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Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
December 22nd, 2011, 04:24 AM
The world of Opera



The combination of music and drama is a thrilling potent mix, but opera remains off-putting for too many people.
Still, opera is the most enduring musical genre. It started four hundred years ago in late Renaissance Italy and is still going, with new operas being composed every year.
About 40,000 operas have been written. They range from late Renaissance music to Italian melodramas and comedies, to modern psychodramas.



If opera has been lasting for so long, it must be good, right? That’s what I intend to prove to you, and hopefully make of you a new opera lover (unless I’m preaching to the converted).



Most uninitiated modern audiences experience a sense of ridicule when they think about opera. Two images come to mind: the fat lady with horns screaming and breaking glass, and Looney Tunes cartoons.

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It’s not over until the fat lady sings.

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The fat gentleman and the fat lady:

Luciano Pavarotti once vetoed the casting of the voluminous Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova alongside him in Tosca, saying: “What’s the point of having two elephants onstage?”



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Some people say opera is boring



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Maybe opera is just not for everyone

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An opera is a drama or comedy that combines soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, action and continuous music into an incredibly expressive and exciting whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.



Literally, opera means musical work or composition. The creators of the first opera (Peri, the composer, and Rinuccini, the poet) didn’t quite know what to call their creation, and just called it opera in musica, or work in music.



Is it words, or is it music? It is neither. It is an indefinable combination of both.
Opera incorporates into literary texts, music that evokes unspoken thoughts and feelings that cannot be said in words alone.



For kings, or for the people?



Opera started not from a popular musical movement, but as we’ll soon see, it was “invented” by elitist musicians, writers, and scholars in a think tank. Later, it remained elitist, finding its place in royal courts.
But opera soon became more popular, when in 1637 the Tron family in Venice decided to open a public opera theater, to sell tickets.
By 1650 Venice had 20 public opera houses.
These did for the public what multiplex cinemas do today – entertainment for the masses.





For most of its history, opera was the single greatest spectacle available to its audiences. It combines scenery, costumes, acting, literature, and music, in what can be called the ultimate art work, or in Wagner’s words, a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk)
Opera is the oldest continuously active musical genre
Opera is posited on the idea that music has the power to distill, crystallize, and intensify meaning.





T.S. Elliot said that music “evokes the fringe of indefinite feeling which we can only detect out of the corner of the eye.”
Children at play who sing-song their words to themselves and their toys exemplify the operatic ideal
Married to words, music has the ability to evoke symbolic meaning and universally-appealing character archetypes. Examples:



Mozart chills us with Elektra’s crazed fury as she sings “Of Orestes and Ajax” from Idomeneo





http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erh1FImHDxs&feature=related




Bizet intrigues us with his revelation of Carmen’s sexual manipulation in the “Seguidilla” from Carmen


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-Fgw3cCi9o



Rossini warms our hearts with Figaro’s upbeat personality in “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmTcmBn56Jk



Furthermore, opera appeals to a range of human emotions


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The picture is bad, but this guy in the audience is saying to the other: “I thought you said we were going to see a show about sex and violence.”

They should have been to the opera instead.

Operas are about love and sex and seduction and betrayal and loyalty, or else about death and rivalries and vengeance and war and conquest – that is, our usual human behavior. There’s something for everyone.

A brief history of Opera

Since the high middle age composers have sought to express something of themselves or their world in their music.
The Renaissance brought up a revival of Greek ideals
The composers who invented opera believed they were recreating the environment and techniques of ancient Greek drama.
The Greeks believed music to be a microcosm of all creation. Music was present everywhere in ancient Greece. It was played throughout sporting events and most, if not all Greek drama was sung with accompaniment. Only about forty fragments of pre-Christian music have survived.

Here is how medieval music slowly evolved into opera:



First, church medieval music was monophonic, monotonous, and intended to only evoke a pious state
A late Renaissance secular music style developed next, called the Madrigal, a work for four to six singers based on high art poetry and the concept of “word painting” (polyphonic sounds that illustrated a word, called chromaticism)
Alongside the Madrigal, it became common to present Intermezzi (musical pieces with dancing and scenery) in between acts of spoken plays or Madrigal concerts





From only being presented in-between acts, music started being incorporated into the plays themselves, especially in the genre that dominated Italian theater in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, called Pastoral (sylvan settings and mild love adventures ending happily). The environment was mature for what happened next.
A ridotto was a private academy or intellectual club (what we would call a think tank today)
A ridotto in Florence, called The Florentine Cameratta, met from 1573 to 1592 to study the nature of musical and dramatic expression





They developed a new theory of music, based on the Greek expressive ideal – text sung by a singer, with orchestral accompaniment, to depict the feelings and emotions of the character singing
The first works that we today call operas were created by members of the Florentine Camerata
The first opera was Daphne, by the poet Rinuccini and the composer Jacopo Peri, in 1598. The music is lost.
The second opera and first one to be performed on stage was Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, staged in Florence on October 6, 1600.





