A Brief History of the Opera, Part 2

In today’s part 2 video of a brief history of opera, we’re going to talk about Romantic and Modern opera styles, and the influential composers and works in this period.

This video is meant as an introduction – a surface-view of opera. There are many, many details, operas, and composers we won’t be talking about today, because the idea is to give you a general sense of the operatic landscape over the years.

If you missed part 1 of this video, dealing with Baroque and Classical operas, definitely check it out!

History of Opera: English opera

In the last video we mainly discussed Italian, German and French opera, and we’ll continue talking about those today. However, I wanted to start by touching on English opera (and later we’ll take a brief look at Russian opera).

Most of the early English operas were written in Italian style, such as Henry Purcell’s famous Dido and Aeneas from 1689. He loved opera seria and tried to popularize it in England, but didn’t really succeed since he died young – once he passed, so did England’s interest in opera.

In England, opera started to catch on again with Thomas Arne, who was the first English composer to write comic operas, and in the English language no less – as with Thomas and Sally in 1760. Arne also experimented with serious opera in the mid to late 1700s, to great success.

Handel, another well-known English composer, also wrote Italian-style operas in England. Great Italian composers, as well as the operas of Mozart and Beethoven, were very popular in England as well.

History of Opera: Late Classical

So that’s the Baroque and Classical era. Now it’s time to look at the late Classical and early Romantic operatic styles.

In this period you had the bel canto style, the Italian master Verdi, and the development of Grand Opera.

Bel canto

Bel canto literally means “beautiful singing”, and these are parts of an opera in a really intricate and florid style, requiring a master singer to perform. Bel canto was really about making a melody sound as beautiful as possible, as opposed to being really dramatic or expressive.

Composers like Gluck (who we talked about in the previous video) and Wagner (who we’ll talk about shortly) strongly disagreed with writing in bel canto style, but guys like Mozart and Rossini embraced it.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia

An example of bel canto writing style is Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), which premiered in 1816. I’ll link an exerpt from this opera on the screen so you can check it out.

The Barber of Seville is described as one of the best opera buffa (comedy operas) of all time. This particular scene is “Una voce poco fa” (A voice a little while ago), and is an aria from the first act.

History of Opera: French opera

As we talked about in the previous video, the French had their own version of opera, and resisted Italian influence. By the time the early 1800s arrived, the French gave into Italian bel canto style, especially when Rossini brought his opera Guillaume Tell to Paris in 1829.

Guillaume Tell is an example of an emerging style of opera called Grand Opera, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

Verdi and Grand Opera

Jumping back to Italian Opera, the opera style that followed bel canto was Grand Opera.

Grand opera was popular in the 1800s, and were large in scale (hence the name “grand”), much like other Romantic music genres. They involved 4-5 acts, big casts, big orchestras, and flashy stage effects and design.

Grand opera works tended to also be about events in history (sort of like how opera seria tended to be about mythological subjects).

Giuseppe Verdi was one of the revolutionaries who helped to change the course of opera from the highly virtuosic bel canto style to the bigger, more dramatic storytelling style of Grand Opera.

He wrote many famous operas that are still performed today, but Rigoletto was particularly revolutionary in that it blurred the lines between arias and recitatives, so that there was less distinction between the two. His opera works culminated in Don Carlos, which is one of the greatest French Grand Operas.

Don Carlos

Don Carlos was a Grand Opera by Verdi which premiered in 1867. It’s based on the life of Carlos, Prince of Asturias in the 1500s, and the conflicts he faced.

This exerpt is the king singing “beware the Grand Inquisitor”, a character in the story. It’s very moody and dramatic, and a good example of the changes in opera in the mid to late 1800s.

History of Opera: Verismo

After Verdi and Grand Opera, the style of verismo emerged at the turn of the 20th Century. This was a post-romantic style fixated on realism. Instead of fantastical topics, composers and writers chose to focus on grittier, “realer” topics like poverty.

Madama Butterfly

A good example of this style is Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which is a tragic story about an American man and his Japanese wife.

Take a look at the very famous aria “Un bel di vedremo” (One fine day we shall see) from act 2. This is all about Butterfly waiting for her absentee husband and longing for him. Though the tune is beautiful and the language is poetic, the subject matter is much more day-to-day than previous opera styles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRNWFrkiAhc

History of Opera: Germany and Wagner

We’ve already been discussing Italian opera in the mid-to-late 1800s and what’s considered “the golden age” of opera. Now let’s turn to German opera and the emergence of one of the biggest operatic names in history – Wagner.

