I started teaching Western Music History at the Kapellsberg School of Music in Härnösand last semester. This week, I have been reading up on the development of the opera, ahead of my next lexture. It is quite fascinating to trace the opera as a form and genre through the years and across national borders.
Very basically, opera can be traced back to the various forms of Medieval theatre that predates the Renaissance. Particularly interesting points of comparison, I think, are the mystery plays and, later on, morality plays. Mystery plays themselves originate in so called “living tableaux”, basically a staged scene with stationary actors, to which were added antiphonal songs.
Mystery plays (also known as “miracle plays”) were initially performed inside churches, but eventually moved outside, first to the churchyard and later to the marketplace. Apparently, these plays became popular enough that Pope Innocent III issued an edict in 1210 forbidding clergy from acting on public stages.
This had the effect of further decoupling the plays from the church, transferring the organizational duties over to town guilds and introducing non-Biblical passages as well as – God forbid! – more comic scenes. These plays seem to have been particularly popular in England, with four collections of English plays having been preserved to this day.
Also, in the city of Elche in Valencia, there is a particular mystery play that has been performed annually in August since at least the 15th century, if not earlier. The historical significance of this Misterio de Elche was even recognised by UNESCO, which declared it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
The earliest known morality play, and the only medieval musical drama to survive with a known author and composer, is Ordo Virtutum by legendary German polymath and Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, who is responsible for both the music and the text herself.
Primarily, the difference between a mystery play and a morality play is that the latter does not retell an event from the Bible or the life of a particular saint. Instead, the plot concerns humanity’s internal struggle characterised as, for example, angels and demons trying to persuade a protagonist toward good or evil.
Several recordings of Ordo Virtutum exist, one of the latest as recent as from last year, featuring the Miami-based vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire.
The opera as a concept more recognizable to us comes from Italy where, in the 15th and 16th centuries, poetic dramas with musical accompaniment were a regular feature at the courts of prosperous cities like Florence, Ferrara and Mantua. The actual impetus to the opera comes from a group of intellectuals in Florence known as the Camerata Fiorentina, the Florentine Chamber, that sought a revival of the ancient Greek dramatic style.
Perhaps most significant result of the Camerata’s musical experiments was the monody, ostensibly a recreation of a kind of ancient Greek recitative song, but actually related to the also recently developed solo madrigal; a single melodic line set to simple chordal accompaniment.
This marks the beginning of a seemingly neverending tug-of-war between music and drama, each competing over prominence, each gaining and losing ground respectively over the following centuries.
Early Florentine operas by pioneering composers such as Jacopo Peri (and at least one woman composer, Francesca Caccini) were heavily based on monody, establishing the so-called stile recitativo. Venice was another very important city in the early development of the opera, not least thanks to Venetian composers such as Claudio Monteverdi. Venice is also the home of the first ever public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano, that was open not only to nobles.
Most important for codifying the Italian opera, however, seems to have been Naples, where Alessandro Scarlatti and his Neapolitan colleagues pretty much established the format which would then spread far and wide throughout Europe in the late 17th and the 18th century. By this point, music had already gained ground again on drama.
Meanwhile in Paris, Italian expatriate Giovanni Battista Lulli has impressed the teenage king Louis XIV to such a degree that Lulli is made royal composer. Later on, as naturalized French citizen calling himself Jean-Baptiste Lully, he acquires royal privilege – effectively a monopoly – on producing French operas, or tragédies lyriques.
While obviously influenced by his Italian contemporaries, Lully’s operas generally emphasized narrative over music. There was, however, certainly no lack of musical splendor – this was after all entertainment for the royal court.
Italian opera continued to exert its influence throughout the 18th century, even as new opera and opera-adjacent genres emerged such as ballad opera, singspiel, opera buffa and opéra comique. There were works written both for a wider public as well as for royals and nobles. Another early public opera house was the Opera am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg which opened in 1678.
If you squint just a little, I do think that a pattern appears of opera shifting between focusing on either the musical splendor or the narrative intelligibility. While not not so clear-cut if you look at it more closely, I think it is worth reflecting on.
Also: Where would you say that we are today?
San Francisco Opera will premiere John Adams’ brand new opera Antony and Cleopatra in September 2022. Now, Adams is not only an experienced composer but an accomplished opera composer as well. Personally, I find his American post-minimalist style quite suitable for an opera, lending itself well to both dazzling music and clearly audible singing.
In June 2022, Hackney Empire in London premieres Violet, the first opera by up-and-coming composer Tom Coult. Coult’s musical style is decidedly more experimental, albeit with a clear sense of form and structure. What shape he will give the dreamlike, surreal plot is impossible (at least for me!) to guess.
In just over a month, in February 2022, Glyndebourne Youth Opera premieres Pay the Piper, a new opera co-composed by four composers: Anna Appleby, Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade, Cecilia Livingston and Ailie Robertson. This also appears to be the result of a pre-pandemic coaching scheme aimed at young female composers.
These were the first three premieres I found after a quick internet search and I am sure there are plenty more coming up, including in non-English-speaking countries.
Now I myself am a big fan of opera, as well as other kinds of musical drama and theater. A few years back I even had the tremendous pleasure of writing a children’s opera, Prins Pompom, which premiered in Härnösand back in 2019 and was very well received by audiences of all ages, as well as by critics.
I would like for opera to become a spectacle as widely embraced as the contemporary TV drama or the big screen blockbuster. A blockbuster opera, now wouldn’t that be something? It is far from unheard of, from a historical perspective, after all. And I believe it is important for such a change in perception and of habits, which would be required, to start at an early age.
Children need to get accustomed not only to the instant thrills and rewards of watching videos on small screens and big but as much, or even more, to all kinds of live entertainment whether it be music or theater or opera or dance or something else.