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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    What is Opera?

    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.







    • It’s not over until the fat lady sings.








    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?”






    • Some people say opera is boring






    • Maybe opera is just not for everyone


    • 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








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




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





    Furthermore, opera appeals to a range of human emotions




    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:




    (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.
    • 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.




    • 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.




    • 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)





    That’s easy for Brazilians.
    • What wouldn’t Brazilians be able to do?
    • Listen to this Brazilian singing the same aria on YouTube:





    • 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?



    • 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:




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



    And the staging is getting updated too:





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




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
























    And this is kind of far from the fat lady…




    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
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); August 15th, 2014 at 04:01 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  2. #2
    Member Recent member TxllxT's Avatar
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    Great, ravishing, straight-from-the-heart & lots of fun!! More of these manifesto's, per favore!

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    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

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    Member Recent member Dster's Avatar
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    Most informative article! 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.

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    Senior Member Involved Member
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    Very wonderful and passionate article, Almaviva! Thank you.

  6. #6
    Member Recent member Dster's Avatar
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    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

  7. #7
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dster View Post
    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
    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.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Member Recent member Dster's Avatar
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    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.

  9. #9
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    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 .
    Natalie

  10. #10
    Member Recent member Dster's Avatar
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    Most likely she will think that falsetto is Italian for denture

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    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!!!

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    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.

  13. #13
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BillMcEnaneyJr View Post
    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.
    Last edited by Soave_Fanciulla; December 19th, 2015 at 05:27 AM.
    Natalie

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    Senior Member Top Contributor Member Florestan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BillMcEnaneyJr View Post
    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.
    "Music is enought for a whole lifetime--but a lifetime is not enough for music." --Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff

  15. #15
    Senior Member Veteran Member Povero Buoso's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Florestan View Post
    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.
    "Non sono in vena" Rodolfo summing up P.B's feelings on his dissertation.

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