Feeling dramatic? Opera has you covered! John Banther and Linda Carducci go on a journey through time on the origins, evolution, and dramatic moments of this enduring musical art form. Plus, recommended listening for each time period along the way.
Resources and recommended listening from each era
Here is a link to a large collection of libretti (plural for libretto) and various translations: List of Libretti for Operas by Composer - OperaFolio.com
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical in Washington. We are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's, Linda Carducci, and we are diving into one of the biggest and most dramatic subjects possible; opera. We go back in time to explore the different musical characteristics of opera as it evolved over four centuries. So get comfortable as we go on a journey and show you what to listen for in each era, define some terms, and give you listening recommendations along the way.
I'm really glad we're talking about opera today, Linda, because, well, one, the Met Opera Saturday matinee broadcasts that are about to return, and also, I'm just feeling a little bit dramatic today, so this is a good time.
Linda Carducci: Then opera is your mainstay today.
John Banther: Yes. Now, you may remember in the last episode we did together, Linda, we were showcasing and defining the Nocturne, and I was able to succinctly, and quite beautifully, actually, if I may so myself, at the beginning, really just define it. We could have stopped after a minute, so I want to give you a chance, as well, so now it's your turn, Linda. Please just define for us in a sentence; opera.
Linda Carducci: Opera, the Italian word for work with music. It is an art form that tells a story through music and singing, either comedic or dramatic, or sometimes a combination of both, thanks to Mozart.
John Banther: Okay, well, yes, you did a lot better than I expected. I was hoping to trip you up there. That was more than one sentence, but that's really great. Art form that tells a story through music and singing. And of course, we're going to go into it. More than that, it contains things like arias, which are solo numbers, like a song showcasing a singer, there's recitatives, which are sing- talking portions, depicting things like dialogues and also monologues. Chorus numbers, as well. And I guess we know in Italian, I never thought about it, actually, Linda, Opera, itself, means work with music.
Linda Carducci: Correct. It's similar to the word opus, which means work.
John Banther: Okay. So we are going to go back in time to five different musical time periods since opera arrived. We're going to see how it sounded through these times, how it evolved, and give you a listening recommendation for each era while defining some of the opera terms along the way. But before we start here, I want to put some of this into context or set expectations. Linda, yesterday I just typed into Google, history of opera. I thought with such a basic query, what can I find? Am I missing something? I want to see where are my blind spots, so to speak, with this subject. The first link was a thing to Wikipedia; history of opera, and at the top there's a note from Wikipedia, it says, this page is way too long. It is difficult to read, it is difficult to navigate, it needs this cleaned up. It's the longest entry I have ever seen. There's over 700 references. It's almost comical. We're talking centuries of music, of politics, of culture, and life.
Linda Carducci: And for that reason it can be intimidating to people, especially if they are not initiated into opera. And I totally get that. But that's what we're here for today, to explain to you and to put down into rather simple forms and categories, what opera is. And I think that you'll come away once you understand just the basics of it with the same understanding that people who love it for years have, and that is that it's a very thrilling experience.
John Banther: Absolutely. Okay, I've got the time machine fired up, Linda. It runs on the tiers of mean music critics, so we can go pretty much anywhere, we have all the fuel we need. Snacks are packed. What should we listen to on the way? How about this? No?
Linda Carducci: Yeah.
John Banther: Or maybe this. Now I know you'd love this. Now that's in tune everyone recognizes. Okay, so we're in our time machine and we are off. Okay, Linda, where and when are we?
Linda Carducci: We land in Italy right now, in Florence, in the 16th century, and as I mentioned, Italy is the birthplace of opera. There was a composer named Jacopo Peri, who we think wrote the first opera in 1597. Again, we can go back to our definition of opera, which is an art form that tells a story through music. So this started as early as the 16th century.
John Banther: And the first one from 1597, it was called Daphne, by Peri, and that's, well, been lost, not too surprisingly, but in 1600, we have what might be what many considered to be the first earliest surviving opera, Eurydice, also by Jacopo Peri. And it was written for the marriage of King Henry IV. And I imagine, Linda, the king enjoyed seeing himself as a hero in music while at his wedding, too, because these are some heroic themes early on.
