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For more information about Opera read on.

 The links below open Wikipedia pages. Use your browser back button to come back to this page. There are translations available for the text below - see the foreign language links near the end of this text. 

French opera

Main article: French Opera
1875 poster for Bizet's Carmen
1875 poster for Bizet's Carmen

In rivalry with imported Italian opera productions, a separate French tradition was founded by the Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of King Louis XIV. Despite his foreign origin, Lully established an Academy of Music and monopolised French opera from 1672. Starting with Cadmus et Hermione, Lully and his librettist Quinault created tragédie en musique,a form in which dance music and choral writing were particularly prominent. Lully's operas also show a concern for expressive recitative which matched the contours of the French language. In the 18th century, Lully's most important successor was Rameau, who composed five tragédies en musique as well as numerous works in other genres such as opera-ballet, all notable for their rich orchestration and harmonic daring. After Rameau's death, the German Gluck was persuaded to produce six operas for the Parisian stage in the 1770s. They show the influence of Rameau, but simplified and with greater focus on the drama. At the same time, by the middle of the 18th century another genre was gaining popularity in France: opéra comique. This was the equivalent of the German singspiel, where arias alternated with spoken dialogue. Notable examples in this style were produced by Monsigny, Philidor and, above all, Grétry. During the Revolutionary period, composers such as Méhul and Cherubini, who were followers of Gluck, brought a new seriousness to the genre, which had never been wholly "comic" in any case.

By the 1820s, Gluckian influence in France had given way to a taste for Italian bel canto, especially after the arrival of Rossini in Paris. Rossini's Guillaume Tell helped found the new genre of Grand opera, a form whose most famous exponent was another foreigner, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer's works, such as Les Huguenots emphasised virtuoso singing and extraordinary stage effects. Lighter opéra comique also enjoyed tremendous success in the hands of Boïeldieu, Auber, Hérold and Adolphe Adam. In this climate, the operas of the French-born composer Hector Berlioz struggled to gain a hearing. Berlioz's epic masterpiece Les Troyens, the culmination of the Gluckian tradition, was not given a full performance for almost a hundred years.

In the second half of the 19th century, Jacques Offenbach created operetta with witty and cynical works such as Orphée aux enfers; Charles Gounod scored a massive success with Faust; and Bizet composed Carmen, which, once audiences learned to accept its blend of Romanticism and realism, became the most popular of all opéra comiques. Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Delibes all composed works which are still part of the standard repertory. At the same time, the influence of Richard Wagner was felt as a challenge to the French tradition. Many French critics angrily rejected Wagner's music dramas while many French composers closely imitated them with variable success. Perhaps the most interesting response came from Claude Debussy. As in Wagner's works, the orchestra plays a leading role in Debussy's unique opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and there are no real arias, only recitative. But the drama is understated, enigmatic and completely unWagnerian.

Other notable 20th century names include Ravel, Dukas, Roussel and Milhaud. Francis Poulenc is one of the very few post-war composers of any nationality whose operas (which include Dialogues des carmélites)) have gained a foothold in the international repertory. Olivier Messiaen's lengthy sacred drama Saint François d'Assise (1983) has also attracted widespread attention.[2]

 English-language opera

England's first notable composer working in operatic formats was John Blow, the composer of Venus and Adonis (c. 1683), often thought of as the first true English-language opera. Blow's immediate successor was the better known Henry Purcell. Despite the success of his masterwork Dido and Aeneas (1689), in which the action is furthered by the use of Italian-style recitative, much of Purcell's best work was not involved in the composing of typical opera, but instead he usually worked within the constraints of the semi-opera format, where isolated scenes and masques are contained within the structure of a spoken play. The main characters of the play tend not to be involved in the musical scenes, which means that Purcell was rarely able to develop his characters through song. Despite these hindrances, his aim (and that of his collaborator John Dryden) was to establish serious opera in England, but these hopes ended with Purcell's early death at the age of 36.

