Opera stands alone in the world of serious music, and essentially because it extends the identity of music as a listening experience itself. Far more so than the symphony or concert, opera is theater; like a play, it has a story to tell. The stories themselves also define the genre, in that themes, characters, and events are usually larger than life. Opera tends to use the most dramatic myths, historical realities, and social conditions as narratives because these demand the intensity of symphonic music. Some modern opera relies on ordinary matters as subjects, but the dominant reality is that opera is “big.” The great composers and librettists generally adhere to their source material, but translate it in a way allowing musical forms such as the aria, intermezzo, and motifs to emphasize the story. As the following relates, opera has also dramatically evolved in style, while the theatrical foundation remains in place.
A work very much representing the Baroque period is Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, based on a libretto by Nahum Tate. To appreciate its Baroque quality, the dancing alone reflects how the style was more abandoned than earlier opera. Most productions include extended scenes of almost crazed dancing, and this emphasizes the fundamentally theatrical quality of opera. In the era, there was an increasing appreciation for spectacle in opera, and the dancing satisfies this. Then, the opera relies on comedy, despite the tragic story. It is woven throughout the Acts, and seemingly to lighten the mood, as when Jack of the Lanthorn leads a group of Spaniards to their ships immediately after the witches predict the tragedy to come (Harris 66). Beyond the comic, Purcell’s opera also challenges traditional operatic fixture. For example, “Dido’s Lament,” an important aria in the work, is also distinctive in that it departs from the usual style of the heroine giving into despair. The Baroque has a quality of detachment to it, just as the noted comic aspects in the tragedy reveal a distanced appreciation of the characters and events. In the aria, Dido does not suffer in the traditional sense. She admits to no weakness at all, in fact, and her primary ambition is to have her true story recorded (Harris 202). All these elements reinforce the Baroque as challenging norms and relying on a removed, humorous perspective.
Turning to the Classical era, few works have the status of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Among the qualities setting it apart is Mozart’s literal creation of classical opera in the process. More exactly, his intent is to establish opera as a form of art equal to literature in story-telling (Rosen 183). Mozart was determined to present opera that could be as esteemed as the greatest works of literature yet known, and Figaro is generally recognized as a work in which brilliant music literally tells the story. Put another way, the ambition is realized in how Mozart writes the music as narrative itself. This was new in classical opera, and Mozart literally uses the orchestra to drive the emotional momentum of the work. There is also a quality of the opera buffa, or clownish, in the work, which is an extension of the Baroque era. This is heard in the overture, which dramatically switches from a halting and sustained pianissimo tremor to a fanfare blast. The effect is to lead the audience into expecting farce, or comedy within a love story (Rosen 166). In a sense, this classical opera exposes how opera in general is so rooted in theater, opportunities to vary style, in an individual work or the product of the era as a whole, reflect how playwrighting and musical composition may take limitless directions in telling a story.
Lastly, all opera traditions were radically challenged in the 20th century. Storytelling or reliance on known narratives was often disregarded, just as the music took on qualities of the tone poem or modern, abstract concert. At the same time, some modern operas depended on traditional forms, as in Marc Blitzstein’s 1949 work, Regina. Based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the opera is notably modern in several respects. Unusually, Blitzstein wrote both libretto and score (Schoell 173). Then, there is the unique reality that the play inspiring the opera was modern as well; The Little Foxes had premiered only ten years before Regina. The score is also exceptional in combining popular musical forms with standard opera features. For example, there are spirituals, some ragtime, and Victorian parlor musical interludes, as well as arias for Birdie and Regina (Schoell 174). In a very real sense, Blitzstein’s work exemplifies modern opera as strongly as Mozart defines classicism, and Purcell captures the Baroque.
It is inevitable that art evolves, and that the great genres of art develop as new generations of artists approach them. This is as true of music as any other art form, and the changes in opera style profoundly reinforce the evolution. Purcell’s Baroque style, simultaneously tragic and comic, gives way to the intensity of the classical in Mozart. Genius certainly plays a role in these processes, as Mozart elevates opera into a higher level of art itself. That expansion then sets the stage for the dramatic explorations of the form seen in the 20th century, as in Blitzstein’s infusions of popular musical styles with a distinctly modern opera. One reality remains constant in all of this, however. No matter the era’s style, the opera stands alone in musical genres because no other is as dependent upon story, and the multiple aspects of theater.
- Harris, Ellen T. Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Oxford University Press, 2017.
- Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. W. W. Norton& Co., 1998.
- Schoell, William. The Opera of the Twentieth Century: A Passionate Art in Transition.
McFarland & Co., 2006.