Linda Carducci: Yes, and we start to see this theme of using heroes and mythological characters in Renaissance and baroque opera.
John Banther: Like Greek and Roman and stuff like that?
Linda Carducci: Yes, correct.
John Banther: So it was Peri who helped start this form. He included some aria moments, recitative moments, the songs and dialogue portion, which we're going to get into more. And it was Claudio Monteverdi, a few years later, who took what Peri was doing and just elevated the entire genre. And I think this is how you find, well, how most things develop. Someone invents it, it's a little rough around the edges, and then someone else sees it and really runs with it. And that's what Monteverdi does in 1607 with his opera. And that's another plot you see often of L'Orfeo and Eurydice, right? Eurydice is in the, she dies, L'Orfeo wants to rescue his beloved, he goes down to the underworld and his beautiful voice will rescue her.
Part of the mythology here. But I want to mention here, Linda, something so interesting, a court official in a letter just before the premiere of L'Orfeo wrote this, they said, " Tomorrow evening, the most serene Lord, the Prince is to sponsor a play in a room in the apartments, which the most serene lady had the use of. It should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts.". That's interesting. We're seeing it described by someone who is, maybe, describing it for the first time. This is unusual. They're going to sing it. I don't know. To me it sounds like there's a nonchalance to it. Like, hey, you want to go through a rocks in the quarry this weekend, kind of thing. It's just interesting.
Linda Carducci: It is, when we consider that there were spoken plays prior to this earlier than this, but this is a combination now of adding music to a play.
John Banther: So it's the early 1600's, Peri invents it, Monteverdi elevates it more, and we can say that, well, these are not things that the average person is enjoying. It's for the wealthy, the connected, the royal. And then in 1637, Linda, I see the first public opera house comes to be, and this is in Venice, right?
Linda Carducci: Yes. It was still pretty much relegated to royalty and noble people and wealthy people who would attend opera at this point. It became a little bit more democratic later on during Handel's era, and certainly during Mozart's era.
John Banther: So it's also, well, of course, the royalty of the government that is also funding these things, and as we'll discover, these are very expensive propositions, opera, that is. So what are some of the characteristics and style of this late renaissance, early baroque period that we're in? What's the defining characteristics?
Linda Carducci: Well, we can look to instrumental music during this era that is very similar to the opera elements. For example, there's purity of texture and sound, particularly renaissance and early baroque, smaller orchestration, simple arias. There was some polyphony and there was an increase in improvisation by the musicians.
John Banther: Okay. So there's a little bit of improvisation. I think we hear that a lot in the accompaniment, polyphony, where there's multiple voices doing lines at the same time. Really, when you hear it and it sounds small or if you hear recorders playing, that's also a dead giveaway. This is an older opera and it's much more intimate because, well, they're not playing on a huge stage. These are small intimate performances.
Linda Carducci: So if we'd look at Verdi's, for example, orchestration and singing that came much later. He had grand orchestra, big singers, chorus movements, moments. We don't hear that here. This is a smaller in texture, smaller in size.
John Banther: And mythological subjects. And I also see, sometimes, a singer will have multiple roles. They're singing in the prologue, maybe the God of Jupiter, then they're another role in the very next thing.
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: And we also want to mention that women have been writing operas, well, basically from the beginning. Francesca Caccini's opera in 1625 was called La liberazione di Ruggiero. Again, if I can even pronounce that correctly. But women have been writing operas and we'll mention them, but as we've learned in many recent episodes, a lot of works by women have been lost or destroyed. Even opera written 50 years ago by composer Germaine Tailleferre is just totally lost, even within our own lifetimes. Is there anything in the music that is designated for specific characters or scenes, typecast or, maybe, stereotypes we can find?
Linda Carducci: Yes, especially in the Monteverdi instrumentations, we can find groups of instruments that were specifically designated for specific characters or specific scenes. This is almost an analogy to what we see many, many years later in the 19th century with Richard Wagner in his leitmotiv use that certain musical ideas represented ideas or people or things.
John Banther: So, like when we hear a droning sound, that might be a pastoral scene, maybe something like a shepherd or something?
Linda Carducci: Yes. Or trumpets, we might know that the great God, Jupiter, is coming.
