The enthusiast's audio webzine

For the Love of Opera

Lully's Opera "Armide" Performed at the Palais-Royal, 1761, by Saint-Aubin

Why am I so enthralled with opera? Certain voices singing certain passages will move me to tears. One aria fills me with gladness and yet another leaves me wistfully longing for a tender moment, long forgotten in my past. I like just about all forms of music. But with Opera, I experience more moments of epiphany with deeper feelings. Why? It’s the singing of course; but not all singing makes me swoon. Opera provides context that allows the singing to strike a more emotional chord. Opera incorporates music, literature and stage to produce a work of art. A perfect opera would excel in delivering all three facets. Most are unable to deliver on all fronts.

The emphasis on specific components has varied over the course of opera’s history. Understanding these changes helps me to appreciate each work. It can be a pleasure to experience an opera that faithfully executes a less-than-perfect composition if I understand its history. Knowing the forces that influenced the composer to write a particular opera is like following a travel guide. It tells me what to listen for and appreciate.

Opera owes its birth to the spirit of Renaissance that was sweeping through Italy in the 16th century. A group that came to be called Camerata met in Florence in 1573 to revive classical Greek dramas. The Camerata offered dramas with visceral and realistic music as an alternative to the complex, contrapuntal choral music that was popular at the time. Listeners often found it difficult to discern individual lines and melodies in polyphonic music. While this was effective in music sung to exult the glory of God, it did not express the interplay of human feelings very well. Polyphonism expresses adoration of the sublime well, but not romantic or filial love. Secular poems sung in polyphonic madrigals lacked the directness of monody found in the new musical drama – which came to be known as opera. In Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, one of the earliest operas still played today, monodic recitatives and arias are the primary vehicles for telling the story, while the instruments become accompaniments.

By 1750, opera seria, which emphasized singing as the primary mode of expression, had become just as ineffective in conveying narrative drama as the polyphonic choral music it replaced. Opera had become a showcase for virtuoso singing at the expense of storytelling. Plots in libretto only existed as excuses to launch one elaborate aria after another. Aria da capo (from the head) literally depended upon the singer to improvise and embellish the first section of a three-part aria. The third section was not written. It was simply marked “da capo,” meaning that it was up to the singer to return to the first section and stylize it with his or her own flair so as not to sound repetitive.

These “coloratura” improvisations in the da capo sections eventually got out of control. As polyphonic music made it hard for the audience to discern a single storyline, so extended melismatic runs hindered the audience from keeping track of any storyline. The familiar melisma from the Christmas carol Angels We Have Heard on High (possibly inspired by the Bach cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo) – glo-oooo-o-oooo-o-oooo-oria – shows how long it takes to sing one word. Imagine several together with trills, steps and even leaps as highly-skilled singers competed to outshine their rivals. The sheer virtuosity of their singing impressed the audience, but distracted them from the drama. Opera seria was no longer telling any story.

The rise and fall of opera seria went hand-in-hand with a class of singers known as castrati. The medieval church did not allow women to sing in church. The church used boys to sing soprano parts. Adult countertenors also sang soprano and alto roles. But a shameful practice developed to create a class of male sopranos called the castrati. Boys with promising voices were castrated before puberty to stop their vocal cords from enlarging. Thus a castrati would have a soprano range with the vocal power and projection of a fully grown man. Often from poor backgrounds (orphans, or sold by parents in need), they were mercilessly trained to become masters of their voices. The mutilation had other consequences for the castrati, including physical abnormality and mental instability.

The castrati could sing however. The most famous castrati, Farinelli, enthralled the courts in Italy, Germany, England and Spain. One noble lady in England uttered, “One God, one Farinelli!” The excessive vocal embellishment at the expense of storytelling and the demise of the aristocratic class it catered to eventually brought an end to opera seria. The spirit of Renaissance that started the opera movement evolved to the enlightenment that underpinned the social and political upheaval that ended much of the privilege enjoyed by the European aristocracy. It also marked the end of opera seria.

Perhaps inspired by the call to “return to nature” by Jean Jacques Rousseau, in 1769 Christoph Gluck stated the operatic version of Luther’s 95 theses in the preface to Alceste. Gluck wanted a Reformation for opera. The preface is such an erudite renunciation of the opera seria and a purposeful declaration of the “new” opera that all of it deserves to be reprinted here:

“When I undertook to set the opera Alceste to music, I purposed carefully to avoid all those abuses which the mistaken vanity of the singers, and the too great good nature of composers, had introduced into the Italian opera; abuses which reduced one of the noblest and most beautiful forms of the drama to the most tedious and ridiculous. I sought therefore to bring back music to its true sphere, that is, to add to the force of the poetry, to strengthen the expression of the emotions and the interest of the situations, without interrupting the action or deforming the music by useless ornamentation. I was of opinion that the music must be to the poetry what liveliness of color and a happy mixture of light and shade are for a faultless and well arranged drawing, which serve only to add life to the figures without injuring the outlines. I have therefore taken care not to interrupt the actor in the fire of his dialogue, and compel him to wait for the performance of some long tedious ritornello, or in the midst of a phrase suddenly hold him fast at some favorable vowel sound, that he may have opportunity by some long passage to exhibit his voice, or to make him wait while the orchestra gives him time to get breath for some long fermate.

“Nor have I thought myself at liberty to hurry over the second part of an aria, when perhaps this is just the most passionate and important part of the text, and this only to allow the customary repetition of the words four times; and just as little have I allowed myself to bring the aria to an end where there was no pause in the sense, just to gain an opportunity for the singer to show his skill in varying a passage. Enough; I wished to banish all those abuses against which sound common sense and true taste have so long contended in vain. I am of opinion that the overture should prepare the auditors for the character of the action which is to be presented, and hint at the progress of the same; that the instruments must be ever employed in proportion only to the degree of interest and passion; and the composer should avoid too marked a disparity in the dialogue between air and recitative, in order not to break the sense of a period, or interrupt in a wrong place the energy of the action. Further, I considered myself bound to devote a great share of my pains to the attainment of a noble simplicity; therefore I also avoided an ostentatious heaping up of difficulties at the expense of clearness; I have not valued in the least a new thought if it was not awakened by the situation and did not give the proper expression. Finally, I have even felt compelled to sacrifice rules to the improvement of the effect.”

What Gluck emphasized was not the singing or the music, but the dramatic effect of the 0pera however it was done. He wanted music and singing to be unfettered by unnecessary rules or conventions. He found success with Orpheus and Eurydice, Armide, and Alceste. Gluck’s revolutionary spirit found a champion in Mozart. In Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni, Mozart did a masterful job of combining the music and singing with harmony and counterpoint to create operas full of drama.

The end of opera seria also meant the end of castrati as the leading voices of opera. That role would belong to female sopranos and male tenors. The bel canto (beautiful singing) movement in opera was really about accommodating these virtuoso singers. The term prima donna came to be used to describe the sopranos whose coloratura skills – inherited from the castrati – would dominate the stage. These heroines were partnered by male tenors who could dramatically fill the role of lovers. The composers wrote operas to highlight these singers, who could naturally portray dramas that unfolded in human relations. The beautiful singing came at key moments in the opera to vocally express the feelings of the characters. In Bellini’s Norma, the title character sings, in the aria Casta Diva, of her inner struggles of wanting to return to being (spiritually) the priestess of the chaste goddess of the druids, but finding herself still in love with a Roman enemy who fathered her two children. The lyrical aria that demands wide range and virtuoso coloratura skills conveys the emotional state of Norma beautifully within the drama of Norma, the opera.

The emotional portrayals of the characters in bel canto became more dramatic with Giuseppe Verdi. In La Traviata and Rigoletto, the heroine roles are mostly lyrical coloratura, much like bel canto. But in Aida, Othello and Macbeth, they become more dramatic as the plot demands more emotions from the singers. Verdi turned to more visceral “chest voice” in dramatic moments as opposed to smoother “head voice.” He also used large orchestral music as well as some very poignant choral music to produce very emotionally rich operas. Verdi was a consummate master of the theater and his work really engaged the audience emotionally into the unfolding drama. La Traviata, Il Trovatore, RigolettoAida, and others are works that are still produced and in high demand throughout the world today. Some, however, consider Othello and Falstaff, the last two composed in his career, to be his most complete operas because the music, both orchestral and vocal, flows more continuously from the beginning to the end. In this, he was influenced by the works of the German composer Richard Wagner.

Wagner believed that opera should be a total artwork, which he called gesamtkunstwerk. He did not believe that arias should be composed as separated songs, nor did he consider any aspect of the opera as a separate part. He put music and theater together to create a complete drama that flowed from the start to the end. In a way, Wagner could be considered a champion of Gluck’s reformation. His use of leitmotifs (musical themes) for orchestra was an invention to enhance the effectiveness of orchestral music in the whole dramatic production. He is also the only composer to have designed his own theater, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, dedicated exclusively to producing his operas. Thus he had full control of the music and the theater to produce his compositions. The Romantic movement came to a climax with Wagner, as he synthesized all aspects of opera to create powerful emotional dramas.

In his quest to push the orchestra to emote, Wagner stumbled onto atonal sound in Tristan and Isolde, in what is now called the Tristan chord. It is a harbinger of the modern atonal music which found its expression in opera through Alban Berg. Berg used atonal music to bring a heightened sense of realism to opera in Wozzeck and Lulu. This extreme Verismo movement allowed music to express utter desolation. What Samuel Beckett’s disjointed words do for his plays, Berg’s atonality does for his operas.

My central point is that no opera comes from a vacuum. I have tried to provide a synoptic history of opera to show the major changes of emphases in composition. Understanding where each opera comes from goes a long way toward preparing oneself to be in the right frame of mind to know what to listen for, and to enjoy.

Image credits

Lully’s Opera “Armide” Performed at the Palais-Royal, 1761, by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, obtained from Wikipedia.

Readers' comments

    Rim — I love it — it would be great if you (or a knowledgeable reader of this column) would add a list of recommended recordings of great opera to get novices excited about this genre.

    • You really need to see a full production live to appreciate the drama of music and stage. I love the music by it self because I can visualize the scenes in my head. If you are new to Opera and can’t go to a live production, I would get a Blu-ray or DVD production to experience the theatrics along with the music. I like the Blu-ray, La Boheme: the film, starting Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. I would also recommend Turandot at the Forbidden City of Beijing (in DVD) because the whole production directed by Zhang Yimou is out of this world.

      We can discuss the finer points of audio recordings later if you want. I have my favorites and prejudices and I prefer the sound of vinyl for pure audio. In fact, I got back into vinyl only because a bulk of opera productions I like were not being reproduced in CD. Then some of them didn’t sound right either. Don’t get me started on the grating sound of digitalic Callas….

    A recommendation for anyone’s library and listening, Bach’s Actus Tragicus. Get the version from Harmonia Mundi (france). I read a BBC review that said it is a “beautifully warm and detailed recording”. My copy is years old on HM (deutsche) vinyl. This never gets old to me. It’s literally a cantata but don’t let that stop you.

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