In the previous video we discussed Mozart’s singspiele, a genre of German opera that’s a mixture of singing and speaking – The Magic Flute (1791) is a famous one we took a look at. Mozart’s singspiele was critical for setting German opera apart and giving it its own unique identity.

Mozart then passed the torch to Beethoven, who wrote only one opera, Fidelio (1805). This is largely because Beethoven agonized over it for around a decade before it finally premiered.

After that, we step into the Romantic era with Carl Maria von Weber, who took German opera in an even further direction from Italian by defying the prevailing bel canto style. An example of this is Der Freischutz (1821), or “The Freeshooter”, considered the first important German Romantic opera. It was based on a German folk legend, and was very stark, expressive and dramatic.

And that leads us to Wagner.

History of Opera: Wagner

Once upon a time in music history, there comes a man who stirs the pot in a big way. A man that some people passionately hate, and some people passionately love – both in his day and time, and even now.

But I prefer not to share my opinions – I’d rather share facts and let you make your own opinions. What’s for sure is that Wagner was very controversial, and I’m eager to do a full history video on him in the future.

Anyway, his approach to music was “bigger is better” and “all or nothing”. He followed Weber in the chain of German operatic lineage, and started a new concept of opera called “Gesamtkunstwerk” (a complete work of art). This was his way of merging all the arts into one performance – music, poetry, literature, and painting.

He also loved huge and prominent orchestras, and defied harmonic conventions if the emotion of the story called for it.

In many of his operas, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, he blurred the line between arias and recitatives so deeply that the music sounds like an “endless melody”.

Wagner was so passionate about his own vision, and doing things in his own way, that he even built his own opera house at Bayreuth, which was exclusively used for performing his own works in his own way.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Der Ring des Nibelungen, or “The Ring Cycles”, is a 4-part opera series written between 1848-1874 by Wagner. All together the run-time is about 15 hours, and Wagner intended them to be heard together in sequence – one on each day (though I guess nowadays you could binge-watch them like a LoTR trilogy).

The Ring Cycle is massively complex and features mythological stories, centering around a magic ring that can grant the bearer dominion over the whole world. Since the orchestra he used was so large and intense, he used his specially-built opera house that projected the singer’s voices without straining over all those instruments.

Take a listen to the Funeral March from Act III of the third opera in the set. I think it’s a good example of how epic Wagner was (especially toward the end of this), and also how moody and dark (the first half).

History of Opera: French Opera

Now let’s hop over to France and talk about the most famous French opera comique – Carmen (1875). This opera was innovative in that it blended the expressivity and drama of Romanticism with a big dose of realism (a trend that would continue into the modern era).

Carmen

Carmen was a slow burn of success. It wasn’t immediately loved – it was too different for that. But soon the French came to realize how brilliant the music was, and how forward the story was. It was about a beautiful girl (Carmen), and a soldier (Don Juan) who fell in love. Only, Carmen later decided she wasn’t in love after all, and pushes Don Juan away, who is completely smitten.

Take a listen to the Habanera from the first act, which you might recognize – it’s a really famous aria. The chromatic melody is really cool, and it establishes the woman as the dominant force in this story.

French opera also gave us a completely opposite counterpoint to Wagner – Debussy. In Debussy’s opera elleas et Melisande (1902), there weren’t real arias – only recitatives (opposite of Wagner and his unending melodies). Debussy featured the orchestra heavily in his operas, but in an undramatic way – it was more about atmosphere-building, and in complete opposition to the boldness of Wagnerian instrumentation.

History of Opera: Russian opera

Meanwhile, there was Russia. Like England at the beginning of this video, we’ve basically completely ignored Russia (and other European countries) in favor of the major operatic players like Italy, France and Germany. But that’s not to say that Russia was sitting around twiddling their thumbs, and I wanted to mention  them briefly here.

Italian operas were enjoyed in Russia throughout the 1700s, and it wasn’t until the 1800s when Russian opera came to develop its own identity. A composer named Mikhail Glinka composed A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)

A Life for the Tsar was based on a real-life Russian war story and was very nationalistic in character (which mirrored growing Russian nationalism in other artistic genres). It was structured like a typical Italian opera, but had some music in it based on Russian folk tunes. This then paved the way for later composers, like Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades, written by Tchaikovsky and premiered in 1890, is an example of a very successful Russian opera, and it ties into Glinka’s operas. Tchaikovsky loved Glinka’s operas as a boy, and spent a lot of time meticulously studying A Life for the Tsar.

