Opera, drama in which the text is set to music and staged. The texts of operas are sung, with singing and stage action nearly always given instrumental accompaniment. Many operas also feature instrumental interludes (called intermezzi) and dance scenes, even extended ballets that interrupt the action.

Opera began as an entertainment at the courts of the Italian aristocracy, with outdoor terraces and even enclosed tennis courts being adapted for performances. It had its origins in the last years of the 16th century, and eventually this new form of entertainment caught on with the public. Giasone (1649) by Italian composer Pietro Francesco Cavalli held the stage for some 50 years. Opera as a popular entertainment attained its zenith in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after which the disruptive effects of two world wars and far-reaching developments in music itself left opera in a state of fairly arrested development.

In its heyday, opera was a prolific entertainment. Many of Europe’s greatest composers wrote operas by the dozen, and operas that took hold (many closed on opening night) were taken up by the feverishly adulated stars of the period. These stars held court in the sumptuous opera houses of Saint Petersburg, Naples, Rome, Venice, Milan, Vienna, Paris, and Berlin, and in such emerging outposts of opera as New York City and New Orleans, the last a stronghold of French opera in the 19th century. One wealthy eccentric even built an opera house in Manaus, a city deep in the Brazilian jungle, where Italian tenor Enrico Caruso made guest appearances.

Throughout its history opera has exerted great influence on other forms of music—and vice versa. The symphony, for example, began as an instrumental introduction (called a sinfonia) to 18th-century Italian opera. The glittering runs and cadenzas (extended virtuosic solos) of violin and piano concertos stem, in large part, from an attempt to replicate some of opera’s vocal brilliance for these instruments. The innovations in harmony and orchestration (assigning parts in an orchestral composition to different instruments) that 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner developed for his sprawling operas shaped the subsequent course of many musical forms. Indeed, many modern musicians regard the effort to emerge from the gigantic shadow of Wagner as the principal struggle of classical music after the 19th century.


Singing is at the heart of opera. In grand opera, the type of opera most commonly performed today, the entire text is sung. What makes it opera in the grand manner is the spectacle—lavish sets and costumes, huge choruses, brilliant vocal displays and dance numbers (usually ballet). In comic opera, however, singing generally alternates with passages that are half-sung and half-spoken and usually accompanied by a keyboard instrument. Comic operas are not necessarily humorous, however. The term comic opera (opéra comique in French, opera buffa in Italian, and Singspiel in German) was intended to distinguish operas that were lighter in style from opera seria (serious opera). Comic operas generally deal with ordinary people and places and end happily, whereas opera seria treats mythological or historical subjects and typically ends tragically. The most famous examples of comic opera are Carmen (1875) by French composer Georges Bizet and Fidelio (1805; revised 1806, 1814) by German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. A form of light, sentimental comic opera that flourished in Paris and Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to be called operetta. Imported to the United States, it evolved into the musical, a play that includes songs, choruses, and dances in its narrative.

All of these types of opera rest on the shared belief that music—and especially singing—intensifies dramatic effect. This was not always so. In opera’s early days, singing was often subordinated to ballet spectacles. And some opera composers, especially those of France and 19th-century Russia, emphasized extravagant scenic effects and extended dance episodes. Many of the later German composers made the orchestra a partner rather than an accompanist of the singer. But throughout the history of opera, the human voice has remained dominant.

A Vocal Numbers

Since the essence of opera is singing, the high points of the drama are set pieces such as arias, duets, and other numbers in which vocal music is emphasized. An aria is essentially a soliloquy (monologue), a duet is a dialogue, and trios typically dramatize the conflicted state of one of the participants. The complexity may be carried further, as in the quartet from Rigoletto (1851) by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi or the sextet in Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) by fellow Italian Gaetano Donizetti. Victor Hugo, author of the play from which Verdi adapted Rigoletto, marveled at how what would be unintelligible in the spoken theater—a quartet—became crystal-clear in content and feeling when set to music. Verdi reached the apex of this complexity with a fugue for ten characters and orchestra in his final opera, Falstaff (1893). (In a fugue one voice or instrument introduces a musical theme, which is then repeated and developed by the others in sequence.)

Composers employ these forms to suspend the action and dwell on one or several emotions simultaneously. Only a group of singers joined in ensemble can express different points of view at the same time. Sometimes, a chorus comments on the actions of the protagonists. In most choral numbers, the text is sung comparatively slowly, often with repetition of phrases.

It is difficult to carry an opera by means of aria alone, however. In the majority of operas, the principal method of articulating the plot and carrying the action forward is recitative: rapid singing in free tempo, following the inflections of speech, with a simple accompaniment. Recitative may bore operagoers who are unfamiliar with what is being sung (although the introduction of projected translations in the late 20th century has largely alleviated this incomprehension), but it is crucial to the advancement of the narrative. Not all opera preserves a strict distinction between recitative and such numbers as arias and choruses. Wagner moved away from this distinction in favor of a more continuous musical texture, and this practice has dominated opera ever since. Composers such as the Czech Leoš Janáček and the Russian Modest Mussorgsky elevated the observance of natural speech rhythms to a defining principle of their art.

B The Orchestra

If the singers provide the foundation of an operatic performance, the orchestra supplies the framework, the background, and the underpinning. Its instrumental preludes and thematic references prepare the audience for the evolution of the drama and provide dramatic context throughout the opera. The orchestra also supports the singers and underscores the climaxes. Its interludes cover changes of scenery or mood, and its coda (conclusion) provides the opera’s final statement.

C The Overture

In most operas, an orchestral overture or short prelude (usually woven from musical themes in the opera itself) sets the production in motion. Overtures are often performed as detachable concert pieces, running anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Some were thematically independent of the operas they preceded and could even be recycled. The overture of The Barber of Seville (1816), by Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini, had already been used by Rossini for Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815). As the 19th century progressed, composers increasingly sought unity of mood and thematic material in their overtures. Gradually, however, the overture gave way to the prelude, which—particularly in the case of Wagner—might have the dimensions of an overture, but more importantly provided a thematic résumé of the opera and led directly into it.

The independent overture gradually declined in importance. By the end of the 19th century and the premiere of Tosca (1900) by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, three abrupt chords were all the ‘prelude’ given before plunging abruptly into the action. In many contemporary operas, musical preliminaries have been completely eliminated. In some, such as Lear (1978) by German composer Aribert Reimann, the action begins well before the music itself.


The drama in opera is not only a function of the text but of the music as well. The original creators of opera called their productions dramma per musica (drama through music), and the tradition can be traced back to medieval religious plays, which also used music to tell their stories. An opera is more than a play with song and dance inserted, however. Plays are complete in themselves, but because opera requires a severely compressed text (time must be allowed for musical development), an opera without music is not even half of a dramatic entity. Music must not only carry the text, it must also provide subtext and fill out aspects of character and situation that the text can only hint at. This applies even to operas with considerable spoken dialogue, such as Beethoven’s Fidelio, where the music remains essential.

Few opera librettos (texts) could be performed successfully as stage plays; something is missing that only music can supply. For this reason, few plays make suitable librettos without liberal pruning of verbal imagery, simplification of plot, and reduction in cast. The music needs room to breathe—to repeat itself, to develop instrumentally and harmonically, and to change pace and color as the situation demands. Since singing diminishes the intelligibility of a text, the words themselves must not be too hard to follow. Florid syntax has been the downfall of operas such as Montezuma (1964) by American composer Roger Sessions, while straightforwardness and clarity of dramatic diction have ensured the success of such works as Les Dialogues des Carmèlites (1957), by French composer Francis Poulenc, and Peter Grimes (1945), by British composer Benjamin Britten.

Opera, then, must forgo a good play’s verbal richness and precision, but in its music it gains the richness of a language that speaks directly to the emotions. The source for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904), a play about a Japanese geisha and a callous American naval lieutenant, now seems hopelessly quaint and even racist, but Puccini’s score has made this drama of betrayed love timeless.

In writing music that will serve the dramatic needs of the text, most composers employ certain conventions, such as writing for the higher registers of a voice or instrument to indicate passion, or employing dissonant harmonies to depict fear. These conventions are not wholly arbitrary, however. Voices do rise when people become excited, and the physical sensation of fear is inharmonious. A skilled opera composer will use still more subtle techniques to enhance the dramatic effect of the music. The melodic line must be suited to the words it is meant to carry, and the harmony must convey the ebb and flow of feeling and action. Rhythms vary for impetuous declamation, stately ceremonial ensembles, love duets, or arias. Composers also draw upon the orchestra to serve dramatic ends, such as using the timbre (quality or color of sound) and tonal possibilities of specific instruments for particular effects. Many great composers, such as Christoph Willibald Gluck and Richard Strauss of Germany, Claude Debussy of France, and Alban Berg of Austria, have emphasized the dramatic in their operas.


Today’s typical opera repertory mainly comprises works from the 19th century, plus a few from the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Romanticism, with its passion for noble deeds and faraway places, stimulated opera composition all over Europe throughout the 19th century. The plots, which usually revolved around romantic love thwarted by social or political forces, promoted a message of human equality in an era when rule by monarchs and aristocrats was giving way to revolutionary movements and a growing merchant class. The rise of the middle class guaranteed opera a vast, ready-made audience.

The conventional operatic repertory tends to reduce the many classifications of the past to two broad areas: tragedy and comedy. Composers have written considerably more tragic operas than comedic operas, and there are more operas, both tragic and comic, in Italian and German than in other languages. The French-language share of the repertory is comparatively small. A growing number of operas in the Russian and Czech languages have entered the repertory; once invariably performed in translation, they are sung more and more in their original tongue.

