This chapter compares interventions in the shaping of the operatic canon by Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez, proposing that those of the latter, increasingly influenced by the former, proved as influential on the Modernism of the second half of the twentieth century as Wagner’s had during the first half. Both were guided by markedly Hegelian thinking, in terms of dialectics (the chapter stresses that all canonic discourse is dialectical) and of idealism (reshaping the past in their own Modernist image). Both, moreover, also had first-hand practical experience of the realities—especially the frustrations—of operatic repertory production as conductors, giving rise to different yet related Modernist critiques. Their perspectives resulted not only in the same kind of self-programming as canonic reform but also ultimately in their similar stances toward the canon. This chapter is paired with Cormac Newark’s “Canons of the Risorgimento then and now.”
This chapter turns to South American cities to show how the notion of Italian opera as a canonic repertory began during the wars of independence in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, by the 1820s, touring operatic companies had established the Rossinian style as the seeming sound of republican modernity, though often offering only excerpts from the most popular works. The canonizing impulse proved strong even in periods where there were few performances. Variety became much greater during the 1830s, stimulating critics to lead in establishing particular tastes on a local level. Major operatic troupes arose in the 1850s to stage major works in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, bringing an extraordinary flood of opera performances that established a canonic repertory that remained strong for the rest of the century. This chapter is paired with Karen Ahlquist’s “International opera in nineteenth-century New York: Core repertories and canonic values.”
As the American musical has come of age and matured with continuing vitality, it has developed not just one canon but many. Various performing canons are tailored to specific cultural settings, reflecting venue, expected audiences, available performers, or other factors. There exist separate canons for high schools interested in getting lots of bodies on stage, for community theaters on a budget with a stable of local stars vying for plum roles, for church groups or junior high schools more careful with subject matter, or for college groups looking for something far enough out there to satisfy their rebellious urges. And finally, there exist a critical canon and a teaching canon, for which musicals are chosen in part according to the larger historical and social narratives they support. This chapter is paired with Micaela Baranello’s “Viennese operetta canon formation and the journey to prestige.”
This chapter interrogates the political valency of the operatic canon. The case study is familiar, Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, but rather than the opera’s political status (re-confirmed in a recent noted performance of the opera in the context of celebration of the 150th anniversary of Italian unification), the emphasis here is on its canonic status, which is both multiplicitous and contentious. In particular, its presence in the influential canone del Risorgimento proposed by Alberto Banti is revealing of certain aspects of operatic canonicity more generally: the difficulties inherent in characterizing reception in the theater, the significance of memory and “rememberedness” in canonic thinking, and the importance to the operatic canon not only of instantiation but also of participation. This chapter is paired with Mark Berry’s “‘Blow the opera houses into the air’: Wagner, Boulez, and Modernist canons.”
This chapter charts the changing status in Berlin of operatic repertoire associated with Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), from the gradual disappearance of opera seria by Carl Heinrich Graun and Johann Adolph Hasse to the survival of Benda’s melodramas and Singspiele, not least as throwbacks to the time of the honored Prussian monarch. Berlin’s critical commentators in this period are remarkable for their historical self-consciousness, and it’s possible to detect an emerging—and precocious—canonical discourse in the years around 1800, manifested both in the promotion of the lately arrived Gluck as a classic of the German stage, and in the proposals to create an operatic museum, intended to preserve respected theater pieces as standards of known worth. This chapter is paired with John Mangum’s “The repertory of the Italian Court Opera in Berlin, 1740–1786.”
This chapter looks back at the core canon in opera, tracing its evolution and mutation during the half century when its author served as a professional critic and then festival director. The chapter sees the core canon as either fixed or shrinking over the last ninety years. The public’s resistance to Modernist dissonance led to an explosion of repertory in areas immediately outside what had been the traditional canon. The need for novelty has been sated by directorial innovation (Regietheater), the early music revival (with George Frideric Handel the principal operatic beneficiary), and the ceaseless search for new curiosities to revive from the past. Moreover, the operatic canon has been enlarged by lighter forms of musical theater (West Side story and Sweeney Todd) and also by influence from non-Western cultures bearing their own canonic traditions and repertories. This chapter is paired with Kasper Holten’s “Inside and outside the operatic canon, on stage and in the boardroom.”
