The History of Opera For Beginners

The History of Opera For Beginners


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The History of Opera For Beginners is a humorous, little book which starts with the radical assumption that Opera is just plain old music, rather than the highbrow, inaccessible music that everyone assumes it to be. The reader will learn the difference between Italian and German Opera and why you don't have to study a new language to enjoy Opera.

The History of Opera For Beginners is an ideal introduction for people who are convinced that opera is solely for those refined few who were born listening to arias. Written in short, humorous, and informative chapters, and laced with some of the opera world's juiciest anecdotes, this guide is sure to convert even the most ambivalent of music lovers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781934389799
Publisher: For Beginners
Publication date: 11/26/2013
Series: For Beginners
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 661,656
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Ron David, a former editor-in-chief of the For Beginners series, is also the author of Toni Morrison Explained: A Reader's Road Map to the Novels (Random House, 2000). Previous works for For Beginners include Arabs & Israel For Beginners, Jazz For Beginners, and Opera For Beginners. Ron has been a guest lecturer on all of these subjects across the United States, and he has been awarded a NJ State Council for the Arts fellowship for his novel-in-progress, The Lebanese Book of the Dead. He lives in Kihei, Hawaii, with his wife, the designer Susan David.

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Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2013 Ron David
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-934389-80-5



OPERA'S ANCIENT ROOTS (...or, Who Do We Blame?)

Opera's origins are usually traced back to the dramas of ancient Greece, and left at that. But that isn't playing fair with cultures that laid the groundwork and predated Greece by thousands of years. By the time Aeschylus wrote the first Greek "tragedy" (Drama), elegant folks in Mesopotamia, Africa and the Far East had been refining Music and Literature for 3000 years!

Here are a few highlights:

4000 BC—Harps and flutes were being played in Egypt

3000 BC—The Egyptians invent the Heb-Sed, Sumerians (Iraq) write the first epic tale: â&8364;œGilgameshâ&8364;

2500 BC—Chinese develop a five tone musical scale; the first epic poetry is written in Babylon (Iraq)

2000 BC—The first novel is written in Egypt: "The Story of Sinuhe"

1000 BC—Professional musicians sing and play in ancient Israel

800 BC—The earliest written music appears in Samaria (Ancient Palestine)

484 BC—Aeschylus writes the first Greek tragedy

By the time Aeschylus wrote the first Greek drama Egyptians had been doing the Heb-Sed for over 2000 years!

The Heb-Sed

In old, old, OLD Egypt, when the king got too rickety to rock 'n rule, they iced the old geezer! Around 3000 BC, the Egyptians, creative dudes that they were, decided to try replacing the real murder with a ritual "pretend" murder: the Heb-Sed.

The Heb-Sed evolved into Passion Plays in which the Egyptians acted out stories from Egypt's glorious past. Evidence suggests that the Passion Plays were often sung and accompanied by music.

Around 600 BC hundreds of Greek ships hit the sea to escape the grouchy Spartans. So many Greeks settled in Egypt that the Pharaoh gave them a city! The Greeks were impressed with Egyptian temples, Egyptian religion and they were truly dazzled by the Egyptian Passion Plays!

In 484 BC, Aeschylus wrote the first Greek "tragedy."

If you're looking for someone to blame for the origin of opera, blame the Egyptians, blame the Mesopotamians, blame the Chinese, blame the Greeks...blame Human Nature. People everywhere have the impulse to sing and act out stories, so opera in some form seems to be hardwired into us.

Origin is one thing, perfection is another. The evolution of opera in the West has been dominated by the interplay—sometimes collision—of the Italian and German schools of opera.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.


From what historians know of Greek tragedy, much of the play was chanted or sung. Although the music hasn't survived, Aristotle and his contemporaries tell us that music was an important part of Greek tragedy. From Aristotle's classical definition of tragedy:

Tragedy ... is the imitation of some action that is important, entire ... by language, ornamented and rendered pleasurable.... In some parts meter alone is employed, and others, Melody.

(The structure of Greek tragedy will be clearer as we go. Aristotle's concept of 'unity' has strongly influenced every form of 'long' storytelling—especially novels, plays and opera.)


The musical parts of Greek tragedy were never allowed to stand on their own or to compete with the text. Greek playwrights believed that the Music had to be kept within strict bounds or it would overpower the Drama.

It's not that the Greeks were afraid of music—they just understood its power.

Greek playwrights didn't mix comedy and tragedy. Greek comedy was spoken—although the chorus was sung. The chorus was often in the form of animals—flies, frogs or sheep—and their singing foolishly parodied the chanting tragic choruses.

THE ANCIENT ROMANS A Funny Thing Happened ...

Roman Dramas also used Music. Roman actors and actresses sometimes sang their lines, as did the choruses. The tragedies of Seneca—plays like Medea, The Trojan Women, and Hercules on Oeta—followed the Greek model and included a chorus to be sung.

Some historians consider Roman comedies the ancestors of our Broadway musicals.

The two most famous Roman comic playwrights, Plautus and Terence, used songs in their plays...

THE DARK AGES The Middle Ages

The Dark and Middle Ages were like a sicko's multiple-choice test:

Limping Toward the Renaissance

Inspired by greed, power, and several utterly insane versions of Christianity, "the Church" killed Jews, Muslims, freethinking Christians—and nonconformism of any kind. That lasted for several bloody centuries until the 14th century, when the rise of the great city-states of northern Italy brought the brain-dead Middle Ages to a halt. What little musicky drama existed during the Middle Ages revolved around religion. Priests and nuns mounted Christmas and Easter plays that, when combined with Gregorian chants, became what is called pre-operatic.

The "Quem Quaeritis" Plays

The most famous of the pre-operatic church dramas is the Quem Quaeritis play (quem quaeritis means "Whom do you seek?"). In these Easter-week plays, a group of women go to the tomb to anoint Christ's body. At the tomb, an angel asks them whom they seek. When they say they seek Jesus, the angel tells them that Christ has risen from the dead. This brief encounter was staged and sung. Other characters were added. Eventually it presented the whole story of Christ's crucifixion, all or mostly sung.

As these plays evolved they became less religious and more theatrical. They began to include figures like bawdy devils, which became so popular with audiences that the bishops ordered the plays removed from the church and into the village marketplaces. Finally, after centuries of hibernation, people began to wake up.

They call their awakening "the Renaissance"—the Rebirth.

To them, it was a return to ancient Greece.


Italy was the home of Michelangelo and Leonardo. Italy was the place where Vivaldi hid in a monastery in fake monkhood just so he could write a few hundred hit tunes. Italy was the stomping-ground of princes and popes. Italy was a place where rich guys with time, money and brains made grand plans to perfect man and beautify the world. No two ways about it:

Italy was the heart, soul and pocketbook of the Renaissance.

The Camerata Group

The Camerata group, sponsored by Count Giovanni Bardi, was founded in Florence Italy in 1573. The group—composed of scholars who were also poets, singers, musicians ("Renaissance men") met regularly to rap about Greek culture. In no time, they came up with a nifty theory: If you combine serious Drama with serious Music, you enhance the power of both. The Greeks "borrowed" from the Egyptians, the Italians "borrowed" from the Greeks (then Wagner takes credit for everything). Count Bardi, on a roll, commissioned his Camerata group to produce a modern version of the ancient Greek art form.

The First Real Opera

In 1597 Jacopo Peri, with a libretto (words/story/text) by Ottavio Rinuccini, wrote Dafne (based on the Greek myth of the unfortunate lady who turned into a tree). Dafne, the first "modern" opera, was an instant success. The music has been lost, but from all accounts the music was secondary to the play, a relationship that continued through the early years of opera.

To opera's early masterminds, the story was far more important than the music.

The Earliest Surviving Opera

The earliest surviving opera—also by Peri and Rinuccini—was Euridice, composed in 1600.

The people went crazy for it. Opera quickly spread from Florence to Rome, Venice and all the other major cities in Italy.

Everyone loved it!

(Well, not quite everyone ...)

In 1697, Pope Innocent XI ordered an opera house burned to the ground.



MONTEVERDI: The People's Genius

Opera changed drastically once it moved to Venice and into the hands and heart of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Monteverdi wrote his first opera, Orfeo, in 1607. The text (by Striggio) was similar to that of the old Camerata group, but Monteverdi, an authentic genius, wrote real music. The old rascal even included a few dances!

The first public opera house (San Cassiano) opened in Venice in 1637. There, Monteverdi could work for large groups of people instead of a few filthy rich Greek wannabes that dominated the Camerata group. The large audience of "real" people made it clear that they didn't like the talky version of opera (called Arioso):

• They wanted music—even if it delayed the opera's action!

• They want songs—even if they stopped the story dead!

• They wanted fancy songs—even if the words often couldn't quite be understood!

His audience was more important to Monteverdi than some Sugar Daddies' academic theories, so he shifted the emphasis from Dramatic Action to more Musical Opera. By 1670 there were public opera houses in Florence, Rome, Genoa, Bologna and Modena—and 20 in Venice—which, thanks to Mr. Monteverdi, had become the opera capital of the world. Two of Monteverdi's Venetian operas survive: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (1639) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642).

ARIA & RECITATIVO Opera Becomes A Singer's Art

Story—at least some semblance of it—was all that separated opera from a list of Top Twenty Tunes, so Monteverdi and his acolytes couldn't trash the story altogether. If the audience hated the talky arioso form, opera's early geniuses would have to come up with something to replace it.

So they did! Monteverdi and the boys, acting with the wisdom of Solomon, divided the arioso form into two parts: the Aria and the Recitativo.

An Aria was a real song that was sung solo.

The Recitativo told the story, often with only harpsichord accompaniment.

Opera was becoming a series of arias interrupted by just enough recitativo to tell the story. Opera now offered more vocal display and less serious drama. The audience loved it. What they wanted was some bodacious singing. Enter "the castrati," the divos ... the first rock 'n'roll stars. But we will save them for the section on singers. For now, let's go back to the composers and to the evolution of opera itself.

Italy was, by a Texas mile, the birthplace of opera. Nobody disputes that. But you can make a pretty good case for England being second in importance during opera's formative days. Since we are about to change countries, our point will be better made if we take a step backward in time as well.

The 'MASQUES' and the MASTER

The Italian mascherata, the French masquerade and the English masque were different names for a pre-operatic form of "Royal entertainment" that used poetry, dance, and music ... but no drama. They were called "masques" (God, I hate saying things like this) because the performers often wore ... masks!

Technically, the English masques had no drama, so all of this would be forgettable if it weren't for a great-souled British gent named Henry Purcell (1669-1695). Purcell wrote the music for many masques at the English court. The power and beauty of his best music is breathtaking.

HANDEL: Havin' It Both Ways

George Frederic Handel (1685–1759) was born in Germany, studied music in Italy, then swam over to London (1710), where he became the most successful writer of Italian Opera Seria of his time. Handel wrote 35 operas for London, each filled with the impossibly difficult coloratura arias that the castrati loved to show off on ... and that the public loved. His operas Rinaldo (1711) and Alcina (1735) achieved great success with London audiences.

Haunted by Greek Tragedy

Handel wasn't satisfied with writing operas that would show off his Cadillac-without-an-engine singers. He also wrote operas that sustained dramatic interest and featured characters that the audience could admire. In the words of critic Donald Grout:

Handel's dramatic creations are universal, ideal types of humanity ... If his characters suffer, the music gives full, eloquent expression to their sorrow....

We are moved by the spectacle of suffering, but our compassion is mingled with pride that we ourselves belong to a species capable of such heroism.

For a magnificent illustration of Handel's "nobly suffering characters" check out Jan Peerce singing the aria "Total Eclipse" from Handel's opera Sampson. (The "nobly suffering character" eliciting "our compassion mingled with pride that we ourselves belong to a species capable of such heroism" is at the heart of Aristotle's monumental definition of Greek Tragedy. The suffering is always mitigated by a sense of heroic rightness and inevitability.)

Van Gogh's Other Ear

Whether Handel's operas did or didn't achieve the stature of Greek tragedy, they were fabulously popular in 18th- century London. Handel was a natural showman. He used every stage spectacle he could beg, borrow, build or steal. His use of the orchestra was impressive. And he wrote the most dazzling bouquet of arias that anyone had ever heard, from the simple, austere and simply beautiful to the flashiest, show-offiest, most fiendishly difficult arias for singers of every voice.

With Handel, Music had achieved its primacy. It's no accident operas are "written by" the person who wrote the Music. The poor schlemiel who wrote the words is flushed down history's toilet alongside Shakespeare's wife and Van Gogh's other ear.


By the mid-17th century, Vienna had become so cracked for Italian opera that the Austrian royalty imported their own Italian court composers, singers and musicians. When they ran out of real Italians, they settled for Germans who pretended to be Italians! (Swear to God. You can't make this stuff up!)

By the 18th century, the Viennese, like all of Europe, were grooving on the fact that opera had become an outrageously spectacular singers' art.

However ... one of the imported Germans was an earnest cat named Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787). Mr. Gluck is usually referred to by opera historians as a "reformer"—a word you normally use to describe prison wardens or saints on a mission from God. The no-nonsense Mr. Gluck seemed to be personally offended by the fact that the Italians had allowed opera to degenerate into mere Music.

Not even music! SINGING! Fancy, schmancy singing!

Commander Gluck wanted the Poetry and Drama of opera to reflect the simplicity and power of Greek tragedy. He hated the hot-dog singers and their excessive vocal ornamentation. In his operas Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767), Gluck tried to bring the quiet restraint of Greek drama into Viennese opera. Opera, from day one, had been a balancing act—or a war—between Drama and Music. As a rule, the Germans have lined up behind Drama and the Italians have formed a messy circle behind Music.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to every rule ...


If you had to choose one person who most gracefully combined both the Italian and German approaches to opera by the end of the 18th century, by near-unanimous agreement, it would be Mozart.


Excerpted from THE HISTORY OF OPERA FOR BEGINNERS by RON DAVID, SARA WOOLEY. Copyright © 2013 Ron David. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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


Introduction: Shawshank & The Fat Lady,
Scene 3: THE BEL CANTO COMPOSERS: Glossary of Opera-Related Terms,
Scene 4: VERDI: Like Charlie The Tuna,
Scene 7: 'VERISMO': True-to-Life Opera,
Scene 9: 20th-CENTURY OPERA,
Act Two: Opera SINGERS,
Scene 11: The CASTRATI,
Scene 12: B.C. (Before Caruso),
Scene 13: MR. CARUSO,
Scene 14: A.C. (After Caruso),
Scene 15: P.C (Post-Callas),
Act Three: LISTENING to Opera,
Act Four: 'Listener-Friendly' OPERAS,
Curtain Calls,
Scholarly Approach to Opera,
The Future of Opera,

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