The term “opera,” derived, or rather abbreviated, from the words opera in music (works in music i.e., a musical work), is only a convenient title that has found favor by its brevity and through lack of a better. Translate it and read “works,” and we see that it is a meaningless term in all else than that it is something created.
And what is this “something” that has been created, that is in people’s mouths so often, and that we designate by the word opera? The least cultured will be able to answer that it is a work for the stage, in which music plays a prominent part ; that it is this, and some-thing more, must be shown as we study its rise and development.
Since ordinary feelings or emotions are by no means naturally expressed by musical sounds, opera must be admitted to be a thing of artificiality. Some will ask: Since the introduction of music into a dramatic work admits an unreal element into that which might otherwise receive a natural interpretation, how can its existence be justified? The answer is: What-ever may be the feelings or actions to be expressed by the stage characters, proper and suitable music will express them with far greater intensity and far greater power than will spoken words or mere gesture. Such are the emotional qualities of the art of music that a phrase of quite ordinary significance in words may be-come, if wedded to expressive music, a thing of beauty and life; an emotional feeling may be roused in the auditor that the mere spoken word could never have touched. In the case of words that may themselves contain beautiful ideas, their loveliness can be greatly enhanced by the addition of music, their meaning intensified, their impressiveness doubled.
Artificial, then, as opera is, and must be, it can justify its artificiality. A drama is put upon the stage, and in order that its situations, its sentiments, and its meaning may be more fully expounded, music is called in to elucidate, to express, and to beautify. Admitting the possibility of thiswhich no one who has the least feeling for music, or who is at all moved emotionally by the art of sweet sounds, can denywe find that opera justifies its existence, despite its unreality and its unlikeness to life.
But not all opera is sung throughout. There aremany musical works under this name having spoken dialogue. Justification for these is more difficult, for it may be readily understood that one form of expression should be used throughout, and that this modified form of opera (known as singspiel), being neither one thing nor the other, is a hybrid form, which really has no right of admission to the title of opera at all. The fact that it is often effective and highly popular hardly excuses its violation of art-form. So many plays of this kind with musical numbers were written at a certain period of the history of the art, and classed as operas, that their claims cannot be overlooked; but modern taste in opera demands that one medium of expression be made use of throughout, and thus a re-turn has been made to the early and more artistic form of opera in musicathe true form, of which the singspiel is only an offshoot.
An opera, then, is a play designed for the stage, with scenery, costumes, and action used as accessories as in all stage plays, but with the additional use of music to intensify the meanings of the lines uttered by the characters, to heighten the effect produced by the other combined arts, and to add an emotional element that might otherwise be lacking.
It is a curious and interesting fact that the birth of opera should be due more or less to accident, and should owe its origin to a group of amateurs ; but so it is, and to the blind gropings in the dark after a something (they knew not what) of a small circle of polished scholars we owe the form of opera as we have it to-day.
It is impossible to trace back to the earliest times the addition of music to a stage play; but from the constant references to the use of the art made by the Greek poets, we know that it was a handmaid to the drama from very early days. In the Middle Ages, as there is plenty of evidence to show, at certain stated intervals in the course of the drama music was introduced ; but such music as this was always written in the Church style of the period, and had no significance of its own.
It was the annoying and incongruous presentation of polyphonic music (written in strict contrapuntal style, and in the Church manner) with the performance of dramas, in which such music was utterly out of place, that led the group of amateurs to search for a more suitable means of clothing the dramatic ideas and stage situations.
This band of dilettanti is generally known by the name of the “Palazzo Bardi” coterie, from the fact that their chief representative was a certain Count Bardi, and that their meetings were usually held at his palace in Florence. This city, at the period of which- we write (the last part of the sixteenth century), was highly interested in the masterpieces of literary antiquity, more especially in the magnificent dramas of the older Greek poets. Although the Florentines knew that these tragedies had some form of musical accompaniment, they were quite in the dark as to what that music was. They felt, however, that the one prevalent kind of music of their daysacred music was by no means adequate for the expression of the ideas to be represented. The Bardi amateurs there-fore turned the steps of their native musicians toward other paths, and induced them to write music of a kind which they believed to be dramatically fit and suitable. That this music was a failure does not matter in the least, for although it was unable to give any genuine idea of what these enthusiasts soughta reproduction of Greek tragedy consistent with its original formit invented a new medium and method of expression, of which composers soon availed themselves in setting to music the dramatic productions of the day.
