Opera is an elaborate form of art that blends together many orchestral, lyrical, and theatrical aesthetics. In tracing the origins of opera, we will examine the various forms of opera that have originated over time,
as well as some of the most celebrated operas and composers.
To understand the development of opera, it is helpful to first become familiar with the common elements of the genre. Singing is one of the most salient operatic elements. Although opera is presented theatrically (using a stage, performers, acting and costumes), the words in operas, called librettos, are commonly sung rather than spoken. Two types of singing exist in opera. Recitative consists of sung dialogue without melody, which is used commonly to advance plot. Aria, in contrast, refers to melodic singing, commonly featuring great emotional expression. However, these two forms of singing have amalgamated into one in the mid to late 1800’s, when arioso style became the most popular singing style, resulting more consistent sounding operas that were predominately semi-melodic.
Hoffer (2005) mentions that distinct voices are frequently matched with the role of the character in an opera. Although my experience with opera is extremely limited, I was able relate this information with some opera works I am familiar with. In 2003, I saw “The Turn of the Screw,” (adapted from the Henry James novella) at the Lyric Opera House. My interest in gothic fiction led me to see the work, and it was a fantastic experience in part because it was so unique from any other live performance I had ever seen. The heroine in this opera was a soprano, singing in a light, high voice that was very fitting for a gothic heroine. The children, Miles and Flora, also were also sopranos (and extremely talented ones at that, considering their remarkable voices at such young ages). The governess’ companion, Mrs. Grose, sang in a slightly lower voice (possibly mezzosporano, or contralto), which fit her role as the older, more experienced governess. The villains, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, sang in (what I remember to be) even lower voices, possibly bass, which would fit Hoffer’s alignment of the villain role with the low pitched bassist. I also recalled that these vocal/character pairings were evident in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical masterpiece, “The Phantom of the Opera”. Although the work itself is not an opera, the play is set in an opera house, and many of the characters act as opera singers. The protagonist (and gothic heroine) Christine Daae sings in soprano; the her love, Raoul, sings in tenor, which is audibly higher in pitch than the bass voice of the Phantom, who assumes the role of the villain (or arguably the anti-hero).
Musical accompaniment is another essential component of opera. The orchestra sets the mood of the performance and helps establish the atmosphere of a particular scene. (Certainly, music intensifies a performance in a profound way, either on film or on stage. I can’t imagine being frightened by a horror film that featured music from the Beach Boys in the background, but if I were to hear sharp violin notes or a low piano melody, I would definitely become more engaged in the performance). The role of the orchestra music is so large in opera that the orchestral components of some modern operas are performed in concert halls without any vocals (Hoffer, 2005).
The early traces of opera began in early seventeenth century Europe as an attempt to restore ancient Greek drama. In Italy, semi-dramatic public performances, called intermedi, were staged to recognize important state events, such as weddings, military victories, or holidays. These performances were composed as monodies: homophonic solo vocal compositions having a single line of melody with simple sequences of musical accompaniment. (The practice of monody in early forms of opera was derived from an even earlier tradition of the madrigal, a common Renaissance style of singing that utilized polyphonic arrangement, meaning that vocal and musical melodies were performed simultaneously. This form fell out of style in the late sixteenth century, when the aforementioned homophonic style grew in popularity). The establishment of early opera was marked by the construction of the first opera house in Venice, Italy in 1637 (Wikipedia.com). Although arias, choral ensembles (many characters singing different words), and duets (one song performance by two singers) were formed at this time, early opera was troubled by ill-fitting scenes and frequent irrelevancies. The development of drama was stunted.
Early eighteenth century German composer Christoph Gluck was also an important influence on opera. Gluck worked to make the music of opera fit the lyrics, which allowed for more dramatic performances (for instance, a crescendo might accompany a character’s emotional outpour, or a slow tempo might accompany a lamentation). Pertaining to his effort to reform opera, Gluck has been quoted saying that he “endeavored to reduce music to its proper function, that of seconding poetry, by enforcing the expression of the sentiment, and the interest of the situations, without interrupting the action” (OldandSold.com). In his efforts to reinvent dramatic opera, Gluck eliminated the recitative from his works. One of Gluck’s most remembered operas is Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), a tragedy based on Greek mythology that is still performed today. Operas inspired by ancient Greece were in vogue at the time, given the fact that opera began as a tribute to early Greek drama (Wikipedia.com).
Two main forms of opera were established in the early 1700s. Pietro Trapassi, also referred to as Metastasio, developed the standard of opera seria. This convention was composed of many elements, such as the new de capo aria which included an A-B-A musical form. This means that one musical theme would be presented, followed by a complimentary one, and then a development of the first theme with musical elaboration by the singer. The overall tone of operas written in opera seria was indeed serious, preserving the dramatic intent of the ancient Greek stage performances. Pietro Trapassi, often referred to as Metastasio, is attributed as the founder of the subgenre. The great writer created many librettos (the stage directions, lyrics, and spoken passages of an opera), which were sent to famous musical composers of many nations (it should be noted that operas are rarely written and musically composed by the same person). One of Metastasio’s most famous works is Attilio Regol, a work based on the life of an ancient Roman military leader of the same name who was taken prisoner by Carthagians during the first Punic war. This work, as well as other works in opera seria routinely featured classical characters from myth or war lore and carried themes of morality. Mozart, Handel, Beethoven and Gluck composed in opera seria (Wikipedia.com).
Opera buffa, the second main category in opera during the Baroque era, mainly consisted of operas with a comedic tone. Originally, comedic episodes were featured in opera seria to attract the merchant class to the opera houses, since the less cultured individuals tended to prefer comedies over serious operas based on literary classics such as the Illiad. The genre eventually developed in its own form due to the increasing popularity of comic opera. Opera buffa commonly presented an increase in recitative (the spoken part of the work) while the musical parts tended to decrease. Additionally important was the fact that works in this genre were actually comprehensible to the public, since they were not composed in a foreign language such as Latin or German (the rise of Opera Buffa led to the more frequent composition of the more easily understandable French or Italian). Essentially, the goal of opera buffa was popularity, as the works of this genre were written for “mere” entertainment purposes, since the performances were not centered on mythical heroes, but rather on comic scenes. The exact type of comedic approach could vary. Italian musical composer Gioacchino Rossini 1816 work “The Barber of Saville” was written for purely comedic purposes, while Mozart’s 1786 ‘The Marriage of Figaro” mixed comedy with drama and emotionality. Although the genre enjoyed great popularity in the eighteenth century, it fell out of interest in the early nineteenth century (Wikipedia.com).
The nineteenth century brought with it the bel canto movement, which concerned itself with the beauty of voice. The bel canto interest placed an emphasis on a singer’s virtuosity, agility, and control of pitch (Wikipedia.com).
In the second half of the nineteenth century, French opera with spoken (not sung) dialogue became popular. This form was referred to as “opera comique, regardless of whether the piece was actually a comedy or not). This fact was interesting to me, considering the fact that singing is essential to opera—without it, one might argue that the performance is simply a play with a musical score. Operetta, a very popular form of entertainment in mid-nineteenth century France, restored some of the ideals of opera buffa, although operettas were typically shorter, “lighter” operatic works with sections that did not include singing or music. It can be thought that the operetta was the precursor to the twentieth century musical comedy—but while an operetta featured opera singers in a style more similar to a play, a musical is similar to a play with non-operatic singing.
In closing, we might compare the then-popular distinction between opera seria and opera buffa with the more modern distinction between opera and the musical. Although both are forms of entertainment, the opera is more cultured, more artistic, and commonly written in a foreign language. Although the musical is not a modern day opera buffa, some parallels exist in the sense that musicals have become more popular in the last few decades, especially among the “less cultured” crowds that seek entertainment over operatic aesthetics. Although musicals are arguably more popular today, I do not mean to suggest that they have taken over the role of opera (which in my limited experience has been extremely unlike any play or musical I’ve witnessed). My comparison here is to merely note the changing interests of the public when it comes to the blending of music with theatrics, as the distinction of tastes have held an importance in the development of opera through the ages.
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Orfeo ed Euridice”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orfeo_ed_Euridice
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Metastasio”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metastasio
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Intermedi”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006.
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Libretto”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006.
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Giacchino Rossini”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gioacchino_Rossini
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Bel Canto”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006.
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Opera Buffa”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006.
Wikipedia,com, 2006. “Opera Seria”. Retrieved on April 13, 2006.