Bold. Brave. Brilliant.

The Circular Foundations of Opera

Josh Borths – January 3, 2018

Within the dimly lit ballroom of the Corsi Palace, a small group of Florentine musicians, poets, and intellectuals of the late Renaissance—the Florentine Camerata—filed into their seats to conduct an experiment: Can the catharsis of ancient Greek theater be recreated by adding music to classical drama? These Renaissance men hoped to recreate the profundity of Grecian theater, just as their colleagues in the fine arts resurrected the grace of Greek statuary from blocks of modern marble. After years of research, analysis, and a little guesswork, the Camerata unearthed the essential ingredient that would elevate their performances to the altar of Dionysus. They concluded that music was required to bind the paradoxical worlds of antiquity—the sacred and profane—into one cohesive experience. Their experiment was narrow in its scope, but the results were momentous. Instead of simply mimicking the glory of the past, the Camerata created an art form of the future: opera.

In Italian, the word opera broadly means “a work of art,” and ever since the premiere of Dafne in 1598, opera has spread to every corner of the Western world, absorbing the languages, cultures, and contexts of the peoples who create it. In the approximately 400 years from the time of the Florentine Camerata to the 21st century, opera has become a global, ever-changing art form steeped in classical traditions. And while much of opera’s history bears little resemblance to its Renaissance origins, its original aesthetics, musical structures, and historical context built the foundation that ensured opera would become vital, versatile, and capable of change.

The aesthetic rules that governed Italian music shifted significantly during the late Renaissance, and these changes were crucial for the birth of opera. Before the turn of the 17th century, all serious compositions were governed by a system called the prima pratica, the first musical practice. This system outlined how to treat dissonances—jarring musical intervals—so as not to strain the listener or arouse inappropriate emotions. The prima pratica determined how composers should write for multiple voices, navigate the relationship between text and music, and notate complex rhythms. The prima pratica taught composers the “proper” way to write their music, dissuading them from challenging, innovating, or exploring. Serious music was meant to create an idealized, meditative state, representing God’s presence on earth. Just like medieval paintings abstracted by symbolic gestures and gold leafing, music reinforced a rigid worldview, offering little room for subjectivity or natural observation.

Within intellectual circles, however, new questions emerged that challenged the precepts of the prima pratica. Composers boldly asked, “Why must dissonance be feared? Should not music serve the text instead of the other way around?” These new ideas were codified by Claudio Monteverdi in the preface for his book of madrigals—secular songs—in 1605. He labeled his new style of composition the seconda pratica—the second practice. In the seconda pratica, Monteverdi laid out new rules for composition, which demanded that music serve poetry. With the newfound freedom to write dramatic music, composers could finally depict human emotions in their art. Italian music was now subjective instead of objective; music was reflective of the speaker’s point of view instead of representing abstract ideals. With the invention of the seconda pratica, music could express the drama of the individual and fully explore narrative potential. The composition of opera was now possible.

Only fragments survive from the earliest known opera, Jacobo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini’s Dafne. But based on its surviving scraps and other subsequent scores, characteristic patterns reveal the structure and nature of these early operas: They were intimate affairs. The Florentine Camerata gathered in the Corsi Palace, but its ballroom was nowhere near size of opera houses forty years later. Not much larger than a modern hotel lobby and lit entirely by candlelight, these first performances were shadowy and exclusive.

The vocal lines of these pieces were composed in a new style called “monody,” originally invented to approximate the musical declamations of the ancient Greeks. Monody is a form of musical recitation that seeks to illuminate the libretto by combining old forms of chant with seconda pratica techniques. There is no inherent musical structure to monody. There is no organizing melody or harmonic architecture. Instead, monody acquiesces to the needs of the text. If a character laments the death of a loved one, radical, unprepared dissonances depict the character’s grief. If expressing joy, characters change keys as if they cannot contain their delight, skipping around the musical staff.

Only a small group of musicians—continuo—accompanied this monody, and in contrast to opera orchestras today, these ensembles improvised the music they played. Since early operatic composers like Jacobo Peri only wrote the vocal line and accompanying chords, the realization of the score—what the audience ultimately heard—was left up to individual instrumentalists. Even the notes and rhythms of the vocal lines were flexible. Singers would feel the music with the continuo, stretching or speeding up musical time as the drama dictated, like a jazz combo riffing their way through a chart.

With this early emphasis on poetry and drama, great pains were taken to ensure the poetry of the libretto was worthy of its artistic ancestors. The first opera libretti were composed in a meter called versi sciolti—the alternation of seven-and eleven-syllable lines, which functioned like blank verse in English literature. Even after opera began to evolve, this poetic structure continued to dictate musical form. Later, when delineations were made between arias and recitative—songs and sung speech—composers could tell the librettist’s intention because recitative was written in versi sciolti and arias were sketched in a contrasting meter. Large portions of perennial favorites such as Puccini’s La bohème, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Verdi’s Rigoletto were all written in versi sciolti.

These aesthetic, musical, and dramatic innovations come together in Allessandro Striggio and Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Premiering in 1607, L’Orfeo’s ingenious combination of beautiful poetry and seconda pratica music work in harmony to create a masterful opera. Still performed in major opera houses today, this work is intimate, emotional, and cathartic. The story concerns the demi-god Orpheus’s descent into hell to find his true love, Eurydice, after her tragic death on their wedding day. The classical myth of Orpheus was a perfect vehicle for the development of early opera, and the subject reappears throughout opera’s history. Since Orpheus, the son of Apollo, was a legendary musician, the story lends itself to operatic treatment; it is only natural that the retelling of the myth would be sung, thereby adhering to Renaissance standards of verisimilitude.

