From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Opera is a form of theatre in which the drama is conveyed wholly or predominantly through music and singing. Opera emerged in Italy around the year 1600 and is generally associated with the Western classical music tradition. the drama is conveyed wholly or predominantly through music and singing.
Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble.
Opera started in Italy at the end of the 16th century (with Jacopo Peri's lost Dafne, produced in Florence around 1597) and soon spread through the rest of Europe: Schütz in Germany, Lully in France, and Purcell in England all helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. However, in the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe, except France, attracting foreign composers such as Handel. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his "reform" operas in the 1760s. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute, a landmark in the German tradition.
The first third of the 19th century saw the highpoint of the bel canto style, with Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all creating works that are still performed today. It also saw the advent of Grand Opera typified by the works of Meyerbeer. The mid to late 19th century is considered by some a golden age of opera, led by Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy. This 'golden age' developed through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French opera through to Puccini and Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel operatic traditions emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia. The 20th century saw many experiments with modern styles, such as atonality and serialism (Schoenberg and Berg), Neo-Classicism (Stravinsky), and Minimalism (Philip Glass and John Adams). With the rise of recording technology, singers such as Enrico Caruso became known to audiences beyond the circle of opera fans. Operas were also performed on (and written for) radio and television.
Contemporary, recent, and Modernist trends
Perhaps the most obvious stylistic manifestation of modernism in opera is the development of atonality. The move away from traditional tonality in opera had begun with Wagner, and in particular the Tristan chord. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Giacomo Puccini, Paul Hindemith and Hans Pfitzner pushed Wagnerian harmony further with a more extreme use of chromaticism and greater use of dissonance.
Operatic Modernism truly began in the operas of two Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and his student Alban Berg, both composers and advocates of atonality and its later development (as worked out by Schoenberg), dodecaphony. Schoenberg's early musico-dramatic works, Erwartung (1909, premiered in 1924) and Die glückliche Hand display heavy use of chromatic harmony and dissonance in general. Schoenberg also occasionally used Sprechstimme, which he described as: "The voice rising and falling relative to the indicated intervals, and everything being bound together with the time and rhythm of the music except where a pause is indicated".
The two operas of Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg, Wozzeck and Lulu (the last left incomplete at his death) share many of the same characteristics as described above, though Berg combined his highly personal interpretation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique with melodic passages of a more traditionally tonal nature (quite Mahlerian in character) which perhaps partially explains why his operas have remained in standard repertory, despite their controversial music and plots. Schoenberg's theories have influenced (either directly or indirectly) significant numbers of opera composers ever since, even if they themselves did not compose using his techniques. Composers thus influenced include the Englishman Benjamin Britten, the German Hans Werner Henze, and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich. (Philip Glass also makes use of atonality, though his style is generally described as minimalist, usually thought of as another 20th century development.)
However, operatic modernism's use of dodecaphony sparked a backlash among several leading composers. Prominent among the vanguard of these was the Russian Igor Stravinsky. After composing obviously Modernist music for the Diaghilev-produced ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, in the 1920s Stravinsky turned to Neoclassicism, culminating in his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. Stravinsky had already turned away from the modernist trends of his early ballets to produce small-scale works that do not fully qualify as opera, yet certainly contain many operatic elements, including Renard (1916: "a burlesque in song and dance") and The Soldier's Tale (1918: "to be read, played, and danced"; in both cases the descriptions and instructions are those of the composer). In the latter, the actors declaim portions of speech to a specified rhythm over instrumental accompaniment, peculiarly similar to the older German genre of Melodrama. When he did compose a full-length opera that was without doubt an opera (after his Rimsky-Korsakov-inspired works The Nightingale (1914), and Mavra (1922)), in The Rake's Progress he continued to ignore serialist techniques and wrote an 18th century-style "number" opera, using diatonicism. His resistance to serialism (which ended at the death of Schoenberg) proved to be an inspiration for many other composers.
A common trend throughout the 20th century, in both opera and general orchestral repertoire, is the use of smaller orchestras as a cost-cutting measure; the grand Romantic-era orchestras with huge string sections, multiple harps, extra horns, and exotic percussion instruments were no longer feasible. As government and private patronage of the arts decreased throughout the 20th century, new works were often commissioned and performed with smaller budgets, very often resulting in chamber-sized works, and short, one-act operas. Many of Benjamin Britten's operas are scored for as few as 13 instrumentalists; Mark Adamo's two-act realization of Little Women is scored for 18 instrumentalists.
Another feature of 20th century opera is the emergence of contemporary historical operas. The Death of Klinghoffer', Nixon in China and "Doctor Atomic" by John Adams, and Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie exemplify the dramatisation on stage of events in recent living memory, where characters portrayed in the opera were alive at the time of the premiere performance. Earlier models of opera generally stuck to more distant history, re-telling contemporary fictional stories (reworkings of popular plays), or mythical/legendary stories.
The Metropolitan Opera reports that the average age of its patrons is now 60. Many opera companies have experienced a similar trend, and opera company websites are replete with attempts to attract a younger audience. This trend is part of the larger trend of greying audiences for classical music since the last decades of the 20th century. In an effort to attract younger audiences, the Met offers a student discount on ticket purchases. Major opera companies have been better able to weather the funding cutbacks, because they can afford to hire star singers which draw substantial audiences who want to see if their favourite singer will be able to hit their high "money notes" in the show.
Smaller companies have a more fragile existence, and they usually depend on a "patchwork quilt" of support from state and local governments, local businesses, and fundraisers. Nevertheless, some smaller companies have found ways of drawing new audiences. Opera Carolina offer discounts and happy hour events to the 21–40 year old demographic. In addition to radio and television broadcasts of opera performances, which have had some success in gaining new audiences, broadcasts of live performances in HD to movie theatres have shown the potential to reach new audiences. Since 2006, the Met has broadcast live performances to several hundred movie screens all over the world.
From musicals back towards opera
Also by the late 1930s, some musicals began to be written with a more operatic structure. These works include complex polyphonic ensembles and reflect musical developments of their times. Porgy and Bess, influenced by jazz styles, and Candide, with its sweeping, lyrical passages and farcical parodies of opera, both opened on Broadway but became accepted as part of the opera repertory. Show Boat, West Side Story, Brigadoon, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Light in the Piazza and others tell dramatic stories through complex music and are now sometimes seen in opera houses. Some musicals, beginning with Tommy (1969) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and continuing through Les Miserables (1980), Rent (1996) and Spring Awakening (2006), utilize various operatic conventions, such as through composition, recitative instead of dialogue, leitmotifs and dramatic stories told predominantly through rock, pop or contemporary music.