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Birth of Opera

by Roger Kaza

I couldn't agree more about Shakespeare — no one 'got rhythm' better than the Bard. But, interestingly, while Shakespeare was beguiling us with words, his contemporaries in Florence were fuming over what they felt was the sorry state of music. And in trying to fix music, they came up with — well, would you believe, yet another form of theater?

[Lienhard] And that would be?

[Kaza] Okay, John, let me give you the long answer. The art of music composition had actually evolved too far, or so the Florentine humanists thought. It was too complex: too many voices, too much counterpoint, too many things going on all at once. Stuff like this:

Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah I
Courtesy Houston Chamber Choir, Robert Simpson Artistic Director

It's beautiful, and about as twice as clever as it needs to be. Or so they felt. But music's savior was to be the very medium that Richard started us out with, Greek drama.

[Lienhard] And ancient Greek drama has what to do with 16th century music?

[Kaza] Well, the Florentines subscribed to a fanciful theory proposed by Greek scholars of the day. It goes something like this: Greek drama wasn't spoken. It was sung! At the very least the choruses were sung, and maybe all of it. So, being the good antiquarians they were, they thought music could be saved, revitalized, made simpler, more direct, and more heartfelt if it told a story. Better yet, if it sang a story. The first opera we know of is Dafne, by Jacapo Peri, circa 1597. Naturally it's a Greek myth, the story of Apollo falling in love with a nymph.

[Lienhard] And this you're saying was truly opera, in the sense that singers were accompanied by an orchestra? Were they actually singing their lines in-between the songs, or just speaking them — musical-theater style?

[Kaza] Well, Peri's "orchestra" consisted of a harpsichord, a lute, a viol, an archlute, and a triple flute. You have to start somewhere! In terms of recitatives, that is, dramatic lines sung to a continuous melody — yes, they're all there — same as in Verdi three centuries later. They called it "monody," referring to a single line at a time. We've since lost the score to Dafne, so no one knows exactly what the music sounds like.

But we do know that the Medici family was so taken with it that they allowed Peri's next opera Euridice to be performed as part of King Henry IV and Marie de' Medici's wedding in 1600. And just a few years later, Claudio Monteverdi composed his opera Orfeo. Now, four hundred plus years later, it's standard opera repertoire. So think of it, within ten years of a fledgling start, Opera, Theater's new sister, becomes an art-form thriving uninterrupted to this day. Maybe you recognize a bit from Orfeo:

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo: Act I: Lasciate i monti, lasciate i fonti (Chorus, Pastore)
courtesy Houston Grand Opera

Now, to be fair, one could mention some of opera's precursors, for example, the liturgical plays of the Middle Ages, or the 16th century so-called Madrigal-Comedies. Incidental music, whether vocal or instrumental, has undoubtedly been part of theater from the start. But the idea of continuous singing — no spoken speech at all — this was a radically new development. It required a whole new class of artists to perform it.

And John, when you and Richard were going on about Shakespeare, entertaining the public with theater, and at the same time giving them more than they expected, I couldn't help think of another Londoner a century or so later who did exactly the same thing. Maybe we think of Messiah when we hear the name Georg Frederic Handel, but his main gig was that of the most successful opera composer of his day, maybe of all time. The guy wrote 42 operas! Handel was a rock star, a mega-celebrity. We look at his music now and say, wow, perfect counterpoint technique, beautiful melodies; brilliant execution and, what imagination, just like Shakespeare. Yet his operas work on every level, including that of merely raw entertainment for the masses.

Handel: Serse (Xerxes): Gia la tromba, che chiamo le schiere all'armi (Act 1)
courtesy Houston Grand Opera

Handel's operas disappeared from the repertory for a couple centuries, but they are enjoying a revival now, especially with the advent of period-instrument ensembles. We're finally getting to hear them the way he and his audience might have heard them, same with Mozart — though Mozart's dramatic goals were pretty much the exact opposite of Handel's. Do you remember in the movie Amadeus, that scene where the Emperor asks Mozart to explain the story of his upcoming opera, and he replies that it takes place in a Turkish harem? Then he goes on to blast — in scatological terms of course — all the traditional mythical opera stories for their lack of humanity. Amadeus is a fictional work, yet the sentiment is probably accurate. The Florentines wanted to humanize music, but Mozart wanted to humanize opera. We might even venture that he was the first composer with authentic psychological insight. His characters are torn up not by the Fates but by everyday human foibles: jealousy, betrayal, infidelity, lust.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro),
K. 492: Act III Scene 8: Aria - Dove sono i bei momenti?

courtesy Houston Grand Opera

And the interesting thing about opera over time is that the pendulum of characters keeps switching back and forth: from gods and goddesses and all those archetypes, to fallible mortal human beings. Richard Wagner certainly couldn't decide between the two. The Ring of the Nibelungen starts out all about Norse gods in Valhalla, and ends with a guileless human hero being burned on a funeral pyre.

Wagner: Isolde's Love-Death from Tristan und Isolde.
courtesy Houston Grand Opera.
Note: Tristan is of course not part of the Ring cycle, but Wagner interrupted his work on the Ring to write it. The HGO, who kindly provided the audio examples for this CD, has not yet mounted any of the Ring operas, though this mammoth project is purportedly on the horizon!

And before you correct me, I'm well aware that Wagner didn't even consider his later works to be "operas." He called them "music-dramas." There were no longer distinct recitatives and arias, only continuous melody. Very continuous. A complete performance of The Ring takes about sixteen hours, give or take a few.

But John, I wanted to ask you something. Perhaps you've heard about the Metropolitan Opera's new Ring production, featuring a strange device they simply call "the machine." It's an enormous stage-wide contraption that essentially acts as a three-dimensional stage, which can represent a forest, a mountain, or the Rhine River, depending on how it's configured and what is digitally projected upon it.

[Leinhard] I guess Wagner has always brought that out in set designers.

[Kaza] Right, this is only the latest in a long history of Ring productions. But you're our engineer here. What thoughts do you have about machinery in theater? After all, the stage crane, or mechane, lets a playwright drag a god into the action to sort out the end of a play.

[Armstrong] Aristotle didn't like that. It meant the writer couldn't figure his way out of the plot! When we say deus ex machina, we mean a playwright is cheating us after he's painted himself into a corner. But this is different.

[Leinhard] Yes, it's very different. Let me talk about that next.


T. S. Eliot, "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama," The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Pub. 2011/1920)

A. C. Kail, The Medical Mind of Shakespeare. (Balgowlah, NSW: Williams & Wilkins, 1986).