So just what is opera?
(by Adrian Park)
Opera, from the Italian for ‘the works’, is probably the most completely integrated form of classical music – and not just music, but also drama and shear spectacle, and yet exactly ‘what is an opera’ is a question not easy to answer. Here, for what it’s worth is my humble opinion.
Operas vary enormously in style, length and quality – of all classical music forms it probably has the highest rate of redundancy, with thousands having been composed over the last 400 years and fallen by the wayside (it has always been and remains a high-risk art form – expensive to produce with no guarantee of success at the box office). I’ll admit to a personal bias here – my own tastes run to an eclectic mix of 19th century ‘greats’ and not so greats (Ethel Smyth’s ‘The Wreckers’ anyone?), and many more 20th century (even 21st century) pieces. I have yet to sit through a Handel opera and not almost lose the will to live after 30 minutes, and while I can appreciate the importance of Berg’s Wozzeck in the history of 20th century opera, and realize an intense and original genius is at work, sitting through the entire piece is an ordeal.
What unifies the art form from Monteverdi’s Orfeo through to say Thomas Ades’ The Tempest or John Adams’ Nixon in China (which I will admit was one of the most engrossing pieces of music and drama I have ever sat through)? Simply put, it is the marriage of drama and music, such that neither could exist without the other. The music underpins the drama, comments on it, offers insights into it (particularly in revealing the state of mind of the participants – she’s singing one thing in the lyrics, but the music is saying something else entirely).
Structure lies at the heart of this art form. Opera is not just a play interrupted by pretty songs or spectacular choruses – the music evolves and the themes relate to each other in such a way as to drive the drama forward. The music expresses something that mere words cannot. Music and words in opera generally come together in three ways – recitative where the characters render dialogue in a sing-song fashion accompanied by music, arias where one or more characters stop the show with a more or less spectacular display of virtuosity generally forming an important plot point, quite often fulfilling the same role as soliliquy in drama, and ensemble choruses where much, if not all the cast get in on the action with vocal pyrotechnics. There may also be spoken lines with no music, and various pieces that are more than an aria, but less than an ensemble piece, such as duets, trios, quartets and such like.
Arias are the bits that generally get selected for recordings of highlights from operas, recordings illustrating the prowess of particular artists, and for live recitals by singers. In Handel’s day they were often written with a particular singer in mind, and certain singers demanded that favorite arias be incorporated in productions of operas before they would agree to perform at all (whether or not the aria had anything to do with the production in question). Here, the aria was pure vocal spectacle, and often followed the da capo formula – known as ABA, where A is one theme, followed by B, a second theme, wrapped up with a highly elaborate repetition of the first theme …. and with encores they could go on, and on, and on….
This somewhat chaotic world of opera – where performers with big names dominated the stage – started to fade in the late 18th century, after the Austrian composer, Christoff Gluck, suggested reforms. Anything not relevant to the story was abolished (largely) and arias for shear spectacle were the first victim (dance episodes were another). In the years that followed opera entered a golden age served by such musical giants as Mozart and Beethoven, producing some of the first operas that held the stage from their birth into modern times (the revival of Handel’s and earlier operas has only occurred during the last 40 years). These were also the years when Italian opera (the original), French opera and German opera began to go their seperate ways. In all three traditions though, new dramatic elements entered opera. Up to and including the operas by Gluck plots tended to come from ancient mythology, or the occasional Biblical story – with Mozart, Beethoven and then Rossini, composers turned to setting non-classical stories, even subjects by contemporary authors.
What happened next revolves around the larger-than-life figures of Richard Wagner in Germany and Giuseppe Verdi in Italy. Each of these innovators, in very different ways, started developing a form of sung-through opera in which the distinction between recitative, aria, choruses, etc, blurred or vanished. Arias still existed, but they no longer paused the action, they were part of it. Wagner had a penchant for mythic subject matter, but Verdi tended to go for historical dramas or even Shakespeare. Italian and French composers later in the 19th century, influenced by the verismo movement in theatre,went further and introduced modern subjects, often with a hint (or even more than a hint) of scandal. One definition of a great 19th century opera is: ‘just the right balance of sex and violence, with a good body count in the last act’ – some slaughtered the entire cast in the finale (witness Saint-Säens Samson et Dalila or Meyerbeer’s Le prophete – Wagner, of course, went one step further, destroying the entire cast – except the Rhine Maidens – as well as heaven and earth at the end of Die Götterdammerüng), heroines also had a tendency to expire pitifully in the last act.
From Monteverdi to the late 19th century composers, such as Puccini, opera was a contemporary art-from. Audiences demanded new productions and new compositions (as in all classical music up to the 1920s). A few old war-horses were revived regularly, but the vast majority of operas that saw the stage in any major opera house most years were new works. But the revolution that hit classical music generally early in the 20th century did not leave opera unscathed – the revolution brought on by the work of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and also by Stravinsky, fundamentally changed the nature of the beast. Many composers eschewed opera entirely as a 19th century relic of the old way of doing things, and new operas in the revolutionary style did not grab the imagination of mass audiences in the same way the productions of the earlier generation had. Opera houses came to be dominated by revivals of the old favorites, and those which continued to stage new works were considered daring (or well-subsidized). At the same time costs began to escalate, and what had always been an expensive art-form to stage came to require some form of subsidy (either from the state or philanthropists with deep pockets) to survive. In such a climate, risk-taking with new productions was not encouraged.
And yet, the composing and staging of new operas did not entirely vanish. Composers were not as prolific as they had been in earlier times, but some composers demonstrated that an audience for opera, even modern opera, still existed. Now, of course, earnings from the box office could be augmented by recordings – especially after vinyl LPs appeared in the later 1950s making it practical to record an entire opera in 30 minute chunks – by 1964 even Wagner’s gargantuan four-part Des Ring der Nibelungen has appeared on disk. Broadcast royalties from radio and TV did not hurt a bit either. With the ending of the strangehold academic post-serialism had on classical music from the 1940s through to the late 1980s, opera has even re-emerged with fresh vigor. Composers like John Adams, Philip Glass, Thomas Ades, even Hans Werner Henze, have refreshed the genre.
So, where to begin if you are a novice? First of all ignore the snobs – if you sat through the recent film of Les Miserables and enjoyed and were moved by it – guess what? It’s an opera in all but name. Beethoven’s Fidelio and most Mozart’s operas have more spoken dialogue. The themes of Valjean’s soliliquy at the end of the prologue re-emerge in Javert’s big arias ‘Stars’ and the monologue before his suicide, Eponine’s heart-broken ‘On My Own’ revisits Fantine’s show-stopping ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ and the ensemble piece ‘One More Day’ at the end of the second act pulls them all together with the revolutionaries’ rousing anthems. Sat through Evita, Chess or The Phantom of the Opera ?…… you get the idea. Purist will always think of such things as ‘stage musicals’ – but they display the characteristics I listed earlier (whether or not they are ‘great opera’ is a different matter entirely). Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was produced as a stage musical with only spoken dialogue from its premier in 1936 until 1968, when the complete sung-through version was staged for a memorial concert for Martin Luther King. The music is integrated so that themes evolve and relate to each other, and they are not just aural wall-paper, the music enhances and propels the drama along. You could even make a good case for West Side Story … honestly.
The usual list of ‘opera for beginners’ goes something like this …. La bohéme (and incidentally Rent is just a modern take on the same plot), Carmen, and I would add Otello. Well, they are OK as far as they go, but why restrict yourself? The psychodrama of Wozzeck may draw you in completely and Handel’s operas may delight you – the political passion in Henze’s We Shall Come to the River or Blitzstein’s The Crade Shall Rock may entrance you completely. But do see an opera – don’t just buy a CD set or down-load tracks and expect to experience the whole thing. Increasingly common productions on DVD are better – but an opera on stage is not to be missed. And there is the rub – it is expensive – both tickets and the cost of getting to Montréal, Toronto, Boston or New York – accommodation, etc, and the end result is not much change from $800 (mind you, how many big name music concerts cost less than $150 these days, plus travel and accommodation?).
The New York Metropolitan Opera changed the game some ten years ago by arranging live broadcasts of some of its productions through co-operating cinemas (Cineplex in eastern Canada). With high-definition projection and top quality stereo sound the result is probably the closest thing available to actually being there. Tickets are $24 – add a zero and that might get you in the front door at the Met itself with a seat in the nose-bleed gallery behind a pillar. In other words, the cost of a new CD, or three drinks and cover at your favorite watering hole is involved. The seasons running from October to May consist of 12 operas (12 live broadcasts and 12 encore repeats) with the usual mix – each season will generally include at least one Puccini, Verdi and Wagner production, a couple of bel canto operas (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti), at least one Mozart item, and then generally a couple of modern operas. At least one new opera used to be a rule, but financial constraints since 2008 have put dampers on this aspect of all opera house programs. The Berlin Opera House and London’s Covent Garden have got in on this act too, and they can be found on-line in North America. Some of the world’s best opera productions are available as never before. So take the plunge – be adventurous – don’t be afraid to dislike something. I sat through the Met’s production of Wagner’s Ring (OK, that’s 16 hours of my life I’ll never get back) in Robert Lepage’s stunning staging. Now, I’ll admit, part of the attraction is the novelty of being in a crowd where I’m one of the youngsters,but in Die Walküre three 19-20 year-olds sat in the same row (with ballcaps and T-shirts and bags of popcorn) and had the stamina for the full six hours. After the Ride of the Walküres one of them muttered ‘s**t, that was cool!’ …… and he was right!
Diversions: 15th Summer Festival of Opera.
Every year on Sundays from the Canada Day Weekend to Labour Day ‘Diversions’ on CHSRfm puts on a Summer Festival of Opera – 9 complete operas in recordings that vary from examples from the archives to modern productions. This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss and to mark this two of his operas, Salomé and Elektra will be broadcast. The other seven will be opera with a Russian flavour, from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, through Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, to Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon. It’s not quite opera live, but then it won’t require a second mortgage ….. just tune into ‘Diversions’ on CHSRfm 97.9 Sundays at 4:00pm.