This article explores how food and drink in opera convey meaning, define relationships, trigger psychophysical reactions, and denote dramatis and singers’ personae. It proposes a basic theoretical foundation of “operatic gastromusicology” by outlining five primary functions of food in opera: social, intimate, denotative, medicinal, and dietary. These five functions are exemplified through the analysis of gastronomic signs in Verdi’s Traviata. The opera and its performance history illustrate how the production of this opera reflects the changing culture of food and the body. Luchino Visconti’s production in Milan’s La Scala in 1955, with Maria Callas as the consumptive protagonist, was in this respect a watershed in the history of opera. The singer’s rapid and prodigious weight loss prior to this performance triggered an epochal shift in opera culture toward an unprecedented conflation of the dramatis and singer’s persona.
Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon
The singing and acting performer in staged opera has and also performs a body that is both a biological entity and an ideological construct: its race, sex, physique, and age are all given meaning by directors—and audiences. Within the contexts of feminist, queer, and disability studies, this chapter reads the “marked” body of the protagonist of David Alden’s 2008 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor as the literal embodiment of the excruciating vulnerability of Lucia as subject through the medium of her youthfulness and her mixed race: a Down syndrome child sexually abused by her brother on stage. Just as the opera’s use of coloratura is a marked musical gesture of madness in dramaturgical terms for the “voice in performance,” so the specifically marked corporeal body of Lucia was crucial to this production’s dramatic power, as well as the ethical and political issues it raised.
Patrick Taïeb and Sabine Teulon Lardic
Which operas did people most often watch in France—all over France, that is—in 1780, 1820, 1860, and 1890? How did provincial theaters compare with those in Paris, where the great majority of operas originated? This chapter aims to correct the unduly narrow focus on Paris traditionally followed in histories of French opera. The chapter shows how old, indeed canonic, repertories were created in Paris, which then were performed in such cities as Rouen, Bordeaux, and Lyon. It traces how repertories emerged, focusing variously on works by Gluck, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Verdi, and Wagner. The most important respect in which provincial theaters differed from those in Paris was the close intermingling in a single theater of pieces in different genres—opéra comique, grand opéra, and opérette. This chapter is paired with Yannick Simon’s “The mingling of opera genres: Canonic opera at the Théâtre des Arts in Rouen, 1882–1897.”
This chapter traces how often-performed canonic works did not emerge in London’s King’s Theatre until the end of the eighteenth century, seen in the special popularity of opera buffa. From its opening in 1704, the King’s Theatre offered only operas written and produced in Italy, and it was unusual for a piece to be kept on stage for more than five years. The piece that broke that rule was La buona figliuola, the setting by Niccolò Piccinni of Carlo Goldoni’s libretto on Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela. First performed in Rome in 1760, the opera was given in London almost every year from 1766 to 1796, and ten other pieces in that genre also appeared unusually often. This chapter is paired with Jennifer Hall-Witt’s “Repertory opera and canonic sensibility at the London Opera, 1820–1860.”
Cormac Newark and William Weber
Despite increasing interest in canonic discourses in the arts, relatively little attention has been given to opera. Reasons include its close relationship with commerce and the relative fluidity of its texts. But it is also an inherently problematic sort of canon, one that evolved very differently from that of concert music: current issues include the increasing restriction of its core, even while the viable repertory is arguably broadening, and especially the fact that the most revered works are all more than a century old. The financial difficulties being experienced by opera houses around the world, even some of the most famous, seem connected to these issues. This introduction explores some of the different meanings of operatic canonicity and the associated terminology, the methods by which it is determined, and, through a survey of some of the main arguments advanced in the ensuing chapters, the historical forces that shaped it.
The opera canon—and how we perceive it—in many ways defines not just the scheduling and repertory of opera houses but also the whole structure: the opera food chain. The way a work is marketed and talked about, the way the audience and the press come to it with different expectations—all this depends to a surprisingly large extent on its place in the operatic canon. As stage director at Covent Garden, this chapter’s author felt keenly how significantly a work’s place in the canon affects the way people react to its staging. Despite its apparent rigidity, the canon can be a flexible concept, created and re-created, constantly changing. Much as it may sometimes seem that the operatic canon is restrictive, taking on a truly canonic piece can offer a strange kind of freedom in which interpretation really is creation. This chapter is paired with John Rockwell’s “Critical reflections on the operatic canon.”
This chapter charts how canonic repertories evolved in very different forms in New York City during the nineteenth century. The unstable succession of entrepreneurial touring troupes that visited the city adapted both repertory and individual pieces to the audience’s taste, from which there emerged a major theater, the Metropolitan Opera, offering a mix of German, Italian, and French works. The stable repertory in place there by 1910 resembles to a considerable extent that performed in the same theater today. Indeed, all of the twenty-five operas most often performed between 1883 and 2015 at the Metropolitan Opera were written before World War I. The repertory may seem haphazard in its diversity, but that very condition proved to be its strength in the long term. This chapter is paired with Benjamin Walton’s “Canons of real and imagined opera: Buenos Aires and Montevideo, 1810–1860.”