For the most part, fashion determines repertory. The prevalence or cultivation of certain voice types also has considerable influence, although opera companies regularly perform certain operas—such as Verdi’s Aïda (1871)—whether the proper voices are available or not. During an era when operas with coloratura (highly ornamented singing) or allegorical plots fell out of fashion, few people bothered to learn how to present them. The operas of German-born composer George Frideric Handel, for example, were neglected until Australian singer Joan Sutherland, Americans Marilyn Horne and Beverly Sills, and others began to perform them. Not only did the public rediscover the beauties of Handel’s operas, but also eventually vocal culture produced more singers able to cope with his florid compositions. The same phenomenon occurred with Rossini. The rediscovery of his vast output drastically altered the modern perception of a composer once thought of only in terms of The Barber of Seville. Indeed, by the late 20th century, when the composition of new operas had dwindled, much of the “new” ground being broken was that of the neglected past.

Similarly, brilliant performances of operas by Italians Luigi Cherubini and Vincenzo Bellini stimulated revivals of their works. As interest in discovering authentic historical performance practice rose during the late 20th century, performances of the operas of formerly neglected composers such as Cavalli, Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, and French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier became more frequent. All such revivals require scrupulous musical attention and editing, especially the works of 17th-century composers, whose dynamics (loudness and softness) and instrumentation can only be guessed at because surviving documentation is often either fragmentary or contradictory. The seemingly endless repeats in the arias of Handel and of Neapolitan composers of the early 18th century can prove trying for modern audiences; audiences of Handel’s time commonly left their seats during the performance, either to socialize or to eat. All too often, the obscurity and expansiveness of a score have tempted a conductor or director today to abridge, rearrange, interpolate, or even rewrite the opera, often to the extent that the audience hears a distant relative of the opera listed in the program.


Opera singers are usually classified as one of six types, according to the range of their voices. From highest to lowest, the three female voices are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. The male voices are tenor, baritone, and bass. Within each range there may be a variety of subdivisions, differentiating voice quality and style of singing. A coloratura soprano has a light and extremely flexible voice; she is trained in the execution of virtuoso passages featuring rapid scales, trills, and other ornamental displays. The lyric soprano has a voice of great clarity and beauty. The voice of the dramatic soprano is full and powerful, able to soar over a large orchestra. The distinction between lyric and dramatic voices occurs among tenors as well. There are also three major types of bass: the comic basso buffo; the basso profondo, who sings with a powerful, deep tone; and the basso cantante, who sings the remaining ‘straight’ roles.

Certain conventions have arisen concerning the type of voice to which a composer assigns a given role. Heroes and heroines are usually tenors and sopranos. In general, the deeper the voice in an opera, the older or more experienced the character depicted. Thus an unsophisticated young woman, such as Gilda in Rigoletto, is a lyric soprano, while a temptress, such as Maddalena in the same opera, is a sultry mezzo-soprano. Similarly, a role cast for baritone is that of Figaro, the ingenious hero of both Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816) by Rossini and Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) by Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The tenor voice is often reserved for the romantic lead. The parts of villains, sorcerers, and men of maturity and power (Mozart’s Don Giovanni is one example) are usually cast for bass-baritone or bass.

Changing tastes have played a major role in operatic singing styles. Techniques of attack (onset), release, and vibrato (the ‘throb’ in a trained voice) have varied throughout operatic history. Jacopo Peri, an Italian singer who wrote one of the earliest surviving operas (Dafne, 1598), is likely to have sung with little or no vibrato, in keeping with standard practice at the end of the Renaissance. Within a century, though, the cult of the star singer was flourishing, first in Naples and then throughout Europe, and a fairly liberal use of vibrato became fashionable.

During opera’s infancy, in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the parts of female heroes and villains were often sung by male sopranos and altos—the castrati, whose vocal development had been arrested by means of castration before their voices dropped. ‘Long live the little knife,’ was the cry of their fans. These singers trained their voices for the utmost in range and flexibility, combining the muscular power of a dramatic tenor with the altitudinous range of a coloratura soprano. The most famous of these was Farinelli, whose soprano voice was deemed more powerful than a trumpet.

Virtuosic female singers were also active during opera’s early years, however; one such was 18th-century mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni, wife of composer Johann Hasse, whose ability to sustain a note was legendary. These singers held great sway with the composers whose music they sang. Some even composed operas themselves or (as was the case with Farinelli) directed opera troupes. Composers expected singers to embellish melodies with improvised ornamentation, which singers did in profusion and with varying dramatic aptness. The tenors in Rossini’s operas were expected to be as expert in coloratura technique as the sopranos and mezzos they partnered. The resurgence of this skill in the 20th century gave new life to Rossini’s vast and varied operatic output.

One 18th-century fashion, the basso buffo, has remained essentially unchanged since its inception. The garrulous, easily outwitted old man, a common basso buffo character, is a venerable figure in operatic tradition that originated in the commedia dell’arte, a form of improvisational theater that arose around 1550. The role’s characteristic broad effects and rapid patter do not preclude inventive interpretation, so long as the singer observes the proper style. It is likely that the low comedy of Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa is played out today much as it was more than 200 years ago.

The clear and brilliant bel canto (Italian for “beautiful singing”), favored by Mozart, Rossini, and other composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, gradually gave way by the mid-19th century to a more powerful and dramatic type of singing. The development of modern harmony (principally by Wagner and French composer Hector Berlioz) gradually promoted the role of the orchestra from accompanist to protagonist, and singers needed more power if they were to be heard above the orchestra. The German Heldentenor (heroic tenor) evolved from powerful, bright-toned tenors, such as Josef Tichatschek and Albert Niemann, who premiered many of Wagner’s operas and could project their voices over his rich orchestration.

Verdi’s later works and those of his successors called for tenors and sopranos whose voices combined bulk with carrying power. The demands of romantic opera, which arose in the 19th century, have sometimes necessitated performances that run counter to a composer’s ideal. Richard Strauss, for example, conceived of his Salome as “a 16-year-old with the voice of an Isolde” (a Wagner role that requires a hefty voice). Strauss’s orchestration is so dense that any soprano who can plausibly sing Salome will likely have sung for many years and be robust of build.

The opera stars of the past have become legends. Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, probably the most popular singer in history, had the good fortune to come of age soon after the invention of the phonograph. American soprano Geraldine Farrar was followed about New York City by her imitative “Gerryflappers.” The towering Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin remained a permanent influence with his imperious, outsized dramatic naturalism. Kirsten Flagstad, a heroic Wagnerian soprano from Norway, and Lauritz Melchior, a bearish and big-voiced Danish-American tenor, both left their mark as Wagner specialists. Over time, the stature of these artists was attained by such greats as Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson; Australian soprano Joan Sutherland; American sopranos Maria Callas, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Beverly Sills, and Leontyne Price; New Zealand-born soprano Kiri Te Kanawa; Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli; American tenor Richard Tucker; Italian baritone Tito Gobbi; German bass-baritone Hans Hotter; American baritone Robert Merrill; Canadian tenor Jon Vickers; Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff; Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti; and Spanish tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras.


With the advent of opera came the need for theaters built to accommodate and highlight its best qualities. Certain opera houses became associated with particular features, usually within the genre of opera that helped to create the house. The original Paris Opéra, completed in 1875 and housed in the Palais Garnier, was noted for spectacular display in its productions as well as for its ornate design. Its staircase and foyer seem to have been designed to vie with the ballets and exotic processionals that appear on its stage. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus in Germany, completed in 1876 to accommodate Wagner’s vast music dramas, focuses its bank of seats on a deep stage, in imitation of Greek amphitheaters. The orchestra sits under the stage, within a pit, diffusing the sound and allowing the singers to be heard. The original Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, built in 1883, was conceived as a showcase for the world’s best singers and for many of its fashionable box-holders. Its auditorium was so deep that the boxes commanded as good a view of each other as of the relatively shallow stage.

Opera-house design developed in a way that mirrored the social history of opera itself. The art form began as an attempt to recreate the drama of classical Greece. The first operas were therefore suitable for performance in the Teatro Olimpico (completed 1583) in Vicenza, Italy, a building by architect Andrea Palladio based upon classical design. The horseshoe configuration that developed in later opera houses reflected social class distinctions with its tiers of boxes that fanned out from a royal box. This form is preserved at La Scala (1778) in Milan, La Fenice in Venice (1792), the Teatro San Carlo of Naples (1737), and London’s Covent Garden (1858). It persists—with fewer boxes and deeper tiers, thanks to steel construction—in such American opera houses as New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (1908), San Francisco’s War Memorial Auditorium (1932), and the Lyric Opera of Chicago (1929). More modern settings are provided by the present Metropolitan Opera House (1966) at New York City’s Lincoln Center and the Sydney Opera House (1973) in Sydney, Australia.

A more democratic seating arrangement arose when Wagner, restricting boxes and demanding absolute concentration from his audiences, ranked seats in identical, unbroken rows at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Bavaria (an arrangement since known as continental seating). Wagner’s aim seems to have been carried a step further by the arena theater, in which the audience is seated on all sides of the stage. Ancient Roman arenas have been used for opera in this way in Arles, France, and Verona, Italy. Touring opera singers sometimes perform in sports stadiums and similar venues.


An important part of Wagner’s conception for his Bayreuth Festspielhaus was a summer pilgrimage to see opera. The idea caught on. In the 1920s Mozart’s birthplace of Salzburg, Austria, organized a yearly festival built around his operas and employed talents the likes of director Max Reinhardt and conductors Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Mozart has also been the staple of the Glyndebourne Festival in England since the 1930s. After World War II (1939-1945) Munich organized a festival devoted chiefly to the works of Richard Strauss, who was born there. In Florence, the cradle of opera, Musical May features operas from the earliest to the most up-to-date. The Festival Weeks in Vienna, Austria, supplement the State Opera season and are a time for introducing important new productions.

