Abstract and Keywords
This introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Opera provides a summary to the main themes of the volume: opera as a genre, the balance of words and music, performance history, cultural history, transmission and reception, and contemporary opera. The themes are discussed as questions: what is opera? How does the fluidity of the art form play out in productions and in the physical reproductions of the scores and libretti? How does a creator of opera balance the words, the music, and the stagecraft? Why do Italians and Italian operas still dominate the conversation? The introduction lays out the topics of the fifty essays contained in this volume, capturing the highly charged dynamic between opera and its audience.
Arguing about Opera
Opera was born into the aristocratic courts, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming one of the first of the performing arts to cultivate and maintain a devoted audience among the public at large. With the opening of the first opera house to a paying audience in Venice (1637), opera soon acquired some of the characteristics of such modern sporting entertainments as baseball and soccer: star players, home runs, errors, and, throughout its history, additional innings and penalty kicks. And here is where the viscera come in: as opera lovers of all stripes know well, it doesn’t take a college degree to experience the sheer thrill of the singing voice. It is precisely this “spectator sport” aspect of opera, its penchant for dramatic extremes—in essence, what we love most about it—that contributed to the rather late acceptance of opera as a legitimate topic of discourse in the scholarly arena. That is not to say that there were no opera critics until modern times—hardly the case. Opera became a topic for debate even as it was being “invented” by a late-sixteenth-century “think tank” looking to promote an agenda about words and music. But the issues that vexed the Florentine Camerata only set the fuse on an argument that continued for centuries as opera lovers and opera loathers found more things to argue about. Early theorists, composers, and librettists thought deeply about the relationship between words and music, how text should be set, whether their ideas conformed to classical ideals (see Chapter 12, “Opera between the Ancients and the Moderns,” by Wendy Heller), and still more important, whether or not a story that was sung could be accepted as at all plausible. Opera had to contain some aspect of truth (Chapter 13 by Thomas Betzwieser, “Verisimilitude,” and Chapter 1 by Tim Carter, “What Is Opera?”): What kinds of characters could or would sing such truths and in what manner (Chapter 15, “Characterization,” by Julian Rushton)? For the contemporary scholar, the problem of words and music is equally challenging. A central issue, debated at length in the second half of Part II of the Oxford Handbook of (p. 2) Opera, is the concept of “voice” (see Chapters 13, 14, 15, and 16 by Thomas Betzwieser, Michal Grover-Friedlander, Julian Rushton, and Lawrence Kramer, respectively). What do we mean by “voice”? The obvious response is: the sound that comes out of singers’ mouths. But opera contains other “voices”—the composer’s voice, heavenly voices, voices living and dead, multiple levels of vocal discourse—the voice that sings arias, but also that “other” voice that sings dialogue. There is also the choral voice (Chapter 21, by Ryan Minor, “The Chorus”), reflecting group sentiments as well as political and national ones, while raising questions about the verisimilitude of crowd-speak. And there is the orchestral voice, which, as Alessandro Di Profio observes in Chapter 22 (“The Orchestra”), evolved over time from a local phenomenon to an international body that could accommodate continuously expanding repertoires, adapt to new instrumentation, and thereby enhance its role in governing movement on stage, from acting (Chapter 20 by Simon Williams) to both the decorative and dramatic roles of dance (Chapter 23 by Linda Tomko). Documents have a voice as well. Katherine Syer, in Chapter 24 (“Production Aesthetics and Materials”), demonstrates that surviving records not only reveal how an opera was mounted, but also mirror the artistic and cultural context of a work. Mark Everist, in Chapter 19 (“Rehearsal Practices”), uncovers a whole world of documents that reveal some of the ways that singers in nineteenth-century Paris prepared for and were coached in their roles. And what of the musical score? William Drabkin (Chapter 11, “Analysis”) and the many other scholars in this volume who refer generously to opera scores offer multifaceted views of these primary documents, concluding that beyond their function as a set of instructions for performance and a record of rehearsal and performance, scores also transmit a type of social history-in-code that reveals much about taste, composers, singers, conductors, commerce, and even politics (see, for example, Chapter 32, “Politics,” by Marc A. Weiner).