Following Purcell, for many years Great Britain was essentially an outpost of Italianate opera. Handel's opera serias dominated the London operatic stages for decades, and even home-grown composers such as Thomas Arne wrote using Italian models. This situation continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, including Michael Balfe, except for ballad operas, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which spoofed operatic conventions, and late Victorian era light operas, notably the Savoy Operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Sullivan wrote only one grand opera, Ivanhoe, but he did claim that even his light operas were to be part of an "English" opera school, intended to supplant the French operettas that dominated the London stage through the 1870s.

In the 20th century, English opera began to assert more independence, with works of Ralph Vaughn Williams and in particular Benjamin Britten, who in a series of fine works that remain in standard repertory today, revealed an excellent flair for the dramatic and superb musicality. Today composers such as Thomas Adès continue to export English opera abroad.[3]

Also in the 20th century, American composers like Gershwin, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Carlisle Floyd began to contribute English-language operas infused with touches of popular musical styles. They were followed by modernists like Philip Glass, Mark Adamo, John Coolidge Adams, and Jake Heggie.

 Russian opera

Main article: Russian Opera

Opera was brought to Russia in the 1730s by the Italian operatic troupes and soon it became an important part of entertainment for the Russian Imperial Court and aristocracy. Many foreign composers such as Baldassare Galuppi, Giovanni Paisiello, Giuseppe Sarti, and Domenico Cimarosa (as well as various others) were invited to Russia to compose new operas, mostly in the Italian language. Simultaneously some domestic musicians like Maksym Berezovsky and Dmytro Bortniansky were sent abroad to learn to write operas. The first opera written in Russian was Tsefal i Prokris by the Italian composer Francesco Araja (1755). The development of Russian-language opera was supported by the Russian composers Vasily Pashkevich, Yevstigney Fomin and Alexey Verstovsky.

However, the real birth of Russian opera came with Mikhail Glinka and his two great operas A Life for the Tsar, (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842). After him in the 19th century in Russia there were written such operatic masterpieces as Rusalka and The Stone Guest by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky, Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and The Snow Maiden and Sadko by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. These developments mirrored the growth of Russian nationalism across the artistic spectrum, as part of the more general Slavophilism movement.

In the 20th century the traditions of Russian opera were developed by many composers including Sergei Rachmaninov in his works The Miserly Knight and Franchesca da Rimini, Igor Stravinsky in Le rossignol, Mavra, Oedipus rex, and The Rake's Progress, Sergei Prokofiev in The Gambler, The Love for Three Oranges, The Fiery Angel, Betrothal in a Monastery, and War and Peace; as well as Dmitri Shostakovich in The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Edison Denisov in L'écume des jours, and Alfred Schnittke in Life With an Idiot, and Historia von D. Johann Fausten.[4]

 Other national operas

Spain also produced its own distinctive form of opera, known as zarzuela, which had two separate flowerings: one in the 17th century, and another beginning in the mid-19th century. During the 18th century, Italian opera was immensely popular in Spain, supplanting the native form.

Czech composers also developed a thriving national opera movement of their own in the 19th century, starting with Bedřich Smetana who wrote eight operas including the internationally popular The Bartered Bride. Antonín Dvořák, most famous for Rusalka, wrote 13 operas; and Leoš Janáček gained international recognition in the 20th century for his innovative works including Jenůfa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Káťa Kabanová.

The key figure of Hungarian national opera in the 19th century was Ferenc Erkel, whose works mostly dealt with historical themes. Among his most often performed operas are Hunyadi László and Bánk bán. The most famous modern Hungarian opera is Béla Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Erkel's Polish equivalent was Stanislaw Moniuszko, most celebrated for the opera Straszny Dwór.[5]

 Contemporary, recent, and Modernist trends


Perhaps the most obvious stylistic manifestation of modernism in opera is the development of atonality. The move away from traditional tonality in opera had begun with Wagner, and in particular the Tristan chord. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Giacomo Puccini, Paul Hindemith and Hans Pfitzner pushed Wagnerian harmony farther with a more extreme use of chromaticism and greater use of dissonance.