Claudio Monteverdi was the first great opera composer. Of his 19 operas only three survived whole (and three others in fragments), including his first one, which is considered to be the first great opera, L'Orfeo, from 1607
From that point on, it never stopped. Still today, there are about 30 World Premieres of new operas every year. Here’s a recent one:



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(If you can't read well: Creators of an opera about bugs at the Indian Hill Music Center in Littleton are soliciting public comments to help them fine tune the production. Panel: "Give the caterpillar more lines.")


Great opera composers include both those better known for their instrumental works, and those who almost exclusively specialized in Opera. Here is a partial list of some of the most important among them:
Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Weber, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, Dvorak, Glinka, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakof, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini, Massenet, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Lehár, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Gershwin





Some of the great operas:
Aida, La Bohčme, Carmen, La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Magic Flute, The Elixir of Love, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Knight of the Rose, Cavalleria Rusticana, Norma, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Tristan und Isolde, Nabucco, Turandot, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, Fidelio, Manon, Don Giovanni…
And so many others…





And the great performers:
The old ones, already dead or retired… Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Jussi Bjorling, Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano, Lotte Lehman, Birgit Nilsson, Anna Moffo, Jessye Norman, Hildergard Behrens, Mirella Freni, Lilli Pons, Lucia Popp, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Teresa Stratas, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri te Kanawa, José Carreras, Natalie Dessay…
And the new ones, still alive and active… Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Elina Garanca, Bryn Terfel, Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Andreas Scholl, Philippe Jaroussky, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Cecilia Bartoli, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, Jonas Kaufmann, Joyce DiDonato…



Opera in the US by the numbers



4.8 million adults attend live opera performances per year in the USA, and 11 million watch opera on TV and movie theaters or listen to full performances on the radio. The median age of opera goers is 48.
In a typical year, the 117 US professional opera companies present about 1,990 performances of 414 operas
Opera companies in the US employ 55,000 people and make 310 million dollars in box office receipts
Private donations to opera companies in the US total about 505 million dollars per year





Since 1990, 200 new operas have been written and produced in the United States
The most frequently produced operas in the United States are : La bohčme, Tosca, La traviata, Madama Butterfly, The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute, Carmen, The Elixir of Love, Cavalleria rusticana and Lucia di Lammermoor.
The most frequently produced American operas are: George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree, Leonard Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story, Marc Blitzstein's Regina, Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium and Amahl and the Night Visitors, Mark Adamo's Little Women and Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music





Monteverdi introduced a half-sung, half spoken musical style called a recitative. They function as a narration of the action to link different parts of an opera, or as dialogue. They are accompanied by simple, light orchestration
Recitatives alternate with extended solos – the equivalent of a soliloquy – that bring the action to a temporary halt, in which the character expresses his or her feelings about the action and events just described. These are called arias, have a high melodic profile, and are typically accompanied by the full orchestra. They are named after the first line of the lyrics.





Duets are songs for two voices, often a male and a female, with romantic overtones
Operas use overtures, which are instrumental preludes, and some of them have intermezzi, instrumental pieces played in-between acts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTUWPaicpBM
You’re listening to the Intermezzo in Cavalleria Rusticana.
Finally, operas use ensembles
Operas that utilize all of the above are called number operas. Others have continuous music and are called written-through operas.