The oldest summer opera season in the United States, dating from the 1920s, is in Cincinnati, Ohio. Upstate New York hosts adventuresome festivals at Chautauqua and near Cooperstown, at Glimmerglass; while concert opera (opera performed without staging) is usually presented at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, and at the Ravinia festival near Chicago, Illinois. The Metropolitan Opera began offering free concerts in New York City parks in the mid-1960s. The Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, during its prestigious summer season, regularly presents the works of Richard Strauss, Puccini, Rossini, and Mozart. It has also given the world or American premieres of works such as The Black Mask (1986) by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and The English Cat (1983) by German composer Hans Werner Henze.


As its all-encompassing form suggests, opera is the product of diverse influences. Its earliest known forerunners were medieval church pageants that included provisions for solos, choruses, instrumental interludes, and theatrical production elements, such as sets and costumes. One example, The Play of Daniel, has been staged and recorded in modern times; others exist in manuscript form. Sung in a mix of Latin and spoken European languages, these evolved into the grander mystery plays of the 13th and 14th centuries, which told biblical stories (see Miracle, Mystery, and Morality Plays).

In Italy pageants and descendants of the mystery plays began to serve nonreligious purposes. At the court of the Gonzaga family, in Mantua (Mantova), a musical movement coalesced around the madrigal (song with two or more voice parts). Some of these madrigals were strung together in cycles with a dramatic subtext; the most famous of these was L’Amfiparnaso (1594) by Orazio Vecchi. In northern Italian courts, a fashion developed for sumptuously mounted verse plays interspersed with choruses and ballets. Their subjects included the Greek myths of Orpheus and Daphne, which later became the basis for several of the earliest operas.

The first true opera, a little of whose music survives, was Dafne (1598) by Jacopo Peri. Another composer, Marco da Gagliano, subsequently reset its text in 1608. Gagliano’s version survives, but a contemporaneous German version by Heinrich Schütz—the first German opera—does not. In 1600 Peri turned to the Orpheus myth for his opera Euridice, a modest entertainment composed for a royal wedding. Peri was a member of the Camerata, a society of scholars, poets, and amateur musicians in Florence. For 20 years, the Camerata had researched the manner in which classical Greek drama had been performed, with a view toward reviving it. They concluded that the Greek actors had delivered their lines in a declamatory style halfway between speaking and true singing. In their efforts to recover this lost Greek art, the Camerata essentially invented a new type of solo singing, called monody, that was performed in free rhythm to simple accompaniment. Thus, Peri and his librettist, Ottavio Rinuccini, told the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice using recitative sustained by chords from a small orchestra of seven instruments. In the end, opera was not a re-creation of Greek drama, as the Camerata had intended, but the creation of a powerful new type of drama instead.

It fell to another man, however, to realize the full potential of this dramma per musica (drama through music) that the Camerata had invented. Claudio Monteverdi, like Peri, was an educated gentleman; unlike Peri, he was a professional musician, not an enthusiastic amateur. Born in Cremona, Italy, Monteverdi flourished at the court of the Gonzaga family and ultimately directed the choir of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. In 1607 he composed his own operatic version of the Orpheus and Euridice myth, Orfeo. The difference between Peri’s Euridice and Monteverdi’s Orfeo is the difference between an experiment and a masterpiece. Monteverdi expanded the orchestra, which included bowed and plucked strings, harpsichord and organ, trumpets and drums for ceremonial passages, recorders, and various novel instruments. He gave each character a distinctive accompaniment and wrote a heraldic overture. Monteverdi’s recitative, more than a mere vehicle for the text, has a life of its own. The opera’s orchestral harmonies are full of dramatic contrast and display a remarkable boldness and color.

Monteverdi’s final opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea, 1642), shares some of the sensational subject matter and magnificent vocal composition that would come to characterize much of opera. Set in ancient Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero, the opera owes its magnificence to the coloratura that ornaments its vocal lines and to the grandeur of its instrumental music. Passages of recitative are punctuated by short arias to heighten emotion. After more than 350 years, Poppea retains its emotional power. Composed for a Venetian public theater rather than a court, the opera ruthlessly satirizes imperial morality. Poppaea and Nero are heartless sensualists who kill off any obstacles to their eventual union—including Nero’s wife and Poppaea’s discarded fiancé. The matter-of-factness of the drama still seems shocking, especially as it is presented without any moral commentary.

A The Spread of Opera

During Monteverdi’s lifetime, opera quickly spread to the larger Italian cities. In Venice, more than ten opera houses were erected between 1637 and 1700. Rome produced composer and singer Luigi Rossi, who, as a member of a visiting nobleman’s private troupe, delighted the aristocracy of Paris with his Orfeo (1647), the first Italian opera written specifically for production in Paris. In Venice, Pietro Francesco Cavalli continued Monteverdi’s lushness of style and irreverent sense of humor over some 40 operas, his most famous including L’Ormindo (1644) and La Calisto (1651). Cavalli included farce and an abundance of sexuality in his works. He further shaped such aspects of the opera as the aria and overture.

The mid-17th century also saw a growing reliance on stage spectacle. The very first opera presented for a public audience, Andromeda (1637) by Francesco Manelli, elicited this description from an observer: “The sky opened and one saw Jove and Juno in glory. … This great machine descended to the ground to the accompaniment of a concerto of instruments truly from heaven.” Later, stage designers such as Lodovico Burnacini devised ever more grandiose scenic representations. Burnacini’s design for Pietro Antonio Cesti’s Il Pomo d’oro (The Golden Apple, 1667) included more than 20 sets for some 50 characters spread over 67 scenes. The librettos for such works usually suffered, becoming little more than scaffolding for the spectacle and singing.

Cesti helped establish the Venetian musical style that was to dominate Italian opera for the remainder of the 17th century. The monodic style originally developed in Florence gave way to extremes in aria and recitative. Arias became longer and more complex, and virtuosic singers began to dominate the stage. Venetian opera plots continued to draw from mythology or romanticized history, but were embellished with irrelevant comic interludes and spectacular episodes that showcased elaborate singing.

Italian influence even manifested itself as far north as England. In the late 16th century, composers and playwrights in England had begun to collaborate on masques, courtly diversions involving speech, singing, dancing, fanciful plots, and extravagant costuming. By 1617 they had introduced recitative on the Italian model into the form. The new style was used by composer Henry Lawes, who set poet John Milton’s Comus to music in 1634. Political unrest in the 1640s and 1650s stunted the growth of English opera for a time. But by 1656 the first true English opera, The Siege of Rhodes, emerged, with music by Lawes, Matthew Locke, Henry Cooke, Charles Coleman, and George Hudson.

In the late 17th century, opera began to take hold in England, though its success there would wax and wane over the centuries. John Blow, organist at Westminster Abbey in London, wrote Venus and Adonis in 1684, but the work was called a masque. The greatest opera written by a native English composer before the late 19th century was a short work written for performance at a girls’ school. This was Dido and Aeneas (1689), by Blow’s pupil Henry Purcell, a miniature opera of rare beauty. Purcell absorbed techniques from both the French and the Italians, but his opera is unmistakably English. The libretto, by Irish writer Nahum Tate, was unpolished, but Purcell set it to music with vivacity and distinction, writing arias and choruses of unusual grace and beauty. As with many early operas, Dido comes down to us in somewhat fragmentary form, provoking endless debate among scholars and performers about the proper method of completing it.

London’s first public opera house had opened in 1671, and for such venues Purcell wrote several so-called semi-operas that harked back to the masque, including King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692). Purcell’s untimely death silenced the greatest native opera composer England would see for 200 years and stunted what had been a healthy beginning for English-language opera.

B Early Opera in France

Like the earliest Italian opera, the opera of France derived initially from a conjectural attempt at resurrecting the aesthetic of Greek theater. The difference was that Italian opera grew out of an impulse to sing, while French opera was an extension of ballet into opera. From its beginning, French opera had a visual orientation, which resulted in lavish spectacles. Eventually, as Italian opera spread north and west, vocal development caught up with dance in French opera. French composers typically employed mythological subject matter, as it was thought that presentation of real-life figures was “improper.”

Jean Baptiste Lully was the first great operatic composer in France. A restructured version of Cavalli’s opera Serse (premiered 1654) enlivened the 1660 wedding of Louis XIV of France and his Spanish cousin Marie Thérèse, with ballets choreographed by Lully. Having emigrated from Italy to Paris at age 14, Lully came to prominence as a violinist and dancer. His ability to ingratiate himself with Louis and the great French dramatist Molière soon enabled him to emerge as the dominant force in French music of the time.

After a musical apprenticeship at Louis’s court, Lully rose to the position of court composer. He obtained his knowledge of the theater by writing music for the dance episodes of a series of Molière’s comedies, most notably Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670; translated as The Would-Be Gentleman). Stung by a rival’s success in obtaining the right to establish an academy for the public presentation of opera in French, Lully managed to take over the academy in 1672. He ran it with an iron hand and even wrote its repertory himself. His operas, which he called tragédies lyriques (lyrical tragedies), established a distinctive French operatic style. The plots were borrowed from classical mythology or legends. The librettos (written by Philippe Quinault), which followed the rhythms of French speech rather than a fixed meter, were modeled on the tragedies of Lully’s contemporary, playwright Jean Racine. Within the framework of the plot, Lully inserted lengthy discourses on love and glory, while in the prologues and elsewhere he introduced ballets, choruses, and lavish stage settings. Lully, who brought the orchestra to new heights of size and importance, is now coming to be recognized as a great composer through revivals of his works, most notably Alceste (1674), Atys (1676), and Armide et Rénaud (1686).

