About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Classic FM Handy Guides
By Rob Weinberg
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2015 Classic FM
All rights reserved.
Opera History in a Nutshell
The word 'opera' derives from the Italian term opera in musica, meaning 'work in music'. Having an Italian name, it's perhaps not surprising to learn that opera began during the Italian Renaissance a little more than 400 years ago.
The Baroque era lasted roughly from around 1600 to 1750. The earliest works emerged from the discussions of a group of brainy musicians, writers and noblemen, known as the Florentine Camerata. They were based in Florence and most of the music they came across consisted of either choral singing in a religious setting or very florid madrigals. The Camerata wanted to revive the tradition of Greek theatre as they understood it to have been: sung rather than spoken. So they set out to combine music and text to tell gripping stories from classical mythology.
In 1597, one of their members, Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), wrote what is generally considered to be the first known opera, Dafne, in which he himself played the role of Apollo. It was a big success but hardly any music from it survives. Three years later, Peri composed another work, Euridice, based on the Greek legend that went on to become the subject of so many operas. It tells the story of heartbroken Orpheus venturing to Hades to retrieve his deceased wife Euridice. Peri's version was composed for the wedding of King Henry IV of France and his bride, Marie de' Medici of Florence. It's the earliest opera for which the score still exists today and already it's noticeable that Peri was experimenting with a new style of vocal delivery – something midway between speech and song where a solo voice was accompanied by simple chords played on a harpsichord or lute. This style of singing became known as recitative and the accompaniment as continuo.
As opera began to spread beyond Florence, it found its first major practitioner in the person of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), composer to the Duke of Mantua. Monteverdi's own version of the Orpheus story, L'Orfeo, premiered in 1607 and took opera to a new level of sophistication. In it the poetry and the music began to become equal partners. The protagonists were given real human feelings and characteristics, and orchestral instruments began to play a significant role. The continuo became more varied, perhaps plucked on strings or provided by an organ.
The first public opera house in Venice – the Teatro di San Cassiano – opened in 1637 and Monteverdi was commissioned to write a new work for it. Adone (1639) was such a hit that it ran continuously for six months. In 1642, his last and greatest work L'incoronazione di Poppea ('The Coronation of Poppea') told the steamy story of the mistress of the Roman emperor Nero. Unlike other operas up to that point, Poppea was rooted in historical fact rather than legend. It also features one of opera's first stunning love duets, 'Pur ti miro', which nowadays is almost universally thought not to be by Monteverdi at all, but a colleague who worked on Poppea or one of its early revivals.
Thanks to the efforts of touring companies from Italy, opera began to spread throughout the rest of Europe. It took a while longer to catch on in France but, when it did, a different style evolved which combined the French nobility's passion for dance with simpler yet more expressive music. French opera's first great practitioner was Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), who was actually an Italian serving as the court composer for King Louis XIV. Lully's first opera, Cadmus et Hermione (1674), was a great success; the king was reportedly 'extraordinarily satisfied with this superb spectacle'. Lully pioneered special effects, made the dance an essential component of his works – much to the king's pleasure – and added ever more instruments to the opera orchestra. The Belgian film Le Roi danse (2000) brilliantly recreates the court of Louis XIV seen through the eyes of Lully.
A native Frenchman, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) built on the foundations established by Lully. Rameau was already fifty when he wrote his first opera but went on to create many more. While retaining the use of classical myths, dance episodes and spectacular effects, Rameau approached his texts on a more human scale, making the music bring the emotional content to life. This dramatic intensity caused controversy among the circles that had been raised on Lully. Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) was acclaimed by many as bold and daring, but dismissed by others as 'turbulent' and 'a lot of noise'. Outraged Lullistes were worried that Rameau's growing popularity would oust their hero's music from the repertoire. They attacked Rameau's operas, while Ramistes hailed their man as the 'new Orpheus'. Long before the mods and rockers battled it out on Brighton's seafront, tension escalated between the two music fan factions throughout the 1730s. When Rameau's Dardanus opened in 1739, the composer was the subject of satirical engravings and a scurrilous poem, which resulted in physical violence.
Across the Channel, Henry Purcell (1659– 1695) composed the first English opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689). He was commissioned to write it for a girls' school in London that had strong connections to the court and the London stage. The composer kept the opera short and easy to sing for his young performers. Dido told the story of the Queen of Carthage and her love for the heroic Aeneas from Troy. In general, however, English audiences in Purcell's day didn't have much of an appetite for opera; they preferred stage plays that included some musical elements and dance. Purcell's remarkable ability for setting words in a subtle way that communicated emotions was lost on London audiences whose passion for opera would not be ignited until Handel arrived in their midst, early in the following century.
But in the rest of Europe, by the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, opera was hugely popular; there were some seventeen opera houses in Venice alone. Members of the nobility poured their money into creating opera companies and staging spectacular productions.
Two major styles emerged – opera seria (serious opera) and opera buffa (comic opera). The muscular exploits of Greek and Roman heroes came under the former category, the main narrative being carried by recitative while outbursts of passionate emotion were conveyed via vocal fireworks in show-off, show-stopping songs known as arias.
Opera buffa began in Naples as short comic interludes played out between the acts of an opera seria to give the audience light relief. Buffa works later evolved into operas in their own right. There were no heroic deeds of derring-do here; buffa told the stories of ordinary folk caught up in often farcical situations – but they still had to be able to sing like gods.
Indeed, as opera developed, the aria became the principal means by which a character could express his or her thoughts or feelings all the while showing off a formidable vocal technique. By the turn of the eighteenth century, opera audiences' main reason for attending was to see the stars of the day showing off their extraordinary vocal agility. The leading roles were usually sung by female sopranos and male castrati – men who had undergone a particularly unpleasant procedure while young to keep their voices high and pure. The greatest castrato was Farinelli (1705–1782), who was 'the acknowledged monarch of European singing'. Farinelli made a fortune, employed by King Philip V of Spain to sing the same four songs for him every night for twenty-five years.
In Venice, from around 1713, Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) – better known today as a composer of instrumental music, particularly The Four Seasons – devoted himself to opera and wrote more than forty of them. They are gradually being rediscovered today, although they are not notable for particularly advancing the genre. Meanwhile in Naples, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) wrote one of the first, influential comic operas, La serva padrona ('The Maid Mistress') in 1733, which told the story of how a maid fools her master into marrying her, thus becoming lady of the house. Pergolesi died far too young but left behind some innovative works, characterised by his mastery of melody, rhythm and witty writing for the voice.
The finest composer of opera seria was George Frideric Handel (1685–1759). In London, the nobility didn't bankroll opera; rather it was a commercial affair, performed by competing theatre companies. Handel arrived in London in 1710, his music having already established itself in people's affections from its use in a popular show at the Haymarket Theatre. His extravagant first Lon-don opera Rinaldo (1711) was widely acclaimed. The Haymarket became The King's Theatre and Handel's greatest operas were first staged there, attracting star names such as the sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. The two divas had a bitter rivalry which erupted into a public riot in 1727 when audience catcalls and whistling led to the two of them exchanging real blows and pulling each other's hair during a production. Fans of the two singers threw chairs at each other. On another occasion, when Cuzzoni refused to sing an aria for Handel, the composer yelled at her, 'I well know that you are truly a She-Devil: but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub, chief of the Devils.' Handel threatened to dangle the singer upside down from a window until she agreed to perform.
Handel went further than any of his predecessors in going deeper into the emotional and psychological complexities of his characters. But the relative financial failure of his later operas convinced him that his path lay rather with oratorios, and it is for such masterpieces as Messiah (1741) that we know him best today.
The Age of Transition
In the second half of the eighteenth century, opera – along with so many other intellectual and artistic pursuits – underwent profound changes. Flamboyant heroic display made way for a more domestic-scale offering. Out went the unnecessary dances and vocal histrionics; in came arias, choruses and recitatives that truly served the drama.