The first of these early composers to achieve success in this field was Peri, who produced in 1594 (or 1597) “Dafne,” and a few years later (1600) “Euridice.” “Dafne” was semiprivately performed, but “Euridice” was put before the world, and achieved such success that its method and style of composition were soon taken as models for stage music. Hence the date 1600 is assigned as that of the birth of real opera. The same year saw the production of the first real oratorio, as we now understand the term.
Peri led the way ; others followed. Within a decade Northern Italy produced a whole school of writers who had grafted their ideas on those of the composer of “Euridice,” chief among them being Caccini, who won great fame in the new style. But the chief merit must be accorded to Peri, for it is to him that we owe the invention of the dramatic recitative; that is to say. instead of coupling the dialogue to music that might have been designed for the Church, as his predecessors had been content to do, he endeavored in his operas to allow the singing voice to depict the ideas expressed by inflections such as would be made by the speaking voice under similar circumstances.
Thus was opera, in our modern meaning of the term, begun, and this, too, on a proper, logical, esthetic basis. It was in 1600 a new form, an untried and questionable innovation ; but it contained the elements of strength and endurance, and by rapid steps grew and developed, until within a few years all other methods of accompanying stage plays by music were obsolete, and the new monodic style held unquestioned sway.
Opera in Italy, after its initial stages. as represented by the works of Peri and Caccini, fell under the commanding sway of Monteverde, of whom we shall further speak.
Monteverde was followed by his pupil Cavalli, who worked in Venice, and who improved the recitative; inhis operas, male sopranos (castrati) were first employed on the stagea practice in vogue for many years subsequently. Cavalli also foreshadowed the aria, or set melody, soon to become so prominent a feature of Italian opera. Among other prominent composers of this period are Cesti and Legrenzi, Caldara and Vivaldi.
These men, however, stand completely overshadowed by that colossus of early opera, Alessandro Scarlatti. Naples was the scene of his activity, and here he wrote, among countless other compositions, over one hundred operas, most of which made their mark. In Scarlatti we have the turning-point between antiquity and modernity in stage music. His great genius for melody caused him to modify very considerably the stiff, though dramatically correct, recitative of earlier composers, and to substitute beautiful, if sometimes in-appropriate, airs in its place.
In this dangerous method of exalting the music at the expense of the other arts employed in music-drama he was followed by almost all composers for many yearsuntil, in fact, the recognition by Gluck of the falseness of the situation. Opera writers there were by the hundred, the names of most of whom are now forgotten. Rossi, Caldara, Lotti, Bononcini, all had their successes, and contributed in various degrees to the development of early Italian opera.
But before this, opera had found its way to France ; the world-renowned “Euridice” had been performed in Paris as early as 1647, and its influence was quickly felt. Robert Cambert was the first French writer to produce opera. He was ousted from his deservedly high position as the founder of French opera by the unscrupulous and brilliant Lulli.
Corning from Florence to Paris at an early age, Lulli quickly saw his way to improving on the popular op-eras of Cambert, and his inventive and fertile talent soon put the older writer into the background. Lulli’s great gift lay less in aptitude for the conception of melody, less even in his skill with the orchestra, than in the powers he possessed of writing truly dramatic and suitably expressive recitative. Moreover, he employed his chorus as an integral factor in the situation. not as a mere collection of puppets encumbering the stage ; he is credited, too, with the invention of the “French” overture, a form in which an introductory slow movement is followed by another in quick fugal style, with a third short dance movement to conclude. His mark upon French opera exists till this day.
