Monday, June 20, 2011: Opera-Why Italian?

Are all operas Italian? Read on to find out.

Summer Solstice Series!

Summer is here! And to celebrate the season, Opus Osm presents a week-long Solstice Series of “backgrounder” articles. If you’ve ever wondered the who, why, what, or why not about opera, this week you’ll find out the answers to your questions. Zuzana Sklenková is on hand to anticipate everything you’ve always wanted to know about this glorious but confusing art form.

Part I Why Are So Many Operas Italian? A Painless Introduction to Opera

As with almost all great works of art, opera was born during the Renaissance in Italy. Around 1600, Florentine intellectuals started an initiative to revive Greek ancient drama. Simultaneously arose a new trend toward using a single, solo melody (monody), instead of groups of voices. This, combined with the boredom of the rich noblemen, gave rise to the very first opera experiment, authored by Jacopo Peri. Not surprisingly, Daphne was a musical adaptation of a Greek myth about a nymph who turns into a laurel tree, running from the pursuits of the lustful god Apollo.

Jacopo Peri, from Daphne

What did the first opera sound like, at the court of some Italian prince 400 years ago? It certainly didn’t resemble anything we would call opera today. The “story in music,” favola in musica, featured a series of fancy musical numbers, which usually obliterated the plot; and the divas of those days were castratos, young boys whose soprano voices neared godly virtuosity. It’s amazing that this entertainment for the rich developed into what it is today, a complete musical art form beloved by many — and not only the rich.

But Claudio Monteverdi is considered to be the first real opera composer. He set the legend of Orpheus to music and this opus is still being performed today.

Soon the opera entertainment hit other Italian towns: Venice, where the first public opera house was opened (1637); Naples and Rome; and from there, it slowly found its way to other parts of Europe. In the meantime the basic principles of opera were being defined: the aria (a solo allowing expression of emotions), and the recitative (singing that copies the rhythm of human speech – think “recite”).

Logically, therefore, Italian opera became prominent in the development of the genre. Italian composers wrote most of the works and promoted the new musical form in the rest of Europe. The singers also came from Italy or were trained there. As a result the language of opera – Italian — stayed for more than 200 years.

Enter the Germans

Tristan and Isolde is an icon of German opera.

The first move away from the Italian traditional form arrived with the onset of classicism.

The Bohemian-German musician Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) called for more simplicity in the music and attempted to make the drama the driving force of opera.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s genius built on the new tradition, and he composed the classics of the genre, such as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and many others.

The Contenders in the Opera Battle

The 19th century is often called the golden age of opera since so many masters emerged during this time. What we often forget today is that the famous operas we still enjoy were really products of a huge rift in styles.

Two countries especially contributed to the opera boom, Italy and Germany. On the Italian stage, the big names included Giachomo Rossini and later Giuseppe Verdi. The German opera contributed mainly the works of Richard Wagner.

Verdi and Wagner were contenders in their operatic professions. And their style couldn’t have been more different. While Verdi composed great dramatic, melodic opuses which he based on famous literary sources (Shakespeare, Dumas), Wagner innovated opera by assigning a larger role to the orchestra and creating a leitmotif (a short “theme song”) for each of the opera characters. Verdi and Wagner were crucial to the development of opera, and their stubborn insistence on their own styles is one reason so many 19th century classics are still enjoyed today. They also opened the way for 20th century composers working in multiple styles.

Bring On the Bohemians!

Bedřich Smetana

On the Bohemian scene, the rise of Czech nationalism in the 19th century brought about the first efforts to create separate Czech opera. Bedřich Smetana was a major pioneer of the opera form in the Czech lands, working with Czech themes from legends and history; he composed eight opuses. However, he naturally also absorbed musical trends of that time, especially Wagner’s stream.

As a result Smetana became frequently criticized for the German influence in his works, particularly his Brandenburgers in Bohemia, and most famously after the premiere of his opera Dalibor, which divided the Czech public into Smetana’s supporters and opponents.

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák, the other father of Czech classical music, won attention on international stages as a composer of symphonic works rather than of operas, with the single exception of Rusalka.

Interestingly, one of the most internationally renowned Czech composers these days is the Moravian Leoš Janáček, whose Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová have been included in the world opera repertoire. – oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

Tomorrow: Why Do People Think Opera Has to be Tragic?

Photo Credits: Opera scenes: Il Trovatore, copyright Statní Opera Praha; Tristan and Isolde, copyright Statní Opera Praha, Karel Kouba; Smetana and Dvořák busts, Mary Matz

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