If we speak of operatic strategies, that is, how composers and librettists fit words to music (or the other way around) in order to tell a story, must we always presume that the words have the last word, or does the music have an equally forceful and independent life (see Chapter 8, “Musical Dramaturgy,” by Damien Colas)? Moreover, as Marina Frolova-Walker shows in Chapter 7 (“The Language of National Style”), language is at the very core of collective expression on the opera stage. The idea of a correct and essential mode of verbal communication raises other questions about language, not least: Does opera in translation really work, or is the relationship between verbal and musical cadence and message so closely knit as to be disrupted in a text other than the original one (see Chapter 9, “Versification,” by Andreas Giger)? But what constitutes a good text for opera? Traditionally, that would be a story unfolded in verses intended to be sung. Those verses could support conventional musical forms, as was the practice of the Italian primo ottocento, or imply new, more open structures, as was Wagner’s intention. Opera’s near past finds composers and librettists experimenting with all kinds of texts, setting to music, for example, original (and hence, “un-libretticized”) versions of spoken drama. These so-called Literaturopern include Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (after Maurice Maeterlinck), Strauss’s Salome (after Oscar Wilde), and Berg’s Wozzeck (p. 3) (after Georg Büchner). In Chapter 49 (“After the Canon”), Robert Fink takes the issue of composers’ and librettists’ textual choices into the present day with a close look at John Adams’s Doctor Atomic.
All of these topics have remained on the table in a continuous cycle of reforms that have frequently addressed and continue to address many of the same problems that chafed at opera’s originators (see Chapter 1, “What Is Opera?” by Tim Carter), including the relationship between words and music: Are there too many syllables, not enough notes? Too many notes, not enough syllables? Prima la musica e poi le parole (as Antonio Salieri put it in the title of his 1786 opera and which Richard Strauss later debated in his 1942 Capriccio)? What are the consequences of one way or the other? If there are too many notes and not enough syllables, then words are obscured, and emphasis is redirected to the singing voice and ultimately to the singer. A new can of worms is opened: the cult of celebrity. Singers inspire composers and audiences, but they also enrage, well, composers and audiences, elevating or cheapening the art form, as critics complain about it or praise it. Growing technologies of stagecraft also intruded on the high-minded ideals that drove opera in its first decades (and forever after, it would seem), inviting negative critical commentary on the ways that sheer spectacle overwhelmed performance. Outstanding in the pantheon of polemicists is eighteenth-century critic Benedetto Marcello (1686–1739), whose often hilarious Il teatro alla moda (1720) offers a litany of sarcastic “dos” (most of which mock artistic priorities) to composers, librettists, impresarios, and just about every individual associated with opera production. Here’s one telling example: “The librettist should not worry about the ability of the performers, but so much more about whether the impresario has at his disposal a good bear or lion, an able nightingale, genuine-looking bolts of lightning, earthquakes, storms, etc.” (Marcello  1948/1949: 373, trans. Pauly).
Most influential among so-called reformers were composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) and critic Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764), who argued for a return to the simplicity of earlier opera, which, viewed from the eighteenth-century perspective, was the guardian of an ideal form in which words, music, and all aspects of production would serve the drama. Remarkably, from that very ideal arose the “Beast in the Room,” who has loomed large from the middle of the nineteenth century until the present day: Wagner. No composer before or after Wagner wrote as much or more about opera, and whether or not he actually practiced what he preached fades into the background, as his music exerted game-changing influence on the very sonority of opera. Wagner altered poetic forms, large-scale musical structures, relationships between singers, singers and orchestra, and production elements from lighting to the buildings that house performance. Joy H. Calico, in Chapter 48 (“1900–1945”), shows that Wagner’s continued influence has shaped scholarly discourse on opera well into the twentieth century.