John Banther: Okay. Get out of the way. I guess, what can we recommend, specifically, for people to listen to an opera and an aria?
Linda Carducci: Well, as you mentioned, the L'Orfeo legend, which is the Orpheus legend, is very popular, and that was a theme that was used by a number of composers, including Gluck, a little bit later on. Monteverdi's notable opera is L'Orfeo, which is very beautiful, or the Coronation of Poppaea, and there's a gorgeous pure duet that concludes the opera where all of the drama is finally settled and Poppaea and her husband are singing a love duet and it's very pure and beautiful.
John Banther: Okay, this is Pur ti miro, pur ti godo?
Linda Carducci: Si.
John Banther: Oh, si. This is so beautiful. It is. It captures you from the beginning, too.
Linda Carducci: And when you do listen to it, listen how intimate and pure it is. There's not a lot of orchestration going on here.
John Banther: No. And I would've love to have been at a performance, because I imagine you would've been quite close to the action. You're probably not a lot of distance between you and the music.
Linda Carducci: Yes. And it's a nice way to end a very dramatic work where there's a struggle for power. Finally, it all ends, everything settles, and the two lovers are saying, " I gaze at you. I desire you."
John Banther: Happily ever after.
Linda Carducci: Mm- hmm.
John Banther: Okay, let's get back in our time machine now, Linda. We'll go to later into the Baroque period.
Linda Carducci: All right, we've just been transformed, now, to the Baroque era of 1600 to 1750.
John Banther: This is quite a span, we're talking about 150 years. It sounds like opera started to really take hold. It's in Italy, it's gaining footing with an opera house coming into fruition. What's happening here in this era, in terms of that development?
Linda Carducci: It's becoming a little bit more popular and a little more democratic in its audience, as we discussed earlier. There are some innovations, too, going on in how they were structured. Slightly larger orchestration and a little bit more ornamentation, now, with the singers. It's popularity was starting to spread outside of Italy, as well, to various regions of Europe.
John Banther: Okay, so it seems like we have a natural progression here, as we see in, well, other forms in music. There's more instruments, as more instruments are made and composers include more as they become more comfortable with this form, the singers that their technique and their training, that gets better, so now they're able to do more difficult arias and more, maybe, difficult turns and ornamentations in the music.
Linda Carducci: Yes. And as we'll see, as we go through the various eras of opera, things grow, the art form grows, it gets larger, it expands, it gets more experimental.
John Banther: I think a good way to, and a way I often think of this, is also with movies, and we think about how that's developed and changed from the first moving pictures to what we're doing now. I think we see a lot of corollaries there. And it spreads to out of Italy, into other parts of Europe. I imagine this is also because traveling becomes more commonplace with an increase in technology, transporting things, more cooperation between, I don't know, governments or something like that. I imagine all of that comes into play here, with its spread through Europe.
Linda Carducci: Actually, Handel, for example, German, went to Italy and he became immersed in the Italian style of opera while he was in Italy, learned Italian, and then took it to London. And he presented Italian style opera to London and was hugely successful there.
John Banther: Wow. Something I've been meaning to ask, Linda, is do we need to know what they are singing to fully enjoy this? Because it can be hard to understand, even if it's in your native language, like for us, English. When you go to an opera today, they often have surtitles projected above the stage so you can see what is happening. You can read the text as it's being sung. But not being able to understand the words isn't always a bad thing either. How many of us have songs on the radio or whatever, you mumble through a part, and then you get to the chorus and you're singing.
Linda Carducci: That's true. And I think sometimes it helps to know before you start listening to it, what, in general, is going on in each act. So if you sort of understand, well, there's going to be a struggle here, or there's going to be a reconciliation here. If you understand that going into each act and you read, maybe, a little bit summary, which are available all over the place, I think then you can better understand and appreciate what's going on. But there's also, lebrettis. Those are a word- for- word translations into English, and you can find librettos for every opera. Online, for example, they're there online, you can buy them relatively inexpensively, too. Word- for- word translations. So for example, as you're listening to opera on WETA classical every Saturday afternoon, and maybe you don't understand what they're saying in Russian, if you have the libretto in front of you, you can certainly follow along, and it's more meaningful that way, I think.
