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Opera

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Opera is a type of music that was started more than 300 years ago. It is a type of music that is used with a play and involves people singing the music while acting out their parts and engaging in less talk. Therefore, opera is said to be a staged piece of drama set to music that is made up of vocal pieces accompanied by instruments and orchestral overtures. The aim of this research paper is to profile the how opera started and its history up-to-date and especially focusing on opera in the western countries.

The Early History of Opera

Opera is an English word from an Italian phrase opera in musica that literally translates to “work in music.” Opera denotes a theoretical work that consists of a dramatic text that is set to music and is staged with costumes, scenery and accompanied with movements. It involves choral singers on stage, ensemble and a group of dancers. Throughout its history, opera has attracted supporters as well as detractors while critics have not spared it either. Supporters of opera have seen it as an intensifying lyrics and action that creates a genre of high emotional impact than drama or music can achieve. Detractors view opera as an irrational and artificial art that flouts theatrical verisimilitude.  

Opera has been in existence for more than 400 years. The art dates back from the Greek renaissance period. At that period, a chorus was included in the drama either at the beginning or at the end of the drama. At that period, much of the European nations were at war with each other and or bidding to colonize America. Spain had launched an attack against England and the catholic society was destabilized. The protestant movements were also gaining popularity and the freedom of expression was in high gear. Shakespeare was in the peak of his career. A group that was known as Florentine Camarata which was headed by Galilei (father to the Galileo the astronomer/scientist) advocated for the solo melody in the place of the multiple that was actually in place. It was during this confusion time when the opera art came to being. It has survived wars and rise and as well fall of monarchies in the historic periods to the current dates (Oxford Illustrated History of Opera chap. 1). 

However, the opera art by modern standards can be traced from Italy.  Among the earliest compositions which by modern standards can be considered as Opera include Dafne which was composed by Jacopo Peri at around 1597. He was an Italian composer who worked in Florence. Initially he used to work as a keyboardist in churches and later in the court. In the effort to match the ancient Greek arts, Jacopo shifted his efforts to composition. With the help from Ottavio Rinuccini, he produced Dafne which is regarded as the earliest opera. The effort resulted to the upcoming of a whole new form of art and the recitative part of the music was set as the core of the opera art. His later work Euridice is the one that survived to the modern period which is dated 1600 (Le tre Euridici). The piece was performed in the wedding of Henry IV of France and Marie de Medici which was held at Pitti palace in France. Claudio Monteverdi (1597-1643) works La Favola L’Ofeo (The Fable of Orpheus) in 1607 which was played in the courts of Mantua in Venice and survived up to the modern times. He is honored among the first opera singers (Giovanni, 112–115).

The art performance did not remain confined in the court houses alone, in the year 1967, performance to the public which were supported by the sale of the tickets had begun. Monteverdi (an Italian composer, singer and gambist) had started performing in the city with his performances. One of his closest followers, Francesco Cavalli assisted in the facilitation of the spreading across the entire country. That art was referred to as the Baroque operas which was basically a combination comedy with some other element plus some educative contents. This was among the first reform systems which were later followed by a series of revolutions. His unique genre was referred to as Opera seria. This genre dominated the theatres up to the end of the 18th century. This was then replaced by another genre which was referred as opera buffa. It was characterized by local dialect and as well simple vocal writing. The style then underwent various reforms in an attempt to capture the attention of the audience through unique artistic works. Seria opera gained wide popularity and the singers became stars. The castrato (male singers) roles were written in hero tones. These include the likes of Farinelli and Senesino and as well as female sopranos such as Faustina Bordoni. The singers were in great demand throughout Europe with the exception of France. The Italian libretas (composers) remained in the realm. Even with the upcoming of other composers such as George Frideric Handel (Geman) who wrote for the London audiences, the Italian works was still in demand.  An example of leading Italian composers included Vivaldi, Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti (Oxford Illustrated History of Opera chap 1-3).

Francesco Algarotti’s Essay on the Opera (1754), he criticized the seria opera, he appealed for the return to the basic, whereby the music, singing and the instruments are all subservient to the drama. Several composers attempted to put practice this idea but failed. Gluck succeeded. His first reformed opera Orfea ed Euridice, his melodies are supported by simple harmonies and as well richer orchestra throughout. These reforms motivated other composers who came after him including Mozart who is thought to be his replacement in many ways. In the early 19th century, bel cantos opera movement gained a lot of popularity which was depicted by the rise of the operas of people such as Bellini, Rossini, Pacini among others (Oxford Illustrated History of Opera chap 5, 8 & 9).

The first German opera to be performed was Dafne Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) which was performed in the year 1627. In Germany just like many other European nations was dominated by the Italian opera and even the native writers who used to write their operas in foreign languages usually the Italian. Sigmund Staden, in the year 1644 produced the first native language composition which was actually a combination of a dialogue and singing in singing tone. Later in the 17th and as well in tye 18th century the theatre of Gansemarkt in Hamburg presented operas by Telemann, Handel and keiser. Mozart opera, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (1782) and die Zauberflote (1791) played a crucial role in bringing the German opera in to the spotlight in the international scenes (General outline …chap.8).

Another notable composer in Germany is Wagner; he was influenced by Weber and Meyerbeer. However, he proceeded on to produce his own unique work which was referred to as Gesamtkunstwerk which was a new combination of the music, painting and as well poetry. Some of his famous works included, Der Ring des Nibelungan, Parsifal and others. He violated the common laws that were followed such as the boundary between the distinction between the recitative and the aria; he increased the orchestra role and other rules such as the tonality in order to enhance the expression. He then built his own opera house where he performed in his own styles (General outline … chap. 9).    

In France, the rivalry between the Italian operas and the French native opera was fierce, a French tradition that was established by Jean-Baptiste Lully who was an Italian. Dance music and choral was the most prominent feature of his music. He was then succeeded by Jean-Philippe Rameau who composed across various genres. Then he was replaced by the German Gluck. In the early 19th century, the Gluck influence paved way for bel canto who was an Italian. French native composition struggled to gain popularity, Hector Berlioz with his masterpiece Les Troyens could not get a full performance. Richard Wagner was rejected and he became the focus of criticism. Some few natives copied his work and received huge success (General outline … chap 8).

In England, from as early as 17th century, there was usually a jig which was usually brought in at the end of a play. In the 18th century, French Masques was gaining popularity in the English courts. However, an example is the 1617, Lovers made Men, however, the political development hindered the development of the English opera. In the year 1683, John Blow composed Venus and Adnois which is mostly taken to be the first true English composition. Henry Pursel was thought to be the immediate supporter of Blow. His focus was mostly on the semi-opera where by a section of opera would be inserted in a spoken play. Thomas Arne then followed; he was the first one to try the full English version opera. Despite the similarity of his work with the Italian, his work lasted up to the 19th century. Other dominating names in the English opera history include George Frideric Handel whose work stayed favorable in stages for ages. Their works which was the coupled with the other foreigners continued to reign on the stages in that country (English before the Nineteenth Century).

In Russia, opera was introduced in the early 1730s by a group that was known as Italian Operatic Troupes and is became a core part of the entertainment activity in the country. Many foreign performers especially the Italians were invited to do the composition. These included, Giovanni Paisiello and Giuseppe Sarti among others. Local musicians such as Dmitry Bortniansky were given an opportunity to go abroad and learn how to write operas. The first composition in Russian was Tsefal i Prokris which was done by an Italian composer Francesco Araja in the year 1755. This was supported by Russian composers including Alexey Verstovsky, Vasily Pashkevich and Yevsigney Fomin. Mikhail Glinka is credited as the real pioneer of the Russian opera with his compositions, Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)and A Life for the Tsar (1836). Other master pieces were later composed by others in the 19th century (Taruskin, chap 7-9).  

The spread of the art was the followed by the sprout of opera houses. Opera house refers to a venue that is specifically designed for the performance o the opera art. It consists of the audience seats, the orchestra pit, a stage and a back stage for the preparation. 1n the year 1637, the first opera house, Teatro San Cassiano was opened at Venice in Italy. The idea of opera house then spread to other parts in Europe, during the period of Henry Purcell, there were actually no opera houses in London. The first opera house outside Italy was setup in Germany in the year 1678. The idea then spread to other parts including the United States in between the 17th and the 18th century where they served various purposes including the dance halls, vaudeville shows and other music shows. In the 17th and in the 18th century, the opera houses were financed by wealthy and prominent people in a region and they used them to propagate their political ideologies and ambitions within those regions (h2g2). 

The evolvement of the opera continued even in the 20th century, this saw the experimentation in the polytonality and tone clusters. Notable composers in that particular period included Claude Debussy, Alban Berg, George Gershwin and Benjamin Britten among others. In the 21st century, the evolution as well continued. With the enhancement by the new technology, almost everything is possible. Notable composers of the current period include: Jake Heggie (Dead Man walking 2000), John Adams, Mark Adamo, Tan Dun and Osvaldo Golijov (Hoying 4).

There has been a decline in the patronage of opera in the past decade in the favor of other form of arts such as cinemas, music, and the recordings. There still some few opera artists who still continue to excel in that form of the art. Its unique blending of poetry, drama and music remains intriguing despite the passage of time. 

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