Our topic this week is opera, a social, theater-based musical activity that originated in the Baroque era in Italy.
This lesson consists of an introduction to the genre, examples of operatic singing, and a link to a complete Classical era opera. Feel free to ask questions or make observations in the comments section.
A brief overview
Opera consists of singing with an orchestral accompaniment that together imitate spoken language, sensations, and emotions. The singers on stage are in costumes, have props, and act (facial expressions, gestures, choreography, dancing, sword fighting, etc.).
- Opera was a way to add magnificence to royal and noble events because it’s a spectacle, expensive to put on, and impressive
- The first opera theater open to the public (paying customers) appeared in Venice, Italy, in 1637
This genre requires several people in order to create a work, and this is part of why opera is so expensive to stage and attend:
- The composer writes the music
- The librettist writes all the words that are sung. The composer and librettist might work together directly, or the words can be written independently (even centuries earlier than the music).
- The singers are on stage during the performance playing the roles of various characters
- The conductor leads the orchestra and coordinates between the singers moving around on stage and the orchestra, which is seated in a hidden area below the stage called the pit.
- All the other roles involved in theater: stage director, props manager, costume designer, set designer, stage hands, concessions
The first recorded opera dates from 1600. For most of its history (until Richard Wagner’s changes to the architecture of theaters at the end of the 19th century), opera was a social event: audience members would be eating, talking, drinking, visiting with each other during the show. They would sit in private boxes, with their attention fixed on each other (who came with who, what were they wearing) rather than the stage, and they would pay attention when a particularly interesting aria was being sung or a famous singer was on stage.
A taste of opera
In this excerpt from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), you’ll see all the various kinds of things that happen in an opera and convey mood, emotion, action, and feelings: orchestra playing alone, solo singing, ensemble singing, and dancing.
In this opera, a ship has crashed on the north shore of Africa, and in this scene the sailors (much like Fleet Week when the navy comes to town) are enjoying being on shore, drinking, and meeting women. At this moment, they’re celebrating getting back on the water and leaving their flings behind.
The four main vocal ranges are, from highest to lowest: soprano, mezzo-soprano/alto, tenor, bass. The first two are female vocal ranges and the latter two are adult male vocal ranges.
Operas use singers of all the vocal ranges to add variety/color to the musical score and to differentiate between the different characters.
Instruments that play in this range include piccolo, flute, oboe, and violin. Soprano roles are often young women, the romantic lead, or, in the case of this excerpt, powerful and commanding.
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, K.620 (1791), “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”. The character is a magical sorceress, and the seemingly supernatural things the singer does with her voice as she sings this piece underscore the character’s frightening power.
This vocal range doesn’t have the same edge or clarity as soprano. Instruments that play in this same range include clarinet, trumpet, and viola. In this excerpt, the title character is a sensuous, flirtatious woman who is charming and in control of her sexuality.
Georges Bizet, Carmen (1875), “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”
The highest male vocal range is the tenor, and roles for this voice type are usually the main character of the opera, younger men, the romantic lead, or the hero. Instruments that play in this same range include the upper register of the bassoon, the French horn, and the upper register of the cello — all instruments that sound a little bit masculine when we hear them in other contexts.
In this excerpt, the character has fallen deeply in love with a woman whom he only knows from seeing her portrait.
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, K.620 (1791), “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”
Here’s another tenor aria, this time sung by Luciano Pavarotti, who was one of the best singers of the 20th century. This singing style is called bel canto (well sung), and the goal is to create a round, beautiful, ringing sound at all times.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Rigoletto (1851), “La donna è mobile”
The lowest human vocal range is the bass, and in operas this is usually used for old, wise men or total buffoons. Instruments that play in this range are the lower register of the bassoon and cello, the tuba, and the double bass.
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat (1927), “Ol’ Man River”. This excerpt comes from a musical rather than an opera, since it’s such a good example of bass singing.
Non gender-conforming roles
The magic of theater allows for characters, ideas, and presentations that are beyond what we expect in reality, and this includes stretching the notion of what is gender-appropriate.
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, it was a common practice to castrate young boys who had excellent singing voices before they hit puberty so that 1) their voices would stay high, and 2) all the work that went into training them wouldn’t be lost in the unpredictability of puberty (boys’ voices become really unstable as the body changes). For the boys’ families, this was a chance to escape poverty — castrati were famous, adored, and paid quite well — so this was a calculated choice, despite the medical risk and barbarism of the practice.
People really liked the powerful, high pitched voices of castrato singers and thought of this vocal timbre as particularly attractive, heroic, and noble. Castrati were the rock stars of their day and were known by single names (like Beyonce or Prince): Senesino (1686-1758), Farinelli (1705-82), Cusanino (c.1704-c.1760). People would make sure to see any opera in which these stars were performing.
Castrati were used on stage in female roles (dressing in drag) or in heroic roles (which today might now be sung by a woman, since there are no more castrati singers, or a countertenor, which is a male singer who has trained his voice to be able to sing in this range).
Castrati were also used in musical situations in which women were not allowed to sing, such as the Catholic Church. Below is a recording made in 1902 of the last living castrato singer, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), who was a singer at the Vatican. It provides us a real sense of how tastes and fashions change over time — this vocal sound was once all the rage and has now fallen completely out of favor.
There are also instances in opera of cross-dressing women: these are called trouser roles or breeches roles because the women are dressed in pants rather than dresses. They typically play pre-pubescent boys, and often to comedic effect, as in this excerpt from a Mozart opera, in which a boy with raging hormones (Cherubino, sung by a mezzo-soprano woman) describes how he can hardly contain himself around every woman he sees, no matter if she’s old, fat, thin, or young. The fact that we in the audience know that the singer is a woman adds another layer of amusement to the whole scene.
The text and translation are available here: Mozart, Non so piu
A full opera
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, K.527 (1787) revolves around the title character, who is a womanizer, rapist, and all-around unlikeable guy. He is a nobleman, and throughout the opera he is assisted by his servant, Leporello. The other characters fill out the drama and keep the interpersonal tension and intrigue going:
- Donna Anna — a noblewoman whom Don Giovanni is attempting to rape in the opening scene
- Il Commendatore — her father, who stops the sexual assault by fighting Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni stabs and kills him with a sword
- Don Ottavio — Donna Anna’s fiance, who swears revenge against Don Giovanni
- Donna Elvira — a past conquest of Don Giovanni’s who is now back to get even
- Zerlina — a peasant girl that Don Giovanni wants to have sex with after seeing her at her wedding celebration
- Masetto — Zerlina’s would-be husband
The entire opera runs around 3 hours, but watching from the beginning to Leporello’s catalogue aria (“Madamina”, about 30 minutes) will give you a good taste of the flow of an opera: orchestral overture, comic complaining, fighting, revenge, rage, dialogue, staging, and sexual humor. This video contains subtitles in English.
Anyone who asks questions or adds observations to the comments section this week can earn extra credit for their April 27 daily grade, just like we do in class, but no one will be penalized for not adding comments to this blog post — I will respond to student questions each evening through next Wednesday.
See you in class May 4.