However, while based on a classical myth, L’Orfeo is not a musical treatment of a classical text. If the Florentine Camerata was attempting to recreate Greek drama, why not set the plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus to music? The answer is found in the way that Renaissance composers used these preexisting works. Greek plays were not templates but sources of inspiration. When Italian artists sought to bring back the glory of antiquity, they did not literally recreate the Greek art they unearthed. Instead, they looked to it as a model for artistic possibility, just as Michelangelo sought to marry the aesthetic spirit of Greece with his own worldview while sculpting the Pietà. It is this same fusion of past and present, tradition and progress, that characterized the first operas. The stories dramatized by the Florentine Camerata were old, but the works they created were entirely new.

The complexities of Italian history were also important, providing the ideal environment for opera’s genesis. Since Italy was not politically unified until the 1860s, Italy was defined as a geographic region with a shared language, religion, and mythic Latin past. In the North, rulers traded with their neighbors, giving it a cosmopolitan flare—a characterization still applicable today. In the central regions, the Medici family vied for control of neighboring territories. In the South, religion and autocratic rule defined political life, culminating in the conservative Kingdom of Naples on the peninsula’s southern tip. These regional differences resulted in tension; Italian regions competed for power and prestige. The arts were used to wage cultural war, so as opera spread from polis to polis, it adapted to fit the tinta, the regional color, of the local court. Following the birth of opera, a variety of different styles quickly blossomed across Italy, leaving behind the original aspirations of the Camerata in favor of new innovations.

From Florence to Mantua, Venice to Rome, each region developed its own style reflective of its unique cultural values. In Mantua, somber operas mirrored the noble aristocracy of the North; in Venice, scandalous lovers and intoxicating music reflected the indulgent, passionate Venetians; in Rome, opera upheld the dogmatic morals of the Catholic Church. Practitioners of these regional variations invented arias, allowing singers and composers to display their virtuosic talents and create music no longer tied strictly to poetic illumination. Choruses, different instrumentations, and new business models all grew out of this Italian incubator.

Italy was unique in the late Renaissance since the factors present at opera’s birth were not shared by neighboring countries. While Germany, Italy’s northern neighbor, was also a disparate collection of kingdoms, its Reformation sought to strip away aesthetic excess, not indulge it. In France and England, circumstances were also less than ideal. If born in these northern territories, opera would have been codified and coerced to uphold aesthetic and moral norms, which is precisely what happened when opera traveled to France in the mid-1600s. The court-appointed, megalomaniac Jean-Baptiste Lully—the first operatic composer of France—received sole permission to write opera and proceeded to monopolize the art form, creating a system of rules for all subsequent French operas to obey. While it is difficult to know if opera would have survived under such conditions at conception, this historical reality proves opera would not have had the same proclivity for invention and experimentation if other nations had taken the lead.

Soon after opera was exported to France, Germany followed suit creating its own operatic style. From there, Italian—not French or German—opera traveled to England, Russia, Hungary, and Bohemia, among others. Eventually, opera made its way to the United States. Each of these nationalities developed works that fit their native languages, stories, and aesthetics, creating an inordinate amount of national styles and traditions.

Today, opera is so diverse that attempting to encapsulate the entire art form with a single definition is impossible. Some opera-lovers assert that opera is best defined as sung-through drama. If that were true, then The Magic Flute and Carmen could not be operas because they incorporate dialogue in their original versions. Others claim that opera is musical narrative. If that were true, Philip Glass’ seminal Einstein on the Beach could not be an opera, since drama and narrative are not always synonymous. Others insist that opera must incorporate unamplified singing. If this were true, Nixon in China by John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar could not be considered operas. This inability to define opera leads to great audience anxiety: “What is the actual definition of opera? If it cannot be simply defined, then what is the difference between opera and musical theater?”

The answers to these questions are not found in making hairsplitting distinctions, but in redirecting inquisitive audience members to the larger ambitions of opera’s history. At the Opera America Conference of 2015, a thought experiment began by asking an audience, “What do you know to be true about opera?” The usual responses followed: Opera is about singing. Opera incorporates big sets and costumes. Opera utilizes large orchestras. Operas are old. Once audience responses were exhausted, responders were asked to imagine if the exact opposite were true: What if opera was not about the singing? What if opera does not have big sets and lavish costumes? What if opera does not incorporate a large orchestra? What if operas were new? It turns out these negative statements end up describing the first operatic performances of the late Renaissance. And when taken together, the only definition that can be given is the following broad statement: Opera is what occurs when music and drama combine to affect an audience. More than 400 years later, opera’s definition is the original experiment of the Florentine Camerata. Opera’s definition is the desire to create “a work of art.”

In the 21st century, the foundational principals of opera have revealed themselves once more. Aesthetic changes require artists to focus their attention on emotional music and audience accessibility. Bold, new operas prize intimate moments of drama over grand spectacle, and Italy’s original context now serves as a microcosm for a global art form. Opera is transforming itself once more, demonstrated by the occurrence of more world premieres in the past 25 years than the previous 75. Opera finds itself again in a renaissance as audiences around the world file into darkened theaters to conduct the old experiment anew, gathering together to hear the human experience sung.