated by Sondheim's A Little Night Music. The ‘minimalist’ composers Philip Glass and John Adams have written successful operas, notably the former's Akhnaten and the latter's Nixon in China. A NY Met commission which scored a success was Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles.

Some great composers have written only one opera, the supreme examples being Beethoven, whose Fidelio is regarded by many as the greatest of all operas, and Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), while others have written none, e.g. Brahms, Bruckner, Elgar, Mahler, Ives, and Rubbra. Yet opera remains for most composers the greatest and most attractive challenge. With the development of mechanical and elec. techniques and the advance of the stage producer to an importance comparable with that of the cond., the staging of operas has grown more exciting and controversial, and has been exploited in the works of Henze, Maxwell Davies, Ginastera, and others. It has also become more expensive. Finance was a contributory cause of Britten's development of chamber operas, and has also led to the emergence of music theatre, a genre in which works of quasi-operatic character, sometimes involving only one singer or reciter, can be perf. either with a minimum of stage trappings (costumes, etc.) or with none at all but purely as a concert performance. A remarkable example of mus. theatre at its best is Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King. Yet even here it can be argued that 20th-cent. mus. theatre is merely a reversion to Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.

The term opera not only covers the form of mus. composition but the whole business of performing opera. Thus it embraces the famous opera houses and cos. of It. in Milan, Rome, Naples, and Venice, of other parts of Europe in Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Munich, Bayreuth, and Paris, of Russia in Moscow and Leningrad, in the USA in NY and Chicago, and in Eng. in London. Two prin. cos. work in London, the Royal Opera at CG, and ENO at the Coliseum. Outside London there is the summer fest. at Glyndebourne, Sussex, but opera is provided on almost an all-the-year-round basis by the regional cos., Scottish Opera (based in Glasgow), WNO (Cardiff) and Opera North (Leeds). These cos. also tour. There are also many other cos., e.g. GTO and ETO, which provide excellent perfs. and reflect the immense development of operatic life in Britain since 1945. All these activities, except Glyndebourne, are heavily subsidized. Commercial sponsorship of opera has become a valuable and necessary contribution to its continuance.


views updated May 23 2018


From its inception around 1600 in Florence, Italy, where it evolved as an experimental genre that was intended to revive the reputed affective power of ancient Greek music, opera has deployed an array of performative elements that engage, reinforce, subvert, and redefine Western European notions of gender and sexuality. As a site of cultural discourse, opera not only creates a privileged space for that discourse but recognizes and capitalizes on the theatrical existence of the audience in a sociological context that extends beyond the opera house, influencing and absorbing life off the stage.


Among the defining characteristics of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italian opera is the employment of the castrato, a male soprano or contralto whose vocal range was preserved by castration before puberty. Prized for its brilliance, flexibility, and power, the castrato voice also was recognized for its otherness. In the theater the castrato was endowed with a fluid gender identity that was inscribed on the singer's body through performative enactment. In the operatic tradition the highest voices are the most valued, and in male roles they are used for heroes, emperors, and warriors. In opera seria those noble characters preferably were played by castrati. The modern polarization associating high voices with femininity and low voices with masculinity does not apply to this repertoire, and the deepest voices, which modern binary gender construction codes as the most masculine, frequently were reserved for old, often foolish men and are more typical of comic than of serious opera.

The castrato voice often was preferred for leading female roles (it was required in Rome, where women were barred from the stage), and in Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) the roles of both Orfeo and Euridice were first performed by castrati. When castrati were not available, women could be employed to sing male and female roles. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera seria signals aspects of early modern gender fluidity in which the biological body and the voice were not necessarily gender signifiers. In Manelli's Andromeda (1637) the role of Venus was sung by a castrato, and in Cavalli's Eliogabalo (1668) the three male roles were cast for sopranos (male or female) whereas the female role was assigned to a tenor.

The castrati not only signal the fluidity of gender in early opera but suggest that that period was not bound by the binary gender models imposed during the nineteenth century and that sexuality was not linked closely to gender performance. Although critics of Italian opera derided the gelded soprano for his artificiality and inability to claim a gender fully, his excessive, almost supernatural vocal abilities might be interpreted as a sort of hypermasculinity, and the most renowned eighteenth-century castrati, including Farinelli, were acclaimed not only for their international vocal successes but frequently for their heterosexual amorous prowess.