John Banther: That's a great point. And let's talk about libretto or libretti, multiples of them, for a second, because this is what composers like Monteverdi and like Handel, this is what they're doing. They're taking texts that already exist, like a play or, later on especially, a novel, or also early, on poetry, and that text is adapted, usually, by someone to be used for opera. It's not the composer writing the words themselves. So the libretto is just the text, not the music.
Linda Carducci: Correct. Wagner will write his own libretto when we get to that.
John Banther: Yes.
Linda Carducci: But in Renaissance era, as you say, sometimes the music was set to poetry. When we get to Handel, we're starting to see a little bit more of a natural dialogue, now, between the characters.
John Banther: And what about the characteristics here and the style? To me, it feels direct, the energy feels more palpable, like the composers are willing to be a little bit more direct in the dramaticism with it.
Linda Carducci: Oh, yes, and you can see that in so many of Baroque arias, including the rage arias where people really speaking out with great emotion and great passion about something. And there's also arias that are very tender, more human, a little bit more natural than just, say, the poetry that we heard, say, in the Renaissance era.
John Banther: Slowly moving away from the mythological epic poems.
Linda Carducci: Yes, we are. However, what's important to remember about this particular era is that, mostly, it was opera seria.
John Banther: Seria as dramatic, not so comedic.
Linda Carducci: Correct. Opera seria was typically based on heroic characters, mythological characters, and there was often a very moral theme that was presented in these. So opera seria was very popular during the Baroque era, but we'll see it also during the era of Mozart.
John Banther: Okay. Another defining characteristic seems to be basso continuo, and this is the accompaniment, and it's usually made up of something like a keyboard, a harpsichord, and then a lower sounding instrument like cello, or maybe more viola da gamba, a cello with frets, I think, at the time. And this would include improvisation. It's daunting for people today because what was written down for this, the accompaniment would just be one note.
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: And then shorthand of numbers or, sometimes, symbols. And from that you have to improvise and do everything. So just that note and then a couple of numbers will give you the idea of the harmony, but it's up for you to fill it all in. That's why all the recordings sound different for the same piece sometimes.
Linda Carducci: Yes, you're right. And the same opera, say it would travel from say, Venice to Florence. Same opera might be presented different. You may hear a different version when you hear those two different things. As you said, the basso continuo is the harmony, and it's providing the lower pitch, usually the bass, but the instrumentalist is expected to be pretty good musician and be able to understand harmony and be able to fill it in himself.
John Banther: They actually made us do this in school. We had to learn how to read figured bass and this kind of stuff.
Linda Carducci: Oh, yes.
John Banther: And it was just, you could go as slow as you wanted. I would go slow. You just had to show what you're doing. But yeah, you have to sit there and go through these chord progressions, just using the numbers, and it provides a very beautiful sound in the end.
Linda Carducci: It does, and it requires skill.
John Banther: Yes. It requires a lot of skill. Also, recitatives, that portion where it sounds like sing talking, this seems to be really clearly defined in this era. We have, it's a very definite beginning and end to a lot of these things. And the sound is very distinct of recitatives. I think it's something you could pick up on pretty quickly.
Linda Carducci: The recitatives will break up the arias, for example. So maybe two people will be speaking to each other and it almost sounds like they're speaking, but they're attaching pitches to their speech. But they're having a conversation. Sometimes, though, that we'll see in, for example, Mozart operas, and I think Handel, too, some of the characters may be doing a monologue, they're thinking out loud. And we want the audience to understand what the thought process is of that character so he's speaking out loud, but he's attaching pitches to his speech.
John Banther: Okay now, we've mentioned Handel a bunch, and actually it's 1724, Linda. We're all dressed and ready to go to the opera. So let's go to Handel's premiere of Giulio Cesare in Eggito. This is Caesar in Egypt. This was a big hit, and I guess a big example of what you were talking about with opera seria.
Linda Carducci: Yes. So he's working with the Julius Caesar theme here. Again, opera seria that is serious, has a moral theme, and the audience are looking at heroic characters who are going to teach us a moral theme.
John Banther: There's still a moral theme. And even here, we're dealing with a subject matter from a long time ago, Caesar in Egypt. Moral themes, still very big in opera, and of course, as we know in nineties sitcoms, little English horn moments in Full House or something.
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: Another very defining characteristic of this time period in 1710s, 20s, 30s, is the use of castrati; male singers who were castrated as boys to preserve their soprano voices.
Linda Carducci: Yes, this was done purposely. Sometimes the parents would approve of it thinking that this young boy would go on to be a great singer. They were the first operatic stars of the 1720s. We hear it in Handel, we hear it in music of that era. It started to die out a little bit later on, but they were singing male parts. But back then, back during the Handel era, sometimes the heroes of the plays, of the operas, the main character, the main heroic male character was a castrati, was a high- pitched voice.
John Banther: Yes. Almost reminds me of Peter Pan in plays where that's a similar thing.
Linda Carducci: Right.
John Banther: So these were, they were huge operatic stars, and it seemed like if you wanted a big hit with your opera, you had to include a role like this. Now, male sopranos, although rare, they still exist today, like you think of the women who were singing the bass parts in Vivaldi's school. But thankfully, today, they're just people with high voices like Samuel Marino and Elijah McCormack.
Well, we certainly enjoyed Handel's opera premiere of Caesar in Egypt, but what are some other composers at this time, in this time period? Antonio Vivaldi is one, for sure.
Linda Carducci: He wrote a lot of operas.
John Banther: Yes. And also he started a little bit later, and it was almost scandalous for him to be composing operas as someone who was a former priest. It was seen a little unseemly.
Linda Carducci: Yes, it was, yeah. But if we travel a little bit north to France, France was very important for opera during this era. Specifically, Jean- Baptiste Lully, was very influential on other composers and transformed opera into an art form in Paris. Performed for royalty, this was during the reign of Louis XIV. Right after Lully, just a little bit after Lully was Jean- Philippe Rameau who also composed many opera ballets for French royalty. His operas are still performed today.
John Banther: Yes. And they included big ballet segments. So Handel, Vivaldi, the French with Jean- Philippe Rameau and Jean-Baptiste Lully. Also, another composer, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre in 1694, she had her opera, Céphale et Procris. I'm sure I'm mispronouncing some of these things, but my French isn't that great. Sorry. But it's exploding in this time as a very, still, definite type of sound. And now, what does an opera and aria we can recommend from this time period?
Linda Carducci: I have a particular fondness for the opera, Rodelinda by George Frideric Handel. That's one in which the main hero is a very high, high- pitched voice, but Soprano sings a gorgeous aria called Mio caro bene!, so I would recommend that from the opera Rodelinda, by George Frideric Handel, which is still performed today, including at the Met. It's a beautiful opera. Also, Giulio Cesare, as you said, that it was an important opera for Handel. Piangerò la sorte mia, beautiful aria for soprano.
John Banther: Absolutely beautiful, Linda. Okay, so we've learned some things about the Baroque time period; the basso continuo, the castrati, opera seria. So let's get back in the time machine, Linda, maybe we can head to Vienna, 1779.
Linda Carducci: Now been transported to the era of Mozart.
John Banther: Yes. This is what we call the classical period, and these are rough timelines, about 50 years, 1750 to 1800. And it sounds like, well, like a lot of things we see even more development and expansion of the genre in this time period. Quickly, too.
Linda Carducci: Yes. And it mirrored the development of music, instrumental music, not just for opera. So what that means is, we're getting away from the ornamentation and the complexity and density of Baroque music, now, and we're going toward the classical ideal of simplicity, form, and style that is a little bit more refined, shall we say, and simple.
John Banther: Refined and simple is a good way to describe it. I think it's like the Baroque music is the hair is all over the place and messy, and someone took a comb and just straightened everything out real quick. And we get, that gives us this classical refined type of sound. And as it grows more, we see even more stereotypes and tropes coming into the music, and we also start to see more common people slowly filling up these concert halls.
Linda Carducci: And the evolution from opera seria, that is, again, serious opera where there was a moral theme and we have heroes and mythological characters.
John Banther: Very highbrow.