But we shouldn’t give Wagner too much credit. He was not solely responsible for the major changes that overtook opera in the nineteenth century and spilled into the next. Rather, Wagner entered a musical game-in-progress that was kneading such global (p. 4) issues as genre classification, emotional expression, realism (a relative term), and the possibilities for staging that technical advances in lighting and machines had to offer. The consequences were profound, leading to new narrative modes that eschewed arias and ensembles for continuity, closed musical forms for open ones. Open forms, moreover, required that dissonance, the fundamental tool that governs musical motion, also had a new role to play that would ultimately impinge on the most essential ingredients of opera, melody and “vocality,” or vocalità, the bedrock of bel canto.
Despite the seriousness of reform, however, the one thing that opera has always done is laugh at itself, as evidenced by works that feature mute actors, cross-dressing singers, gender-bending vocal casting, and plots that heap scorn on egotistical performers and impresarios, and even opera’s own performance practices. Comedy, more than other genres, relies on context, recognition of the target and all of its absurdities, and, hence, resisted for much longer the musical changes that affected more serious works (see Hunter 1999). In some ways it is this very conservativeness that precipitated the decline of comic opera, as it became increasingly associated with more popular forms that retained the older styles, and in particular the closed musical numbers that continued to flourish in Italian strongholds such as Naples (see Izzo 2013). The few major works that did enter the canon, say, post–Don Pasquale (1843)—Die Meistersinger, Falstaff, Ariadne auf Naxos—consider as plot and/or musical points the dilemmas of operatic composition and, again, performance practice.
Performance Practice, Werk-Treue, or: What Is an Opera, Anyway?
Performance practice, meaning everything that affects the execution and presentation of a work—voices, instruments, pitch, venue, acting, and even what is being performed—is an issue deeply connected to the definition of the work itself (see Gossett 2006, especially chapters 7 and 8). If modern productions don’t follow the practices of the era in which an opera was composed (at least insofar as they are known), does that make a performance something less than authentic (see Chapter 27, “Historically Informed Performance,” by Mary Hunter)?
The Oxford Handbook of Opera begins with what would seem to be an easy question: What is opera? Everyone knows what opera is, right? The five scholars who address this apparently simple matter make clear enough that definitions can’t be so readily offered up or left un-parsed, especially since that very question was at the heart of opera’s “planning” stage. In short, the issues are nomenclature (Chapter 1, “What Is Opera?” by Tim Carter), the apparent disjuncture between the idea of invention and the prescription for convention (Chapter 2, “Genre,” by Emanuele Senici), the slippery distinction(s) between the traditions of popular musical theater and opera (Chapter 3, “Musical Theater[s],” by Derek B. Scott), the question of whether performance (p. 5) practice can obscure the lines between received definitions, say, of opera versus oratorio (Chapter 4, “Operatorio?” by Monika Hennemann), and finally opera as a contested art form that actually arose from acts of argument or competition (Chapter 5, “The Concept of Opera,” by Lydia Goehr).
As many of the chapters of this handbook reiterate, opera remains, as it was for much of its history, a fluid entity. Philosophically, that much could be said about many different kinds of musical works whose composers tinkered endlessly with them (Liszt comes to mind here). But opera is a special case where changes can be more extreme, major revisions notwithstanding (consider, for example, three Verdian operatic complexes: I Lombardi alla prima crociata/Jérusalem and Stiffelio/Aroldo, much less the fraught journey of Un ballo in maschera [see Gossett 2006]). Particular to opera is that its “fluidity” is played out in public, as singers substituted arias (see Poriss 2009), music was and still is transposed (Greenwald 1998), pieces cut and added (Gossett 2006, chapter 8), and even endings changed (as in the case of Mozart’s Don Giovanni; see Parakilas 1990). Are all revisions of equal weight (Lawton and Rosen 1974), and is there a “final” version of an opera, not subject to constant adaptation to its environment (see Chapter 38, “How Opera Traveled,” by Louise K. Stein; von Dadelsen 1961; and Greenwald 1998)? How much gets lost in transmission, is just “lost,” or is never completed (Chapter 45, “Reconstructions,” by Charles S. Brauner), requiring an editor’s intervention (Chapter 46, “Editing Opera,” by Patricia B. Brauner)? What kinds of sources remain to testify to opera’s past (Chapter 44, “Sources,” by Linda B. Fairtile)? Operatic “environments” are by definition chameleon-like, subject to singers’ availability and ability, audience demand, composers’ revisions, concert practice, and above all, taste (see Chapter 30, “Audiences,” by Georgia Cowart; Poriss 2009). Moreover, as Philip Gossett (Chapter 47, “Writing the History of Opera”), Charles S. Brauner, Patricia B. Brauner, and Linda B. Fairtile collectively make clear in Part V of this handbook, the reality of the operatic work, at least insofar as scholars can ascertain it, lies buried somewhere in the vast amount of material that composers leave behind: sketches, revisions, new pieces, discarded pieces, the collective detritus of a life (the work’s, that is) lived long and hard.
