An opera is a dramatic work in which the performers sing all or most of their lines. It is a staged narrative fusion of music, drama (or comedy, or both) and spectacle, with the emphasis on the music.
An opera can last for five hours or more (Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg) or under ten minutes (Darius Milhaud’s The Deliverance of Theseus; have a cast of hundreds (Verdi’s Aida – with or without the elephants) or just a handful (Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge; can be a story from the start of the world (Eugen D'Albert’s Cain) or its end (Wagner’s Götterdämmerung); historical (Handel’s Julius Caesar) or topical (John Adams’ Nixon in China), for children (Hansel and Gretel) or adults (Salome); the fantasmagorical (Mozart’s The Magic Flute) or of real and grubby life Alban Berg’s Lulu).
Many of the works of the world’s great writers have been adapted for the operatic stage – from Shakespeare (Macbeth, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and more.) John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress), Aleksandr Pushkin (Eugene Enegin Boris Godunov etc.), Tolstoy War and Peace) Goethe (Faust) and many more.
Opera as we know it grew out of court entertainment in Renaissance Italy. It was a logical progression from the madrigal, by then at its highest point, as a vehicle for dramatic expression in both solo and ensemble singing accompanied by an “orchestra” – although it would be considered to be a chamber ensemble today. There were already masques and miracle plays and other stage entertainments with sets and costumes but the year 1600 is generally regarded as the time of opera’s birth. The first opera that is still performed today is Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, (1607) that age-old favourite tale of Orpheus and Euridice (in this case given a happy ending). It consisted of solo and choral arias (airs or songs) sung to a narrative and with scenery, but performed in a series of tableaux. There was not a lot of walking about.
By the end of the 17th century a definite divergence can be heard between Italian and French “styles”. Italy had settled on a three-movement overture followed by 3 acts of “action” with recitatives and arias interspersed with duets or choral pieces…all still fairly formal and declamatory. The French, where the leading figure was the court musician and composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and financed by the royal court, operas contained extremely extravagant sets, sound effects and costumes, and had 5 acts of mythological or classical stories, frequently adapted to bask the king himself in their glow. However, the greatest opera of the late 1600s, and the one frequently performed today, was the Englishman Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
The first half of the 18th century, the “high baroque period, saw a golden age of opera. G.F. Handel alone staged nearly 50 operas, quite a few of which are performed today; Vivaldi, well over 50. Jean Philippe Rameau was writing operas with ballet scenes and orchestral interludes of “pure” music that looked forward to the great music dramas of the next century and have been taken out of their context to be heard today in concerts and on record as stand-alone pieces or suites. (The music of this period, whether it be opera, orchestral, song, or sacred, is the earliest to generally sound “normal” to the modern untrained listener, even if it is played on authentic instruments in its original style.)
By this time the age of the singer-as-star had arrived – and with it the need for music to match the vanities of this pampered breed: the big aria. Also, by this time, opera had settled into a sort of institutionalised rigidity with a recitative followed by an aria (usually “da capo” – the first theme is repeated at the end, but with embellishments and flourishes) not necessarily having much to do with the flow of the story.
The second half of the 18th century, in opera, belongs to two composers. In 1762 Christophe Willibald Gluck wrote Orpheo et Euridice, the first of his “reform” operas. There is a simplicity and clarity in this work not seen before in opera (he had done much the same thing to ballet the year before with Don Juan - the two actually share some storm music.) The arias were part of the narrative instead of the story going “on hold” whilst singers let loose their virtuosity to an admiring, though increasingly bored public – opera suddenly became a truly dramatic art form with the music serving the poetry, the narrative and the tension between characters.
Gluck’s innovations were continued by the great W. A. Mozart. There are half a dozen or so operas by this giant that at or near the top of the operatic pile. Somewhere in the world today a major opera house is preparing for, or performing, one of these works written within the ten years from 1781, starting with Idomeneo and finishing with the fantastical, lyrical and wondrously entertaining The Magic Flute. Don Giovanni is generally considered his best, and is the earliest opera to have remained constantly in the repertoire unchanged from its inception (1787).
The first half of the 19th century saw Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, the rise of “bel canto” (literally “beautiful singing”, exemplified by the prodigious Gioacchino Rossini, and his more serious Italian compatriots Bellini and Donizetti), and the advent of the romantic era, generally held to be introduced by Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freishütz in 1821. French opera was fortunate to be served by a series of first rate works – still regularly performed – by Meyerbeer (German born, but all his major works written and performed in Paris); Hector Berlioz and Daniel Auber. A younger generation kept the tricolour flying: Georges Bizet wrote what is possibly the most popular opera of all time, Carmen and possibly the most popular duet (In the Depths of the Temple from The Pearlfishers). Russian opera made its international debut with Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar followed by the still extremely popular Russlan and Ludmila. A later generation of Russian nationalists (Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) and the Bohemians Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak wrote operas reflecting the life, history or traditions of their regions in a tradition that would continue into the 20th century with Leos Janacek.
During the 19th century a lighter form of opera appeared, variously called “opera buffo”, “opera comique”, operetta, depending on the time and place. Jacques Offenbach is generally considered the “inventor" of this genre, but it appeared under many guises: the Viennese operettas of the Strauss family and others, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Spanish and Latin American “zarzuela”, finally popping up in America with the productions of Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg and the like, before transforming into the form known to all as, just,” the musical”
The two giants of 19th century opera began work in the 1830s. Richard Wagner’s first successful opera Rienzi and Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco both had their first performances in 1842. Between them they would dominate the operatic world for the next 50 years. Verdi, in a string of works, most of which are household names, continued the Italian operatic tradition, although the recitative could now be as tuneful as the aria. His plots came from all directions; history, Shakespeare, Dumas, Schiller, Victor Hugo, the Bible, and his characters from all parts of society.
Richard Wagner hauled opera off into a new place. The recitative disappeared, as did the aria to some extent, to be replaced by a sort of “constant music”, dominated by previously unheard orchestral textures and harmonies and the use of the “leitmotif”, whereby each character or scene in the opera is “identified” by a musical phrase introduced with their first appearance. The characters, the voice, the orchestra, the scenery, the complete fabric of the opera, were treated as a whole, which he called “Music Drama”.
The 20th century, it seems, was not fond of comedy. Starting at the end of the previous century with the verismo operas of Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo and the incomparable Giacomo Puccini the great operas of the century are nearly all miserable. Love rarely prevailed. Humour appears occasionally (Prokofiev’s A Love for Three Oranges, Shostakovich’s The Nose, Der Rosenkavalier of Richard Strauss, (normally almost mini-Wagnerian in his treatments); but most of the great genuinely 20th century operas, starting with Claude Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande including the groundbreaking works of the Englishman Benjamin Britten (Peter Grimes, Billy Budd The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice) were dark. (There are exceptions: Britten wrote an operatic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and operas for children). Late in the century topical concerns prevailed: the American minimalist, John Adams wrote Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (based on the PLO terrorists’ hijacking of the cruise liner, “Achille Lauro” in 1985).
Opera is still popular despite attempts by some on both sides of the artistic divide to divorce it entirely from popular culture. The popularity of Luciano Pavarotti, and so-called “crossover” artists like Katherine Jenkins and Paul Potts testifies to this. Opera houses still get by, despite the enormous costs of producing works like Aida or War and Peace. Operas are still being written; not always to critical acclaim – it must be remembered, though, that Bizet died believing that Carmen was a complete failure.