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Opera 101: Discover the beautiful art form steeped in the art of emotions

You’ve heard of sopranos singing at La Scala and the Met. Maybe you know the story of Carmen, Bizet’s tragically flawed and powerful heroine who captures the hearts of all men. Perhaps you have heard the vocal acrobatics of the mysterious Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. But you’ve never been inside an opera house, and now you’re here, on a website devoted to opera. Where to begin? Opera, at its core, is a way to tell a story through music and singing.

Opera is Drama Set to Music

There is a whole set of layers rounding out that basic concept: vocal production, voice types, dramaturgy, direction, stage design, composition. Someone finds a text they love and a librettist adapts it into opera-friendly form, or they write an original libretto. Then, a composer sets this text to music.

Once the opera is written, there is still much left to do. A director comes up with a staging. A musical director conducts an orchestra of musicians that play not only the overture (the orchestral introduction to an opera), but also accompany the singers throughout the work. Singers are cast, as well as a chorus and sometimes dancers, actors, and extras. Costumes are made and fitted. In contemporary operas, new elements, such as projections, videos, or electronic sounds, may be added by sound designers.

An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.

– Maria Callas, Greek soprano

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Famed opera singer and diva, Maria Callas (1958)

A number of professionals help an opera production come together in all sorts of ways. There might be stage fight, for example, and a fencing instructor might come in to instruct the singers on their swordplay. Some of the singers might need to dance along with the ballet corps, or they may waltz in a ballroom scene.

Depending on the staging, there might be the need for instruction in techniques as widely ranging as circus acrobatics to martial arts.

Behind the scenes, we have technicians taking care of lighting and visual effects. Maybe there is a fog machine for a terrifying scene in the woods. Perhaps we need lightning and thunder.

But that is not all. Entire departments plan opera seasons, take care of performing rights, musicians’ contracts, funding. Someone designs the posters you see around your city and the ads you find online. At the opera house proper, ticket sellers, ushers, and other personnel help you to smoothly transition from daily reality into a world in another dimension, one where music dominates.

Since its invention in the late 16th century in Italy, it has continuously evolved, becoming the universal art form known today. Drama, poetry, visual arts and sometimes dance interact with music to create a unique alchemy that changes show after show, production after production. An opera is composed of four essential elements: the text (‘libretto’) and the music, the singing and the staging.

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The libretto

The libretto is the ‘script’ of an opera. It can be an original creation, sometimes written by famous poets or novelists (as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig for Richard Strauss’s works), but often is an adaptation of plays (Shakespeare was a great source of inspiration for librettists), tales or novels. The subjects developed in libretti are various: forbidden love, infidelity, revenge, craving for power, war, ancient myths or historic events…

All human passions are represented in opera. Love, Tragedy and Death are often at the heart of the plot. The characters, sometimes torn between their feelings and their duty, are confronted with extraordinary situations and are carried away by their heightened feelings. Love at first sight, sacrifice, enchantment, courage, suicide or murder: all extremes can happen. Some characters are punished for their crimes, other find redemption or are stricken with remorse… and sometimes there is a happy ending!

You want to feel that you belong to something higher, to something even beyond this universe, then go to the opera!

  • Mehmet Murat ildan

The Music

Music is a necessary and inextricable component of opera, but it is surprising nowadays to think that it has not always played the lead role. For the first composers, who were inspired by Greek tragedy, it was ‘Prima le parole, dopo la musica’ (‘The words first, the music after’). Throughout history the libretto and music have alternately claimed primacy, although in reality they complete and exalt each other, intensifying the passions of emotions of the actions and the characters.

Composers exploit the extraordinary suggestive power of music in order to create particular atmospheres that lyrics or staging cannot create. Some authors use recurrent musical motifs to represent a character, an emotion or a concept. In Tristan and Isolde, Wagner extensively uses motifs to indicate for example Tristan’s sorrow, the arrival of dawn, the sea or the Love Potion which damns the lovers to love each other in perpetuity. The opening chords of the opera introducing the lovers’ impending fate resonate several times throughout the opera until they find a resolution in its very final moments.

The Singing

Unlike other kinds of music, operatic singing is very structured and has different types of voices associated with different types of roles.

There are different voices classified in six principal categories, from the highest pitched to the lowest: soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto for women; and tenor, baritone and bass for men. Moreover, voices are characterized according to their power and agility: they can be light, lyric or dramatic. A light voice is not very powerful but can easily reach the high notes and vocalises, unlike a dramatic voice which is powerful but less agile.

Each voice type is traditionally associated with particular roles, be them heroes or villain. In Bizet’s Carmen, Carmen is a wild seductress who has experience of the world: so she is played by a mezzo-soprano with a dark and warm voice. Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto is a lyric soprano: her clear and high-pitched voice symbolizes her purity, innocence and naivety.

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The Staging

Before the 20th century, the theatrical dimension of an opera performance was left on the side. The staging became important when the programming of opera houses became more focused on the existing repertoire than on new creation.

This does not mean that going to the opera was in any way less entertaining in the past. Opera stages have always been an extraordinary place, with spectacular visual effects and big machinery. The possibilities of staging have benefited from technical progress, and now special effects, digital technology and image projections are used in many productions.

A staging is not a simple illustration of a work: it carries a new concept or meaning. The director proposes a new reading of an opera. This view may be close to the libretto and the author’s conceptions or a more personal interpretation of the work. Some directors transpose the action to another era, in another situation or in a timeless and immaterial context.

These transpositions bring out certain dimensions of the works and enrich their significance by disclosing some of their unknown aspects. For example, in a modern production, the themes developed in a baroque opera can be treated as very actual. These perspectives adopted by directors change the way that audience sees and understands the works. Opera recreates and reinvents itself constantly. Before the rise of the curtain, nobody knows what will happen on stage.  That is what makes opera so exciting.

I’ve always said opera is like an emotional fitness centre. You go to the fitness centre to use your muscles, because you want to be more fit. If you want to be more emotionally fit, go to the opera, where you can get a really intense workout. – Kasper Holten

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History of Opera

The art form spanning four centuries

Opera was born in Italy. Claudio Monteverdi brought to life in 1607 what is now widely considered to be the very first opera, La favola d’Orfeo (The Story of Orpheus). At this time, music was polyphonic, meaning various melodies were intertwined and played at once. And most importantly, the music was there to serve the text, not the other way around.

The 1700s brought the Baroque era and its ornamentations, as well as operas by Handel and his contemporaries. Opera buffa (comic opera) and Opera seria (serious opera) arose. Bel canto, a specific technical style of vocal production that literally means ‘beautiful singing’, appeared. In the 18th century, the Western world saw the rise of the Classical era, where music became more formalized, the orchestra grew larger, and composers such as Mozart pushed singers to virtuosic heights.

The 19th century and its romanticism – along with ever larger orchestral and choral forces – followed, bringing with it the golden age of opera. Verdi, Wagner, Rossini, Bellini – all were active during this time period. And individuals, as well as different musical directions and styles, arose in the 20th century, from the impressionism of Debussy to the post-tonal worlds of Berg and Ligeti.

In the 21st century, innovation in opera continues. Contemporary composers continually invent and reinvent what music, and indeed the entire genre of opera, means. Around the world, opera is growing, evolving, and singing. Come and listen.

The 19th century and its romanticism – along with ever larger orchestral and choral forces – followed, bringing with it the golden age of opera. Verdi, Wagner, Rossini, Bellini – all were active during this time period. And individuals, as well as different musical directions and styles, arose in the 20th century, from the impressionism of Debussy to the post-tonal worlds of Berg and Ligeti.

In the 21st century, innovation in opera continues. Contemporary composers continually invent and reinvent what music, and indeed the entire genre of opera, means. Around the world, opera is growing, evolving, and singing. Come and listen.

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originally published on operavision.eu. Republished with permission

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