As any editor of an operatic critical edition knows, autograph scores, perhaps more than any other kind of musical document, travel great distances, pass through many hands, suffer cuts, pin-prickings, invasions by foreign inks, and multilingual additions. These personal “touches” constitute the inherent humanity of the scientific and intellectual processes of editorial work of this kind. Handlers—meaning conductors, copyists, singers, orchestra musicians—sometimes imprint their personalities on composers’ autographs with a doodle or a ditty as they study or rehearse from a score or a part. Here are some amusing examples: one previous owner of Verdi’s Attila autograph added cardboard covers to bind each act, decorating the Act I cover with an amateurish sketch of what might be an opera character, while users of one of the many copyists’ manuscripts for the same work added all kinds of marginalia, including cartoons (New York Public Libraries, the Research Libraries JOF 80-41; see Greenwald 2012b). But even composers often see fit to comment on their own work through non-musical additions to their scores: consider Puccini, who drew a skull and crossbones next to the point in (p. 6) his La bohème autograph where Mimì dies (Greenwald 2012a), or Rossini, who scribbled a somewhat cryptic remark at the end of his Zelmira manuscript: “Scusate se vi sbruffo.” The essence of it is: “pardon me if I give you the raspberries” (Greenwald 2005a; Reto Müller believes the meaning is a bit more akin to an expression in Wienerisch: “Tuat ma läid, i schäiss ouf aich” [2006: 31]). Whether Rossini intended raspberries or worse is beside the point: it’s not an entirely farfetched exit line for the work that marked the end of Rossini’s career in Naples. He packed up, left for Vienna, got married to soprano Isabella Colbran along the way, and didn’t look back (see Greenwald 2005b: xxi–xxvii). Rossini’s second wife and widow Olympe Péllisier eventually passed along the Zelmira autograph to her personal physician—Dr. Frémy—in exchange for medical services, and that doctor ceded it to a Mr. Donmartin, who then sold it to the Bibliothèque du Conservatoire de Musique (the holdings of which are now part of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; see Greenwald 2005a: 15).
Rarely, however, do we know exactly how many hands a composer’s autograph may have passed through, as is the case with Verdi’s Attila; it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when or to whom Verdi ceded his manuscript for this work. Somewhere along the way it became the property of “F. Goring,” who lived in Florence and might have been the exuberant artist who added the cardboard covers to the autograph. Later on, the elusive Josef Coen acquired it and then sold it to the British Library (Museum). The British Library, near the end of its fiscal cycle in January 1898, had a few pounds left in its budget, and possibly invoking the principle of “use it or lose it,” spent £50 to have in its collection the only Verdi opera manuscript ever to leave the Continent (Greenwald 2012). Such dealings are common practice in the antiquarian marketplace, as Daniela Macchione explains in Chapter 31 (“Autographs, Memorabilia, and the Aesthetics of Collecting”). While the second Madame Rossini might not have placed such a high price on her late husband’s material legacy, the vast number of collectors and traders of opera relics who operate beneath the radar attests to both the human and commercial value of such objects.
