A Brief History of Opera, Part IV: Opera in the Twentieth Century
March 16, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Part III of our series on opera ended in 1901 with a brief discussion of nationalistic opera. Part IV will cover what happened to opera in the twentieth century. So many different musical trends occurred in that hundred-year period, it’s quite a challenge to discuss them all. I think it’s probably best to talk about a few representative works as an indication of the kinds of trends that were popular. It was an immensely fascinating and creative time, and opera was at the heart of some of those developments.
Let’s begin with two figures who bridged the gap from the end of the Romantic period into the first few decades of the twentieth century: Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss. Puccini’s first opera at the turn of the century was Tosca. With this opera, Puccini began exploring the concept of verismo, a depiction of life that was more realistic, less idealized. Puccini used recognizable themes for characters and ideas, similar to Wagnerian leitmotivs, but in a musical manner that was quite distinct from Wagner’s musical language. Puccini wrote some of his most famous operas in the twentieth century including Madame Butterfly (1904), 1918’s Gianni Schicchi (the popular soprano aria, “O mio babbino caro” comes from this one-act opera), and of course, his final opera Turandot (1924), which was left unfinished at the composer’s death. In this, his ultimate work, the harmony is unexpected and surprising, and the orchestra is large and full of subtle colorings, but it retains a firm grounding in the Western harmonic tradition.
R. Strauss spent the years at the end of the Romantic period writing highly expressive tone poems, strictly instrumental pieces that told some extra musical story or narrative. The most famous of these is probably Also Sprach Zarathustra, but there’s also Death and Transfiguration, An Alpine Symphony, and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Strauss’s first foray into opera in the twentieth century was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome. (Strauss had previously written two operas in the nineteenth century that weren’t very successful.) Salome was controversial for its subject matter, especially for two of the on-stage actions: the title character’s Dance of the Seven Veils, and the final scene in which Salome kisses the severed head of John the Baptist. Strauss’ version was in German, but was sometimes presented in French (Strauss made an official French version in 1930). The Viennese censor would not allow it to be performed at the Vienna State Opera until 1918. In terms of the music, Strauss took a lot of chances, using bitonal harmonies and plenty of dissonance. Strauss would continue and expand the use of dissonance in his next opera, Elektra. But instead of staying this course, which might have eventually led to a fully atonal opera at some point, Strauss changed course with 1911’s Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss looked back to harmonies of the late nineteenth century and the Wagnerian model. Strauss would go on to write another ten operas before his death in 1949.
The idea of atonality that Strauss flirted with in the first decades of the twentieth century came to fruition in the work of Arnold Schoenberg and the so-called Second Viennese School. These composers explored serialism and atonality in both instrumental music and in opera. One of the most successful atonal works was Alban Berg’s opera, Wozzeck. Adapted from a play by Georg Büchner, Wozzeck tells the story of a man who’s dehumanized by his career and his relationships. He's poor, overworked, and haunted by bizarre visions. His girlfriend, also quite unhappy, is unfaithful. He murders his girlfriend, and later drowns himself, leaving their young son orphaned. As evidence of Wozzeck’s unimportance to the world, two people hear him drowning, yet they do nothing to help him. Berg’s use of atonal music is perfect here, as the title character’s dehumanization and fading sanity cause him to lose a grip on reality. Berg also employs a number of Classical forms along with the new tonal language.
Benjamin Britten contributed a number of important English operas to the twentieth century repertoire, including Peter Grimes (1945) and Billy Budd (1951). Like Wozzeck, the theme of a few of Britten’s operas deals with an individual who runs up against an unfriendly group or society. Britten’s harmonic language is adventurous, but not strictly atonal. And the singing style often borders on an arioso middle ground between recitative and aria. Britten had concerned himself with the tradition of English opera going back to Henry Purcell (1659-1695), and with bringing English opera to a place of greater prominence on the world stage. In this, he succeeded beautifully, if the centenary celebrations of his birth are any indication.
An important musical movement of the twentieth century that made its way into opera was Minimalism. Minimalism refers to a style with limited musical materials, like a small collection of notes or short phrases. John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China (1987) included some minimalist techniques. In the composition of this piece, Adams was inspired by Philip Glass and Steve Reich—two other American composers who had also used repetitive and minimalist processes. Nixon in China is not only a minimalist work; it also incorporates other music styles, and requires some virtuosic vocal skills. Adams continues to compose music including new opera in the twenty-first century including Doctor Atomic (2005) and A Flowering Tree (2006). Which brings us, more or less, to now.
I have left out of our discussion so many important and amazing operas in the twentieth century, but I knew that was going to happen. Entire books have been written about this topic, so a few thousand words was never going to be enough. Opera has come a long way since its beginnings at the turn of the seventeenth century. I hope this four-part series has helped create a rough sketch of the development of opera over the last four hundred years. Opera is a genre that demonstrates a confluence of art forms—music, dance, drama, literature, and visual art (in the form of sets and costumes)—and represents a high achievement in human art. It’s not the dominant popular entertainment it once was, but it is still important, and remains a proving ground for composers. Its place in popular society has changed, but I believe that opera will continue to exist, hopefully hundreds of years into the future. Who knows what new developments will take place just in the rest of the twenty-first century, never mind centuries from now? Based on what’s happened so far, I couldn’t even hazard a guess.