One of the most thrilling parts on an opera is the ensemble, continuously sung passages in which any number of singers may participate. They typically end an act.
Here is an outstanding ensemble called Bella figlia dell’amore, found in Verdi’s Rigoletto. When you listen to it, pay attention to the different melody for each voice and how they melt interestingly, like an orchestra with different instruments (it starts with a single voice, and others join after one minute). The orchestra itself is almost silent because the voices supply enough color.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYRZOEzoOgQ



Some operas, like Greek dramas, use a chorus that represents greater society at large, and makes comments about elements of the plot.
Verdi’s choruses are sublime, and run the gamut from triumphal to pungent. Here is a sample of one of his spectacular choruses, perfectly orchestrated: Vedi! Le fosche, also known as the Anvil chorus, found in Il Trovatore.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXkGoBnM8dY



Some other definitions: Operas are divided in sub-genres
Opera Seria – serious Italian opera of the Baroque era, with elaborate and grandiose productions typically based on subjects from ancient history and mythology
Opera Buffa – Italian operas of the middle and late eighteenth century that are melodically simpler, more popular, and usually comedic
Operetta – literally, “little opera” – lighter type of opera with spoken dialogue (not sung recitative) separating the musical numbers.
Grand Opera – spectacular and dramatic genre developed in early 19th century France, usually in five acts, with large chorus and a ballet
Opéra Comique - French genre similar to operetta, with spoken dialogue, but not necessarily comedic.
Lyric Opera – a genre that combines opéra comique’s use of spoken dialogue with grand opera’s tendency toward numerous performers and grandiose singing





Bel Canto – A style in 19th century Italy stressing song-like melodies and harmonic accompaniment that cultivates a highly decorous style of singing called coloratura (ornamented writing for the voice, which needs to be agile enough to sing it)
Verismo – A genre of opera characterized by realism and naturalism, especially in the portrayal of people, events, and emotions
Music Dramas – A genre of opera created by Wagner, in which the orchestration is continuous from the beginning to the end; there are no recitatives, and voice and orchestra are completely intertwined and of equal importance





Operas use different ranges of male and female voices:
From lower to higher - Male: bass, baritone, tenor, and countertenor
Female: contralto, mezzo-soprano, soprano
Other adjectives can be used to further characterize these voices:
Dramatic versus lyric voice (a dramatic soprano is heavier, darker, and more forceful than a lyric soprano, which is light, warm, and clear)
A Spinto soprano is capable of singing both dramatic and lyric voices
A male countertenor sings at about the same range of a female contralto or mezzo





Roles of villains are usually for bass or mezzo voices, and heroes are usually for baritone, tenor, and soprano voices
Coloratura soprano is a soprano who has the agility of voice to sing the typical coloratura arias of the Bel Canto operas and others (e.g., The Queen of the Night aria in Mozart’s The Magic Flute)



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERsjRsCBlBo&feature=results_main&playnext= 1&list=PLC44FFBE714C66BFA


That’s easy for Brazilians.

What wouldn’t Brazilians be able to do?
Listen to this Brazilian singing the same aria on YouTube:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWh_2Iit3Ek




Other important terms
Arioso – a sung passage with enough melody to sound aria-like, but with narrative qualities of a recitative
Parlante – Recitative lines but with continuous thematic music by the orchestra
Cadenza – florid, improvised passages that singers add to the final bars of an aria or ensemble
Cavatina – slow and lyric aria meant to display beauty of tone and breath control





Monophony – only one melodic line
Homophony – one melodic line predominates, others are secondary or accompaniment
Polyphony – melodic texture with two or more simultaneous lines of equal importance
Ritornello – instrumental refrain
Trouser role – a male role that is performed by a female singer – in the past they were performed by a castrato – a male soprano whose soprano voice was preserved by castration before puberty
Leitmotiv – tunes associated with a particular character, thing, or dramatic idea

So, what about the fat lady?


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She is in frank decline. Nowadays sopranos are a lot skinnier. Opera stars these days are more successful when they can act and look good. Here is Anna Netrebko “La Bellissima” in La Traviata:

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The sopranos are cuter, and they continue to have great performances
and recordings:

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And the staging is getting updated too:

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Well, maybe a bit too much (this is Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera):

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Excesses apart, stuffy productions are being revived with sleek, creative, modern settings that can appeal to contemporary audiences:

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And this is kind of far from the fat lady…

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Ok, folks. So, don’t be afraid of opera. It’s a thriving art form, it’s both traditional and modern, it’s avant-garde theater and exciting creative new productions side by side with spectacular music that hails from as far back as four centuries ago, and as current as today.

Opera is alive. Opera is... lively.

Enjoy opera. Read about it. Listen to a CD. Watch a blu-ray.

And most importantly, attend a live performance!

You won’t regret it. Let the opera bug bite you, and you’ll be in for a lifetime of pleasure.

Here at Opera Lively we’ll be struggling to convince you that you should give opera a try.

