One Score 2013

ORIGINS OF OPERA

By John Schauer


“Tell us a story!”

Florence 1754

Florence 1754

Those words have echoed through the ages, from aboriginal tribes gathered around the fire several thousand years ago to toddlers in their jammies who crawled onto their parents’ laps last night. Novels, plays, comic books, television shows and movies are only some of the genres that have grown into major industries because of humanity’s unquenchable thirst for a good story well told.

Almost exactly 400 years ago, a group of dilettantes in Florence (the “Florentine Camerata”) came up with the idea of trying to recreate the legendary power of ancient Greek drama by devising a new type of declamation in which dialogue would be sung rather than spoken. More melodic than mere speech but more naturalistic than singing, it was a hybrid of the two. The use of pitch and harmony, they reasoned, would add the emotional wallop long ascribed to the theater of the Greeks, whose plays, according to legend, were so intense that audience members frequently fainted.

This new type of declamation has come to be known as recitative (pronounced reh-tchi-ta-TEEVE). The first operas were almost entirely recitative, with perhaps a few passages of a more melodic nature, called “arioso,” interspersed. Although the Camerata was determined that operas should be more faithful to spoken language than the far more musically intricate madrigals of the time, the inescapable charms of beautiful melodies sung by beautiful voices came to win the day, and those musical interludes became longer and more elaborate, until they practically became separate compositions called arias.

The debate as to which should be paramount, the music or the words, has waged on through the centuries; at various times composers have consciously sought to simplify the music so that the text and drama can take precedence. In the best operas, both are of the highest quality—a first-class story told through immortal music. Needless to say, this rarely happens, and many an opera has become a beloved standard because of its ravishing music, and in spite of a confused or absurd plot. It is not a coincidence that operas are commonly identified by their composers, not their librettists. One well-known comedienne, the late Anna Russell, developed a successful career in the second half of the 20th century by recounting opera plots; her signature punch line was, “I’m not making this up, you know.”

—JS


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