The History Of Opera

Jamie Hayes started his most interesting lecture on the History of Opera by quoting W.H. Auden ‘No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.’

Opera seems to have been started by a group of ‘Nerds’ artists, statesmen, and musicians living in Florence around 1561 – 1633.   They decided to recreate the storytelling of Greek drama through music – singing dialogue of all the various parts, and all the way through to the end.

Claudio Monteverdi, considered  first composer of genius and considered ‘ the father of opera’ wrote Orfeo in 1607 which has survived the centuries and stuck in the repertory. A work of music and theatre managing to express the anguished and chaotic emotions behind straight forward words of its characters.   Particularly making the words and music of equal value.   The words must not be more dominant than the music and vice versa, this has been passed down to other operas.

His last opera ‘The Coronation of Poppaea ‘  written 1643 one of the first  operas to use historical events and real people was considered to be his greatest work, a masterpiece of depth and individuality.   What is difficult to understand is the mental freshness with which the 74yr old composer writes two years before his death.

English opera didn’t arrive until the late 19th century with Sir William Devenant’s  The Siege of Rhodes first performed at his house Rutland House.

Benjamin Britten wrote prolifically, the most well known are Peter Grimes, Billy Budd which we saw a brilliant excerpt of, the Turn of the Screw and Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the 16th century the Vatican banned women from church choirs, creating a need for singers with high voices.  Before long nine year old boys were castrated just before puberty allowing their young voices to carry on through adulthood, known as castrati, they often dominated opera with their supernatural voices giving them the capacity to extend the part due to the development of very large lungs.  This practice continued until the end of the 18th century.

Because the opera Seria and the Grand opera were long, ‘opera buffs ‘ was introduced as light relief in the interval, gradually the comic opera was born.

Two of the most famous comic operas are:   Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

The comic opera became bawdy and crude over time leading to The Begger’s Opera of satirised politics, poverty and injustice focusing on the theme of corruption at all levels of society. Written by John Gay 1728.  (Not unlike today)!

Lorrenzo da Ponte wrote the libretti of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutti.   His own life being as scandalous enough to make an opera in its own right.   His sharp characterisation, humour and satire brought out the composer’s strengths.

Jamie gave us some wonderful excerpts to listen to throughout the lecture.

We heard  how Don Giovanni’s  ‘La ci darem’  a duet for baritone and soprano, a delicious song of seduction, where he seduces the bride within three minutes!

A wonderful excerpt from the second act finale, in Marriage of Figaro moving from duet through to trio, quartet, quintet and septet creating a magnificent heart rendering sound (polyphonic singing)

Joan Sutherland singing The Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute, her powerful voice spanned over three octaves.

Excerpts from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti, Rossini’s Barber of Seville,  the heart stopping Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco written in mourning and celebration of his lost family.    This dramatic choral piece was sung at His funeral.

From New York came the dramatic tour de force of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.  Antonio Pappano conducts a new imagining of this opera by Barrie Kosky at the Royal Opera House  this 11-29 September.

Puccini’s  La Boheme ticked all the boxes for Jamie.   It stretches the divide between comedy and tragedy, the music has a bittersweet quality which speaks directly to you.   One of the greatest arias is sung by Rodolfo in the first act,  ‘Che gelida manina’   (‘What a frozen little hand’) So incredibly moving.

The question Jamie left us with;   was it good to change the traditional and much loved productions to sometimes visually stark and unadorned? He  said it doesn’t change the music –  and life is forever changing…   There will always be good and bad productions whatever the setting!??


Jean Colvin