Germany at the same period can boast of no name of like importance, but operatic development was also taking place in that country. The chief agent in its progress was Keiser, who produced a great number of operas in Hamburg. Although not the first to write such works in Germany, he is important as being an early factor in the popularization of opera during the forty years in which he labored in this direction. He had also many followers, among whom must be named Handel, who wrote a few operas for Hamburg at an early period of his career. German opera at this time, however, gave but little promise of the grand future before it: the operas of Keiser and Hasse contain but few indications of the glories of a school of composers that includes Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber.
In England Henry Purcell was in part occupied by the composition of operas. Many of these are operas by courtesy only, for in only one of them, “Dido and .Aeneas,” is the music continuous throughout. This, however, may claim for itself the title of the first English opera. The wholly sound and esthetically true national influence of Purcell would undoubtedly have been large, and it is not too much to say that an early school of genuine English opera might have flourished, had it not been that Handel, within a few years of Purcell’s death, was turning his attention to the production of opera in London. For although Handel produced operas in Germany and Italy as well as in England, it was in London that the great majority of his pieces first saw the light, and that he achieved the greatest success. Between the date of the first performance of “Rinaldo” at the Haymarket in 1711 and that of his last opera, “Deidamia,” in 1741, Handel composed no less than forty-two grand operas. With indomitable energy, and in face of very frequent misfortune, he poured forth these works, many of which contain powerful music. Few now, however, would care to sit through a performance of any of Handel’s operas, or indeed of those by any of the composers above mentioned.
The changes that have taken place in opera during the three hundred years which constitute the life of modern music are far more prominent and important than those that have been undergone by the ordinary dramatic work. The arts of elocution, gesture, and stage action are very old, and have seen little radical change for many centuries. Great progress has been made through the use of modern mechanical devices and inventions in the mounting of stage piecesin the scenery employed, the lighting, and stage effects generally. These all appeal to the eye; but the appeal to the ear is not, in an ordinary dramatic work, more powerfully made than it was in the days of the Greek dramatist. But when music is added, then appeal to the ear of a most powerful kind takes place, and during its whole life improvements and growth in musical technique and expression have been grafted upon opera with continuously progressive power and effect. As musical skill and knowledge grew. as additional instruments were added to the orchestra, as knowledge of forms developed, all these improvements found their way into operatic music, with the result that the difference between, say, a seventeenth and an eighteenth century opera is very wide, while a vaster difference still may be seen between one of the eighteenth and one of the twentieth century.
This difference is mainly due to men who were not content to leave opera where they found it. They set themselves to the construction of new works as examples of what could and should be done. First of these reformers came Monteverde. So many innovations are connected with his name that he would appear to have been a reformer of music in general. Certainly opera before his time was a very different thing from opera subsequent to that period. He applied the same daring innovations to his operatic music which he had employed in his compositions for the Church. These consisted mainly in an utter disregard for the principles of strict counterpoint, and a free use of unprepared discords.
So great was Monteverde’s success, so dramatic andexpressive his music, that all composers since his day have followed in his footsteps, and have composed operas on the model of free and unfettered writing originated by him. A century and more later we find a new reformer in Gluck. What had happened in the meantime ? Opera had fallen under the great and commanding influence of Alessandro Scarlatti, whose methods, if not amounting to reform, had certainly led to change, in some respects to abuse. Scarlatti invented beautiful melodies and cast them into a regular mold, so that an audience knew that it only had to wait while a second part was gone through to hear again a first part that had perhaps given much pleasure. This was his famous use of the da-capo aria. It was a kind of encore, granted without trouble or uncertainty. We can imagine the melody-loving Italians of the day welcoming this beautiful and artistic innovation. But the beauty and charm of the idea compassed its own ruin; for, being but a formal procedure, it did not equally suit every situation ; indeed, it may readily be understood that there must have been many occasions when it was little short of absurd, for stage purposes, to go twice through the same emotional aspects and crises. Apart from its dramatic unfitness, the real mischief of the da-capo aria lay in the fact that it attracted too much attention from the plot. The real origin of opera was lost sight of, dramatic considerations were practically ignored, and the performance became of a lyrical, rather than of a dramatic, nature.