Castrati roles, even female ones, are not real travesti (cross-dress) roles because they typically do not engage the biological sex of the singer but instead construct gender through performance. In the seventeenth century travesti roles were almost exclusively for men performing as, typically, ugly or old women, including Arnalta in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642). In the Italian tradition these roles are frequently comic, whereas in the French tradition of the tragédie en musique, which did not employ castrati, travesti roles for men could be serious (La Terre in Lully's Phaëton, 1683) or tragic (Méduse in Lully's Persée, 1682). In the eighteenth century travesti roles tended to be "pants roles" (women performing as males), a tradition that continued throughout the nineteenth century, long after male travesti roles had all but disappeared. Pants roles usually portray young or adolescent boys such as Cherubino in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (1786). Ostensibly, this resolves the problem of a lack of very young males with the required technical or artistic maturity, but it also creates an uneasy sex/gender performance because a woman, unlike a castrato, is not "neutral" and portrays an immature or undeveloped man. This reflects early modern medical theory, in which women were considered physically inverted or incomplete men. Thus, cross-dressed women rarely portrayed heroes or warriors.

The fluidity of gender and its performance in early opera are encapsulated in the alterations made to Gluck's Orfeo. The original 1762 version casts the heroic role for a castrato, but when the work was performed in France in 1773, the role was transposed for a tenor. This had no effect on the gender performance of that opera because the heroic male castrato simply was recast as a physically complete male. In 1859 Berlioz restored the contralto range for Pauline Viardot, inverting the original gender dynamics and subverting the traditional association of the travesti female with the incomplete male unable to achieve heroic, "masculine" glory.


Although the development of opera and the rise of the female singer promoted and indeed demanded women of exceptional vocal and dramatic ability, it also forced them into a performative environment that repeated, reenacted, and reinforced the female gender norms of European society, almost all of which are emblematized in Monteverdi's operas: Euridice, the passive lover (Orfeo); Penelope, the docile mother and wife (Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria); Ottavia, the Rejected Wife (L'incoronazione di Poppea); Poppea, the whore (L'incoronazione di Poppea); Arnalta, the old woman (L'incoronazione di Poppea); and Arianna, the abandoned woman and tragic heroine (Arianna). The sorceress is the remaining stereotyped woman in opera. The extroverted performative roles of woman as whore, tragic heroine, and sorceress, combined with the technical possibilities of high voices, established the tradition of the virtuoso woman singer that has been a fundamental element of opera, developing alongside the castrato tradition in Italian opera seria and superseding it by the end of the eighteenth century. Women such as Jommelli's Armida (Armida abbandonata, 1770) and Mozart's Königin der Nacht (Die Zauberflöte, 1791) not only dazzle with spectacular vocal virtuosity but do so in an excessive manner, most superbly in rage arias in which unbridled fury breaks all vocal restraint, bursting into uncontrollable passion.

The essential reduction of women in serious opera to emblems of tragic passion reinforced traditional associations of women with the unreasonable, the uncontrollable, and the dangerous. This is demonstrated clearly in Mozart's Masonic opera Die Zauberflöte, which is constructed around the masculine-feminine binary. Prince Tamino defeats the unruly "feminine" powers of darkness represented by the Königin der Nacht, wedding the queen's daughter, Pamina, under the auspices of her father, Sarastro, the high priest of Osiris and Isis, who represents "masculine" order and enlightenment.

Alongside the tragic tradition, opera buffa (comic opera) frequently presents women who lead the plot and the male characters, unmasking hypocrisy, shaming wrongdoers, and generally wreaking havoc with the established male order. However, these works, which include Pergolesi's La serva padrona (1733), Piccinni's La Cecchina, ossia La buona figliuola (1760), and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, do not enact a meaningful recuperation of women's agency. Instead, that agency, although it ridicules the established masculine order, itself is ridiculed in that the women engaging it are essentially viragos: meddling, needling, scheming, and scolding.

In the operatic tradition the "glorification" of women operates primarily through their ultimate victimization, which often results from transgressing societal norms, and publicly reinforces performative aspects of gender. To this end, leading women's roles are almost always for sopranos, ensuring that the virtuosic enactment of women's victimization will be musically spectacular dazzling performances of constructed gender norms, a procedure that was cemented through mad scenes in the nineteenth-century. Typical mad scenes involve irrational behavior by the soprano heroine. She may sleepwalk, hallucinate, or otherwise lose control, affording the opportunity for histrionics and excessive coloratura. Bellini's Anne Boleyn (Anna Bolena, 1830) loses her grip on reality just before her execution, his Amina (La sonnambula, 1831) and Verdi's Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, 1847) are sleepwalkers, and Donizetti's Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor, 1829) loses her mind, appearing at her wedding feast holding a bloody knife and confessing that she has murdered her husband.

Although excessive emotion stereotypically was associated with women, the nineteenth century solidified this scientifically through the development of clinical psychology in which hysteria was identified as a gendered disorder suffered by women (the term originally designated a condition of the womb). Like the eighteenth-century rage aria, the hysterical mad scene reiterated gender performances that conformed to extraoperatic sociological constructs. Ironically, the hysteria of Sigmund Freud's Dora is indicated not by excessive vocal performance but by aphonia (loss of voice), and in some respects even the most vocal hysterical women in opera suffer from a symbolic aphonia through their entrapment in the performance of stereotyped gender.


Traditionally, the most revered women in opera are those who portray the doomed, transgressive/punished, or victimized tragic heroine most effectively, transcending representation and approaching the artistically divine. The cult of the diva, in which Maria Callas is among the principal deities, worships the hyperfeminine, that which in its excess approaches drag. In this context diva worship is associated most notably with stereotypical notions of the opera-obsessed homosexual, the "opera queen," and supports the extension of the operatic stage into daily life. The diva not only takes up the elements of gendered performativity on stage but fully embraces them, employing those traits to construct her public persona and thus becoming a realization of theatrical gender codes in a rarefied sacred representation.

Such fetishized gender performance lends itself to subversive interpretations that may be achieved through parody and the deflation of monolithic operatic stagings of gender. Drag impersonations of the diva or tragic heroine, for example, call into question the nature of theatrical gender construction because cross-dressed men may take up the tools of operatically coded femininity, extending the boundaries of desire and appropriation inherent in gendered operatic performance; this in turn may be reflected in the performance of opera.

New productions of operas frequently question and subvert established gender and sex norms, reflecting current explorations of sex and gender performativity outside the theater. In this context modern performances of works such as Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea frequently replace the absent castrato voice, in this case the role of Nerone, with a woman; however, rather than attempt to "butch" the role in an effort to minimize a perceived lack of masculinity, they instead may emphasize the possible homoerotic implications of the casting, destabilizing traditional theatrical gender performance. This is only one example of the incorporation of contemporary issues of gender and sexuality into the performative universe of opera. Works such as Berg's Lulu (1937), [and] Britten's Death in Venice (1973), and Wallace's Harvey Milk (1995) engage lesbian and gay identities, and Eötvös's Angels in America (2004) focuses on AIDS in the 1980s, bringing sex and gender issues of contemporary immediacy into the opera house.

As opera continues to evolve, its traditional performances of gender and sexuality norms serve as foundations not only for the reiteration of those norms but as armatures for an ever-expanding exploration of gender performance in a locus of privileged discourse.

see also Music.


Abel, Samuel D. 1996. Opera in the Flesh: Sexuality in Operatic Performances. Boulder, CO: Westview.

André, Naomi Adele. 2006. Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1970. S/Z. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Blackmer, Corinne E., and Patricia Juliana Smith, eds. 1995. En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brett, Philip; Elizabeth Wood; and Gary Thomas. 1994. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York: Routledge.

Carlson, Marvin. 1996. Performance: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Clement, Catherine. 1989. Opera, or, The Undoing of Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dellamora, Richard, and Daniel Fischlin, eds. 1997. The Work of Opera: Genre, Nationhood, and Sexual Difference. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hutcheon, Linda, and Michael Hutcheon. 1996. Opera: Desire, Disease, Death. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. 1993. The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Poseidon.

Schneider, Michel. 2001. Prima Donna: Opéra et inconscient. Paris: O. Jacob.

Smart, Mary Ann, ed. 2000. Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Somerset-Ward, Richard. 2004. Angels & Monsters: Male and Female Sopranos in the Story of Opera, 1600–1900. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                         Desmond Hosford


views updated Jun 08 2018


Opera reached Russia in 1731, when an Italian troupe from Dresden visited Moscow. In 1736 it was established at the tsarist court in St. Petersburg. Early Russian opera was mostly in Italian and French. Works in Russian were usually set in Russia, but representations of Russian history on the operatic stage began only in 1790 with The Early Reign of Oleg, a collaboration of the court composers Vasily Pashkevich (a Russian), Carlo Canobbio, and Giuseppe Sarti (both Italians) on a Russian libretto written by Catherine II.

The popularity of the court theaters in the early nineteenth century made their stages a possible venue of propaganda. This potential was fully realized in Mikhail Glinka's first opera (1836), with a libretto written by Baron Rosen, secretary of the

successor to the throne. Initially named for its protagonist, Ivan Susanin, the opera was renamed A Life for the Tsar when Glinka dedicated it to Nicholas I (Soviet legend had it that the new title was imposed against Glinka's will). In its wholesale affirmation of the doctrine of "official nationality" as proclaimed by Nicholas, the opera became a symbol of Russian autocracy.

Opera was now the most popular form of entertainment in Russia, but apart from Glinka there were no notable domestic composers. To satisfy the demand, a new Italian troupe was established in St. Petersburg in 1843. Its repertory was the same as that of other Italian enterprises abroad; except for censorial changes to libretti, there was nothing Russian about it. This artistic showcase, cherished not only by the aristocracy but also by the radical intelligentsia, slowed down the development of Russian opera (and Russian music in general). Russian musicians, then mostly amateurs (composers and performers alike), even suffered from legal discrimination: Until 1860, "musician" was not a recognized profession; moreover, for a long time a limit was imposed on the yearly income of Russians (but not of foreigners) in the performing arts, and Russian composers were expressly forbidden to write for the Italian company. Only after the establishment of conservatories in the 1860s did Russian opera become really competitive; performance standards rose, and gradually a Russian repertory accumulated.

The first successful Russian opera after Glinka was Alexander Serov's Rogneda (1865). Its fictional plot unfolds against the background of the "baptism of Russia" in 988. As affirmative of the official view on Russian history as A Life for the Tsar, it earned its creator a lifelong pension from Alexander II. Soon after, three composers from the "Mighty Handful" embarked on operas based on Russian history: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov (based on Ivan IV, after Lev Mey, 1873), Modest Musorgsky's Boris Godunov (after Alexander Pushkin's play, 1874), and Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor (premiered posthumously, 1890). While Prince Igor affirmed autocracy, the other two works did not; furthermore, their protagonists were Russian tsars, whose representation on the operatic stage was forbidden. The ban was partly lifted, which made the production of the two operas possible. It remained in force for members of the House of Romanov, however, and that is why, in Musorgsky's second historical opera, Khovanshchina (unfinished; produced posthumously in 1886), the curtain falls before an announced appearance of Peter I; the same happens with Catherine II in Peter Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades (1891). The representation of Orthodox clergy was also forbidden; while the Jesuits in Boris Godunov presented no problem, the Orthodox monks had to be recast as "hermits," and a scene set in a monastery was omitted. But before 1917 no Russian composer ever withdrew an opera instead of complying with the censor's demands, nor did anyone try to circumvent the censorship by having a banned Russian opera performed abroad.

After the accession of Alexander III, the crown's monopoly of theaters was revoked (1882), and private opera companies emerged; Savva Mamontov's in Moscow became the most famous. In 1885 the Italian troupe was disbanded. Russian opera took over its representative and social functions as well as its repertory. While opera continued to be a favorite of the public, leading Russian composers gradually lost interest in it, turning to ballet and instrumental genres instead. Fairy-tale operas were favored over depictions of Russian history, but Rimsky-Korsakov's last opera, The Golden Cockerel (after Pushkin, Moscow 1909), is often seen as a satire on Russian autocracy.

Censorship was restored after the 1917 revolution, although it took a different turn. A Life for the Tsar was banned until revised as Ivan Susanin with a new libretto by Sergei Gorodetsky (Moscow 1939). Other pre-1917 operas underwent minor modifications. There were also new operas interpreting history in Soviet terms and even "topical" operas intended to educate the public. Ivan Dzerzhinsky's "song opera" Quiet Flows the Don (Moscow 1934, after Mikhail Sholokhov's novel) was held up as a model against Dmitry Shostakovich's anarchic Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934; not based on history, but in a realistic historical setting), which was banned in 1936. Josef Stalin's megalomania shows through Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace (after Leo Tolstoy's novel). Composed in response to the German invasion of 1941, this most ambitious of Soviet operas was revised several times and was staged uncut only after the deaths of Stalin and Prokofiev (Moscow 1959).

During the Stalinist era an effort was made to establish national operatic traditions in the various Soviet republics. Russian composers were sent to the republics to collaborate with local composers on operas based on local folklore (and sometimes on local history) that generally sound like Rimsky-Korsakov.

In the post-Stalinist decades, major composers rarely tried their hand at opera. In the late 1980s Alfred Schnittke wrote Life with an Idiot, a surrealist lampoon on Vladimir Lenin after a story by Viktor Yerofeyev. It was premiered abroad (Amsterdam 1992), but in Russian and with a cast including "People's Artists of the USSR." Since the fall of the Soviet Union the musical has superseded opera as the leading theatrical genre. It even serves as a medium for patriotic representations of Russian history, such as Nord-Ost, the show staged in Moscow whose performers and audience were taken hostage by Chechen terrorists in 2002.

Outside Russia, Russian history has rarely served as the subject matter for opera. The earliest example is Johann Mattheson's Boris Goudenow (sic, Hamburg 1710), while the best-known is Albert Lortzing's Tsar and Carpenter (Leipzig 1837). Lortzing's comic opera exploits the sojourn of Peter I in the Netherlands disguised as a carpenter's apprentice. Because of its depiction of a tsar from the Romanov dynasty, it did not reach the Russian stage until 1908.

See also: glinka, mikhail ivanovich; mighty hand ful; music; nationalism in the arts; rimskykorsakov, nikolai andreyevich; tchaikovsky, peter ilyich; theater


Buckler, Julie A. (2000). The Literary Lorgnette: Attending Opera in Imperial Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Campbell, Stuart, ed. (1994). Russians on Russian Music, 18301880: An Anthology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, Stuart, ed. (2003). Russians on Russian Music, 18801917: An Anthology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Morrison, Simon Alexander. (2002). Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. London: Macmillan.

Taruskin, Richard. (1993). Opera and Drama in Russia: As Preached and Practiced in the 1860s, 2nd ed. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Taruskin, Richard. (1997). Defining Russia Musically. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Albrecht Gaub


views updated May 23 2018

opera. The general term, taken from the Italian opera meaning work, describes a staged drama in which the actors sing some or all of their parts. Opera involves a union of music, drama, and spectacle in varying degrees; although the first Florentine operas around 1600 emphasized the text through recitative—a form of heightened speech—music soon became the dominant partner. While all-sung opera has always been the norm in Italy, the strong British tradition of spoken drama favoured the masque, and spoken drama with music remained the pattern for dramatic works in English. Full-length, all-sung English operas were a rarity until the 20th cent.; for the previous 200 years the British operatic scene was dominated by Italian imports. Only since the outstanding success of Britten's Peter Grimes in 1945 has Britain played a major role on the international operatic stage—ironically at a time when opera-houses have become ‘museums’, relying on revivals of well-known works in preference to commissioning new operas.

Music featured in Shakespeare's works and in Elizabethan choirboy plays, and the Stuart masques drew on this tradition. Even at the end of the 17th cent., Purcell's dramatic music for the professional stage fell into the category of ‘semi-opera’: spoken plays reworked to include a series of masques for subsidiary characters. French influence is apparent in both the staging, with elaborate sets, machinery, and costumes, and the music, including choruses and dances. Purcell's finest semi-opera The Fairy Queen (1692), an arrangement of A Midsummer Night's Dream, sets none of Shakespeare's text to music; nevertheless allegorical figures such as the Four Seasons are skilfully characterized by contrasting vocal styles and orchestration. Purcell's only ‘true’ opera, Dido and Aeneas, was performed at a girls' school in Chelsea (London) in 1689 and is modelled on Blow's court masque Venus and Adonis.

Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes (1656) was the first full-length, all-sung English opera, set ‘in recitative musick’ by several composers to overcome the Commonwealth ban on spoken drama. It included probably the first woman to appear on the public stage in London; the music is now lost. Its occasional successors did not catch on, and the early 18th-cent. London public turned to imported Italian opera. Handel's Rinaldo (1711), with its spectacular magic effects, was a stunning success, and for the next thirty years he produced a string of fine works, emphasizing the arias by reducing the amount of recitative in his opera seria librettos. Handel and the rival Opera of the Nobility imported leading Italian stars, including the famous castrati Senesino and Farinelli.

John Gay's enormously popular The Beggar's Opera (1728) began a brief vogue for ballad opera, with simple, popular tunes sung by actors interspersed with spoken English dialogue. The satirical treatment of London's low life appealed to a wider social range than the aristocratic opera seria, and the following decades spawned many short English works. These were often presented as afterpieces following spoken plays, such as Arne's patriotic Thomas and Sally (1760), while both serious and comic Italian opera, particularly the pasticcio using arias by various composers, remained dominant until the end of the 19th cent. Five Rossini and two Verdi operas were performed in the first Royal Italian Opera season at Covent Garden in 1847; even works by Mozart and Wagner were translated into Italian, although a German Ring was produced in 1882. Some English dialogue operas were successful— Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (1843) remained in the repertoire for nearly a century—and works such as Macfarren's Robin Hood (1860), MacCunn's Jeanie Deans (1894), and Stanford's Shamus O'Brien (1896) cultivated romantic nationalism in their choice of plots and use of folk-song. The most outstanding English works, however, were the brilliant operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, achieving lasting popularity through their blend of W. S. Gilbert's satirical texts with Arthur Sullivan's tuneful music.

In the early 20th cent., Stanford, Ethel Smyth, and Delius produced all-sung works that were strongly Germanic, although Vaughan Williams and Holst used folk-song to impart an English flavour. The reopening of London's Sadler's Wells theatre in 1945 with Britten's Peter Grimes heralded a renaissance in English opera, presenting a powerful drama full of well-drawn characters. Britten's setting of the English language (influenced by Purcell) and his large-scale motivic and tonal planning gave his operas an unrivalled power and direct appeal. His choice of plots with a strong social dimension is shared by Michael Tippett, whose Jungian symbolism and complex contrapuntal musical style are exemplified in his psychoanalytical The Knot Garden (1970). Other recent operatic composers include Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.

Eric Cross


views updated May 23 2018


Just as one cannot separate words and music to get at the mystery of opera, food and opera are more compelling together than they are apart. The most immediate connection between the two is at the mouth and throat. Singers are understandably focused on these areas and seek gustatory gratification as a means of dealing with preperformance jitters and postperformance elation and exhaustion. It is not uncommon for a singer to lose five pounds during a long evening of exertion while wearing a thirty-pound costume under hot lights.

Singers and audience members both have their dining traditions. Each tends to eat sparingly before a performance: singers to avoid feeling full (although Beverly Sills famously ate steak before going onstage) and operagoers so that they will not doze off while digesting a large meal. At intermissions some audience members have a light snack and a refreshment. Singers will seek liquid refreshment during performancesBirgit Nilsson often had a beer waiting at the side of the stage to slake her thirst. American tenor Richard Leech chomps on ice cubes to keep his mouth and throat cool.

Following performances, there isespecially in Europea tradition known as "souper." This is late-night eating in which the food is more festive than gastronomically challenging. The idea is to continue the sense of occasion that a night at the opera can foster. At a souper meal, whether attended by musicians, audience members, or both, dishes might include smoked fish, boiled shrimp with piquant sauces, rollmops, broths, risotto or pasta with truffles and cheese, boiled beef, and cakes, all washed down with copious amounts of wine, beer, and, especially, sparkling wine. The goal is that the food be tasty and arrive quickly. The most famous operatic depiction of souper is in the second act of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr., in which party guests dance, sup, and sing in praise of champagne.

It is not surprising that chefs vied to create dishes to honor singers, composers, and opera characters. While performing at Covent Garden in London, the famous Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba dined at the nearby Savoy Hotel where the French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier created in her honor both a form of well-browned, very dry "Melba" toast and a dessert he called "Peach Melba," consisting of a poached peach covered with vanilla ice cream and a special raspberry sauce and a garnish of chopped pistachios. Escoffier also created Sole Otello, combining the dark hues of truffle and mushroom (for Othello) with the pure white fish (for Desdemona). Luisa Tetrazzini had her famous turkey and noodles, and Gioacchino Rossini (opera's greatest gourmand) lent his name to any dish that featured truffles and foie gras. Enrico Caruso loved chicken livers, so preparations that included them bore his name. Wagner, a vegetarian, did not inspire chefs. Nor did Beethoven, who resented having to periodically stop composing to seek sustenance.

Although many operas seem to have drinking songs and choruses (in part because singers willingly consume thirst-quenching beverages onstage), there are not many eating scenes for the simple reason that food would obstruct the singers' vocal equipment. Mozart's Don Giovanni, who satisfies many appetites in the course of the opera, does dine heartily in the second act, although most interpreters of the role mime eating and ingest very little. Puccini's Tosca plays with her food in the second act until she discovers the knife that she will use to kill Scarpia. The funniest eating scene in opera comes in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, in which the Italian Isabella feeds copious amounts of spaghetti to Mustafà, her Algerian captor, to distract him as she engineers her escape. As she runs to a ship in the harbor, Mustafà is dutifully twirling his pasta as he has been instructed. Surely the mezzo-soprano, once the curtain falls, will seek a bowl of noodles all her own.

See also Escoffier, Georges-Auguste ; Italy .


Plotkin, Fred. Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Fred Plotkin


views updated May 17 2018


The opera—a full-length musical drama, complete with costumes and staging, which is sung throughout—first arose in the 1590s. Its appearance marked a change from traditional Renaissance music to a new style known as Baroque*. Modern opera has its roots in late-Renaissance Italian music, literature, and theater, as well as humanist* thought.

Opera's Greek Influence. Tales from ancient Greek mythology inspired many early operas. The first known opera, Daphne, told the story of a nymph* whom the Greek god Apollo loved. Its first performance occurred in Florence, Italy, in 1598. Planned and sponsored by silk merchant Jacopo Corsi, the opera formed part of the city's Carnival celebrations. (Carnival was a festive event that took place before Lent, the solemn period leading up to Easter.) Italian composer Jacopo Peri wrote the opera's music to accompany the poet Ottavio Rinuccini's text. Only six short sections of this work survive.

Soon after creating Daphne, Peri and Rinuccini teamed up again to produce a second opera, called Eurydice. This work, also based on Greek mythology, focused on the wife of the musician Orpheus. It premiered in Florence in 1600 as part of the marriage celebration of Marie de MÉdicis (of the ruling Medici family) to King Henry IV of France. A complete printed musical score from Eurydice still exists.

Interest in ancient Greece grew throughout the Renaissance, inspiring a group of musicians in Florence to create an informal academy called the Camerata. The amateur composer Giovanni de' Bardi organized the academy as a place where the city's most important musicians, intellectuals, poets, and philosophers could gather to discuss ancient Greek music. They learned about the subject from the Italian humanist Girolamo Mei. Mei believed that the ancient Greeks had chanted their tragedies in a style midway between speaking and singing. He also thought that many Greek tunes had focused on a single note. The members of the Camerata decided that ancient Greek music could move listeners better than the music of their time because it was vocal, followed the text closely, and consisted of only one melody. They believed that Renaissance music failed to stir people because it often involved several melodies that moved against each other.

Renaissance Influences. A key factor in the development of opera was the musical style that came to be known as recitative in the early 1600s. Recitative stressed musical simplicity. By using the patterns of regular speech, the singer could communicate the emotion of the work's text. In the early recitatives, composers wrote only one note for every syllable of text. In addition, they kept the voice's range (its ability to hit high and low notes) narrow, and avoided patterns of rhythm and melody.

Existing forms of Renaissance drama also influenced opera. Early operas were similar to pastoral* tragicomedies—plays that combined elements of comedy and tragedy in a rural setting. Giovanni Battista Guarini established this style in 1590 with his work The Faithful Shepherd. Italian dramas called intermedi, short pieces shown between the acts of Renaissance plays, also affected opera. Intermedi had first appeared in the 1400s at the court of Ferrara. They combined music, drama, dance, and in most cases, costumes. The opera Daphne begins exactly like one of the intermedi performed at a Medici wedding in 1589.

(See alsoBaroque; Music; Music, Vocal. )

* Baroque

artistic style of the 1600s characterized by movement, drama, and grandness of scale

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* nymph

in ancient mythology, a nature spirit who takes the form of a beautiful young woman

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life