A work’s ownership and performance history can reveal the most human side of the operatic cosmos. As Louise K. Stein shows in Chapter 38 (“How Opera Traveled”), early operatic travels were often politically motivated; a work would adapt and re-adapt to each new environment, and not least if its patron imagined the work of art to be a personal legacy (see Chapter 29, “Patronage,” by Valeria De Lucca). It is thus possible to justify the interventions of modern performance as an extension of a historically legitimate process. But audiences of the past did not have as much information or the same kind of information about works that modern record keeping of every variety has offered to fans and scholars. A well-transmitted version of an opera thus stands as a challenge to the idea of “adaptation” and can become obscured in modern performance, as Ulrich Müller discusses in Chapter 26 (“Regietheater/Director’s Theater”). Are all the components of an opera legitimately “subject to change,” or are they as inviolable as the notes in a Beethoven symphony? (See Latham and Parker 2001.) How and when did the producers of opera gain such power—or did they always have it? Is it all right if Tosca doesn’t put the candelabra beside Scarpia’s corpse (as in the current Metropolitan Opera (p. 7) production)? Can we “read” Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a way in which it makes any sense at all if Don Giovanni sings Leporello’s opening lines and Leporello does not (as in the 2006 Salzburg production)? Perhaps no other issue has raised as much spleen in the discussion of contemporary opera production as Werktreue.
Recurring Motives and a Few Statistics
As the Oxford Handbook of Opera reveals, contemporary opera scholars relish the sociological and popular aspects of opera: the topics of finance and reception resonate throughout the volume alongside such classically important areas for study as genre (Chapter 2 by Emanuele Senici), source studies (Chapter 44 by Linda B. Fairtile), editions (Chapter 46 by Patricia B. Brauner), and music analysis (Chapter 11 by William Drabkin). Recurring themes include identity and money, and connected to both of these, power: who sings, who composes and in what style, how opera has addressed ethnicity (Chapter 7 by Marina Frolova-Walker), politics (Chapter 32 by Marc A. Weiner), religion (Chapter 33 by Jesse Rosenberg), race and racism (Chapter 34 by John Graziano), gender (Chapter 35 by Alexandra Wilson), and anybody who might be “different” from “us,” and hence “exotic” (Chapter 36 by W. Anthony Sheppard) or, perhaps even “irrational,” as Tim Carter puts it (Chapter 1, “What Is Opera?”). Even the visual aspects of opera—staging manuals (Chapter 24 by Katherine Syer), costumes (Chapter 25 by Veronica Isaac), staging (Chapter 26 by Ulrich Müller), and public image (Chapter 43 by Helen M. Greenwald)—are shown to be extensions of the human condition. What does opera cost, who pays for it, how much, and does financial backing extend rights over content to the backer (Chapters 1, 29, and 50 by Tim Carter, Valeria De Lucca, and Jake Heggie)? How is opera advertised and marketed (Chapter 43 by Helen M. Greenwald)? What role does government play (Chapter 37 by Francesco Izzo)? Does opera take a political stance, teach a lesson, preach ideology, conform to rules, make moral and ethical judgments, speak for a nation? Essays about visual media (Chapter 42 by Marcia J. Citron), commerce and patronage (Chapter 29 by Valeria De Lucca), singers (Chapter 17 by Hilary Poriss and Chapter 18 by Martha Feldman), criticism (Chapter 40 by Paul Watt), and the many transcriptions and arrangements that inundate the marketplace (Chapter 41, “Soundings Offstage,” by Thomas Christensen), moreover, bring the subject of opera into the mainstream conversation about the performing arts and claim a rare opportunity to make an accessible and intelligent link between the ivory tower and the opera house. Contemporary opera weaves in and out of the volume, as authors reconfirm the continued relevance of opera’s own history.
