OPERA’S GREATEST HITS
The modern opera, as we know it, has been around for over four hundred years. At the end of the 16th century Dafne, by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), was produced in Florence, Italy. Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was a pioneer in the development of opera and is considered a crucial transitional figure between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods of music history. His operas L’Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea, along with many of his other works, are performed regularly. Opera quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe and composers established national traditions and identities in the 17th century. The first German opera, Dafne, was composed in 1627 by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), who is regarded as the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), although Italian-born, was a French composer who felt that Italian-style opera was inappropriate for the French language. He and librettist Philippe Quinault created operas that flowed in a more natural sense and they also developed the story more quickly to appease the French public. Lully is also credited with inventing the French Overture, a form used extensively in the Baroque and Classical eras, especially by Bach and Handel. In England Henry Purcell (1659-1695) incorporated Italian and French elements, but his style was uniquely English Baroque. His Dido and Aeneas (c. 1683-1688) is one of the most monumental works in Baroque opera and continues to be performed regularly.
Italian opera dominated most of Europe (except France) in the 18th century and the most prevalent forms were Opera seria (serious, written for nobility) and Opera buffa (comic, written for the people). Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) felt these two forms seemed unrealistic and had strayed too far from what opera should be. He composed 49 operas, of which Orfeo ed Euridice is the most well-known. Of course the leader of 18th century opera is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) with a total of 22 operas, his most famous being The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosí fan tutte, The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute. The latter two are landmarks in the German opera style.
Bel Canto (beautiful singing) style ruled the early 19th century with operas by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). Bellini is considered the quintessential composer of the bel canto era and he was admired by other composers: Verdi raved about his “long, long, long melodies such as no one before has written” and Wagner (who rarely liked anyone but himself) was “spellbound by Bellini’s almost uncanny ability to match music with text and psychology.” Other fans of Bellini included Liszt and Chopin. The advent of Grand Opera (epic scale, large casts and big orchestras) was during this period and by the mid-to-late 19th century was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883), ushering in the Golden Age of Opera.
By the closing years of the 19th century there was a desire for opera to focus on average people and their problems, which resulted in the Verismo (realistic) tradition. Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) was responsible for ushering in this movement in 1890 with his sensational masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana. Modern productions often pair this work with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s (1857-1919) 1892 opera Pagliacci. However, the greatest Italian composer after Verdi is Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Puccini’s early works are in the traditional romantic opera style and later he successfully developed his work in the Verismo style. Puccini’s enduring popularity is a testament to his mastery at communicating directly with the audience.
Opera was not confined to Italy and Germany during the 19th century. Opera traditions were also being developed in Eastern Europe, particularly in Bohemia and Russia. Important composers of that region include the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), Russia’s Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). French opera grew as well with Léo Delibes (1836-1891), Charles-François Gounod (1818-1893) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Hungarian Franz Lehár (1870-1948) composed a well-loved operetta (light opera), The Merry Widow, in 1905.
The early half of the 20th century adds Richard Strauss (1864-1949) to our history of opera with his masterful works Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos, Intermezzo and Capriccio. The second half of the century gives us Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and his epic operas Peter Grimes, Gloriana, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Death in Venice.
New operas continue to be composed with some reflecting the times in which we live. The operas of John Adams (b. 1947) bring real-life events to the stage with Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Doctor Atomic (2005). Finnish composer Jukka Linkola (b. 1955) wrote Rockland to commemorate an uprising of mine workers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Jake Heggie (b.1961) created an opera based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking and English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960) composed Anna Nicole based on the rise and fall of media celebrity Anna-Nicole Smith. These are only a few of the many new emerging operas.
The influence of opera also extends to popular music and Broadway. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide began their life on the Broadway stage and are now accepted as part of the opera repertory. Operatic story-telling techniques found their way into rock music with the first ‘rock opera’ Tommy by The Who in 1969, followed by Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971, Les Misérables in 1980 and Rent (1996), which is a modern setting of Puccini’s La bohème. Numerous new musicals are employing various operatic techniques, including the use of sung recitatives instead of dialogue.
Opera continues to grow and evolve making it relevant for today’s and tomorrow’s audiences. Perhaps the best quote to leave you with is from Karen DeCrow, former president of the National Organization for Women, an American attorney, author, activist and feminist who also strongly supported equal rights for men in child custody decisions: “Opera is the most complete art form. It includes drama, acting, technology, art, dance, and the epitome of the human voices. But mostly, go for the glorious music. The arts are crucial to the life of every community.”
Four of the fourteen excerpts on tonight’s program have not previously been played by the DSSO (those from The Magic Flute, Nabucco, Lakmé, and Der Rosenkavalier).
The most recent concerts of opera excerpts by the Orchestra were in 1999 and 2010.
Seven of the operas have been given in fully–staged performances with the DSSO in the orchestra pit (Carmen, La Bohème, Tosca, Il Trovatore, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Die Fledermaus) .
“Polovetsian Dances” from Prince Igor was given in 1936 by the DSSO and the first incarnation of the DSSO Chorus. It was also performed on the 2010 “A Night at the Opera” concert with the Chorus (then in its fiftieth continuous season).
Lyric Opera of the North (LOON) gave a full presentation of Bizet’s Carmen on November 15, 2014 with the DSSO and Dirk Meyer conducting.
Lyric Opera of the North will present Tosca at the NorShor this coming June, with Dirk Meyer conducting.