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) was vital to this transformation. He wrote more than forty operas, the most famous being Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). While the subject matter continued to draw on mythology, the way in which the characters behave is more naturalistic. For the first performance of Alceste (1767), Gluck went for actors who could sing rather than singers who would not be able to cope with the required level of authentic emotion. Gluck effectively set the seal on the Baroque era of opera and opened the way to the Classical era. His influence, though, would also be felt further down the years in the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, both of whom admired Gluck's work.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) considered opera to be the supreme musical language, where everything was perfectly possible – and, naturally, he made it so. As with every other genre of music this genius touched, Mozart produced nothing but pure gold when it came to opera. He wrote his first stage work at the age of eleven and quickly went on to create several more with astounding confidence for one so young. His first masterpiece was Idomeneo (1781) which – while evidently influenced by Gluck – plays fast and loose with the opera seria conventions, effortlessly blending arias and recitative, and smoothly managing changes of scene and mood. Mozart brought to opera an unprecedented tunefulness, dazzling wit and an intense sense of drama, exploring such universal themes as love, fidelity and revenge. His final five operas – The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1789), The Magic Flute (1791) and La clemenza di Tito (1791) – are nothing short of masterpieces, each of them a regular fixture in every opera company's repertoire today. One contemporary reporter who witnessed Mozart himself conducting a performance of Figaro from the keyboard said, 'Mozart directed the orchestra, playing his fortepiano; the joy which this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it. Where could words be found that are worthy to describe such joy?'
The Italian Masters
With Gluck bringing a new naturalism into opera and Mozart blurring the lines between seria and buffa, the early nineteenth century saw the Italians, who originated the genre, looking for a saviour to take opera into a new era. He appeared in the form of Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868). Born the year after Mozart's untimely death, Rossini emerged as one of the greatest opera composers of all time and a pioneer of Romanticism. He rejuvenated both serious and comic opera with his superlative writing for the human voice, which regained its place as the dominant element in Italian opera. Audiences went wild at Rossini's melodies, and the range, speed and skill he demanded of singers. From comedies, such as the sparkling The Barber of Seville (1816) through to powerful melodramas such as William Tell (1829), Rossini's mastery of operatic form influenced composers throughout the entire continent. He wrote thirty-nine in total before happily retiring for the last four decades of his life.
The vocal brilliance that Rossini required from his performers, known as bel canto ('beautiful singing'), became the dominant genre of Italian Romantic opera. Two other Italian composers also came to be closely associated with this style.
Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) worked slowly, taking a lot of time over his handful of operas, carefully setting out to produce dramas that spoke to the emotions, and didn't just thrill the ear. Bellini's particular skill was to plunge deep into the human psyche, something that even the usually unimpressed Richard Wagner admired. Bellini was hugely successful, pretty much hitting gold straight away with his version of the 'Romeo and Juliet' story, I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), and La sonnambula (1831). Today his most popular and famous opera is Norma (1831), although it was not initially successful. It contains Bellini's most famous aria, 'Casta diva'. 'I want something that is at the same time a prayer, an invocation, a threat, a delirium,' Bellini told his librettist. The composer's extremely long-flowing melodies earned him the nickname 'the Swan of Catania'.
At the other extreme, Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) composed more than seventy operas, although only a few still remain in the repertoire. In 1830, he had a major international success with Anna Bolena. Afterwards, his works were a mix of comedies such as L'elisir d'amore (1832) and intense dramas such as Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Donizetti's operas are characterised by the extraordinary demands he makes on the singers. He also increased the role and range of the chorus, and innovated new types of song such as the cavatina – unhurried and melancholy – and the sensationally showy cabaletta.
The natural successor to Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti in the bel canto style was Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), the most successful opera composer ever. Over his long career, Verdi totally transformed the genre, experimenting with different musical and dramatic approaches to arrive at a unique, intensely melodramatic form of expression.
Excerpted from Opera by Rob Weinberg. Copyright © 2015 Classic FM. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Opera History in a Nutshell,
2 The Men Behind the Words,
3 Operatic Voices,
4 Where to See Opera,
5 What To Do at the Opera,
6 40 Essential Operas,
7 The Top 30 Opera Tracks to Download,
8 Useful Operatic Terms,
About Classic FM,
About the Author,