Working within the structural lines laid down by Lully, Jean Philippe Rameau attempted to take opera in more harmonically adventurous directions. Although he did not begin writing operas until the age of 50, Rameau turned out some 32 operas, in which he took polyphony (combination of multiple melodic lines) to new levels of complexity. Dance continued to play an important role in Rameau’s works, as demonstrated by the lengthy ballets that adorn Les Indes Galantes (1735) and Dardanus (1739). His Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) and Castor et Pollux (1737) have enjoyed modern-day revivals.

C Neapolitan Opera

While spectacle reigned in France, the aria had its day throughout the rest of Europe, beginning in the late 17th century. The center of this phase of opera was Naples, Italy, and its earliest master was Alessandro Scarlatti. Born in Sicily, Scarlatti moved northward and brought the siciliana (a slow, lilting melody) with him as his contribution to the operatic ballet. After a time in Rome in the service of the former Queen Christina of Sweden, he settled in Naples. Feeling that opera librettos had stalled in starchy attitudes and a relentless nobility, Scarlatti concentrated his attention on the music. Song, not recitative, was his specialty. He developed the three-part da capo aria, in which the first part is followed by a contrasting section—often in a minor key—and then sung again from the beginning, often with liberal adornment improvised by the singer. The da capo aria became one of the features of both Neapolitan opera in general and particularly of opera seria, which reached its full development during this period.

Scarlatti also developed the similar “Italian” overture, its three parts marked fast-slow-fast (this would become the ground plan for the symphony). He had written 88 operas by the time he was 46, but many of them are now lost. After another sojourn in Rome, during which he came under the influence of the serenely melodious violin writing of Arcangelo Corelli, Scarlatti composed a final trio of operas for Naples: Cyrus (1714), Telemaco (1718), and La Griselda (1721).

Other composers who made the formal, melodic Neapolitan opera the rage all over 18th-century Europe include the Italians Nicola Porpora, Niccolò Jommelli, and Scarlatti’s son Domenico Scarlatti, and the Germans Johann Hasse and George Frideric Handel. Of these, Handel looms largest, with his present-day reputation continuing to grow with every revival. An opera-house violinist at 18, Handel traveled in Italy from 1706 to 1710, soaking up the influence of the Neapolitan school. At age 25 he went to London, where the native English opera envisioned by Purcell was giving way to imported Italian and German works and performers. With neither royal patronage nor reliable financial backers, Handel nonetheless quickly established a virtual monopoly on Italian opera in London. Beginning with Rinaldo (1711), he composed a long line of works in which rich and varied harmonies helped restrain vocal exuberance, and musical progressions mirrored the psychological and dramatic content of the libretto. To stay ahead of public taste, the savvy Handel worked in a variety of genres, including conventional opera seria (Ezio, 1732), so-called magic operas dealing with sorcery and bewitchment (Alcina, 1735), historical operas (Giulio Cesare, 1724), and courtly comedies (Serse, 1738).

Handel composed many of his greatest operas after The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by English dramatist John Gay supposedly dealt the form a deathblow. Gay’s work was a pastiche of popular tunes reset to a text that satirized English politics, Italian operas, and the internal squabbles of Handel’s troupe. The huge popular success of The Beggar’s Opera led to a long line of generally insignificant English ballad operas, and may have retarded the growth of English-born grand opera still further. Eventually Italian opera waned in popularity and Handel turned to—and quickly mastered—the English oratorio (dramatic music for voices and instruments that is not usually staged). Handel wrote both religious oratorios such as Samson (1743) and secular oratorios such as Semele (1744), with texts by English poets John Milton and William Congreve, respectively.

Any discussion of the so-called Neapolitan school should stress the extent to which librettists ruled the scene. As in the operas of Lully, the text was the controlling factor; it had to display a high moral tone and adhere meticulously to measure and rhyme. Around 1700 there arose a veritable libretto factory in Naples, begun by Apostolo Zeno and put into high gear by his successor, Pietro Metastasio, whose influence could still be felt into the early 19th century. These librettists developed a rigid format for opera seria: plots concentrated on a central theme (usually love versus duty) and avoided the irrelevant spectacles and comic subplots that characterized the Venetian and French styles. Improbable plot twists and arias that allowed singers to flaunt their abilities became common, however. The Neapolitan librettists regularly provided texts for numerous composers, and over the years subsequent composers used their texts, especially Metastasio’s, again and again.

D The Rise of Comic Opera

Yet another operatic development that spread from Naples across Europe was opera buffa (comic opera), the inevitable reaction to opera seria. Opera buffa was characterized by lighter (though not always comic) subject matter and by the use of speech in place of some or all of the recitative. It quickly traveled, to Vienna, Paris, and London. Naples had inherited a tradition of earthy comedy from the Spaniards, who ruled Naples during the 16th and 17th centuries. Although suppressed by teachers in music conservatories, this Spanish-influenced comedy proved irresistible to students. One of these students was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who at the age of 23 wrote a short comic opera, La serva padrona (1733), to serve as an intermezzo (intermezzi were commonly played between the acts of opera seria). There had been earlier intermezzi, but no intermezzo enjoyed the fantastic success of Pergolesi’s work. La serva padrona took as its subject current scandal rather than ancient heroism. Its characters were familiar from Italian commedia dell’arte, improvised comedies that featured stock comic figures such as the wily servant and the gullible old man. Its music was quick and tuneful, yet substantial.

The opera buffa of later Neapolitans such as Giovanni Paisiello and Domenico Cimarosa, who extended the intermezzo to full-opera length, owed much to La serva padrona, as did the comedies of Mozart. So did French opéra comique. Composers such as François Philidor and Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny of France and André Grétry of Belgium took to heart Pergolesi’s flouting of convention and evolved a simpler idiom, taking care, however, to use spoken dialogue in place of recitative.

E Opera Reform

In the second half of the 18th century, a movement to reform opera took place, and it focused on the relationship between the music and the libretto. Its father was French writer and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. A musician before he became a philosopher, Rousseau supported opera buffa and—in line with his back-to-nature philosophy—he demanded a return to simplicity in opera. In 1752, the year of the successful Paris production of La serva padrona, Rousseau composed his own comic opera, Le devin du village (The Village Sage), following it with a caustic “Letter on French Music” that singled out Rameau for particular abuse.

An influential pamphleteer of this time, Francesco Algarotti, laid down many of the ground rules for a reformed operatic style in his Essay on the Opera (1755). All elements of an opera, Algarotti argued, should be subordinate to the intrinsic demands of the dramatic subject. The drama, he wrote, ought “to delight the eyes and ears, to rouse up and to affect the hearts of an audience, with the risk of sinning against reason or common sense.” Five years later, Parisian choreographer Jean Georges Noverre called for similar reforms in ballet, which was cluttered with extravagances. Noverre called for a simpler vocabulary of gesture, one that allowed the ballet to express emotion and drama, rather than being an end in itself.

The composer who put these reform principles into practice was Christoph Willibald Gluck of Germany. Like many revolutionaries, Gluck began conservatively. For years he turned out successful tragedies in the old style, switching to opéra comique out of convenience rather than conviction. Then Gluck fell under the influence of the reformist Ranieri di Calzabigi, who was determined to restore to operatic texts the natural power they had possessed in the days of the Florentine Camerata.

Gluck tested the reformist waters with his full-length, narrative ballet Don Juan (1761), then joined with Calzabigi to produce the opera that would become synonymous with reform, Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). Subsequently, the two collaborated on Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen, 1770). None won popular favor. In these works Gluck and Calzabigi cut back significantly on recitative, da capo arias, coloratura, and pageantry that were unrelated to the text. Orpheus’s “Che faro senza Euridice?” (“What will I do without Eurydice?”) and Alceste’s ‘Divinites du Styx’ show a pronounced concentration and purposefulness within the aria format. The music of these operas, vocally and instrumentally, underlines the text and—especially in the orchestral interludes—sets the scene with great forcefulness.

When Gluck moved to Paris and offered the same aesthetic in French, he enjoyed much greater success. Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) and its successor, Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), infused a reformed opera seria libretto with warmer harmonies taken from German practices and achieved a lyric nobility worthy of the plays by Greek dramatist Euripides on which the two operas were based. Gluck even reset a text employed by Lully, Armide (1777), daring to beat the old master on his own turf. Gluck’s mantle, and many of his stylistic traits, fell to Italian composer Antonio Salieri, who enjoyed similar success in Paris with his opera Les Danaïdes (1784).

If Gluck struggled to eliminate all that was unnecessary from opera seria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set out to supply all that was missing from opera buffa. He gave the form grace and humanity, even grandeur, often deepening the shadows to heighten the flashes of wit. He created in music that rare kind of comedy that can move an audience to tears. He was able to do so in part because of his early—almost uncanny—ability to assimilate and surpass the opera seria technique of Gluck. Mozart’s Mitridate (written in 1770, when he was 14) and Idomeneo (1781) are severe, dark, psychologically tortured dramas, expressed in music of indelible power. By the age of 20, Mozart had written some ten operas and was well prepared for the demanding audiences that awaited him in Vienna. His genius for characterization has never been surpassed.

A sophisticated childhood as a traveling musical prodigy exposed Mozart early to all kinds of music, including Neapolitan song, German counterpoint, and Viennese symphony. Out of these he forged a cosmopolitan operatic style, marked by a balance between solo and ensemble voices and between singers and orchestra. Right on the heels of Idomeneo came Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782), which both embraced and elevated the Singspiel, the German-language equivalent of opera buffa. Mozart laid out the usual elements of nobly suffering lovers, comic servant romances, and exotic peril in music unprecedented for its sophistication, elegance, and purposeful virtuosity. Even the comic villain, Osmin, is a figure of menacing vocal finesse. Mozart did not return to Singspiel until just before his death, with Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791). In this opera, the heavenly grandeur of the music for the characters who are considered enlightened complements the irresistible comic invention and endless good humor of their earthly counterparts. Librettist Emanuel Schickaneder not only presented Die Zauberflöte in his own theater but also played the comic lead of Papageno himself. With its mix of magic, allegory, romance, philosophy, and low comedy, Die Zauberflöte scored a triumph in its time, and the opera’s popularity continues unabated.

Between these two pillars of Singspiel stand three comic operas of unequaled achievement, fruits of Mozart’s collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The collaborations of da Ponte and Mozart are marvels of verbal and musical invention working hand in glove. Their choice of subject matter put them well ahead of musical taste in Vienna, however, and the operas ran into some problems. Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) showed servants standing up to their masters at a time when revolutionary sentiments were brewing in France, and the relentless pursuit of women in Don Giovanni (1787) and the outright spouse-swapping of Così fan tutte (1790) offended moralists. Both Figaro and Don Giovanni were huge successes in Prague (in what is now the Czech Republic), the latter receiving its premiere there, but most of Mozart’s output fell into general neglect until the early 20th century, when major revivals finally made Mozart operas a staple of the opera repertory.

No one has ever duplicated the distinctive energy and delicate pathos that flowed from Mozart’s pen, but his breaking down and remolding of accepted forms inspired succeeding composers. His finales were of unprecedented scope and ingenuity. The conclusion to The Marriage of Figaro moves from duet to septet, passing through numerous dramatic and musical reversals along the way. Don Giovanni’s first-act finale (which runs nearly half an hour) includes all the opera’s characters save one, a scene change, three onstage dance bands, chorus, and a climactic septet with offstage thunderstorm—all of which are, however, tailored to the drama, enhancing and advancing the story. Mozart’s idiom eased operatic music out of the strict musical forms of the classical era toward the romantic period, whether in the long-lined heartbreak of Fiordiligi’s aria “Per pieta” in Così fan tutte or in the cataclysmic intervention of the ‘stone guest’ at the climax of Don Giovanni.

Meanwhile, in France, where revolution arrived in 1789, composers trimmed their sails to fit the prevailing breeze. Italian composer Luigi Cherubini began his Parisian career (by way of London) writing grand, courtly dramas such as Démophon (1788). He later accommodated himself to the French Revolution, which continued until 1799, giving voice to its principles in the propagandistic Lodoïska (1791). Later, with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and a somewhat more regimented society, Cherubini turned in Les deux journées (1800) to the so-called rescue opera (a then-popular genre in which plots revolved around the rescue of a main character). He was somehow still in favor when the monarchy was restored in 1814.

During the revolution, the Paris Opéra played host to a string of pastiches and spectacles composed primarily to flatter those in power. Meanwhile, Belgian composer Andre Grétry was recouping his fortunes at the rival Opéra-Comique, anticipating the return of Parisian grand opera with his Guillaume Tell (1791). Cherubini contributed to this trend with his most famous opera, Médée (1797), but the resurgence of French opera on an even grander scale than before came with Gasparo Spontini. He introduced long-form musical construction and tighter thematic unity. Particularly favored by Napoleon, Spontini composed several imperialistic grand dramas, including Fernand Cortez (1809), a flag-waver for Napoleon’s military campaign in Spain, as well as the triumphant La Vestale (1807). Spontini, who subsequently became court composer in Berlin, continued to innovate, as in his historical-romantic drama Agnes von Hohenstaufen (1829), which dispensed with individual numbers and delivered its story in a blend of arioso (mini-aria), ensemble, and recitative. Between them, Spontini and Cherubini laid the groundwork for the kind of spectacle-oriented Parisian opera that would become popular, in various forms, in the 19th century.

F Romantic Opera

At the beginning of the 19th century, an artistic movement known as romanticism arose, and within a few decades it became widespread in literature, art, and music. It emphasized the imagination, subjectivity of approach, and creative freedom. Under the spell of romanticism, operatic music became more grandiose and lush. Especially in grand opera, composers typically used larger orchestras, gigantic choruses, and innovative harmonies. Romanticism also manifested itself in subject matter, with an abundance of faraway settings; intense, tempestuous romances; unstable or melancholic characters, or characters who were outcasts; nationalistic themes; and supernatural or magical elements. Along with this heavily emotional content, though, composers began to show a concern for realism and examine contemporary social issues. Although tales of royalty, mythological figures, or stereotypical comic personalities remained popular, operas soon featured such characters as impoverished artists, disabled peasants, and diseased prostitutes.

F1 Romantic Opera in Italy

The rise of the romantic novel inspired a spate of Italian operas. Gioacchino Rossini delved into the works of British author Sir Walter Scott for the opera La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake, 1819), and both Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti tried their hand at adapting Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821). Donizetti’s Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth (1829) has largely slipped into obscurity, while Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815) has enjoyed intermittent success. Donizetti is most famous for Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), based on Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). Also in 1835 Vincenzo Bellini composed I Puritani, an adaptation of Scott’s novel Old Mortality (1816). Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini are nearly always bracketed together as the bridge between the post-Neapolitans and Giuseppe Verdi, generally considered the greatest of Italian opera composers. Their comedies, however, reveal many differences.

Rossini mastered the sparkling, stylized opera buffa. He honed his craft with a series of one-act gems, such as L’Occasione fa il Ladro (1812). Relying largely on his natural gift for melody and rhythm, from 1813 to 1817 he produced a string of successes: L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers, 1813); Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy, 1814); his comic masterpiece, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816); and La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817)). All except Turco are staples of the operatic repertory today. These works have an air of irreverence, because Rossini dared to write out the runs and ornaments with which singers of the day were accustomed to adorn their music—yet he left room for the creative singer to provide additional decoration. The operas move forward on clear and pointed orchestration, with the action often brought to a climax through a lengthy, gradual crescendo.

Rossini also composed opera seria, including the spare and grave Tancredi (1813) and Otello (1816). As he devoted more of his energy to grand opera, he channeled much of his bravura into gigantic choral and orchestral effects. This impulse is evident in Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt, 1818) and Maometto II (1820), both later reworked, and particularly in his most epic works, the virtually unknown Ermione (1819) and the popular Semiramide (1823). The latter works show mastery of musical structure, with gargantuan set pieces that incorporate multisection arias, recitative, ensembles, and choruses. Eventually the lucrative temptations of the Paris Opéra proved too great to resist, and Rossini left Italy for the French capital. Aside from reworking a number of his grand operas to suit Parisian tastes, his original contributions were one final comedy, Le Comte Ory (1828), and the epic, lengthy Guillaume Tell (1829).

Rossini’s style is pungent, vigorous, and dramatic. That of his contemporary Vincenzo Bellini is aristocratic and languid. Bellini cast a veil of sheerest melancholy even over his nominally comic opera La Sonnambula (1831). Within his elegiac style, however, he could generate great intensity, as in his compact setting of the Romeo and Juliet story, I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830). His melodies, many of which evolve in the orchestra over slow-moving arpeggiations (notes of chords played in succession), won favor for their simple, lyrical poise.

Bellini wrote his scores for the most gifted singers of his day, supplying elegant melodies to be decorated with the most exacting embellishments. His later operas showed a new muscularity, as in the martial episodes of Norma (1831) and his final work, I Puritani (1835). At the same time, the musical demands increased, as in the extremely long melodic lines of Norma or the exactingly high tenor music of I Puritani.

Midway between Rossini and Bellini in both age and style, and more prolific than either, was Donizetti. He penned melodies less gracefully than Bellini and set them in motion less dashingly than Rossini, but he supported them with fuller instrumental harmonies and generally strove for a higher dramatic temperature in his works. In his talent for combining lyricism and theatricality, Donizetti is the musical precursor of Verdi. Donizetti’s true gifts did not display themselves until he reached middle age, starting with Anna Bolena (1830). The upward curve can be traced through such works as Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), and Don Pasquale (1843).

Donizetti moved easily between Italian and French sensibilities, displaying the latter in La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment, 1840), an opera in French that premiered in Paris. Donizetti’s dramatic operas show a fullness of characterization and theatrical impulse that suggest the principles of Gluck translated into Italian. Romantic realism was on the way in and opera buffa was declining, though Donizetti sent it out in a blaze of glory with L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love, 1832) and Don Pasquale.

Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini were still strongly influenced by the traditions of the 18th century. The ideals of romanticism are more apparent in their librettos than in their music. A rising Italian nationalism, surging against Austrian oppression, is tacitly voiced in some of their operas, but nationalism became overt and glorious in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, whose work brandishes the flag of romanticism with utmost fervor.

Verdi was a peasant from a poor province of disunited Italy. These roots, which he never allowed himself to forget, may explain his disinterest in the intrigues and fads that clouded opera houses in his day. For instance, Verdi is credited with ending the custom of paying the composer only after the third performance of an opera, for he knew from experience that all too often there was no third performance. A self-taught and fiercely independent composer, he stubbornly found his own way and learned from his mistakes. Though well-read, Verdi kept himself ignorant of contemporary musical fashions and was more likely to be influenced by his early grounding in the works of Beethoven and Austrian composer Joseph Haydn than by what was occurring in other opera houses.

After composing two early operas that largely failed, Verdi found his voice in his third opera, Nabucco (1842), an allegory of oppressed Christianity that took the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews as its apparent subject. Restless nationalist sentiments boiled beneath the surfaces of I Lombardi (1843), Ernani (1844), and Macbeth (1847), with authority being challenged by increasingly brazen musical language. Another strain running through Verdi’s output is compassion for society’s outcasts. In Verdi’s eyes and pen, a hunchback, gypsy, prostitute, or slave had as much moral authority, or often more, than a king did. Macbeth showed a concern for developing characterization through vocal line and instrumental texture. Verdi refined and concentrated this musical characterization through Luisa Miller (1849), a middle-class tragedy; Rigoletto (1851), about the exploitation of a hunchbacked jester and his daughter; Il Trovatore (1853), in which a nobleman’s son is raised by an old gypsy and persecuted by his own brother; and La Traviata (1853), which shows society’s indifference to a courtesan with tuberculosis. Verdi expressed these daring, even shocking subjects—which often ran afoul of omnipresent government censors—in powerful melodies, rhythms, and orchestral color.

A period of refinement and consolidation followed, in which Verdi produced Simon Boccanegra (1857), his most explicit tribute to Italian unity; Un Ballo in Maschera (1859), dealing with regicide (killing of a king); and La Forza del Destino (1862), an epic driven by racist persecution. Verdi then crafted a truly superior Parisian grand opera, Don Carlos (1867), which many consider his greatest work. He returned to this form in his extremely popular but more simplistic Aïda (1871). Verdi integrated ballet and spectacle into these works with complete dramatic justification. Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff (1893), comes perhaps as close to perfection as any opera can, with a score ranging from riotous humor to the delicacy of chamber music.

Even as Verdi’s career wound to a close, it was evident that Italy lacked a successor to carry the standard of serious opera forward. Such Germanic-influenced composers as Alfredo Catalani, Amilcare Ponchielli, and Arrigo Boito proved too short-lived, insufficiently popular, and prohibitively slow-working, respectively, to fill the void. What rose instead was a debased version of Verdi’s social realism called verismo (Italian for “realism”), which in essence presented short, violent episodes from working-class life. Riccardo Zandonai quickly applied the brutishly violent but lushly harmonized style to exotic subject matter, as in Francesca da Rimini (1914).

For the most part, verismo composers such as Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo drew upon events in everyday life—although sometimes of the tabloid journalism variety—for the subject matter of their operas. Into their most popular operas—Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892)—they poured a heady brew of fiery passion and music to match. Verismo composer Giacomo Puccini also had a flair for theater and a gift for distilling sentiment into warm melodies. In La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and Turandot (unfinished, but posthumously completed by Franco Alfano in 1926), the orchestra comments continuously on the action. A simple parlando (speaking) vocal line takes the place of recitative and all but a few real arias and ensembles. Puccini’s art has a photographic immediacy and his music serves the drama. Furthermore, few composers have had such a sensational flair for theatrical effect—so much so that Puccini basically took serious Italian opera to the grave with him, although followers of Verdi such as composers Luigi Dallapiccola, Ildebrando Pizzetti, and Renzo Rossellini did their best to keep it alive in the 20th century.

F2 Romantic Opera in Germany

Excepting Verdi, the outstanding figure in 19th-century opera was a German, Richard Wagner. Yet at the beginning of the romantic period there was hardly any such thing as German opera. There had been German opera composers, but they had left Germany to prosper elsewhere—Handel to England, Hasse to Italy, Gluck to Vienna and Paris—and left their own court theaters to the fashionable Italians. The popular German Singspiel had blossomed later than its Italian and French counterparts, opera buffa and opéra comique. After Mozart’s death, the great poets Friedrich von Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe urged other German composers to adopt the Singspiel. Goethe even wrote several himself, including a sequel to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but few notable works came forth.

Romanticism entered the Singspiel with Fidelio (1805), the only opera by Ludwig van Beethoven. A passionate believer in the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution and offended by the infidelity in Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, Beethoven painstakingly crafted this thriller about a dedicated wife’s liberation of her husband from prison. Ironically, Vienna had fallen into French hands at the time of Fidelio’s premiere, and the opera failed before a first-night audience composed mostly of officers from Napoleon’s army. Two revisions—one in 1806, the other in 1814—resulted in the masterpiece we know today. Although Beethoven’s natural dramatic flair led him to flirt with a number of other subjects, including Macbeth, the difficult composition of Fidelio discouraged him from composing another opera.

It remained for a more cosmopolitan composer than Beethoven to create a national opera that was German in theme as well as language. Carl Maria von Weber accomplished this. Trained in a multiplicity of skills (including engraving and writing), he toured central Europe as a piano virtuoso and later directed the opera houses of Prague and Dresden, Germany. On the road, he absorbed the idiom of folk song; in the theater, he became fascinated by the descriptive possibilities of different instruments. In Der Freischütz (1821), based on German folklore, he brought these two elements together. The opera tells the story of a huntsman who is lured into casting magic bullets—with Satan’s assistance—in order to win the local shooting contest and the hand of the pure girl he loves. Only divine intervention saves the day. Der Freischütz, a highly romantic Singspiel, reflects in harmonic and orchestral color both the fear of the supernatural and the fascination of the forest depths. Its rustic choruses and atmospheric orchestral effects deeply influenced all subsequent German opera. Heinrich Marschner achieved a successful blend of Singspiel and supernatural elements in Der Vampyr (1828) and Hans Heiling (1833). Marschner also jumped on the Sir Walter Scott bandwagon with Der Templer und die Jüdin (1829), his adaptation of Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819).

The influences of Weber and Marschner, as well as those of Spontini and Cherubini, can be traced in the early work of Richard Wagner. Rienzi (1842), his first successful opera, was so heroic and on such a scale as to put the whole school of French grand opera—which it emulated—to shame. Although a work of considerable merit, its prohibitive length and demanding vocal writing discourage frequent revival, and Wagner himself excluded it from the official canon of his works, along with his other early operas.

Wagner began to find his individual voice with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843). Although still made up of set pieces in the Italian style—arias and choruses—it marks his first real step toward a through-composed work (a unified work set to music throughout). Holländer integrates numbers rather than setting them off and even dispenses with an intermission over its two-and-one-half hour length. The opera also sees the appearance of a dominant Wagnerian theme: redemption through a woman’s transcending love. Wagner wrote the text himself—he was one of the first composers to do so.

In Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850), in addition to delving further into medieval German folklore, Wagner expanded the musical discourse into rhetorical declamation over a continuously active orchestra. Significant musical themes or “tags,” called leitmotifs, permeated the musical structure. Leitmotifs were short, recurring phrases associated with specific characters, incidents, or ideas and were designed to provoke a subconscious emotional response in the listener. Wagner’s next step was to interweave these leitmotifs, transferring the chief role in the drama from the sung melody to the symphonic web of orchestra and voice. Finally, he placed this method into the service of a new subject matter: the Norse epic, which Wagner believed sprang from the prehistoric cultural roots of Germans.

Wagner’s political indiscretions (which included participation in the unsuccessful Revolution of 1848) forced him into exile until 1861—a time of gestation for Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). This was a cycle of four operas based on the German epic poem called the Nibelungenlied. Other disruptions were brought about by Wagner’s own creative growth, as he periodically broke off to write other operas. Influenced by both medieval lore and the pessimistic theology of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner composed Tristan und Isolde (1865), a tale of obsessive love based on Arthurian legend. In the happier, melodically profuse Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), also set in the Middle Ages, Wagner glorified the role of art in German national identity. The composer then returned to the Ring, his enormous tapestry of gods and warrior maidens. Das Rheingold (1869) and Die Walküre (1870), the first two Ring operas, had been premiered in Munich by Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria (while Wagner was in exile in Switzerland). But Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) were not heard until the first presentation of the entire Ring cycle at Wagner’s newly built Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876.

The restless, chromatic harmonies of Tristan influenced the course of classical music for the next century. The premieres at Bayreuth also marked the beginning of modern lighting and stage direction in opera. In his final masterpiece, Parsifal (1882), Wagner applied what he had learned about vocal writing and orchestration in performances of the Ring to the legend of the Holy Grail. The work, a complex web of myths and religions, is a solemn, semisacred drama that Wagner intended exclusively for the Festspielhaus. Such beautiful music, however, could not be confined, and other opera houses took it up as soon as possible. One can think of no more fitting capstone to Wagner’s work than Parsifal.

One disciple of Wagner was Engelbert Humperdinck, who assisted in the mounting of Parsifal and who echoed its idiom in his own Hänsel und Gretel (1893), a little masterpiece that adapts Wagnerian techniques to the realm of fairy tale, folk song, and folk dance. Wagner’s son Siegfried went back to the pre-Wagnerian idioms of Weber and Marschner for a long string of operas mixing folklore, mythology, and modern psychology.

F3 Romantic Opera in France

France’s appetite for heroic and spectacular operatic entertainment, which had characterized French opera since the time of Lully, was sated in the 19th century by opéra grande (grand opera) with its sweeping historical epics, lavish sets and costumes, and enormous choruses. This genre was largely the creation of Eugène Scribe, a playwright, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, a German émigré who would have Europe at his feet for three decades. The prolific Scribe turned out librettos at a fast pace. He was not above taking a previously set libretto, making a few cosmetic changes, and fobbing it off on another composer, as when he gave the text of Donizetti’s Il Duca d’Alba to Verdi for Les Vêpres Siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855).

Scribe and Meyerbeer collaborated on a series of grandiose works for the Paris Opéra—Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophète (1849), and L’Africaine (1865)—that treated historical fact and mass bloodshed with equal unconcern. Meyerbeer devoted most of his energy to exploiting novel orchestral effects, bravura singing roles, and theatrical spectacle, including the obligatory ballet. Le Prophète devotes half an hour to an ice-skating ballet. The persecution of minorities, a recurring theme in these operas, also dominates Jacques Halévy’s La Juive (The Jewess, 1835), a more rigorous and musically defined example of the Meyerbeer-Scribe model.

