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The Journey of Opera

Keisha Frimpong on opera from the 16th century to the 21st.

From Handel’s Giulio Cesar to Saint-Saëns and Lemaire’s Samson and Delilah, opera has engaged audiences of all ages for many centuries. This harmonic relationship between music and theatre has evolved over time to keep its contemporary audience entertained.


I was first enraptured by the art of opera when I saw a production of Porgy and Bess at the London Coliseum. I am a big theatre fan and love classical music, so to see both art forms combined was a dream. Also, it was the first theatre production I had seen with an all-black cast, which was so inspirational. After this performance I began to listen to more operas and research about famous opera singers, which is where I started my obsession with the black soprano opera singer, Jessye Norman who famously would not let her voice just be limited to soprano roles, quite a revolutionary act.


Opera originated in the 16th Century after the Florentine Camerata group came together to perform a Greek drama that they falsely believed was sung throughout. This then led to operas being performed for Italian nobility in the royal courts, with Greek mythology continuing to be the subject matter. One of the members of the Camerata group, Jacopo Peri, composed the earliest example of an opera alongside Claudio Monteverdi in late 16th Century entitled Daphne.


Through its popularity, this musical expression began to be composed for larger audiences and grew into the Baroque period – identifiable by the springy sound of the harpsichord, carefully crafted Bach chorales and plagal cadences. However great Baroque operas such as Handel’s Rinaldo and Purcell’s infamous Dido and Aeneas are, their performances are reserved and often feature a chorus hidden away from the audience whilst the main characters stand in one position on stage. In comparison, composers such as Tchaikovsky and Wagner changed the stage performance of opera to form the Romantic period. With a full orchestra producing harmonies between the lush strings and powerful brass in the orchestral pit, onstage reflects the great music with grand performances like Verdi’s La Traviata. These are the type of performances that most think of when the word opera comes to mind, we imagine dramatic expressions, intricate costumes and a true combination of drama and music presented in a great theatre in comparison to the smaller scaled Baroque performances.


These larger performances evolved into Wagner’s revolutionary greater sized operas, presenting mythological themes such as Der Ring des Nibelungen that featured the piece Ride of the Valkyries, transforming the stage from the mythological land of Viking gods into a battlefield of female warriors ready to attack. It is important to note that different nations had their own specific storylines and worlds they would compose for. Czech composers like Dvorák wrote comic operas such as The Stubborn Lovers, whilst Russian composers like Tchaikovsky preferred to bring fairytale characters like the Sugarplum Fairy to life on stage through The Nutcracker. It is these operas that have been performed beyond the Romantic period and through to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by notable singers like Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price.


It was not until around 1890 that Italian operas began to present reality through their music and performers thus forming the Verismo period. A pioneer of this music period was Puccini, who presented such diverse topics and scenes in operas such as Madame Butterfly and the famous La bohéme, which is still performed today. The theme of reality continued through to the twentieth century where the scientific discoveries of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud were of great interest to composer Richard Strauss.


Contemporary opera of the mid-twentieth century like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess continued to have realistic characters and storylines, however incorporate modern themes such as greater representation of minority races and diverse social classes. Through Gershwin’s efforts there is now a more diverse cast presented on the stage of contemporary operas, additionally the traditional wardrobe showcasing huge puffy petticoats and sophisticated tailcoats has now been swapped for a modern wardrobe.


Today, so called CNN operas characterised by historic storylines are beginning to make their mark on the music scene through their and lyrical harmonies and voices. However, the voices of the past showcasing Handel, Wagner and Puccini’s works live on amongst the new operas.

image: Wikimedia Images via Pixabay

By Keisha Frimpong

Editor in Chief