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The Story of Opera - Part I

February 23, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, this blog addressed the development of the symphony. This week, at the risk of biting off more than I can chew, I’d like to start a similar series about opera. Opera has been around for more than four centuries, and we might be tempted to think it appeared—fully formed—out of the head of Zeus. But the development of opera took time, and it began with some serious thought.


In the late 1500s, a group of artists and literati, known as the Florentine Camerata (or the Camerata de’ Bardi) met up to discuss matters of the arts. One of their central concerns was the relationship of music and drama. This was a matter of great importance, as the expression of text in music had been taken up in earnest and made popular by the composers of Italian madrigals. These composers used primarily “word-painting,” a method of using musical gestures to represent words. For example, the word “high” would be sung on a high note, the word “low” at the opposite end of the register. Fleeing, running, or chasing would be appropriately represented in the vocal lines, while the phrase “two by two” would require two voices. Madrigals had steadily added more voices for decades, and then suddenly the composers realized that perhaps it wasn’t a collection of many voices that made the most dramatic sense, but a single voice. The Florentine Camerata looked back on the dramatic traditions of the ancient Greeks—held up as an ideal—and reasoned that since Greek dramas were fully sung, that composers should try to create a long-form narrative piece sung throughout in a style that fused singing and speech.


In the 1590s, Jacopo Peri, a composer in Florence, composed what we consider to be the first opera, a work called Dafne. This work, now lost, premiered during the Carnival time of 1598. Central to this work is the use of stile recitativo, or recitative, a hopeful approximation of the all-sung dramas of the ancient Greeks. Peri’s next work, Euridice, premiered in 1600 at a Medici wedding, and Peri played the lead role of Orfeo. Although this is our earliest surviving complete opera, it hasn’t entered the standard repertoire. The earliest opera to achieve a place in the canon is another musical drama about the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Its inclusion in this canon did not come immediately, but only in the twentieth century after scholarship renewed interest in early masterpieces like these. In the second half of the twentieth century, the increased cultivation of groups that gave historically accurate performances on period instruments gave L’Orfeo a second life.


Composed in 1607, L’Orfeo resembles what most people think of as opera: there are instrumental parts, recitatives, solo arias, and even a chorus. Monteverdi had spent the early part of his career writing madrigals, so it is fitting then that Monteverdi, who had a particular affinity for setting text, be considered the first great opera composer. Unlike its predecessors, L’Orfeo seems to display not only a great sensitivity to the drama of the work, but also a deep understanding of what would please an audience. In many ways, the composition of L’Orfeo stands at a point in time where the right talent met the right project at precisely the correct time. Monteverdi would go on to compose more opera, and he would live long enough to see opera become a public entertainment.


The first operas were written for private affairs, weddings and parties, and also for Carnival, but public opera houses did not exist until 1637. The first public opera houses opened not in Florence but in Venice, and it was the perfect place, as its location on the water made it a crossroads for travelers, merchants, and royalty. One of Monteverdi’s masterpieces, and his final opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, was composed for the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. He chose a historical topic rather than a mythological one, the characters are more finely drawn, and Monteverdi even included some comedic elements. Not fully realistic, there is still the presence of a deus ex machina, in the form of a character named “Love” who protects Poppea in her quest to steal Nero from his wife and become empress. The two leads, the emperor Nero and his mistress Poppea, were composed for high voices. The role of Nero was to be sung by a high castrato voice.


Now, here’s the part where we have to talk about one of early opera’s questionable aspects: the use of castrati as the main male voice in Italian opera seria. At the time, this was the height of style, but now it just seems wrong, and perhaps barbaric (in performances nowadays, both parts are usually played by women). It was common practice to take promising boy singers—often the children of poor parents—and castrate them when they were between six and eight years old.* In doing so, the thinking went, they would maintain an unchanged high voice, but still grow into men whose lung capacity was normal, and who could sing these high voices with a great deal of volume and strength. The exact origins of the castrato are not crystal clear although there are reports of such singers in religious music from the mid 1500s. In secular music, like opera, women could be part of the drama, but in certain parts of Italy there was a papal ban preventing women from appearing on stage. In these places—indeed in the birthplace of opera—this ban was in effect. Composers must have gotten used to writing for these high male voices—and certainly it must have been quite a spectacle to see and hear. Castrati were the rock stars of their day, and if their diva-like behavior helped sell tickets, so much the better. This style of Italian opera grew to be popular in England, Austria, and Germany, consequently, the castrato voice carried the main roles for many years, but it never caught on in French opera.


The use of castrati fell sharply after the turn of the nineteenth century, although some roles were still written specifically for the voice part. Meyerbeer’s Il crociato in Egitto of 1824 was the last major opera with a castrato role. The “last castrato” on record was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), who sang in the Sistine Choir in Rome until 1903, the year castrati were banned by Pope Pius X.


Charles Burney, a writer and historian, wrote about the famous castrato, Farinelli (Carlo Broschi). His said of the singer: “It was not only in speed that he excelled, for he now had every excellence of every great singer united….Indeed, he possessed such powers as never met before, or since, in any one human being; powers that were irresistible, and which must have subdued every hearer; the learned and the ignorant, the friend and the foe.” That must have been a hard act to follow, but we’ll try next week with our continuation of the development of opera in the Classical and Romantic periods. To be continued...


*For all of the castrati’s existence, the operation was actually illegal in Italy, so castration was done under the pretense of something else, or it was claimed that the boy had experienced some sort of accident resulting in his castration. If one went looking for a place where such operations were performed, one city in Italy would refer you to another city, and that city would tell you to go to another city, and so on.

Dr. Christine Gengaro is an award-winning educator, and a successful writer and musician. She has been on the faculty of Los Angeles City College since 2004. A graduate of the Ph.D. program in historical musicology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Gengaro currently serves as the program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She has also written notes and other materials for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica, and the Mozartwoche concert series in Vienna. Her research interests include music and film, music and literature, and classical music in popular media.

Dr. Gengaro's first book, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013.

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