Be active, ask questions, don’t be afraid or intimidated. We’re friendly folks here, we are not snobs, and there isn’t anything better for us than the opportunity to guide a novice and contaminate him/her with our passion for this wonderful art form.

Come back, come often. Soon enough you’ll be loving opera.

Cheers, from the staff at Opera Lively

TxllxT
December 24th, 2011, 10:36 AM
Great, ravishing, straight-from-the-heart & lots of fun!! More of these manifesto's, per favore!

myaskovsky2002
December 26th, 2011, 02:31 PM
Thank you Almaviva for your wonderful thread. I just can say that opera is one of the greatest loves in my life. I love opera deeply. I started when I was 6 with La Boheme. My mother brought me to the opera theatre...and I was amazed. What else? Nothing else...You have said a lot, a lot. Very interesting indeed. I love Monteverdi.

Martin

Dster
December 31st, 2011, 12:57 PM
Most informative article! :applause: Unfortunately for me the embedded video cannot be displayed in China, but I am looking forward to reading it in its full glory when I take my holiday in Singapore in three weeks' time.

Loge
January 23rd, 2012, 05:25 PM
Very wonderful and passionate article, Almaviva! Thank you.

Dster
January 28th, 2012, 01:40 PM
With regard to the 'fat ladies' I think they can never be phased out entirely without causing permanent damage to the art of opera. Without these wonderful ladies we will be deprived of the best dramatic sopranos:devilish:

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 28th, 2012, 04:40 PM
With regard to the 'fat ladies' I think they can never be phased out entirely without causing permanent damage to the art of opera. Without these wonderful ladies we will be deprived of the best dramatic sopranos:devilish:

True. I was just trying to dispell the stereotype. Most people who don't have a clue about opera and have never seen one, say "why should I bother? It's a bunch of fat ladies with horned helmets and breast plates, screaming." I often show to my students (they are typically young adults) a few video clips of modern stagings of opera, and practically *all* of them react by saying... "oh wow, I wouldn't have imagined that opera can look so modern and singers can be so good looking, I've always assumed that they were a bunch of fat ladies in weird costumes."

But of course, the cognoscenti won't mind the presence of our great - and big - dramatic sopranos. The post above is just an attempt to entice new audiences to enjoy opera, but once the opera bug bites them, hopefully they will evolve to a point in their opera appreciation timeline when they'll mind less the singers' looks. Fat ladies and attractive ladies (and gentlemen) can perfectly co-exist in opera as long as they have great voices.

Dster
January 28th, 2012, 10:45 PM
I understand your point in the original post entirely. My reply was made in jest. In fact the other day there was an article in the local paper about opera with a typical misplaced view. The author was describing her experience about attending a performance whereby a middle aged man, short and fat, singing to a paper mache tree. I presume that she was talking about Serse.

Soave_Fanciulla
January 29th, 2012, 02:36 AM
Well if it was being staged properly he'd also have been singing falsetto, as the role was written for the castrato Caffarelli. That would probably completely blow her brain :D.

Dster
January 29th, 2012, 03:14 PM
Most likely she will think that falsetto is Italian for denture

JohnGerald
August 15th, 2014, 03:05 AM
What an absolutely fabulous article. The only bad thing is that I didn't write it, but be assured that the link is going out to a bunch of friends.

Bravo, Almaviva!!!

BillMcEnaneyJr
December 19th, 2015, 01:07 AM
Years ago, when I took an introduction to opera in college, the professor agreed when I said that opera was a play set to music. But maybe that definition is too general, since it would apply to, say, a Broadway musical. If you think it needs changing, what would you change it to, everyone? I'm hoping we'll capture the essence of opera, what distinguishes it from everything else there is.

Soave_Fanciulla
December 19th, 2015, 01:41 AM
Years ago, when I took an introduction to opera in college, the professor agreed when I said that opera was a play set to music. But maybe that definition is too general, since it would apply to, say, a Broadway musical. If you think it needs changing, what would you change it to, everyone? I'm hoping we'll capture the essence of opera, what distinguishes it from everything else there is.

I recently had an argument with NZ opera who have decided this year's season will consist only of Sweeney Todd and the Magic Flute. I expressed disappointment that we had gone from two operas a year to one opera and a musical and they insisted that they were bringing opera to the masses and that opera singers were going to be taking the roles in Sweeney Todd and that Bryn Terfel said it was pretty good(I think that means that they think it's an opera) I've been thinking about it and my argument now would be that Sweeney Todd is a musical because it is plot-led rather than music-led, and because actors can take the main roles as easily as opera singers. The Magic Flute, which as a singspiel shares some characteristics with modern musicals (most importantly the use of dialogue) is still an opera because only trained opera singers can take the main roles.