Linda Carducci: High, very highbrow. Now to the growth of opera buffa, which is more comic opera that features real life people, and sometimes they're even poking fun at royalty, a little bit, like that, and Mozart was very good at that, and so was Rossini.
John Banther: We've gone from the gods and the myths down to seeing ourselves, almost, on these opera stages.
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: And the royalty, the government, they allow a little bit of poking fun at themselves.
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: They're also the ones paying for this, too, right? Still?
Linda Carducci: Probably government funding, yeah. But I should emphasize, too, that it wasn't just opera buffa during this era. There was still opera seria, and if we look at Mozart's operas up until, say, I don't know, Così fan tutte or something like that, we are still seeing some opera seria. And Idomeneo, for example, was still based on old mythical themes. The transition that we're starting to see in the 18th century didn't happen overnight from Baroque.
John Banther: Right.
Linda Carducci: As anything, music evolved.
John Banther: And looking at the characteristics and style we've already described, somehow, it's refined, it's a little cleaned up, less extravagant. One thing that really takes off in this time period, Linda, I think, are the overtures to these operas. And beforehand, it was often just one or two minutes of music, something slow, fast- slow, or fast- slow- fast, and centuries past, and then, well, the opera would start. Now we get longer overtures and we start to see some more importance added to them. They start including themes from the opera so you get a taste, oh, we know this is the sound, that sounds like maybe a scary character, that sounds like the romantic hero in the music, and it's just fun to see that all put in there.
Linda Carducci: And the overture was not just a musical introduction to the work, in general. Audience, take your seats, here's the music, just, it introduces it. As you say, the overture became more important because it did incorporate some themes from the operas themselves, but it also set the tone. So if we listened to, for example, the opera or the overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni, it has that real dark, deep, tragic almost, beginning to it because that's what eventually happens at the end.
John Banther: Yeah.
Linda Carducci: But if you listen to the overture to Marriage of Figaro, which is a comedy, the overture is full of humor.
John Banther: Yeah, so it's setting those expectations. We still see this less today, but you think of the film industry, thirties, forties, fifties, a big overture with themes from the movie showing you landscape and the idea that the surroundings that you're about to see a movie take place. And I think we still see this happening now.
Linda Carducci: I think even if any of our listeners decide they don't want to listen to opera, I would suggest that they just listen to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro overture, just the overture by itself, because that is a work of genius.
John Banther: And we see characters in the music almost grow to frightening, exaggerated forms. In Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, there is the Queen of the Night, and she's quite terrifying. And we also see, as we saw in earlier periods, things get a little bit harder. They get a little bit more challenging. Now we're almost off the rails with how difficult some of these arias are, especially this big Queen of the Night aria in Mozart's Magic Flute.
And Linda, this opera, itself, is actually in German. So we've seen Italian, we've seen French, which seem to be pretty romantic, artsy languages. Now we're hearing it in German. Was that a natural evolution? Did some say, " No, we shouldn't be singing in German"?
Linda Carducci: I don't think that was typical during the 18th century. Mozart did write The Magic Flute with a German text because it was written as almost as a play, as a singspiel, which is a play opera/opera that had some spoken German dialogue in it. And it was for a popular theater. It was not, necessarily, for the refined opera audiences. Still, it became very important opera for Mozart, very successful for him, and to this day, it's very successful. I think the Met is going to be doing two versions of The Magic Flute coming up, but you're right, it is with a German text. I still think, though, that most of the opera during this period, at least in Italy and in Germany, was still in Italian.
John Banther: And there was a lot of influence. Speaking of The Magic Flute, the Age of Enlightenment at this time, as well.
Linda Carducci: Yes. Which focused on human happiness, now, human liberty and human reason. Less dependence on religion to explain things. Less religion, less emphasis, that is, on nobility and superstition. Now we're starting to get a little bit more of an educated audience and an interest in expanding one's human life.
John Banther: I heard coffee had a big role in that, as well. Coffee allowed people, when they were a little more stimulated, you stayed up later. I think people just got a lot more work done, maybe.
Linda Carducci: Beethoven certainly did.
