Opera History Documentary


The word „opera“ comes
from the Italian phrase opera in musica which
means work in music. It stands for a theatrical
work which is made of a dramatic text, also
known as a libretto, which has been set to music
and involves a stage that requires beautiful sceneries,
flamboyant costumes and solo as well as choral
singers on the stage who are backed by a group of
instrumentalists who play offstage. It has attracted many supporters and
at the same time opera is known to have been criticized by many people
because of the costs it involves. It is considered to be an
expensive form of music which requires many people starting
from the writing of the story to the enactment of the opera involving
the music, singers and the dance. The producer has to ensure
that everything falls in place perfectly and practice
on the opera can vary from a few days to
months depending on the complexities of the opera
that will be performed. In the course of history, opera
has continuously shifted the balance that it strikes
between poetry and music. What began as a seamless blending
of the two where the performers achieved a language which was
between singing and speaking, gradually moved towards the favor of music
and the text became less pronounced. Some historical reforms in
opera tried to reinforce the balance between the two but
the manner in which opera and its creators continuously innovate
to come up with performances that try to fulfil the tastes of the audiences and
the changing attitudes of the patrons. At the same time, opera has also adapted
to the different national preferences of the countries around the world surviving
over 400 years in the Western culture. Opera was born during the
Renaissance period in Italy. It was primarily a mode
of Royal entertainment for the kings and queens
of the 16th century. Elaborate presentations
were made to celebrate royal events which allowed
the kings and the nobility to brag about
their wealth to the royal people as well as the
foreign dignitaries. Using flamboyant costumes and spectacular
effects, opera became a favorite means of alluring people to enjoy the
time they spent celebrating an event. Most of the themes around which
the opera was created were taken from classical mythology
of the Greeks and Romans. When opera was introduced
to the people, its purpose was mainly to impress the
audience and to ensure that a positive image of the
emperor and its people was portrayed before those who
came to the royal court. What started as a form of Roman revival
became opera over the next two centuries. In the 16th century when the Renaissance
period was at its peak, many Italian courts began the performance
of Roman plays on festive occasions. But Roman plays could turn
rather intense, and the audience was accustomed to
something more light-hearted. This gave way to lavish musical
entertainments which came to be known as intermezzi which
stands for intermediate pieces. The intermezzi was
acted between plays to lighten the mood and
augment the spirits of the viewers with splendid effects, extravagant
costumes and a lot of singing and dancing. The audience began looking forward
to these intermezzi which seemed to be a lot more
exciting than the actual plays. One of the most popular intermezzi which
has been preserved in spectacular detail was performed at a lavish wedding at the
Medici Court, Florence in the year 1589. The scenes of the intermezzi
became the foundation of modern day opera
with clouds floating across the stage and
delightful gardens and a rocky mountain with a
mermaid sitting on it. This was every bit the
kind of entertainment the nobility at Florence needed. This started gaining momentum in Florence
and the artists began to innovate as they discovered a new form of music
which soon came to be known as opera. The transition from intermezzi
to Opera was not quick. It took a considerable
amount of time, as musicians and artists
dabbled in music, trying to bring the best for their
audience and ensuring that their work was
entertaining enough. The soul of opera lies in
the music but it takes a beautiful form through the
visuals that are used. These visuals played an
equally important role to stimulate the senses
of the audience so that they enjoyed the piece
of music along with the sights they saw and the
experience they had. While opera continues to have its soul
embedded deep in the music even today, it is one of those forms of music which has never
stopped low when it came to visuals. Charming dresses,
enticing backgrounds and heavenly scenes have always
been a part of opera. The fact is, that opera
has maintained its originality in a lot of
ways and that continues to keep opera a classy
affair which is usually enjoyed by people of a
higher class and taste. Opera continues to be a
form of music which is enjoyed by the elite class
more than anyone else. The Beginning of Opera
and the Baroque Period Opera began with Dafne by
Jacopo Peri which was a musical play and was meant to revive
classical Greek drama. With Renaissance being the driving force
for many artists during the period, the revival of Greek drama
led to opera because it was believed that
the chorus of the play was originally sung and even entire texts may
have been delivered in the form of songs. Dafne relates the story of
Daphne who took the form of a laurel so that she could escape
the attention of Apollo. The entire enactment is full
of drama, music and songs. Sadly, Dafne is lost and we have no
means to find out the details of this opera which is considered by many to be
the first opera created in the world. Peri did write a second one known as
Eurydice in 1600 which has survived. Eurydice was performed at Pitti Palace,
Florence as a means of entertainment on the occasion of the marriage of Maria
de’Medici along with Henri IV of France. While Eurydice is considered
to be the earliest opera that has survived, it is
Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which has gained a lot of
popularity in the world of opera, and is considered to
be very popular even today. The plot is beautiful and
the enactment is splendid. With Orfeo becoming a favorite quickly,
Claudio soon became famous in the region. It is said that Orfeo was
Claudio’s first attempt at opera. This opera was first presented at the Court
of Mantua in 1607 before the lent began. At that time opera was fairly new to the
world, about ten years old, and its freshness made it welcoming and the visual
effects added to the beauty of the music. Through Orfeo, the story
of Orpheus’ love for Eurydice is displayed,
and how he goes to the extent where he is willing
to descend to the underworld to bring back
the love of his life. Orpheus’ parts were sung by a castrato. Today, Orfeo remains a favorite
for many opera players and it continues to be played on
the stage every now and then. The astounding effect it
has on the viewers makes opera singers chose it for
the stage time and again. After the death of the
Duke of Mantua, Monteverdi became Master of Music for
the Venetian Republic. As Master of Music, Monteverdi
primarily composed sacred music which was used in the recitals
and performances at St. Mark’s. His popularity in Europe
is mainly owed to these compositions which quickly
spread through the continent. The citizens of Venice found no
reason to restrict the beautiful musical performances to the
aristocratic classes only. This lead to the opening
of the first public opera house in Venice
in the year 1637. It was named Teatro San Cassiano. Monteverdi had turned seventy
by this time but his love for music especially,
opera, had never died. With an opera house in the city, he
began working on new opera pieces. The two that survive from
this period are considered as masterpieces in the
form till this day. The first one is named
Ilritorno d’Ulisse in patria which means The return of
Ulysses to his country. This piece was premiered in Teatro
San Cassiano in the year 1641. By this time, a second public opera house
made its appearance in the city, it was grander than the first one and it was
named Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In this opera house,
Monteverdi’s second piece known as L’Incoronazione di Poppea
was premiered in 1642. Monteverdi is known to
have turned the manner in which people listened
to vocal music. Certain accounts mention that
people even cried at some of the operatic performance
which were created by him. Venice is considered to be the place from
where opera’s fame spread to the world. The people of Venice considered it
to be a great form of music and opera was brought to public notice
by the many opera houses in Venice. It is known that Venice had seven opera
houses in the 17th century – a time when opera was at its most nascent stages and
it required a platform to launch itself. One of Monterverdi’s pupils,
Francesco Cavalli, gained a lot of popularity as an opera
composer during his era. He created over two dozen operas
between 1639 and 1669 and his compositions became famous
in the Venetian opera houses. One of his most renowned
works in Giasone which translates to Jason which
was composed in 1649. Cavalli’s most notable competitor was
Pietro Antonia Cesti who also composed over a dozen operas out of which
Orontea, 1656, is the most popular one. The Baroque period lasted from
1600 to 1750, during this period, many other composers began to rise
once opera gained popularity. Other composers who are known for their
compositions are Antonio Sartorio, Giovanni Legrenzi and Antonio Vivaldi who
was popular in the early 18th century. Vivaldi has 49 compositions to his
credit, but most of his work is lost. Once opera was popular
enough and many composers began creating operas,
the publications of opera ceased and the patronage extended
by the aristocracy ceased to exist. Most of the opera lasted for
just one season and they were quickly replaced with new
operas created by composers. These operas were short lived and this
is why most of them have been lost. Recover and revival of these opera work
gained pace in the late 20th century and some of the operas especially the works
of Cavalli were found at this time. The Venetian operas became an
extravagant affair where the composers focused more on the solo arias and
the duets than the choral singers. This was contrary to the
Florentine opera style. In addition to this, the number of arias
increased from 24 to 60 and the Venetian opera gained its own distinctive persona
as opera developed in the Baroque period. Other Italian cities quickly took to
opera too, especially Rome where there were many wealthy patrons who were
willing to sponsor the composers. Some of the most popular
Roman composers were Stefano Landi, Domenico
Mazzocchi and Luigi Rossi. The Roman composers were strongly
influenced by the Florentine opera styles but they gradually
diverged from the style as they experimented
with the arias and recitatives, striving to
strike a better balance. Like the Venetians, the Romans added comic
acts to tragedies to lighten the opera. They chose to make the recitatives
less musical and more speech-like. The Romans did not allow
women to sing on the stage so female roles were taken
up by the castrati. Opera was also popular in Naples
where the first opera house of the city, Teatro San Bartolomeo,
came up in the mid-17th century. By 1700 Naples had become Venice’s
competitor in opera compositions. Most of the opera compositions in Naples
was popular because of Alessandro Scarlatti who wrote 66 operas out of which
32 were for the Teatro San Bartolomeo. His works flourished between 1684 and 1702. The War of The Spanish Succession made
him leave Naples and return to Rome. His best work is La catuda de’ Decemviri
which means The Fall of the Decemvirs. Scarlatti continued to compose
operas for Rome, Naples and Florence before his return
to Naples in the year 1709, however, by this time, his
style was fading as budding composers rendered refreshing
changes to opera styles. By 1730, Italian opera
started gaining popularity in over 130 cities and
towns across Europe. Opera was brought to France as early as
1650 but it was not able to establish a stronghold in the country because of the
dominance of ballet performances in France. People preferred ballet and spoken
drama over opera during the period. In 1671, Pomone by Robert
Cambert is known to be the first French
opera which led to the inauguration of the Academie Royale de Musique
which is now known as the Paris opera. Most of Pomone is lost and
only the overture, prologue, first act and a part of the
second act are available today. Under the royal patronage of
Louis the XIV, Jean-Baptiste Lully changed opera
through his compositions. He was able to exercise
monopoly in when it came to the production of sung drama in
France from the year 1672. Till his death in 1687, Lully’s work
pervaded the country’s music tastes. His elaborate creations along with the
literary geniuses who collaborated with him ensured that Lully’s popularity did
not decline till the time he was alive. Just like ballet made it difficult
for opera to make its presence felt in France, masque, portrayed
a problem for opera in England. Another thing that inhibited the popularity
of opera in England was the financial weak state of the monarchs who were caught
in Civil wars in the mid-17th century. Henry Purcell is known to have
created one of the most lasting impressions in English opera
through his compositions. But there were no successors to his
work and the development of a fully sung opera in England did not
happen until the late 19th century. Opera was able to get recognition
to a certain extent with the arrival of German composer
George Frideric Handel in 1710. His company obstinately
dedicated themselves to opera giving the form a better
direction in the country. Some of his popular works are Giulio
Cesare, Rodelinda and Orlando. Handel assembled some of the most
famous sopranos and castrati in his company so that he can create
a sensation among the audiences, but tastes were changing and people
began to move away from the his style of opera which created an
economical problem for Handel. The composer took to the
creation of oratorios which were set to Biblical
texts in English. These were found to be
appealing for the Protestants and opera soon became a thing
of the past for Handel. His works were later revived in 1920s
and towards the end of the 20th century, these compositions became the
most popular ones in English opera. In Germany, opera was
introduced by the Italian composers who
resided in the country. Abbe Agostino Stefani was a Venetian
who helped in spreading word about the opera in Munich, Hanover
and other places in Germany. Starting with the production
of Marco Aurelio, Steffani composed
operas for 28 years. He fused different styles
which included both French and Italian styles to come
up with a style of his own which was later used by
many other composers who composed opera away from
their home country. It was a sort of International
Itlain style which became so popular in
Germany that even the German composers were influenced by the Italian
style and they also used Italian texts. Johann Theile, a pupil
of Shutz is accredited with the creation of
some of the early operas like Adam und Eva which inaugurated the first
public opera house in Hamburg, Germany. Reinhard Keiser created some
of the most notable operas in the early 18th century for
the opera house in Hamburg. His complete work consists
of over 60 operas out of which a meagre 19
operas have survived. He was a great influence for George
Friedric Handel who worked in Hamburg for a brief period of time before
going to Italy and then London. Reformations Leading to The Grand Opera The Baroque period ended in 1750
by when opera was an established form of music and it had many
supporters across Europe. However, the different styles in which
opera was being popularized gave rise to a polemic war which was a showdown
between opera seria and opera buffa. In layman terms, the styles which existed
between French and Italian opera was the cause of the rivalry which seemed
to have reached national sentiments. At a time like this, Jean Jacques Rousseau,
who was a leader of the Italian faction, staged a single-act comic
opera Le Devin du village which translates into
the Village Soothsayer. It was staged in Fontainebleau, France
and it blended both French and Italian styles to perfection which helped in
pleasing people in both the countries. Rousseau’s work influenced
many composers who wanted to achieve the same effect that
Rousseau had on the public. One of the most popular composers
who followed into Rousseau’s footsteps were Francois Andre
Danican who was known as Philidor. He was also a splendid chess player. He wrote 20 opera comiques. Belgian composer Andre
Gretry was also one of the finest opera
composers of the period. He was able to strike a perfect
equilibrium between the two styles. He composed operas for
almost 30 years which was during the period of
the French Revolution. In Paris, Etienne Nicolas
Mehul was taking the opera audience by storm with his
flexible forms of opera which included a variety of operas
that encapsulated different sentiments starting from light-hearted
comedy to romance to chivalry. Mehul was able to influence
many composers of the Romantic period which started
in the 19th century. The reform began with a level of
dissatisfaction arising among people who did not find the dominance of
opera seria to be very delightful. So gradually a movement towards
a genre which somewhat resembled Rousseau’s efforts
began to be noticed. Tommas Traetta and Niccolo Jommelli
are two composers who began using a technique which is referred
to as recitativo accompagnato which means the recitatives are
accompanied by the orchestra. They also promoted the use
of ensembles and choruses which had diminished in
purpose in opera seria. Cristoph Willibald Gluck is known
to be one of the most historically recognized figures who is associated
with the 18th century opera reform. He had a lot of composers who
claimed that they were his legitimate successors and some
very important opera composers were influenced by his works and used
his compositions for inspiration. Gluck’s compositions were a synthesis of
the French and Italian styles of opera. Gluck had greatly inspired
Mehul and Mozart and Italian composers who
were inspired by him include Antonio Salieri who is known to have
imparted lessons to Ludwig Van Beethoven. Other Italian composers influenced by Gluck
were Niccolo Piccinni and Antonio Sacchini. While most of Gluck’s
operatic compositions were the usual librettos
influenced by Metatasio, he gradually began absorbing the French opera
styles during his stay in Vienna in 1750. With the help of Conte
Giacomo Durazzo who was the superintendent of the
imperial Vienna theatre, Gluck was able to absorb the example of
Jean-Georges Noverre who was considered to be one of the most popular French
dancer-choreographer of the time. Noverre wanted ballet to be
more than just a collection of episodes which did not bear
connection to each other. Durazzo also began an anti-Metatasian
movement which attracted the poet Ranieri Calzabigi who later
wrote three liberettos for Gluck. Calzabigi is also known for
drawing up the renowned dedication of the publication
of Alceste in 1769. This dedication played a pivotal
role in the operatic reform. According to it, the tru office of music
was to serve poetry which was being mired by the manner in which the florid
da capo arias were being written. Gluck tried to restore opera to its true
function which was drama set to music. These ideals are seen
primarily in the opera Orfeo and Euridice, Alceste
and Paride and Elena. While these were Italian operas which were
staged in Vienna, Gluck reconstituted the first two operas to French librettos
for the operatic audiences in Paris making the two operas
statelier and resonating an influence of Rambeau
in the compositions. In Vienna, the Italian opera
buffa was a strong influence and many Austrian composers
were also inspired by it. A notable composer of
comic opera in the 18th century was Carl Ditters
von Dittesdorf. One of his most popular works
was Doktor und Apotheker, 1786 which translates into
Doctor and Apothecary. But his work was eclipsed by
the compositions of Mozart for whom Vienna proved to
be an important centre. He became one of the most renowned
masters of opera which was considered to be one of the most prestigious
forms of music of his time. Mozart had started writing music
at the early age of 10 and by the age of 25 he had composed his first
opera, Idomeneo, 1781 in Munich. His first work reflected the
combination of opera seria and Gluck’s inspirations
along with tragedie lyrique. Today, Idomeneo is seen as one
of the most popular example of opera seria composed
during the late 18th century. A year after Ideomeneo, Mozart composed an
enchanting singspiel which won over the hearts of his Viennese audience and helped
him establish his reputation in Vienna. The name of the opera is Die
EntfuhrungausdemSerail, 1782 which translates into the
Abduction from the Seraglio. The style of music, the depth
of the sentiments that fills this opera and the beauty of the
story had everyone awestruck. It also includes a soprano
aria which is considered to be one of the most difficult
sopranos till this day. Mozart’s works continued to gain
popularity and his next work, Le nozze di Figaro, 1786, which
means the Marriage of Figaro, is a notable piece of work for the elaborate
music and the fast-paced ensemble finales which helps in adding a certain
amount of thrill to the comic situations. The opera tells the story
of Figaro who is a character created by
Pierre de Beaumarchais. Figaro is considered to be a
crafty servant who cunningly outwits his master, who is an
aristocrat, in the game of love. His next opera was
commissioned by an impresario. It was for the National Theatre in Prague. Mozart’s Don Giovanni was
based on previous works of Don Juan librettos and
plays by other writers. Today, Don Giovanni is one of the
most highly regarded operas. The elements of music
that define this opera were noticed as the
predecessors of operatic Romanticism and the
protagonist of the opera was considered to be a model
of the Romantic hero. Mozart had collaborated with Da
Ponte to create the opera seria for Don Giovanni and the results
were simply outstanding. For a last time, the two worked together
on an opera buffa, Cosi fan tutte, 1790. It translates into All Women Are
Like That and it is considered to be another masterpiece which has great
lyrics and an awesome melodious score. Mozart last work for the
stage was Die Zauberflote, 1791 which translates
to The Magic Flute. The librettos are by
Emanuel Schikaneder and the music created by
Mozart is beautiful. It adds a lot of meaning to
the different characters in the opera and gives
the opera a great sense. Audiences have enjoyed
listening to such beautiful opera productions
even till this day. Beethoven’s Fidelio, 1805 which was
revised in 1806 and then 1814 is another example of an awesome composition
which was a lot more than a singspiel and had a lot of meaningfulness in
the beauty of the music created. Fidelio has a grandeur to
it which comes through its music and the splendid
story about Leonore who is disguised in the
form of Fidelio so that she can rescue her husband
from incarceration. The theme along with the music that
accompanies it is admirable and it has ensured Fidelio an important
place in the history of opera. In Italy, during the first half of the
19th century, some popular composers were Simon Mayr, Gioachino Rossini,
Gaetano Donizetti and Bellini. All of them had different styles but they
all played their part in inculcating the love of opera among the audiences
in Italy where opera was born. Their varied styles and the numerous
compositions made them popular and they had some masterworks to their credit too which are
considered great till the present day. The Grand Opera and Contemporary Works In Paris, the 19th century
introduced the Grand Opera which was an
international form of opera. It involved the use of historical or
pseudohistorical librettos along with scenic backgrounds, gorgeous costumes,
ballets, and many supernumeraries. The Grand Opera was very
similar to a Hollywood movie with all elements
of a blockbuster film. The Grand Opera had somehow
found its roots in the original Venetian operas which were
meant for the royal courts. They involved a lot of flamboyance
and had a huge amount of money spent on the
backgrounds and the costumes. It also seemed to have been
influenced by the stately scores of revered opera composers
like Rameau and Gluck. While the beginning of this
trend was in Paris, the opera writers who began
this were Italian expats. The two Italian expats were Luigi
Cherubini and Gaspare Spontini. While they may be known for starting the
