WHAT IS OPERA?

Ge­orge Hall ex­plains the ori­gins of this grand­est of art forms

BBC Music Magazine - - COVER FEATURE -

WHEN IT WAS in­vented in Florence in the 1590s, opera – which means ‘works’ in Ital­ian – in­volved an at­tempt by a group of lead­ing artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als to re­vive the the­atre of an­cient Greece, which they un­der­stood to be sung rather than spo­ken.

This in­spired leap of the imag­i­na­tion was the fi­nal great artis­tic cre­ation of the Re­nais­sance, yet at the same time opera was able to ben­e­fit from the novel ges­tures of what we now re­fer to as the Baroque pe­riod, es­pe­cially what came to be known as ‘recitar can­tando’ – the art of speak­ing and act­ing in song.

What dis­tin­guished opera from such closely re­lated pre­de­ces­sors as the Ital­ian in­ter­medi, the French bal­let de cour or the English masque – all of which brought the arts to­gether in a uni­fied the­atri­cal spec­ta­cle – was that the text was through-com­posed util­is­ing this newly in­vented recita­tive, giv­ing mu­sic an ex­pres­sive pri­macy over all the other arts in­volved in what, cen­turies later, one of the genre’s great­est prac­ti­tion­ers would la­bel a ‘to­tal art work’, or to use Wag­ner’s term: ‘Ge­samtkunst­werk’.

Within a decade of the first ex­am­ple, Ja­copo Peri’s Dafne (1597), opera had found its first creative ge­nius in Clau­dio Mon­teverdi (be­low), who gave the form its first master­piece with Or­feo (1607). Mon­teverdi would be the first to pop­u­larise opera when he moved to Venice, pro­duc­ing his fi­nal works for the city’s pub­lic opera houses, the first of which opened in 1637.

From Venice, opera would ex­pand, within a few decades, all over Italy and sub­se­quently all over Europe: its later trav­els would even­tu­ally see it flour­ish across the con­ti­nents in a wide va­ri­ety of na­tional tra­di­tions. To­day, opera is con­tin­u­ing to win new fans through record­ings, films and videos, as well as in the cin­ema and on­line.

Yet through more than 400 years of his­tory and count­ing, it re­tains its es­sen­tial qual­ity of a drama that is sung, usu­ally through­out – one of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that broadly sep­a­rates it from op­eretta and mu­si­cals – and which draws upon all the other arts to achieve its unique syn­the­sis, held to­gether by the com­mu­nica­tive range and ex­pres­sive power of mu­sic.

Opera was the Re­nais­sance’s fi­nal great artis­tic cre­ation

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