Operatic Modernism truly began in the operas of two Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and his acolyte Alban Berg, both composers and advocates of atonality and its later development (as worked out by Schoenberg), dodecaphony. Schoenberg's early musico-dramatic works, Erwartung (1909, premiered in 1924) and Die Gluckliche Hand display heavy use of chromatic harmony and dissonance in general. Schoenberg also occasionally used Sprechstimme, which he described as: "The voice rising and falling relative to the indicated intervals, and everything being bound together with the time and rhythm of the music except where a pause is indicated".

The two operas of Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg, Wozzeck and Lulu (left incomplete at his death) share many of the same characteristics as described above, though Berg combined his highly personal interpretation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique with melodic passages of a more traditionally tonal nature (quite Mahlerian in character) which perhaps partially explains why his operas have remained in standard repertory, despite their controversial music and plots. Schoenberg's theories have influenced (either directly or indirectly) significant numbers of opera composers ever since, even if they themselves did not compose using his techniques. Composers thus influenced include the Englishman Benjamin Britten, the German Hans Werner Henze, and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich. (Philip Glass also makes use of atonality, though his style is generally described as minimalist, usually thought of as another 20th century development.)

However, operatic modernism's use of dodecaphony sparked a backlash among several leading composers. Prominent among the vanguard of these was the Russian Igor Stravinsky. After composing obviously Modernist music for the Diaghilev-produced ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, in the 1920s Stravinsky turned to Neoclassicism, culminating in his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex.[6] When he did compose a full-length opera that was without doubt an opera (after his Rimsky-Korsakov-inspired works The Nightingale (1914), and Mavra (1922)), in the The Rake's Progress he continued to ignore serialist techniques and wrote an 18th century-style "number" opera, using diatonicism. His resistance to serialism proved to be an inspiration for many other composers.[7]

 Other trends

A common trend throughout the 20th Century, in both opera and general orchestral repertoire, is the downsizing of orchestral forces. As patronage of the arts decreases, new works are commissioned and performed with smaller budgets, very often resulting in chamber-sized works, and one act operas. Many of Benjamin Britten's operas are scored for as few as 13 instrumentalists; Mark Adamo's two-act realization of Little Women is scored for 18 instrumentalists.

Another feature of 20th Century opera is the emergence of contemporary historical operas. The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China by John Adams, and Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie exemplify the dramatisation on stage of events in recent living memory, where characters portrayed in the opera were alive at the time of the premiere performance. Earlier models of opera generally stuck to more distant history, re-telling contemporary fictional stories (reworkings of popular plays), or mythical/legendary stories.[8]

The Metropolitan Opera reports that the average age of its patrons is now 60. Many opera companies, have experienced a similar trend, and opera company websites are replete with attempts to attract a younger audience. This trend is part of the larger trend of greying audiences for classical music since the last decades of the 20th century.[9]

 From musicals back towards opera

Also by the late 1930s, some musicals began to be written with a more operatic structure. These works include complex polyphonic ensembles and reflect musical developments of their times. Porgy and Bess, influenced by jazz styles, and Candide, with its sweeping, lyrical passages and farcical parodies of opera, both opened on Broadway but became accepted as part of the opera repertory. Show Boat, West Side Story, Brigadoon, Sweeney Todd, Evita and others tell dramatic stories through complex music and are now sometimes seen in opera houses. Some musicals, beginning with Tommy (1969) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), are through-composed, written with recitative instead of dialogue, telling their emotional stories predominantly through the music, and are styled rock operas.

 Operatic voices

 Vocal classifications

Singers and the roles they play are initially classified according to their vocal ranges. Male singers are classified by vocal range as bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and countertenor. Female singers are classified by vocal range as contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano.[10] Additionally, singers' voices are loosely identified by characteristics other than range, such as timbre or color, vocal quality, agility, power, and tessitura. Thus a soprano may be termed a lyric soprano, coloratura, soubrette, spinto, or dramatic soprano; these terms, although not fully describing a singing voice, associate the singer's voice with the roles most suitable to the singer's vocal characteristics. The German Fach system is an especially organized system of vocal classification. A particular singer's voice may change drastically over his or her lifetime, rarely reaching vocal maturity until the third decade, and sometimes not until middle age.

