This is an essay by SelfDesign learner Saphren Ma for English 11.
The history of opera dates back 2,500 years to the birth of democracy in ancient Greece, as the Athenians used performances to celebrate their identity. The performances consisted of dance, music, songs, speech and grand spectacle. This form of art was the predecessor and the inspiration for modern opera. Modern opera along with ballet were born from royal entertainment in Italy and France in the 17th-century.
Generally, operas were used to celebrate political visits, marriages, or to display wealth and status. Productions like these were often used by the nobility in order to impress royals or foreign dignitaries. In the early years of opera, stories were often drawn from Greek myths or ancient Roman stories.
Claudio Monteverdi was the first composer to create what we now know as recognizable opera, which is a story told through music and song. One of the very first operas to be presented was Orfeo, which was performed for the first time in Mantua, Italy in 1607. After that, opera became increasingly very popular throughout Europe. The first London production of Orfeo took place 300 years after being written, and remains the earliest opera ever written that is still performed today.
Each of the operatic countries around the world create operas in vastly different ways, and use elements of their heritage and culture in order to create exotic and unique pieces. In the first European operas, the intent was to compose and make music subservient to the words. These first operas used recitatives, and what tended to be small musical accompaniment interspersed with beautifully delicate, if little, orchestral interludes. After Italy, Rome and France, Venice became more and more rapidly the opera epicentre of Europe.
When the first opera house was opened in Venice in 1637, opera started becoming increasingly accessible to the public, as it had previously been more of an aristocratic art form. Operas’ rise in popularity started in 17th century Europe, growing until the 19th century when composers such as Wagner and Verdi showcased their brilliant works in Venice in what is now know as the Golden Age of Opera.
“Wagner gathered music, drama, poetry and staging in what he called music drama. In his operas, the orchestra became part of the story, and he frequently used the leitmotiv, a musical phrase associated with a character, an event or an idea” ( opera-europa.org). The orchestra played a key role in the operas because of the large and intense sound of the instruments as well as the musician’s ability to convey grief, death and heartache, or love, marriage and joy. In Russia and Eastern Europe though, a more specific tradition began, inspired by famous national literature, or by significant events throughout history. These operas included ballet, scenic effects, dramatic action and in some cases, included spoken dialogues.
Asia has a completely different operatic history dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Emperor Taizong first opened an opera school by the name of Liyuan, meaning Pea Garden. Ever since then, Chinese opera performers are referred to as disciples/children of the pear garden. Chinese opera is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. When the school was first opened, it was a rather uncommon art form exclusive to mainly people of high classes or nobility, much like opera in Europe. It wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty beginning in 1644, that it became fashionable amongst ordinary people to perform in or watch operas.
Performances during that time moved from palaces and royal theatres viewed only by court officials and emperors, to tearooms, restaurants, and occasionally on casual outdoor stages. Like European opera, Chinese opera consists of music, art and literature, but uniquely adds traditional instruments such as the lute and the gong while also using haunting distinct melodies that can be unfamiliar to the western ear. Brightly coloured masks, makeup, costumes and hair are all distinctive parts of Chinese opera. Face paint used by the performers has special meaning associated with the many different colours. For example, gold and silver represent mystery, a red face represents loyalty, yellow and white faces, duplicity, and a black face represents valour.
Everything in this form of opera has meaning, from acrobatics and face-paint, to symbols and tricks with fire; everything has a purpose. Since the birth of Chinese opera over 800 years ago, this art form has evolved and changed into over 300 fantastical opera styles representing each different region. Latin American opera was started much later than the above styles, beginning in the late 18th century in Mexico. Manuel de Zumaya was the first important opera composer (c. 1678-1755) in Mexico. Mexico remained one of the sole countries in Latin America to perform operas until the 19th century when a few more nations started producing operas. Many of the operas created during that time were written about the historical conflicts between the indigenous peoples and Europeans. Early Latin American opera had many similarities to the European style of opera, but included more traditional dance and folk-style music.
Today, opera has a different feel to it. Instead of the more classical European operas, North America has started changing and evolving into more contemporary and avant-garde works. At the start of the 20th century, modernism started to undermine the basic structure of opera and began to change the way we think of music. In the few years following the second world war, a new generation of composers were born. These young composers were full of new and unique ideas about how music was written. Some of these musicians viewed opera as an outdated form of art and disregarded it as stuffy and a thing of the past. Now this attitude of course didn’t last forever as they gradually learned to reconcile with the art form, even if some still wanted to reinvent it.
Composers in the mid 20th century such as Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Philip Glass and Wolfgang Rihm each had a different take on opera. While Glass wrote operas containing no strict story at all, Birtwistle decided to take a different approach and instead told a story by having multiple scenes proceed simultaneously. All the scenes ran at the same time creating a wildly unique art piece. Some viewed this idea as completely crazy and difficult to watch, while others lapped it up and found it to be fresh and exciting.
To conclude, the vast array of techniques portrayed in the many different operatic styles are completely unique and have their own sound and feeling. Whether you’re watching Mozart’s Magic Flute, John Adams’ El Nino or Chinese opera’s 相認, you will be captivated, intrigued, and amazed by the outstanding and captivating performances that have been around for centuries. Learning about the different operatic performances around the world has made me want to open up my eyes and start listening to more than just one style.