John Banther: Yes. We also see the recitative get some development, as well. Now we've already defined that in that familiar sound you get with the harpsichord and something like a cello. Now we get another type of recitative, and this is where the orchestra is accompanying the singer, themselves, called recitative accompagnato. I can't ever say it in Italian. I just say accompanied recitative. And it's usually more droning in its sound, the orchestra's sustaining a chord while the singer sings, and they also add punctuation, as well, in between moments, which is similar to what we had before. This is also a very distinct sound. You notice when they're sing talking, at one point?
Linda Carducci: Yes. And Mozart will use harpsichord sometimes, still, along with orchestra, but you can still hear harpsichord sometimes with his recitatives. But they do serve a punctuation, and especially if the line is comedic, Mozart will end it with a really cute little punctuation mark with a harpsichord that emphasizes the humor.
John Banther: I'm sure that generates a little bit of laughter, as well.
Linda Carducci: Yeah, oh, definitely.
John Banther: Now you would think all of this is great. Wow, we're getting more difficult, more instruments, we're expanding all these different things we've had so far. This is fantastic. But one composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck, he thought things had gotten a little out of control, I guess.
Linda Carducci: Yes, Gluck is known for his reforms to opera. He said, let's go back a little bit and focus on the humanity that is being presented in the plot, the human drama. And he also felt that the text and the music were integral and of equal importance, so that when we present an opera, it should be a story being told musically, not simply a showcase for the singer's virtuosity, as it was starting to get in the 18th century.
John Banther: And he would even write this into the score on the front page of the manuscript, maybe the cover page on the inside, these ideals. This is about the human drama, the purity or the dedication to the text, and not so over the top with the singing.
Linda Carducci: We'll start to see more reforms. Specifically, Richard Wagner did that in the 18th century, or 19th century.
John Banther: And there's another type of opera coming into fruition here, and it sounds silly. Bel canto. Beautiful singing. Well, isn't this all beautiful singing? What are you talking about Bel canto? But this is something a little bit different, right?
Linda Carducci: Yes. And we can thank Gioachino Rossini for introducing Bel canto, which means beautiful singing. It's a style of singing that emphasized elegance with long, legato, flowing lyrical lines. The emphasis was the beauty of sound rather than expression or raging or giving an idea. The idea was to present a beautiful sound, a beautiful experience. It required the singers to be very good because they had to be very skilled in keeping things under control, but a perfect execution. And when there was any florid elements to it, maybe some or ornamentation, it had to be done just perfectly and precisely.
We can look to a Chopin, if we want to look at an analogy. Frederic Chopin was almost like a Bel canto composer. And in fact, Bellini and Chopin admired each other, and Bellini, we'll see later, was the master of Bel canto.
John Banther: That's a great comparison, or idea of Chopin, almost a slight indulgence to it. And this idea is still super alive and well today, just to let people know, a lot of the studies that the singers were working on at this time, we still use, they're still in print at the thousands today because all brass players use these Bel canto studies by Bordogni and others, which was what they were singing, and yeah, that's a great comparison. Now I'm thinking more of Chopin with it, too.
Linda Carducci: It helps to create the singing line. That's what we're trying to develop, now, is the singing line. Legato, a lot of times, allowing the singer to have some rubato. Beautiful singing, a beautiful execution and a beautiful experience.
John Banther: So a lot has happened in this classical period. We've seen it, a big growth of opera buffo. We see developments in things, we see almost too much development and Gluck says, we've got to calm down here for a minute. We've got the Bel canto style composers, Mozart, Gluck, Rossini. Those are some of the big ones at this time.
Linda Carducci: Yes, correct.
John Banther: And what can we recommend specifically, here, for an opera or an aria?
Linda Carducci: Well, if we go chronologically, Gluck was a little bit earlier than Mozart. In fact, Mozart admired Gluck. Gluck wrote an opera on the Orpheus legend, as we were talking about earlier, Orfeo ed Euridice, and the best known aria from that opera is Che farò senza Euridice, and we will hear a purity of sound, almost like what we were hearing back in the Renaissance, because Gluck wanted to reform and to have purity and to have the text and the music integral and of equal importance. So I would recommend that particular aria, yeah, that's very well known.