Contributors to The Oxford Handbook of Opera were given a keyword and instructed, more or less, to build their own sandboxes and have some fun. They were asked to define issues, discuss important research, and then focus on a problem in some detail. The yield from this mandate includes many surprises, not least the vast range of composers and works that have been indexed at the back of this volume. Here are some observations: (p. 8) with twenty-eight works cited (about 50 percent of his output), Handel is the statistical winner by sheer numbers, while Wagner, with all of his operatic works (fourteen) referenced, wins by percentage. Numbers become fuzzy when the question of genre is argued, but here are the runners-up: Verdi—twenty-seven (practically all), Mozart—fourteen (about three-quarters), Strauss—ten (two-thirds), Puccini—nine (two-thirds), Lully—nine (more than half), Rossini—twenty (about half), Cavalli—seventeen (less than half), Donizetti—seventeen (a little less than 25 percent). The least familiar works in the list? For me, any number of the numerous “Ariadne” operas (Chapter 6, “Oft-Told Tales,” by Vincent Giroud), all of the works of Poissl (now much less foreign, thanks to John Warrack’s discussion in Chapter 10 of the German libretto), and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata trilogy Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (see Chapter 4, “Operatorio?” and Chapter 34, “Race and Racism”). These numbers don’t mean much on their own—they are raw data. But they do reveal that Italian opera is still foremost in the minds of a slice of the scholarly community, and not just those scholars whose specialty is Italian opera. Efforts to hold the number of Italianists in this volume in check did not prevent (nor should they) scholars of every aspect of opera from turning to Italian opera and its conventions over and again. Italian opera has infiltrated every corner of the world, and repertoire in all the major opera houses today reveals a distinct resistance to unseat that domination. Italy produced more operas than any other country, and that has to do with a number of factors, not least a constant demand for the new—first at court and later in the theater—and an operatic industry that dominated all of Europe. The system of transmission in Italy in the nineteenth century, wherein copyists would work furiously to produce scores that could be used elsewhere, insured timely dissemination of new operas, while piano-vocal scores reached the market soon after the last echo died out in the opera house. No surprise, as James Parakilas points out in Chapter 39, “The Operatic Canon,” that the audience, in its desire for repetition—of something pleasurable—will keep works alive and profitable.
What’s missing from the index of works at the end of this volume? Every reader will have a different response to this question. Still, it was a bit surprising not to see any mention of Samuel Barber (now added because of this discussion), especially since his Antony and Cleopatra opened the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on September 16, 1966, and we observed his centenary in 2010. But Antony and Cleopatra was not well received at its premiere, and, according to Barber biographer Barbara Heyman, “The commission that was one of the greatest tributes to Barber’s whole career turned out, ironically, to be his nemesis” (Heyman 1992: 428). The opera was, apparently, a victim of disagreement between composer and librettist/production designer/director Franco Zeffirelli, and, despite a revision with the help of Gian Carlo Menotti and re-launch in 1975 at the Juilliard Opera Theater, it never entered “the repertory.” Heyman suggests that Antony and Cleopatra became lost in emerging interest in music that explored more diverse compositional techniques, against which Barber’s music must have seemed “ultraconservative” (1992: 455). Barber, who had enjoyed moderate success with Vanessa (1956–1957), became with Antony and Cleopatra a member of a different kind of club—successful composers who tried and failed at opera, Schumann (p. 9) and Liszt, for example—or managed a single success, as did Otto Nicolai, who never caught the brass ring on the operatic carousel (despite much effort), and died soon after his single “hit,” Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (see Greenwald 2005c). As Marianne Betz observes in Chapter 28 (“Opera Composition and Cultural Environment”), outside factors have exerted tremendous influence on composers, and some social domains are not culturally attuned to opera, including Boston, the “Athens of America,” which has to date been unable to sustain a major opera company.