I’ll leave you with the Prelude from the Queen of Spades, which displays Tchaikovsky’s inherently Russian instrumental style – it’s very sweeping and expressive, and grows very large about halfway through.

History of Opera: Modernism

With Tchaikovsky and Wagner we reach the end of the 1800s, and into a new, modern era of music with composers such as Pucchini and Strauss.

We recently did a video on Modernism in music, so if you want more information, definitely check it out. One major movement of modernism was atonality – basically, music that doesn’t feel anchored in a “key” (and gives an uneasy, floating feeling).

Wagner started this atonal movement in opera, and it was continues with guys like Strauss, Debussy and Puccini. They loved dissonance and freedom from harmonic conventions.

Strauss

After Wagner came Strauss, who took Wagner (and Verdi)’s ideas in a new direction. Salome (1905), a German opera based on a French story by Oscar Wilde, was very controversial upon its release, largely because it was really weird and dark, blending up Christianity, death and eroticism all into one package. His opera Elektra was similar, and took tonality (or lack thereof) to new, kind of scary places.

Salome

In Salome, the most controversial scene is the “Dance of the Seven Veils”, which is basically an early 20th Century striptease. It’s Salome dancing to Oriental-inspired music while removing each of the seven veils, and opera sopranos at the time refused to dance in that part, having a stand-in do it for them instead. It’s surprisingly racy, and I’ll leave you with the link (don’t worry, no nudity!)

History of Opera: 20th century

Further into the 20th century we get even more experimental, such as Schoenberg’s atonality, Stravinsky’s modern take on Classical music, and the minimalist style of Philip Glass.

Modernism in opera started with Schoenberg and Berg (his student), who were based in Vienna and were big fans of atonality. Die Gluckliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) by Schoenberg was first performed in 1924, and was partly autobiographical – a new development in music – all about how man makes the same mistakes over and over.

The Hand of Fate

This opera was categorized as a “drama with music”, and is only 20 minutes long. You can check out the full audio recording here:

You can hear the atonality (most people describe it as sounding “weird”) by trying to pinpoint a “home” note – there is none! We tour through all kinds of random notes and keys and never feel anchored. It’s very unsettling.

Atonality and Neoclassicism

The influence of atonality spread far and wide, to England with Benjamin Britten, and to Russia with Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich.

But since atonality was really weird, it inspired a musical backlash and a revival of more Classical-sounding writing styles (enter Neoclassicism).

Oedipus Rex

Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex (1927) is a good example of this Classical revival style. Throwing back to Ancient Greek stories and sung in Latin (but narrated in the performer’s language), it’s a blend of new (at the time) and old alike.

I’ll link the whole thing here if you want to check it out:

History of Opera: English opera

And now we circle back to English opera, which had some large successes in the mid 1900s, such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes from 1944. It was just as successful as famous Italian operas by Puccini (like Madama Butterfly), and Britten’s works are performed regularly today (which is rare for post-war operas).

American opera

And let’s not forget the United States! In the 1900s we had guys like Bernstein and Gershwin writing English operas that blended modern American music styles (like jazz) with traditional operatic styles. Though Bernstein was much more well-known for his musicals (West Side Story is one), he did write a few operas as well.

Porgy and Bess

And who could forget Gershwin’s famous 1934 opera Porgy and Bess? It broke boundaries by featuring a cast of Classically-trained African American singers, it debuted on Broadway, and resulted in the first “integrated” audience that Carnegie Hall had ever had in 1936.

“Summertime” is such a great (and oft-covered) tune, and is worth checking out if you don’t want to watch all 4 hours of Porgy and Bess.

Modern Musicals

Operas then evolved into musicals like the aforementioned West Side Story, and many others that you’ve surely heard of like the Phantom of the Opera, Sweeny Todd, Passion, and many more. Even modern musicals like Rent (1996) carry on some operatic traditions of style (like recitatives instead of simply speaking), though they’re much more digestible to modern audiences.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this two-part overview on the history of opera. There’s definitely a lot of information here (and a lot of great operas to watch). Even though opera isn’t specifically piano-related, it’s such a huge part of Classical music that I felt it would be wrong of me to not bring it up.

Catch you next time!

xo,

Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.