One Score 2013
STYLES OF OPERA
By John Schauer
There are many types of operas, sometimes categorized by the period or style in which they were composed, sometimes on the basis of whether or not they include spoken dialogue, but the most basic division is whether they are comedies (“opera buffa”) or tragedies (“opera seria”).
Beyond that distinction, we tend to group operas by historical period and national style. Keep in mind, as you read this, that the composers mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg—hundreds if not thousands of composers have been creating operas for over four centuries. Most of them, of course, have sunk into oblivion, but it is also instructive to keep in mind that the operas that comprise today’s international repertoire are not the same as those making up the repertoire in past times—not by a long shot. Composers once idolized for their operas—names like Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825), Luigi Cherubini (1760 – 1842) and Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791 – 1864)—today languish in relative obscurity, while others who are lionized today—such as Mozart—went through periods of neglect before being rediscovered and re-evaluated.
Opera was a creation of the Baroque period of music, originating in Italy near the beginning of that era in 1600. In general, opera was dominated by Italian composers and Italian singers for most of its subsequent history. George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759), revered today primarily for such English oratorios as Messiah, devoted the greatest part of his creative life to Italian opera, despite the fact that some critics of his time considered it absurd for a German-born composer to write operas in Italian for English audiences.
Even today, in the minds of many, “opera” means “Italian opera.” So strong is the association that some years back the makers of a bottled spaghetti sauce ran a commercial with operatic music, not realizing that the selection they had chosen—the very familiar Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen—was from a French opera set in Spain, with no connection to Italy whatsoever.
As the Baroque period gave way to the Classical era, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) emerged as one of the highest regarded opera composers of all time, although his works achieved that status only relatively recently in music history. It is worth noting that although Mozart, who was Austrian, did compose some operas to German texts (the most famous example being Die Zauberflöte, or “The Magic Flute”), Italian was still the dominant influence, and most of his mature operas were settings of Italian texts he made for non-Italian audiences: Idomeneo for Munich, Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte for Vienna, Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito for Prague.
The next great period of opera was called bel canto—literally, “beautiful song”—a style of virtuosic singing that emphasized lyrical beauty and astonishing flexibility. The trinity of bel canto masters comprised Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868), Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835), and their operas are still represented in the international repertoire in great profusion.
By the age of bel canto, music had shifted from the Classical sensibilities to the Romantic, and part and parcel of Romanticism was a new awareness of nationalism. France, from the very beginning, had resisted the Italian influence as it cultivated its own tradition of French opera through the efforts of Jean Baptiste Lully (1632 – 1687) and Jean Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764), and would continue to develop a strong Gallic tradition. During the 19th century, Paris became the operatic capital of Europe, and all composers, French or not, aspired to having their works produced there.
One of the developments of the Romantic period was the creation of French grand opéra. Today some people think of all opera as “grand,” but the French genre had distinct characteristics, including length—they were generally in five acts—with spectacular scenic effects; one of the first, Auber’s La muette di Portici, climaxed with a volcano erupting on stage! The genre was definitively established with Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell, and probably reached its zenith in the works of Giocomo Meyerbeer; Verdi’s Aida is something of a throwback to that tradition of huge stage spectacles.
France also maintained a tradition of opéra comique, which were not necessarily comic but rather distinguished by featuring spoken dialogue. (Germany had a similar tradition in the Singspiel, including Mozart’s The Magic Flute.) Famous French examples would later include Bizet’s Carmen and Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann (“The Tales of Hoffmann”), both of which would eventually have their dialogue set as recitative by other composers to make them more conventional by Italian standards.
By the early 19th century, conscious efforts were also underfoot to establish a distinctly German tradition, starting with Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826) and brought to its apotheosis through the mighty music-dramas of Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). Similar movements took root in Russia, whose operatic masters included Michael Glinka (1804 – 1857), Alexander Borodin (1834 – 1887), Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), and Czechoslovakia, represented by Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 1884) and Antonín Dvořák.
But the hold Italian composers exercised on the art form was still strong, and standing at the pinnacle was Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901), who almost exclusively composed operas with serious storylines and tragic endings. After him would come verismo, which stressed gritty realism and violent emotions in depicting the less savory aspects of life, exemplified by the overwhelmingly popular operas of Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924). But Verdi’s operas offer the best of both worlds—breathtaking lyricism coupled with uncanny insight into human nature. His popularity with critics and audiences alike has never abated.
As music history flowed into the 20th century, musical styles became more diverse, the mainstream of music fracturing into countless smaller streams and divergent styles. Atonality, minimalism, neo-Classicism and neo-Romanticism have all been explored, and new compositional techniques flirted with, some of them becoming relatively established, others being abandoned. Nonetheless, the most famous works of Verdi—including La traviata, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, Don Carlos, Otello, Falstaff and, of course, Aida—have ensured that his name will be celebrated so long as human beings retain the urge to tell a story through the medium of song.