The idea of recurring motives leads us to yet another distinctly human phenomenon, which is that people like to hear, read, and see the same stories told over and again. Repetition is comforting, as is experiencing the satisfaction of justice served, or perhaps even the hope that somehow—“this time”—tragedy will be averted. John Russell (1993: 445–491) reports over two hundred performances of numerous operatic versions of the Don Juan story between 1669 and 1800. But Mozart didn’t enter the Don Juan opera sweepstakes until 1787, and the record of performances from that year to 1800 reveals that his take on this overwhelmingly popular story was actually not repeated very often in that time period. The composer whose name appears most frequently in Russell’s post-1787 list is someone credited with around fifty operas, Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743–1818), who, with prolific librettist Giovanni Bertati (1735–1815; best known for the libretto of Cimarosa’s 1792 Il matrimonio segreto), composed Don Giovanni Tenorio, o sia il convitato di pietra, which premiered at the Teatro San Moisè in Venice on February 5, 1787, just months before Mozart and Da Ponte’s version appeared on October 29 in Prague. Given the number of performances that Gazzaniga and Bertati’s Don Giovanni enjoyed, its makers undoubtedly went to their just rewards believing they had finally landed a place in posterity. Gazzaniga’s opera, however tuneful and often adroit, is studied more often today for its libretto, which Lorenzo Da Ponte surely followed (perhaps too closely), most conspicuously in the opening scene. We wouldn’t have to look very hard to find numerous renderings of the story of Orfeo either, and it is not difficult to see why a tale of tragic love featuring the character of a musician would attract so many opera composers. Moreover, as Vincent Giroud shows in Chapter 6 (“Oft-Told Tales”), one of the most revisited stories on the opera stage has been that of Ariadne, surely for her most human plight. But Artaserse? Metastasio’s (b. Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, 1698–1782) libretto for Artaserse inspired at least eighty different versions, solid testimony to the popularity of violent subjects on the premodern stage.
The Opera of the Future (Meaning Now, after the So-Called Golden Age, and Beyond)
Most music history texts report a catastrophe that took place around 1900: the tonal system “dissolved,” the dissonance “emancipated”—old news, but news, nonetheless, and (p. 10) very important for opera. With compositional experimentation that encroached upon the most basic components of opera—melody and voice—where was opera to turn? In the middle of this crisis, Richard Strauss composed Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), both of which captured the modern essentials of continuous drama, large orchestra, and vocal writing that extended the Wagnerian idea and successfully challenged the notion of vocal melody. But even Strauss was not able to maintain his modernistic flush, and the stubborn question, “What is opera?” began to reassert itself.
Only two chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Opera address opera in a chronological framework: Chapter 48, “1900–1945,” by Joy H. Calico, and Chapter 49, “After the Canon,” by Robert Fink. The reason for this exception in a volume that generally avoids “period” essays is that the extreme diversity of post-tonal operatic production cannot be assessed through “schools” of composition, national style, or the work of a single trend-setting composer. Together, Calico’s and Fink’s chapters constitute Part VI, “Opera on the Edge.” The meaning of the word “edge” in the section title is deliberately ambiguous: Does it refer to the edge of a precipice and hence a catastrophe (see the final chapter of Abbate and Parker 2012)? Or could “edge” be, to borrow a familiar phrase, “the start of something new”? The turn of the twentieth century and the end of World War II have served too long and too well as historical signposts to be overlooked; it’s useful to get a global view of that half century and how scholars have thought about it. Calico identifies three interrelated themes for this era that engage Wagner, Hitler, and the ongoing question of genre. In Chapter 49 (“After the Canon”), Robert Fink revives and explores an old question—prima la musica e poi le parole?—on new terms. Through a detailed case study of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, Fink shows that while historical texts and important documents may record a real dramatic event and provide vivid source material for operatic storytelling (consider Boris Godunov, Don Carlos, and a host of other historically based operas), their actual words are not only by definition un-dramatic, but also unsuitable “poetry” for a libretto. Composer Jake Heggie has the final word in Chapter 50, providing us with the opportunity to be a fly on the wall in his studio as he offers a candid view of his work process in lively response to the question that opens this collection, revised here for contemporary users: “Now, what is opera?”
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Russell, John. 1993. The Don Juan Legend before Mozart with a Collection of Eighteenth-Century Opera Librettos. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Find this resource: