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The Vivid History of Opera

by Senior Editor
Jonathan Cilia Faro

Within Humanistic Psychology, specifically Gestalt Therapy, there is an axiom: “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” When adding the parts, elements emerge that were not perceived separately. For example, a succulent dish of food is made with several ingredients, and their combination results from what existed before cooking it. Likewise, the opera is a complete work of art; it is the whole that includes music, poetry, theater, dance, painting, architecture, decoration, lighting, makeup, and costumes.

Artists, politicians, writers, and musicians in Florence formed a group called the Florentine Camerata with the intention of musically recreating the storylines of classical Greek drama. To this end, Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) stepped in to compose what is widely regarded as the first opera, Dafne (1597). Opera seria, or operas with a stately, formal, and dignified tone appropriate for the royalty who attended and sponsored them, and opera buffa, or opera comedies, developed from these early beginnings.

By the time of the Baroque period (1600-1750), opera had already swept Europe, becoming a lavish extravaganza with elaborate sets and elaborate arioso. German-born and primarily London-based composer Georg Frideric Handel is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of Italian Baroque opera (1685–1759). Male singers with soprano voices were castrated as boys, a trend that peaked during this time period. Only a select few managed to rise to prominence as famous singers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These days, countertenors or women sing these parts.

The Italian word opera literally translates to “work” or “musical work.” Opera’s origins can be traced back to the early 1600s, and the genre, like many others, has developed considerably since then. Claudio Monteverdi thought the final word should always be spoken. Instead of fostering discord, it should help bring about peace. However, Mozart prioritized music over words. Wagner sought to establish parity and harmony between the various art forms.

During the Romantic Era, opera flourished, even more, growing in size, volume, and length (1830–1900). The popularity of grand opera soared overnight. The Italian bel canto movement (the name literally translates to “beautiful singing”) was a significant style during this time, emphasizing vocal brilliance and ornamentation supported by a more straightforward harmonic framework.

Richard Wagner (Leipzig, 1813 – Venice, 1883) discovered the theater thanks to his family and his passion for literature. Although initially, he was determined to dedicate himself to dramaturgy, the overall concept of understanding his art led him to narrate his texts musically. The Wagnerian ideal seeks the symbiosis between all the participatory elements of the opera to achieve a sound continuity that never produces fissures in action.

Wagner based his conception of art on his admiration for Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy was a multidisciplinary representation of an idea, so his main interest was to represent the total work of art, including all the arts in his operas as an integral part of them, not as simple companions.

Wagner’s works introduce innovations such as the “leitmotif,” the recurring central theme associated with a character or an event. In addition, the orchestration grows to include a much larger staff of musicians than a normal symphony orchestra. The melody in Wagner’s works is also novel.

Defined as an “infinite melody,” it moves away from the classic and rigid structure of eight measures and its logic by phrases and periods. Instead, it is extended to unsuspected extensions through a process in which driving motifs are continuously linked, ensuring that the plot is never interrupted because the action generates the melodic motif.

To achieve this continuum, he broke the tradition of dividing the drama into arias and recitatives. In terms of length, a Mozart opera lasts about half an hour, a Puccini opera an hour and a half, and Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” lasts between 15 and 17 hours, depending on the director’s tempo.

Wagner’s romantic universe is evident in his operas: “The Flying Dutchman,” “Tannhäuser,” “Lohengrin,” “Parsifal,” “Tristan and Isolde,” “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” and his most ambitious project to which he dedicated over 25 years: “The Ring of the Nibelung,” a cycle made up of “The Gold of the Rhine,” “La Valkyrie,” “Siegfried” and “The Twilight of the Gods.”

Wagner opted for unusual decisions for his time that today are essential in an operatic performance:

  • Darkening the room so that the attention is directed exclusively to the scene.
  • Not allowing the entry and exit of the public once the performance has started.
  • Not lowering the curtain during scenic changes.

The opera, which until then had been mainly Italian, was written in German. Wagner was one of the most revolutionary and controversial composers in music history.

In general, there was a reaction against the heavy music and solemn stories told in Wagner’s Ring. A reaction in Italy was provided by Pietro Mascagni, whose Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) set a model for straightforward, easily grasped one-act opera. Another famous piece of this sort, known as verismo, is Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892). A finer composer still was Giacomo Puccini, whose direct and unambiguous works—La Bohème (1896), Madame Butterfly (1904), and Turandot (1926)—won their composer a large following.

Some late-19th-century French composers also showed Wagner’s influence. The leitmotiv has been used differently in recent works by Vincent d’Indy, César Franck, and Gustave Charpentier, most notably in Louise (1900). However, the two best French operas of the time are both original works.

From the tradition of opéra comique, which features spoken dialogue interspersed with song, comes Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875). Many people consider Carmen to be the best French opera because of its vivid characters, sensual music, and sparkling orchestrations. However, when it was first staged, its authenticity caused a scandal. While not as prominent as in Wagner, leitmotivs are heavily utilized in Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). Debussy, on the other hand, weaves them into a gauzy sonic fabric that echoes the impressionists’ musical universe.

Opera continued to evolve after Wagner and in the modern context has brought brilliant artists to hail the legacy of Opera arts into the contemporary realm.

One prime example is the Sicilian Opera Singer, Jonathan Cilia Faro, Italy’s finest started from an apprentice role in a barber shop to a professional performer hosting thousands of avid followers and enthusiasts in the audience. He recently joined hands with Michael W. Smith on a single, “Sing Again (Canto Ancora).

From Now On (2019), Piano From My Soul (2020), and other works by Faro can be found in his extensive discography. Songs like “Passion,” “Giramondo,” “Canto Alla Vita, Croce,” “Cruz,” and “Grown Up Christmas List” propelled him to fame.

He’s also widely known for the “On the A Thrill Of Hope” compilation, which also features songs by Sandi Patty, James Berrian of the group Veritas, Kate Stanford, Denver Bierman, and Steve Wingfield, Jonathan released his own rendition of “O Holy Night.”

Is an opera a sung text represented on a stage, or is it a work where all the arts are harmonized, producing a global artistic sample? Is a body the sum of the parts that make it up, or is it the organism resulting from the relationship between all its parts? Is a society a set of individuals, or do the relationships between individuals result in a society? In my opinion, human beings build artistic works or societies based on how their members interact. It is not a summative relationship but an interactive one.

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