The outstanding and transcendent example of opéra grande is Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz, an epic, two-part dramatization of Virgil’s Aeneid composed between 1856 and 1858. While its length is not considerably greater than that of Meyerbeer’s biggest operas, its vocal and scenic demands are enormous, and Berlioz never lived to see a complete performance of it. A string of revivals beginning in the 1950s proved the musical and dramatic worth of Les Troyens, and contemporary audiences have shown a greater tolerance for the work’s vastness than did their Parisian forebears.

Georges Bizet achieved success in the very different style of opéra comique. At the time Bizet came upon the scene, opéra comique had mingled with the conventions of romanticism to produce such graceful operas as Faust (1859) by Charles Gounod and Mignon (1866) by Ambroise Thomas. In Carmen (1875) Bizet supplied the incisive musical characterization missing from the French operatic stage since Rameau. His librettists preserved as much of the stark realism of the original novella (by Prosper Mérimée) as was compatible with the opéra comique form. A violent tale set amid assorted lowlifes, Carmen initially shocked audiences, yet it enjoyed about 50 performances before Bizet’s untimely death in mid-1875. Continually reexamined and readapted, the story and music have retained their fascination into our own time.

Jacques Offenbach was another German émigré who, like Meyerbeer, came to Paris and conquered it. The acknowledged master of Parisian operetta, his compositions include Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858), La Belle Hélène (1864), La Vie Parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868). Many of these used exotic or mythical subjects to satirize contemporary France. Offenbach’s final work, the opera The Tales of Hoffmann (1881), failed to reach a definitive form before his death, and various conjectural versions have held the stage ever since.

Several other composers made notable contributions to French romantic opera. Camille Saint-Saëns composed Samson et Dalila (1877), a work known for its great melodic and rhythmic power, though its origins as an oratorio make it a somewhat uneasy fit on the operatic stage. French fascination with the East is evident in the lyrical delicacy and coloratura brilliance of Lakmé (1883), an opera set in India, by Léo Delibes. Jules Massenet rose to the challenge of first-rate books in Manon (1884), based on a novel by Abbé Prévost, and in his acknowledged masterpiece, Werther (1892), based on a novel by Goethe. In both, he imparted to his melody an intimate conversational tone. Massenet tried his hand at all manner of genres, including grand and comic operas, and one of his last works, Don Quichotte (1910)—composed for the Russian bass-baritone Feodor Chaliapin—finds the composer at the height of his powers. The only complete opera by Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), was a deliberate attempt to fuse music and drama as Wagner had done in Tristan und Isolde, but Debussy did it in a style exactly the opposite of Wagner’s. Where Wagner’s music is heroic and lushly chromatic, Debussy’s is delicate, understated, tied to natural speech rhythms, and supported by unusual harmonies. An almost literal setting of Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck’s play of the same title, Pelléas relies on the orchestra to establish a timeless mood and to speak feelings that the characters cannot articulate, sometimes overwhelming the characters in the process.

F4 Other Romantic Operas

In Russia and central Europe prominent composers both influenced and were influenced by Italian, French, and German romantic opera. No style had a greater influence on Debussy, or on any other composer struggling with the influence of Wagner, than that of Modest Mussorgsky of Russia. Determined to create a characteristically Russian opera, he turned his back on the colorful, episodic folklore that had earlier served his compatriot Mikhail Glinka in A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Russlan and Ludmilla (1842). Instead, Mussorgsky adapted a grim drama of psychological realism, Aleksandr Pushkin’s tragedy Boris Godunov in 1874. At the time of his death, Mussorgsky was struggling with an even more epic canvas: Khovanshchina (1886), a depiction of the conflict between the indigenous ways of Russia and the incursion of Western influences, embodied by Tsar Peter the Great.

Mussorgsky modeled his vocal writing on the inflections of Russian speech, and in both his operas made the chorus—which represented the Russian people—the protagonist. His musical textures swung between bold chromaticism (use of tones not part of the prevailing musical scale) and the austere modes of Russian liturgical chant—whichever worked best for the subject at hand. Mussorgsky’s score for Boris Godunov, now perceived as powerful and original, was considered by his contemporaries to be crude and naive. After his death, Mussorgsky’s friend Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov revised both Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, ‘correcting’ much of Mussorgsky’s characteristically unorthodox and craggy style. Despite prevailing for most of the 20th century, Rimsky-Korsakov’s splashier version was discredited and Mussorgsky’s original text has become the one most often heard by operagoers.

More lyrical, but no less national, was Prince Igor (1889) by Aleksandr Borodin, an episodic military drama completed by Aleksandr Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov after Borodin’s death. Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant writing rules the realm of the Russian fairy tale, with such pieces as The Snow Maiden (1882), Sadko (1898), The Invisible City of Kitezh (1907), and The Golden Cockerel (1909). Political satire permeates the last of these, and Rimsky-Korsakov was also capable of tragic utterance, as in The Tsar’s Bride (1899). More cosmopolitan in style are the operas of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose lyrical and romantic Eugene Onegin (1879) and darker, more unified The Queen of Spades (1890) both draw their texts from Pushkin.

Two different movements have been grouped under the label Czech opera: one of pro-Russian Slovaks and the other of German-influenced Bohemians. The most recognizable figure among the Bohemians was Antonín Dvořák, although only Rusalka (1901) with its deep pathos has taken a firm hold in the repertory. Prague was the capitol of Bohemian culture, and its dominant operatic figure was Bedřich Smetana, whose The Bartered Bride (1866) was quickly assimilated into the repertory, usually in German. Its comic subject matter has made it the most accessible of Smetana’s operas. Other operas by Smetana include two stirring patriotic works: the fast-moving rescue opera Dalibor (1868), and the epic tableaux of Libuše (1881), portraying the unification of the Czech people under a wise female leader.

Representing the Slovak school, unofficially headquartered in Brno, was Leoš Janáček, who like Mussorgsky and Debussy favored the use of natural speech rhythms. After some early, uninspired attempts at opera, Janáček flowered creatively at age 50, starting with an electrifying tragedy of Moravian life, Jenufa (1904), which is probably his most popular work. In subsequent operas, Janáček turned for subject matter to adultery born of stifling repression (Kát’a Kabanová, 1921), the order of the natural world (The Cunning Little Vixen, 1924), the supernatural (The Makropulos Case, 1926), and the prison-camp experiences of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (From the House of the Dead, 1930). Success in Prague both obsessed and eluded Janáček. International interest in his operas came only after diligent restoration in the late 20th century.

G 20th-Century Opera

The romantic era ended with World War I (1914-1918); the era’s ideal of heightened emotion, already showing signs of decay, could not survive such a shock. The patterns of operatic composition began to break down, giving way to a period of uncertainty and experimentation.

G1 European Trends

The fascination with medieval themes evident in Wagner’s Parsifal and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande wound down with such Italian works as L’amore dei tre re (1913) by Italo Montemezzi, I Cavalieri di Ekebu (1925) by Riccardo Zandonai, and Semirama (1910) and La fiamma (1934) by Ottorino Respighi. Austrian post-romanticists such as Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Alexander von Zemlinsky used medievalism as a springboard into explorations of spiritualism, abnormal psychology, and other popular movements of the time.

Early in the century, Richard Strauss appeared as the true (and self-proclaimed) successor to Wagner. Strauss first achieved renown with a pair of sensationalistic one-act operas: Salome (1905), based on the play by Irish-born writer Oscar Wilde, and the more harmonically advanced Elektra (1909). In these works, harmonic dissonance and heavily textured instrumentation uncannily mirror the abnormal psychology of the characters. Having gone to the brink of atonality (music without a central key), Strauss drew back with the elegant, expressive comedy Der Rosenkavalier (1911). Commedia dell’arte and opera seria collide to humorous effect in Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; revised 1916). Strauss’s grandiose so-called magic opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow, 1919) celebrates sacrificial love. Intermezzo (1924) presents a vignette of Strauss’s own turbulent domestic life; Arabella (1933) is a charming romance; Daphne (1938) evokes the healing powers of nature; and Friedenstag (Day of Peace, 1938) decries the dehumanizing effects of war. Capriccio (1942) is a lengthy inquiry into the primacy of words versus music in opera. But Die Liebe der Danae (1944), in which love prevails over poverty and hardship, finds Strauss (self-portrayed in the character of Jupiter) going out in a blaze of tonal glory.

Wagner’s legacy then passed to Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, members of what became known as the second Viennese school (the first consisting of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven). The operas of Schoenberg and Berg express disillusionment through their deliberate abandonment of conventional harmony as well as through their grim subject matter. Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), about a soldier driven mad through regimental sadism, medical experimentation, and his mistress’s infidelity, is a powerful emotional drama in spite of its intricate and highly formalized musical framework. Berg’s second opera, Lulu (1937), relates the life of an amoral street child. Schoenberg struggled for many years with Moses und Aron (unfinished; premiered posthumously in 1957) after he had completed a series of short operas, of which Expectation (1909) is the most successful. Moses und Aron, based on biblical stories, deals with crises as diverse as Moses’s inarticulateness and Aaron’s seduction of the Israelites into worship of the golden calf. With its scenes of orgy, destruction, and human sacrifice, the prohibitive complexity of Schoenberg’s opera has discouraged frequent performance.