 Historical use of voice parts

The following is only intended as a brief overview. For the main articles, see soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass.

The soprano voice has typically been used throughout operatic history as the voice of choice for the female protagonist of the opera in question. The current emphasis on a wide vocal range was primarily an invention of the Classical period. Before that, the vocal virtuosity, not range, was the priority, with soprano parts rarely extending above a high A (Handel, for example, only wrote one role extending to a high C), though the castrato Farinelli was alleged to possess a top F. The contralto register enjoys only a limited operatic repertoire; hence the saying that contraltos only sing "Witches, bitches, and britches", and in recent years many of the trouser roles from the Baroque era have been assigned to countertenors.

The tenor voice, from the Classical era onwards, has traditionally been assigned the role of male protagonist. Many of the most challenging tenor roles in the repertory were written during the bel canto era, such as Donizetti's sequence of 9 Cs above middle C during La fille du régiment. With Wagner came an emphasis on vocal weight for his protagonist roles, the vocal category of which is described by the term heldentenor. Bass roles have a long history in opera, having been used in opera seria for comic relief (and as a contrast to the preponderance of high voices in this genre). The bass repertoire is wide and varied, stretching from the buffo comedy of Leporello in Don Giovanni to the nobility of Wotan in Wagner's Ring Cycle. In between the bass and the tenor is the baritone.

 See also


 Related topics


  1. ^ General outline for this section from the The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Chapters 1-3, 6, 8 and 9, and The Oxford Companion to Music; more specific references from the individual composer entries in The Viking Opera Guide.
  2. ^ General outline for this section from the The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Chapters 1-4, 8 and 9; and The Oxford Companion to Music (10th ed., 1968); more specific references from the individual composer entries in The Viking Opera Guide.
  3. ^ Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Chapters 1, 3 and 9. The Viking Opera Guide articles on Blow, Purcell and Britten.
  4. ^ Taruskin, Richard: Russia in 'The New Grove Dictionary of Opera', ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1992); Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Chapters 7-9.
  5. ^ See the chapter on Russian, Czech, Polish and Hungarian Opera to 1900 by John Tyrrell in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera (1994).
  6. ^ Stravinsky had already turned away from the modernist trends of his early ballets to produce small-scale works that do not fully qualify as opera, yet certainly contain many operatic elements, including Renard (1916: "a burlesque in song and dance") and The Soldier's Tale (1918: "to be read, played, and danced"; in both cases the descriptions and instructions are those of the composer). In the latter, the actors declaim portions of speech to a specified rhythm over instrumental accompaniment, peculiarly similar to the older German genre of Melodrama.
  7. ^ Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Chapter 8; The Viking Opera Guide articles on Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky; Malcolm MacDonald Schoenberg (Dent,1976); Francis Routh, Stravinsky (Dent, 1975).
  8. ^ However, something similar happened in French opera during the Revolutionary era. One example is Gossec's Le triomphe de la République (1793), depicting the French victory at Valmy the previous year. Such works were obviously intended as propaganda.
  9. ^ General reference for this section: Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Chapter 9.
  10. ^ Men sometimes sing in the "female" vocal ranges, in which case they are termed sopranist or countertenor. Of these, only the countertenor is commonly encountered in opera, sometimes singing parts written for castrati -- men neutered at a young age specifically to give them a higher singing range.


  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker (1994)
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, by John Warrack and Ewan West (1992), 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
  • Opera: A Concise History, by Leslie Orrey and Rodney Milne, World of Art, Thames & Hudson

 Further reading

  • DiGaetani, John Louis, An Invitation to the Opera (ISBN 0-385-26339-2)
  • Simon, Henry W. (1946). A Treasury of Grand Opera. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.

 External links

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