Grand Opera, the person who was seen as the leader of Grand Opera in Paris was a German
composer by the name of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer’s work, Robert le diable, 1831
which means Robert the Devil, became a huge success and by the year 1893 it had already
been sung 751 times at the Paris Opera. The main author of this worked
for many other composers writing librettos for many
of them at the same time. Meyerbeer’s success in the Grand Opera led
to other composers copying his style. La Juive, 1835 by Fromental Halevy
is known to be a close copy of his style and could almost be
mistaken for Meyerbeer’s work. With Grand Opera gaining success,
composers quickly began to copy the styles and variation started
cropping up with more composers trying to sway the audiences
to win their hearts through their unique
compositions of music. The Grand Opera had become one
of the most effective styles in the early 19th centuries
for the composers in France. While most of the composers were expatriates,
the music that was being created in France was outstanding and the people
began to appreciate opera even more as they began to enjoy the
grandeur of this form of music. Beautiful voices, elegant costumes and
admirable music blended perfectly into each other forming an art which was more
than a simple means of entertainment, it was a joy to behold such
operatic performances and the composers took motivation in
the fulfilment of such joys. Romanticism started in
Germany with three operas which were created between
the years 1821 and 1826. These works were composed
by Carl Maria von Weber. The first one was Der Freischutz,
1821 which established the romantic era where the
writers enjoyed creating works which were around the
themes of dark forests, hunting horns, supernatural
forces and love. The popularity of romanticism
was overwhelming in Germany and in all
other countries too. The two other operas, Euryanthe and
Oberon were not as successful as the first one but they helped in furthering
the romantic operas is Germany. Romantic opera dominated
the stages for a notable period of time and it stayed
until the First World War. While there are many
composers who played their part in the romantic
period, some of the most notable opera composers
of the time were Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner
and Giacomo Puccini. This was roughly the time when Russia
also came up with notable opera composers like Mikhail Glinka, Modest
Mussorgsky and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Verdi was 26 when he had
composed his first opera, Oberto, conte di San
Bonifacio, 1839 in Milan. He wrote 26 operas in his
lifetime with the last one written in the year
1893 when Verdi was 80. His dominion over Italian
music lasted for most of the second half
of the 19th century. Verdi’s works are considered
to be some of the most frequently performed
operas till today. His operas bore loyalty
to the traditions of Italian opera which made
him a national hero. Wagner on the other hand
found opera to be a form of human drama which
was focused on voice. He wrote the music and the librettos
for his works and he gave instructions for setting up the
stage and the scenic design too. He started his operatic career
with Das Liebesverbot – The Ban on Love – which was
performed in Magdeburg in 1836. Some of the operas he
created had librettos which were inspired by his own
love affairs in real life. He continued to compose some
of the most amazing operas in history with his last
one being Parsifal, 1882. By the 20th century,
opera had become popular in many countries
apart from Europe. The contemporary works of the
opera composers were influencing many people but a lot of opera
that was being performed were the ones that were written
in the last three hundred years and not those that were
being written more recently. Not that new operas were not being
created at all, but the previous works of the composers were used
more often for the performances. At this time, opera has
reached a new level. It continues to be a sophisticated
form of music which is followed by a limited number of composers and even the
audience for opera remains limited. Opera lovers enjoy new creations as
well as the old opera masterpieces. Some of the modernists if the 20th century
were Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich
were prominent in the mid-20th century while the most recent composers of the
time are Philip Glass and John Adams. Each of them introduced their own
innovative ideas in the world of operatic music as they tried to win
over the hearts of the audience and make a niche for themselves
in the world of opera. There have been revivals of previous
works and new creations which continue to form the path for opera and
the many variations created by it. Opera continues to remain a form of music
which can be molded into different styles to suit different nationalities
and to further new causes.

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