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a history of opera

9 september 2021

Looking up some of my favorite operas in the Grove Dictionary of Music … Le nozze di Figaro is an "opera buffa." Lucia di Lammermoor is a "dramma tragico"; Rigoletto is a "melodramma." Eugene Onegin is a set of "lyric scenes" – I think Tchaikovsky made that genre up on the fly – La bohème is a "commedia lirica" – Der Rosenkavalier is a "Komödie für Musik." Sometimes I think that every opera is the sole example of its own unique genre.

Maybe the most useful of the countless useful ideas in Carolyn Abbate & Roger Parker's History of Opera is their treatment of operatic genres. The 21st century opera repertory stretches from Handel in the 18th to Britten in the 20th. In contemporary production, operas from different periods are all fed through current directorial concepts, played by the same orchestras with the same conductors, and sung by the same companies and stars. But much of the texture of the repertory, Abbate & Parker explain, comes from the generic prescriptions that prevailed when these historically far-flung works were created. In their day, the weird-sounding genres I mentioned above might have had lots of members. The distinctions among them meant something.

So Figaro was an "opera buffa" because it was not an "opera seria," and Lucia was a "dramma tragico" because it was not a "dramma buffo" or "melodramma giocoso." These terms hinged not just on whether the plot had a happy or sad ending, but were also determined by the rank and attitude of the characters portrayed, and the kinds of music, the balance between songs, recitative, and sometimes spoken dialogue that blended to make up a given opera.

"Opera seria" (a specialty of Handel's) set the convention that recitative (sung dialogue) would alternate with arias (songs); and we still think of opera as basically alternation of the two, even after centuries of innovation have muddled the picture. But spoken dialogue continued to feature in opéra comique (such as Carmen in 1875), which were produced by separate companies in separate theaters from grand opera. Such entertainments blended into operetta and then musical comedy. Today musical comedy, at least its higher peaks like Show Boat and South Pacific, is a staple of some opera companies. Genres rise into sharp, well-policed distinction and then blur again; that's the history of the arts in one sentence.

In its beginnings, "opera" was of course a plural; over time, like "data" later on, it's become singular. The 17th century "opera" melded music, drama, and spectacle to offer a combination entertainment. There were many precursors: the light/sound/explosion shows that Leonardo da Vinci specialized in; the court masques that diverted Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England.

Yet before 1600, the music from these entertainments was as ephemeral as their collapsable and explodable visual elements. Once the show was over, they struck the set and they used the score as kindling. Only the words sometimes remained, and anyone who's had to study the texts of English masques knows that they make for fussy, unsatisfying literary experiences.

Ephemerality is a leitmotif in Abbate & Parker's history. Scores of operas survived only tentatively well into the 19th century. Quite a few operas that had major premieres in European capitals are now effectively lost, their scores and libretti never published, their stagings barely described in reviews and rarely pictured by artists. Until the mid-19th century, the vast majority of operas were new productions, and revivals were not anticipated. If there was an element of repertory in 18th-century opera, it often had more to do with the libretti. Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) was the most successful creator of operas in his era, without writing much music at all: his libretti were set and re-set by successive composers looking for some novelty in the formula that would divert a new season's audience.

Revivals became the mainstays of opera companies and seasons in the 19th century thanks to the sheer costs of mounting new productions. Only Paris, with its state subsidy and lavish production resources, was ever free from financial worry; other cities depended on the vagaries of local rulers or the ups and downs of more broad-based donations from the bourgeois public. Opera is odd like that: it has never paid its own way. Opera companies mention this when asking for donations, unlike other ticket-selling businesses. Imagine going to a cinema and being asked for extra cash because ticket sales cover only half the cost of producing a Marvel movie. Yet that always happens at the opera.

The apex of profligacy was reached with French grand opéra, again in the 19th century. "Grand opera" now means just any loud production in a big house, but in Paris in the 1840s and '50s they took that to extremes. Giacomo Meyerbeer was the all-time champion of noisy huge-cast spectacle, to the extent that his operas – now hard to perform on the scale they demand – are obscure compared to their influence on music history, say Abbate & Parker.

As the practice of revivals formed the repertory in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that repertory became crowded. New operas, though frequently produced, found it harder to retain a place on stage. But innovation remained a strong value, so paradoxically, Abbate & Parker demonstrate, opera companies began in the mid-20th century to go back to the archives and resurrect old stuff anew. Handel benefited from this recovery work, as did Rossini and Donizetti beyond the couple of chestnuts that had held the stage from their inception; forgotten early Verdi saw the stage again, and earlier classics like Vivaldi, Lully, and Rameau saw minor renaissances. The history of opera performance c2000 can read like the history of opera itself reinterpreted through a new cycle of premieres.

When I began my obsessive opera-going around the year 2010, I was lucky to see most of my fare in Ft. Worth and Dallas, Texas. The companies in those cities had a very good decade in the 2010s, before their finances collapsed from the strain of innovation and COVID finally stopped them cold. In DFW, we saw Tosca and The Barber of Seville plus other warhorses; we saw Salome and Samson et Dalila and Manon Lescaut from the second tier of the canon, as well as odder revivals like Thomas' Hamlet and at least the first act of Catalani's La Wally.

But we also saw a lot of new opera, including a few world premieres (notably Everest by Joby Talbot and JFK by David T. Little). We saw Silent Night, Voir Dire, With Blood, With Ink, and Sunken Garden, with its video accompaniment and scenes that required you to put on 3-D glasses. The whole era was weird but pretty engaging on the whole.

Of course, not all new opera is an unmixed joy. Contemporary composers don't want to write like Puccini, and what would be the point anyway? people would rather hear Puccini if they did. And newer music tends to be hard to take in opera-length doses. An active composer told Abbate & Rogers

that he found many recent operas unbearable, and said straight out that works subjecting listeners to to hours-long exposure to atonal idioms were doomed from the outset. (559)
Hence that paradox that so much "new" opera consists of revivals at great historical depth. Handel may have been shouldered off the opera stage by Mozart, Rossini, and Donizetti, but at least Handel wrote tunes.

When you go to a brand-new opera, there's a strong chance you'll never see it again; odds are no revival will come your way. The experience is all the keener. Abbate & Parker acknowledge that the video archives on YouTube and elsewhere have greatly expanded access to opera. I have made use of that archive when writing here about opera, and it helped me cope during the pandemic. But even the "everything's recorded" culture we now live in fails to register innovative live opera, and that's not altogether a bad thing. This shortfall in the archive maintains the precarious balance between energy and fossilization in the curious living dinosaur of a genre that is opera today.

Abbate, Carolyn, and Roger Parker. A History of Opera. 2012. Revised Edition 2015. New York: Norton, 2015. ML 1700 .A22