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Opera - where we started and where we are now

Josh Borths – April 19, 2016

Florence, Italy, 1598

As the chandeliers are lit for the evening’s performance, a group of musicians, poets, and thinkers—called the Florentine Camerata—enters a small room to conduct an experiment. The experiment is simple: What happens when music and drama collide?

These musicians of the Renaissance hoped to recreate Greek drama, just like Renaissance artists sculpted and painted to bring back the glory of Greek art. After looking through every resource in their possession, the Camerata came to believe that music was the key to unlocking Greek theater. Music was essential for igniting a rebirth of classical drama. However, instead of reviving ancient Greek theater, the Florentine Camerata created an entirely new art form that would have been unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks: a new form of musical storytelling called “opera.”

An art form translates well

In Italian, the word “opera” literally means “a work of art,” and ever since that fateful night in Florence, opera has traveled the world. Wherever it lands, it evolves by absorbing the language, culture, and attitudes of the people who create it.

Mantua, Venice, and Rome soon developed distinct styles of opera, each reflecting their own cultural values. In Mantua, serious and noble operas mirrored the aristocracy of northern Italy; in Venice, scandalous lovers, and intoxicating music performed in public theaters reflected the indulgent Venetians; and in Rome, old comedic sensibilities clashed with Christian morals, highlighting the tension between the people and the Church.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, France had created its own style, different from their Italian neighbors. They incorporated their own language, dances, and rhythms into their musical stories. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Germany entered the fray, infusing opera with its love of symphonic musical forms. By the middle of the 1800s, Russian and Czech operas sang the legends of Slavic nations. And by the middle of the twentieth century, English opera took root and American opera began to flourish across the Atlantic.

diversity of Styles

When looking at the vast repertoire on different continents and across the centuries, opera doesn’t seem like a unified art form. In some operas, the music is more important than the drama. In others, the drama is more important than the music. Some operas have dialogue, and some are sung-through. Some operas require grand sets and costumes, while others require very few resources. Sometimes, the writer, or librettist, is less important than the composer. Other times the composer is less important than the singers. It all depends on where, when, and how the opera was created.

Like the artist-experimenters that first invented opera, artists continue to create new experiments that combine music and drama in different ways. For 400 years, artists have been innovating, learning and reacting against one another to propel the art form forward. However, it started to look like the experiment was winding down…until today.

The rebirth of opera

Today, opera finds itself in a Renaissance—a new period of rebirth. More new operas have debuted in the past twenty-five years than in the previous seventy-five put together. Opera continues to evolve as musicians, poets, and thinkers discover new ways to turn modern stories and contemporary soundscapes into operatic masterpieces. The 21st century is a global age, and operas are now global. In the past, opera existed to celebrate national identity, but the operas of today attempt to overcome those boundaries. Composers and librettists are now interested in different languages, cultures, and sounds. In opera houses, the translations of the text are projected above the stage so audiences always knows what’s going on; operas can now be written in multiple languages to better reflect today’s society; and new technologies have forever changed the way operas are created and experienced.

Today, everyone is welcome to the opera house; anyone can be moved by the music, witness a great story, or create a new opera. Underlying innovations, the question behind each piece remains: how are stories told and enhanced through the power of music? It appears that the discoveries and experiments of the Florentine Camerata are far from over. In fact, they have only just begun.