Elsewhere, composers turned away from Wagner, substituting a discrete or single melodic part in place of the continuous, organic structure of Wagner and his disciples. In Budapest, Hungary, Béla Bartók composed the psychological parable Bluebeard’s Castle (completed 1911, first performed 1918), while Zoltán Kodály turned to Hungarian folk humor for Háry János (1926), the story of a mythic, Paul Bunyan-like figure. In Berlin, Italian-born composer Ferruccio Busoni infused new life into the well-known stories of Arlecchino (Harlequin, 1917), which freely mixes speech and song, and Doktor Faust (1925).

In England, a full-scale flowering of indigenous opera took place for the first time in some 200 years. The earliest works included The Immortal Hour (1914) by Rutland Boughton and The Wreckers (1906) and The Boatswain’s Mate (1916) by Ethyl Smyth, the former a rustic romance, the latter depicting the activities of pirates in an impoverished English coastal village. Smyth’s works enjoyed great popularity in continental Europe, as did some works of Frederick Delius, whose most famous opera was the German-derived A Village Romeo and Juliet (1907). Delius, however, was constitutionally unable to depict conflict, either in text or music, so his fairly inert music-dramas have never enjoyed more than occasional revival. Indeed, finding compelling subject matter proved an ongoing problem for English opera composers. Sāvitri (1916) by Gustav Holst looked to the Mahabharata, an epic poem from India. Hugh the Drover (1924) by Ralph Vaughan Williams is a low-key pastoral drama infused with folk songs, as is Sir John in Love (1929), an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599?) by English dramatist William Shakespeare.

It fell to Benjamin Britten to give English opera definition and force, beginning with Peter Grimes (1945), a sea drama about a persecuted, visionary fisherman. A work by French writer Guy de Maupassant inspired Britten’s Albert Herring (1947), a satire of country manners, while Billy Budd (1951), increasingly acknowledged as Britten’s masterpiece, adapts an allegory of good and evil in the fiery tumult of the Napoleonic wars by American novelist Herman Melville. Britten tried his hand at grand opera with Gloriana (1953), portraying England’s Queen Elizabeth I during a time of crisis, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), whose Shakespearean text was adapted by English tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s longtime companion and preferred interpreter. Britten also composed an opera for television, Owen Wingrave (1971). His Turn of the Screw (1954), adapted from a story by American writer Henry James, captures in its music the psychological tension of the original tale. Britten’s final masterpiece was Death in Venice (1973), one of his most harmonically inventive and self-revealing works.

Such has been Britten’s stature that few subsequent British composers have emerged from his shadow, although Peter Maxwell Davies enjoyed some success with Taverner (1972) and Harrison Birtwistle with Gawain (1991). Michael Tippett turned to opera with the philosophical The Midsummer Marriage (1955), for which he wrote his own libretto. He also wrote his own librettos for The Knot Garden (1970), The Ice Break (1977), and New Year (1989), with its science-fiction orientation.

Meanwhile, novelties from elsewhere in Europe were considered passing fancies. These included Aniara (1959) by Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl, which is set aboard a spaceship and features electronic sound, and Licht (Light, 1980-2003), a cycle of operas for every day of the week by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. More enduring works included Antigone (1949) by German composer Carl Orff, which harks back to ancient Greek theater with its rhythmic declamation over an austere, percussive accompaniment. The first opera of French composer Francis Poulenc was the earthy Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1947). He then took up the aesthetic that emphasized the rhythms of natural speech, an aesthetic advanced by Janaček, Mussorgsky, and Debussy. Poulenc’s two most notable operatic works are Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1957), based on a true story from the French Revolution, and the telephone monologue La Voix humaine (The Human Voice, 1959). In dramatizing the martyrdom of an order of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, Poulenc employs deceptively simple harmonic structures to potent emotional effect. His direction that the opera be performed, whenever possible, in the language of the audience gave it enormous international currency.

The opening of Russia to the West immeasurably enhanced the viability and currency of all schools of Russian opera. Sergey Prokofiev turned his hand to a text by Italian author Carlo Gozzi for the satirical The Love for Three Oranges (1921), one of his most enduring and popular works. Prokofiev also crafted the sinister—and somewhat incoherent—The Fiery Angel (1919-1927; produced 1954), before being beaten down into writing the formulaic, patriotic opera demanded by the Communist government that ruled the Soviet Union at that time. Even his often-beautiful setting of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1946) seems to be filled with homage to the Communist regime. Prokofiev’s colleague, Dmitry Shostakovich, fought a hit-and-run campaign with the government. After a brilliant and scathing adaptation of Nikolay Gogol’s satirical story The Nose (1930), wherein a bureaucrat’s nose takes on a life of its own, Shostakovich slammed the corrupt officialdom of Communist Russia in the overtly sensual Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934). The latter work is now regarded as one of the greatest of all 20th-century operas.

Working in an assortment of styles, Igor Stravinsky, who was born in Russia but eventually settled in the United States, built up an impressive catalogue of operas. These range from the romanticism of The Nightingale (1914) to the Mozartean The Rake’s Progress (1951), inspired by the engravings of English artist William Hogarth. Stravinsky also tried his hand at Greek drama in Oedipus Rex (1927), a work that is performed unstaged as often as staged. Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht, both from Germany, reworked John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera into the even more popular Threepenny Opera (1928). The two then collaborated on the cuttingly satiric Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930). Nazi persecution and changes of philosophy soon ended this potent collaboration, and Weill turned to American musical comedy.

Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, who settled in Europe in the 1970s, enjoyed a tremendous vogue during the 1960s and 1970s with his expressionistic and overtly sexual operas Don Rodrigo (1964), Bomarzo (1967), and Beatrix Cenci (1971). German-born composer Hans Werner Henze came to prominence in 1952 with Boulevard Solitude, which incorporates jazz, blues, and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system of composition. Henze’s subsequent operas include Elegy for Young Lovers (1961), set in the snowbound Alps and dominated by the music of the xylophone, vibraphone, harp, and glockenspiel; the darkly comic Der Junge Lord (The Young Lord, 1965); The Bassarids (1966), a version of The Bacchae, an ancient Greek play by Euripides; the multilayered We Come to the River (1976); the fairy-tale opera Pollicino (1980); and Das verratene Meer (1990).

G2 American Trends

Perhaps because it is not an art form indigenous to the United States, opera has had difficulty finding an American voice. There have been attempts at mining Native American lore, as in The Pipe of Desire (1910) by Frederick Converse, which was the first American opera to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera Company. Deems Taylor turned to English subject matter for The King’s Henchman (1927) and Peter Ibbetson (1931). The fashion for setting operas in the past was continued by the harmonically and melodically rich Merry Mount (1933) by Howard Hanson and The Man Without a Country (1937) by Walter Damrosch. Douglas Moore found rich sources of inspiration in American literature (The Wings of the Dove, 1961, based on a story by American expatriate author Henry James) and in legend (The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1939). He scored a lasting triumph with a true-life gold-rush story, The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956).

The distinguished American composer Aaron Copland produced but one opera, The Tender Land (1954). Samuel Barber wrote two works for the Metropolitan Opera: Vanessa (1958), with a libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti won a Pulitzer Prize, and Antony and Cleopatra (1966). Menotti himself, born in Italy but a resident in the United States for most of his life, wrote operas for radio (The Old Maid and the Thief, 1939) and television (Amahl and the Night Visitors, 1951) as well as for the opera house. Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954), set in New York’s Greenwich Village, won a Pulitzer Prize. His La Loca (1979) was written for American soprano Beverly Sills and his Goya (1986) for Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo.

Harmonic writing, drama, and other hallmarks of Italian opera characterize the works of Thomas Pasatieri, who made his mark with the television opera The Trial of Mary Lincoln (1972) and subsequently wrought an elegantly melancholic setting of Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1974). Likewise, the Italianate style of Dominick Argento evolved over more than a dozen operas, from mawkishness (The Masque of Angels, 1964) to the spare but gorgeously tonal weave of The Aspern Papers (1988), an adaptation from a story by Henry James. Leonard Bernstein struggled fitfully with opera throughout his compositional career, achieving his true voice in large-scale musicals such as Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957).

In the 1980s minimalism became a defining characteristic of American opera. Minimalism stressed repetition and subtle shifts in rhythm within stable melodic patterns. It is exemplified in the works of Philip Glass, whose first opera, Einstein on the Beach (1976), avoids solo singing altogether. Glass later worked in various genres, including science fiction (The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, 1988), but he enjoyed greater success in such historical portraits as Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1984). Satyagraha depicts the early struggles of Indian spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi and incorporates passages from the Baghavad-Gita sung in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. Akhnaten (1984) is a portrait of the Egyptian pharaoh who established monotheism in Egypt. Other Glass operas include CIVil WarS (1983), an allegory of conflict across the ages; and The Voyage (1992), which draws parallels between Christopher Columbus’s exploration of the Americas and futuristic space flight. John Adams scored an enormous success with Nixon in China (1987), a work that combines minimalist techniques with forms that audiences at the Paris Opéra would recognize, including a formal ballet and coloratura display aria. His subsequent, and less successful, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) dealt with terrorism in the Middle East.

In the 1990s American composers tried a variety of styles. The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) by John Corigliano exploded the last of the Figaro trilogy by French dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais into a “grand opera buffa.” It incorporates the ghosts of Beaumarchais and Marie-Antoinette along with Figaro and the Almaviva family (from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), who narrowly escape the guillotine. Numerous musical styles, from microtonality (the use of more than 12 tones in an octave) to Mozartean simplicity, are melded along the way, with time out for a Rossinian number (in his Turkish manner) performed by an Egyptian belly dancer. Other major American operas of the 1990s fared less well, including William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992) and Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons (1994). But Bolcom scored a hit in 2004 with The Wedding, a witty opera based on the 1977 Robert Altman film comedy and directed by Altman at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
Contributed By:
Herbert Kupferberg

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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