Gluck had written many operas on this plan before it occurred to him to try to reform it, but his artistic nature at last revolted against the absurdities of works of this type. Ile set himself the task of remodeling the music, in a manner which can best be explained by quoting his own words, written in the famous preface to the score of “Alceste
“When I undertook to set the opera of `Alceste’ to music. I resolved to avoid all those abuses which had crept into Italian opera through the mistaken vanity of singers and the unwise compliance of composers, and which had rendered it wearisome and ridiculous, instead of being, as it once was, the grandest and most imposing stage of modern times. I endeavored to reduce music to its proper function, that of seconding poetry, by enforcing the expression of the sentiment, and the interest of the situations, without interrupting the action, or weakening it by superfluous ornament.”
Gluck had many battles to fight before he gained public opinion to his side ; but eventually he brought the artistic world round to his point of view, with the result that a complete change of method was again adopted by composers.
Years passed away, and operas both good and had were written. Mozart, with his beautiful and delicate pen ; Beethoven, with his imperishable picture of the faithful wife; Weber, the composer (par excellence of Romantic opera; Spohr, and others all left their influencesin the main thoroughly artistic and beautifulupon music-drama. But to this chain of great classics succeeded a group of lesser luminaries whose tendencies were less truthfully artistic, whose leanings were popular rather than esthetic, and whose influence was to a great extent mischievous. Opera was again straying from the right lines; again the singers, with their executive abilities, were distracting attention from the equally important dramatic meaning of the works performed. Again the aria and duet were usurping the place of music that should have been defining the stage situation, and conveying to the ear of the auditor a tone-picture to match the scenic representation and help to carry on the action of the piece.
It needed a strong hand to stem the tide on this occasion, and a strong hand was available in the person of Richard Wagner, whose efforts have revolutionized opera to so great an extent that it is unlikely that any great work for the stage will ever be conceived in the future which will not show traces of his influence. For he took no half-measures, but went to the root of the matter, and that in so thorough a way that he really invented an utterly new phase of expression.
Wagner, whose great idea it was that in the rendering of opera the arts of music, action, poetry, and scenery should stand on an equal footing, was unable to allow attention to be devoted to the music in the very special way in which it was drawn when set forms of song or air were admitted. He gradually worked his way to the construction of what was, until his time, an absolutely unknown form of dramatic accompaniment. The great and original innovation of Wagner was his use of melody (a feature non-existent in the works of the monodic writers) ; not melody of the stereotyped nature which we designate as tune, nor even the rhythmic, square-cut, and often beautifully appropriate melody of a Mozart or a Beethoven. Wagner’s melodies were so constructed that they had, generally speaking, definite signification. Every subject (or Leitmotiv, as it was called) was intended to suggest to the mind of the hearer some definite idea connectcd with something occurring upon or suggested by the stage. Since the stage action or words would very often describe or suggest many ideas at the same time, these themes would be often superimposed; with the result that the music of Wagner’s operasat any rate the later onesis not so much a stream of melody as a flow of many combined melodies, working together in contrapuntal richness and fertility into a harmonious whole, which can be listened to either casually (in which case it may or may not please the auditor) or after considerable study, when it will undoubtedly awake interest and admiration.
The lazy, pleasure-loving portion of mankind was immediately up in arms against such startling methods as these, and even to-day, although the Wagner cult is a very considerable one, it is to be doubted whether the real tastes of the majority of operatic listeners are not rather for something demanding less careful and close attention. Whether this be so or not, the point remains that Wagner’s innovations, when once under-stood and grasped, were seen to be so dramatically true and fitting that all composers of operas, since his works became widely known, have come under his influence, and have in large measure framed their dramatic music on the lines laid down by him.
Here, then, was another revolution, and an import-ant one. Formal melody still exists on the stage, but the continuous interconnecting links of melos are de-rived from Wagner, while the wondrous harmonies and chord combinations which he was the first to introduce into the realm of opera have been so many additions to the material which the modern composer has for manipulation.