Helen M. Greenwald
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.
This essay shows that in Italy for much of the eighteenth century, canonic recognition was granted to the librettist of a famous opera but not to the composer, who was seen as an artisan rather than an intellectual. But the unique long-term popularity of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (1733) led to the honoring of composers in subsequent generations both in musical and in dramatic terms. Even though a stable authorial canon of opera composers failed to establish itself in Italy prior to the triumph of Rossini, strong respect emerged for composers such as Niccolò Jommelli, Niccolò Piccinni, and Giovanni Paisiello, which, together with the rising fame of leading singers, laid the groundwork for the Italian operatic canon of the nineteenth century. This chapter is paired with Michel Noiray’s “The practical and symbolic functions of pre-Rameau opera at the Paris Opéra before Gluck.”
This chapter analyzes in depth the operas performed in the late nineteenth century in Rouen. The repertory that was produced from 1882 in the new Théâtre des Arts illustrates how a provincial theater would differ significantly, in terms of the genres presented, from the Opéra or the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Like all regional theaters, the one in Rouen adapted itself to the constraints of a national system shaped by Parisian production, but it was also expected to defer to local tastes and performing conditions. The public thus saw a much greater variety of genres than was presented in the capital city. The new works produced there were often objects of local pride; for example, since Pierre Corneille had been born locally, the theater produced Jules Massenet’s setting of Le Cid. This chapter is paired with Patrick Taïeb and Sabine Teulon Lardic’s “The evolution of French opera repertories in provincial theaters: Three epochs, 1770–1900.”
This chapter explores the tension between national and international operatic repertories in the case of nineteenth-century Russia. It discusses conceptual problems associated with the notion of a national canon, which is frequently conceived of in a binary opposition to an international or universal one. The discussion of Russian musical life charts the reception of foreign repertories as well as the canonization of Mikhail Glinka’s operas Zhizn’ za tsarya (A life for the tsar, 1836) and Ruslan i Lyudmila (Ruslan and Lyudmila, 1842), and concludes by showing how the tensions between foreign and domestic works played out differently in critical and historical writing from the way they did in the performing repertory. This chapter is paired with William Weber’s “The survival of English opera in nineteenth-century concert life.”
This chapter discusses the fundamental difficulties of filming opera. Putting opera on the screen is a marriage of art form and media that continues to struggle with the difficulty of adequately reproducing the original work. An opera’s original stage directions are rarely seen to carry the authority of the score, almost invariably failing to provide watertight instructions, a problem that then forces a director to do a lot of connecting the dots. Moreover, any kind of staging of an old work needs to demonstrate that the operatic museum is more than just a fusty mausoleum. Thus do important questions arise about how opera on screen can be expected to interact with, or move in some fashion toward, defining the operatic canon. This chapter is paired with Karen Henson’s “Sound recording and the operatic canon: Three ‘drops of the needle.’”
This chapter outlines how a fundamental crisis arose in Italian opera houses by 1900, shaped by the focus on canonic repertory as it was defined by the leading theaters and music publishers. Planning of repertory became focused on specific kinds of operas—in effect a canonic typology—from which a work was chosen as appropriate to a specific season or social context. Eventually, this repertory came to be perceived as finite, establishing certain canonic types as standard choices for the organization of a theater’s repertory or a publisher’s list. The leading such framework took shape most significantly in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, devised by publishers and glorified by key artists, most significantly the conductor Arturo Toscanini. This chapter is paired with Carlotta Sorba’s “Theaters, markets, and canonic implications in the Italian opera system, 1820–1880.”
This chapter argues that the reputation of Giacomo Meyerbeer went through a process of “de-canonization” after his death in 1868. More than those of other opera composers powerful in that time, views about his rise and eventual decline became firmly established by the fin-de-siècle. By re-examining the discourse surrounding this dominant figure, the chapter reveals larger tendencies of operatic canonicity in nineteenth-century Paris, illustrating the volatility of reputation and the peculiarly operatic ways of measuring canonic status. From Meyerbeer’s death, a gradual process took place by which his works either were dropped from repertories or discredited, long before Les Huguenots finally bowed out at the Paris Opéra in the 1930s. This chapter is paired with William Gibbons’s “The uses and disadvantages of opera history: Unhistorical thinking in fin-de-siècle Paris.”