Who composed the first opera
The Invention - Florentine Camerata
More than any other genre of art, opera was literally "invented" - around 1580, in the Medici Florence, in the era that went down in history under the term Renaissance.
The intellectual life of this epoch was shaped by the desire to revive the much-revered Greek antiquity. Their values, their philosophies and their arts were considered the measure of all things.
The members of the "Florentine Camerata" - an association of nobles, scholars and performing musicians - wanted to bring Greek tragedy to life. The members of the Camerata believed that singing had played a central role in it.
So they decided to experiment: spoken theater pieces should be enriched with music and thereby placed on a higher, more perfect level. The result was a new art form: Dramatic text, performed by an actor as usual, but not spoken as before, but sung and accompanied by music.
Actually, the singing should only support the text, you couldn't trust the music any more. But there was already a composer who recognized that music in the theater can do a lot more: Claudio Monteverdi.
With timpani and trumpets - the baroque opera
His first music-theatrical work "L'Orfeo" (1607) went far beyond the claims of the "Camerata". It tells the story of Orpheus, who succeeds in softening the gods solely through the expressiveness of his music.
Monteverdi uses the theme skillfully to break a lance for the expressive possibilities of music. It should not be the rhetorical support of a text, but its own independent expression of human affects. He knew that music could express the "individual feelings of people", says opera expert Leo Karl Gerhartz.
Love, despair, pain, happiness became the starting point for Monteverdi's compositions. As a matter of course, each of his characters received their own musical language: One sings in halting rhythms, the other rigid and gloomy, another in familiar melodic lines and so on.
With this, Monteverdi established a central element of the opera: the characterization of the characters through the means of music.
A second principle follows seamlessly: Just as the music describes a character, the variously different sounds of the musical instruments embody the most varied of scenarios. Recorders can sound like the outdoors, trombones like hell spectacles, kettledrums after falls or blows.
In "L'Orfeo" Monteverdi uses 33 different instruments. Baroque opera drew abundantly from this fund. That fitted in well with the time, because the absolutist rulers of the time enjoyed offering their audience pompous shows in which one could hear the oceans roar and gods sing.
From 1673 the events, which had initially been reserved for court festivities, were also accessible to a wealthy public audience. More and more specialized theaters emerged in the metropolises, as the opera was henceforth the most representative form of theater and celebrated great successes among composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Henry Purcell and Georg Friedrich Handel.
Social becomes the topic
Often at the end of one development there is the beginning of another. Just as absolutism could no longer hold its own against a more and more strengthening bourgeoisie, so did interest in the baroque style of the opera spectacle, which should always be a vain self-reflection of the rulers.
The artificiality and pathos of the "serious" operas were denounced and ridiculed.
In 1733 the time had come: a short comedy under the name "La serva padrona" ("The maid as mistress"), which was actually only written as an interlude amusement for a serious opera, delighted the audience more than the main work.
The story: A maid tricked her grouchy master and got him to marry her. The cunning and determination of this figure delighted the audience, because they were indicative of the new, just budding self-image of the bourgeoisie. No longer just birth and rigid hierarchy, but hard work and skill should enable social advancement.
Also, the form of the opera itself was "realistic" in a new way. The characters involved were not gods, ancient heroes or mythical creatures, but quite normal contemporaries. And the action was not spread over a multitude of exotic scenarios, but took place in the here and now.
The audience wanted more of it and it got it.
The master of this so-called "Opera Buffa" ("comic opera"), which lasted into the 19th century, was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He knew how to give his characters enormous liveliness and plasticity through musical means of expression alone.
With him, action and music merged into one unit by letting the characters sing out their conflicts to one another. This resulted in ensemble numbers in which four or five characters could argue with each other while singing, assure themselves of their love or concoct plans.
But the "serious opera", the "Opera Seria", had also changed in the meantime. Christoph Willibald Gluck had implemented his demand for less empty spectacle and more human truthfulness.
His work "Orpheus and Eurydice" (1762) was so simple in its means, so free of effects and grandiose arias that it disturbed the audience. But the novelty of this concept was recognized and the opera is still on the repertoire today.
Italian opera - from bel canto to verismo
Italian opera had a special place in operational history from the very beginning. Nowhere else was the tonal beauty of the voice so central to compositional work. "Belcanto" (Italian for "beautiful song") was the linchpin of Italian opera.
In the 19th century in particular, Italian operas dominated the scene, so that to this day the term "opera" is often associated with Italian composers first: for example Rossini, Verdi, Puccini.
The "vocal operas" of this period, the Romantic period, also drew their themes from the contemporary perception of the audience. The drama of being human was set to music. It was no longer the historical setting or the external plot that was important, but the inner conflicts of the characters, which were moved to the border areas of social reality.
Can love be stronger than loyalty to one's own social class? Does friendship outweigh loyalty to the state? Does love last until death? Such and similar questions became the starting point for psychologically sophisticated psychological dramas in which the audience was given an insight into the characters' thoughts, longings and dreams.
In Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma" (1831) the priestess Norma sees herself cheated. The father of your child belongs to the enemy occupying power. Now he is leaving her, of all things for her own student. Norma is understandably deeply upset and wants to take revenge on the villain.
As a priestess, she has the opportunity to incite her people against the occupiers - but that would mean the death of many innocent people. Or she kills the child they share and thus hits the lying person straight to the heart. But actually she still loves him and above all doesn't want someone else to get him.
What to do? The audience of "Norma" can listen to all of her reflections and the accompanying emotions and changes. That is the strength of these operas. They play through the whole cosmos of emotions and decisions in an exaggerated form, in which the audience sees itself trapped.
Only the "verismo" (from Italian "vero" for "true"), which emerged towards the end of the 19th century, also declared such an emotional navel gazing to be too artificial.
One shifts to bringing explosive, affect-loading acts onto the stage. In Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" or in Puccini's "Tosca" the drama of jealousy and manslaughter are in the foreground, the characters' motifs are simple, their actions are often unreflected.
The "Verismo" operas relate to romantic opera - to put it somewhat exaggerated - in much the same way as a James Bond thriller to a Thomas Mann novel.
Wagner - the opera as a total work of art
Richard Wagner was many things at the same time: musician and poet, artistic director and conductor, composer and theorist. That is why the romantic idea of the "total work of art" fell on fertile ground with him.
All individual arts should be combined in one work in order to fertilize each other, to bring in their strengths, and as a result to result in the most comprehensive work of art imaginable. Therefore, for Wagner, music alone could not be in the foreground of his conception, as was the case in the vocal-oriented Italian opera.
In place of closed melodies, seemingly infinite vocal lines appear, and the music becomes a kind of sound fabric. This music only had to fulfill its task within the work, namely to show the inner plot of the drama.
In it the relationships of the characters to one another are shown, their states of mind reveal themselves, their unconscious comes to light. It is not a mirror or a commentary on the characters, but a separate second level next to the stage characters, the innermost part of which it brings to light.
Basically, she takes on the role of the narrator in the novel and often knows more about the characters than they do themselves.
The modern age - realism in the front of empty houses
Inspired by Wagner's revolution, a number of composers ushered in the modern era in opera. They too freed themselves above all from the stylizing traditions and approached the realism of spoken theater.
This is how literary operas such as "Pelléas et Méllisande" (1902) by Claude Debussy or "Salome" (1905) by Richard Strauss emerged, which - like Wagner - sought a way beyond arias and recitatives (ie the musical presentation of spoken texts ).
Alban Berg's opera "Wozzeck" (1925), a setting of Georg Büchner's drama fragment, became a milestone in this development. Berg did not want to adapt the piece for the opera, but tried to read music from the text.
The result is therefore less the implementation than the interpretation of the piece. However, the audience adapted to these changes in the genre much more slowly than the composers. Romantic opera continued to dominate stages around the world, especially Italian opera.
The trend continues to this day. However, one now notices greater tolerance, perhaps also a slow change in listening habits. While a "Wozzeck" performance was guaranteed to be disturbed two decades ago by whimpers and slamming doors in the audience, the opera can now be performed safely.
Other works from the 20th century still have a harder time. Performing a socially critical opera like Luigi Nono's "Intolleranza" (1960) is still a daring experiment today.
Author: Salim Butt
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