Florestan
December 19th, 2015, 04:08 AM
Years ago, when I took an introduction to opera in college, the professor agreed when I said that opera was a play set to music. But maybe that definition is too general, since it would apply to, say, a Broadway musical. If you think it needs changing, what would you change it to, everyone? I'm hoping we'll capture the essence of opera, what distinguishes it from everything else there is.
Perhaps this will help answer your quesiton. Today I googled the meaning of opera and this definition came up:

The word ‘opera’ is Latin and means ‘the works’; it represents a synthesis of all the other arts: drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light and design.

Povero Buoso
December 20th, 2015, 04:26 PM
Perhaps this will help answer your question. Today I googled the meaning of opera and this definition came up:

I like the definition Florestan used but I think the line can become blurred. I also like another definition is that for Opera the music leads while for musicals it is the words that tend to lead far more. The line between opera and operetta is blurred (The Yeomen of the Guard is a particularly obvious case) and the line between operetta and musical is even more blurred. However, you can usually tell the difference between opera and musicals quite obviously.

Povero Buoso
December 20th, 2015, 04:44 PM
I recently had an argument with NZ opera who have decided this year's season will consist only of Sweeney Todd and the Magic Flute. I expressed disappointment that we had gone from two operas a year to one opera and a musical and they insisted that they were bringing opera to the masses and that opera singers were going to be taking the roles in Sweeney Todd and that Bryn Terfel said it was pretty good(I think that means that they think it's an opera) I've been thinking about it and my argument now would be that Sweeney Todd is a musical because it is plot-led rather than music-led, and because actors can take the main roles as easily as opera singers. The Magic Flute, which as a singspiel shares some characteristics with modern musicals (most importantly the use of dialogue) is still an opera because only trained opera singers can take the main roles.

I now feel bad for being less than an hours overall travel from the ROH (on a bad day) and also the ENO. It makes me realize how lucky I am to live so close to both houses that leave me a rather large selection.

Soave_Fanciulla
December 20th, 2015, 08:43 PM
I now feel bad for being less than an hours overall travel from the ROH (on a bad day) and also the ENO. It makes me realize how lucky I am to live so close to both houses that leave me a rather large selection.

Don't you worry about me. I had about 6 years in London in the 80s with season tickets first to ENO when I was starting out in opera and then to ROH. In the gods, but still, season tickets.

But I would say, take advantage while you can. You might end up on the other side of the world with an opera and a musical every year!:D

Orestis23
December 28th, 2015, 04:26 AM
I think one of the most amazing things about opera is that it combines all of the fine arts into one production - sometimes more, sometimes less, but it is all-encompassing. Music has definitely evolved over time and quantity over quality seems to be a continuing trend, but you can either eat a big mac with fries and some pepsi or you can have a filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes, seasoned vegetables and a glass of champagne...one you scarf down to fill up and the other one you eat slowly to enjoy life!


Orestis Sinis

Florestan
June 4th, 2016, 07:13 PM
I found an interesting article introducing opera in Q and A form:
http://web.augsburg.edu/~hopingar/Interlude.htm

Soave_Fanciulla
June 5th, 2016, 03:23 AM
I found an interesting article introducing opera in Q and A form:
http://web.augsburg.edu/~hopingar/Interlude.htm

My favourite sentence from this article:


It’s amazing how many singers look good with antlers

Florestan
June 5th, 2016, 03:49 AM
The article grabbed me right up front with this amusing summary of one of my favorite operas,


The Flying Dutchman about a guy who has been doomed to sail the seas until he can find a woman who is willing to fling herself off of a fjord to save his soul--and where he actually finds a girl who does it.

and on castrati,


Most people now don’t enjoy the incongruity of hearing a soprano voice coming out of a man though.

Ann Lander (sospiro)
June 5th, 2016, 06:43 AM
I found an interesting article introducing opera in Q and A form:
http://web.augsburg.edu/~hopingar/Interlude.htm


vocal chords

:mad:

(pedant, I know ... )


They can't smoke ...

https://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/NY-AN747_nypape_D_20101010170304.jpg

Interesting and fun piece though.

Ann Lander (sospiro)
June 5th, 2016, 06:50 AM
My favourite sentence from this article:

:laugh4: