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Learn About How Operas Started and How It is Now

Opera: Musically Rendered Storytelling for The Ages

Opera is a medium which is utilized to tell a story, often epic or heart-rending, through music, dance and drama. It is an English word derived from the phrase in Italian, “opera in musica”, and involves both solo and ensemble singers, and sometimes, even dancers. The concept developed during Renaissance Italy, in Florence, when a number of artists, musicians, and writers, along with eminent personalities of the time, famously the Florentine Camerata, started depicting Greek drama on-stage with music.

Opera performance

The opera is a musical performance typically known to consist of vocal and instrumental performances with orchestral interludes and overtures. The music may accompany the entire drama or be broken up into segments. It takes a great deal of preparation to get an opera on stage, such as the people, venue, acting, and pitch-perfect voice. But most of all, it is the writer of the story, who may have penned down his work hundreds of years ago. Then comes the writer of the libretto, who converts the prose into a play, keeping to the musical settings of an opera. This is followed by a composer who adds the defining element to the opera - the music - in a way that perfectly blends with the story-setting and the acting. While architects design the props and set, the director oversees how costumers, designers, or artists work on the stage. It is a collaborative effort on the part of the whole team, from the director to the actors to the musicians to bring an opera alive on stage.

Florence: The Birthplace

Operatic development happened profoundly in Florentine culture under the Medici family, due to a rich heritage that comprised of three things – a powerful stage music tradition, civic humanism, and the city’s association of music with the universe. The foremost reason that made Florence a point of origin for opera was its musical theatrical culture, particularly the intermedi or interludes, staged in-between play acts. The role of intermedi was to both demarcate among the divisions of the drama, and also to state how much time had passed through the introduction of characters who were not part of the central plot between interludes.

The revered and respected Giovanni Bardi, a Florentine nobleman, was the primary architect of early operatic beginnings and to this end, he worked in conjunction with the musicians and bands of the time. In 1589, history was witness to the intermedi finally bearing much of the characteristics of the opera – stage effects, solo singing, and costumes - that identify with what we have come to love today. There were, however, certain elements missing from the final result such as the uniquely innovative dramatic vocals. This is where we behold the contribution of the Italian composer Jacopo Peri, widely known as the one who invented the first genuine opera. He wrote Dafne in 1597, and from here on, we can distinctly comprehend the genesis of two operatic types, the “opera seria”, dignified pieces of musical dramatic performance suitable for royalty, and more comedic works, known as the “opera buffa”.

The Later Eras

The advent of the Baroque era in the 17th century saw the opera in full bloom and was typically characterized by intricate arias that went with moving set parts. One of the finest proponents of Italian Baroque opera at this time was German composer George Frideric Handel. Studies also show that there was a rise in male singers known as the castrati during this time. These were men who had undergone castration in order to maintain their high-pitched soprano skills. On the modern stage, this role is fulfilled by women known as countertenors.

The Classical age in the 18th century brought with it a few changes to the opera, primarily due to a number of social movements such as the Enlightenment. This difference is apparent in the much simpler musical forms with a stress on plot realism. The stalwart composer who defined this era was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself and his Le Nozze di Figaro or The Marriage of Figaro (1786), was adapted from a French play by Beaumarchais. Mozart’s affection for expansive drama is also evident in his crown jewel Don Giovanni (1787). The great Italian composer Gioachino Rossini was particularly talented in melodious comedies such as the Il Barbiere di Siviglia or The Barber of Seville (1813) and he was also the creator of the “bel canto”, an extremely flexible vocal technique that can only be achieved via rigorous training and is accompanied by musical acrobatics.

The Romantic period made operatic performances louder and grander in the 19th century with two virtuosos - Verdi and Wagner – leading the times. Verdi’s Il Trovatore (1853), Rigoletto (1851) and the brilliant La Traviata (1853), are exquisite exercises in human artistic galore. We can also see that the Singspiel, a German version of the opera, developed steadily in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with notable contributions made by Beethoven’s Fidelio (1805) and Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821). In France, the phenomenon of the “grand opera” came to be with an immense focus on spectacular set parts and glamour, very noticeable in Rossini’s final piece, 1829’s William Tell.

Gaetano Donizetti, who wrote the L’elisir d’amore in 1832 and Vincenzo Bellini, who wrote Norma in 1831, were spiritual successors of Rossini’s “bel canto” style. Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) is another masterpiece produced in the Romantic era of opera and Wagner’s 15-hour long, Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876), consisting of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, essentially initiated a vigor in the world of opera that went on to inspire a number of future greats, such as the likes of Mahler, Massenet, and Strauss.

As the 20th century dawned, it was met with the excellence of Giacomo Puccini and his practice into verismo. Some of his operas were La Bohème (1895), Tosca (1899) and Turandot (1924). There are also examples where politics and art came at odds in the 20th century when Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934) was banned by the Soviets because it was deemed as too disturbing. The United Kingdom also produced maestros such as Benjamin Britten, who wrote Peter Grimes (1945), a moving story of a fisherman and his life beside the sea. Another recent example over the last few decades is John Adams’ 1987’s Nixon in China by John Adams, based on an actual visit to China by the U.S. President.

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