Mozart. Once we get to Mozart, there's just too many. But I would say if we're looking at Marriage of Figaro, which some people think is one of the greatest operas ever written, it's one of my personal favorites, there are some poignant moments to it, even though it's a comedy. The Countess sings a beautiful aria called Porgi Amor, where she's talking about where did the love go that my husband had? Where did my husband's love go that he had for me? Because he knows that he's fooling around a little bit. But it's a beautiful aria. He also has a very humorous and clever reconciliation quartet where four people reconcile as to who their real identities are. Mozart wrote very cleverly, it's a funny scene, but I also have to give credit to his librettist by the name of Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was a wonderful librettist, just ideal, and he and Mozart collaborated on three operas, three of Mozart's best operas, actually, we might say. And so, Lorenzo Da Ponte really helped to propel some of these scenes so beautifully for Mozart.
John Banther: And I want to mention one thing, Linda, to show how far we've actually come. When you think about the early operas by Peri and everything's tied to vocal parts, the dedication and purity of the text, they're all playing these parts moving together. Now we have a quartet, it's four singers, they're singing totally different lines, right? You get, now, quartets where everyone is singing totally different lines. There's no purity to the text. You can't understand quite what's happening besides a few words, if you know Italian. But that's just to say, we've gone quite a far away from everyone is just doing the same thing to, now, it's almost chaos.
Linda Carducci: Exactly. Because in this reconciliation scene, it's a conversation among four people and they're finding out who their real identities are, and they're saying, " You? Really? You? You're his mother? You're his mother?" So it's a conversation, now, so we're not singing. We don't have four people singing together, necessarily.
And lastly, from this period of the Classical era, we have Mozart's, Don Giovanni, which some considered to be the greatest opera ever composed. It's based on the Don Juan legend. Why is it the greatest opera ever composed? Because now, we're having heightened music, larger orchestration, more drama, brilliant ensemble pieces, drama mixed with comedy. It also foreshadowed romanticism, which is going to come later in the 19th century, because the orchestration was larger, but also because we have as our main character in Don Giovanni, a romantic figure. By romantic, I mean romantic in the sense that he was an individual fighting against society. He did not have an interest in blending in. He was rebelling against authority, and the character of Don Giovanni actually does rebel at the end. He does not even agree to repent his ways, even though he's threatened to burn in hell. So I think that's a great punctuation mark to this particular era, Don Giovanni.
John Banther: And speaking of 19th century, I think we're headed there next, Linda. So we're all in our time machine, and after this quick break, we'll meet everyone else on the other side.
Okay, Linda, now where and when are we? What's happening?
Linda Carducci: Well, we've moved, now, to the romantic era of the 19th century.
John Banther: And it seems like this is where things take off in all kinds of directions, much in the same way as the symphony. We see the symphony develop, it gets refined in the classical period, and then after Beethoven in the 19th century, everyone starts taking it in a different direction. So we see a lot of traditions and practices taking hold here, as well as it gets firmly rooted in all of these different countries. An example of that would be the Paris Opera, where if you wanted your opera played, I think it was required that you had ballet sections in your opera. I think Verdi, even years after writing an opera, had to go back and write in a ballet section just so they would even play it.
Linda Carducci: That's correct. So we're seeing an expansion in a development, as you said, that somewhat mirrors the romantic music that we heard with our instrumentalists.
John Banther: So what's different about this time period, the characteristics, and the style?
Linda Carducci: I would say more drama, larger orchestration, more emotion, now, by our characters, freely structured, anything pretty much goes now, the arias are larger and more difficult to perform, and the orchestra, the orchestral parts are more difficult to perform.
John Banther: Yes, there are a lot of difficult parts within the orchestra. It's getting bigger, there's more instruments like the tuba is now being added, as well. So there is just a huge wide variety of sounds and things that composers can either recreate or introduce into the music. And the subject matter changes a bit, as well, with verismo. Now we have more real- life situations being depicted in the music. Maybe something we would more identify with than the gods and stuff on stage.
Linda Carducci: Yes, we did see some of the real- life people starting to enter in during Mozart's era during the 18th century, but now, maybe a little bit more gritty, a little bit more gruesome of struggles, now, of real- life people. Romantic struggles, too.
John Banther: Yes, and it's a thing to also remember; opera is, the content is not PG, necessarily. I think there's sometimes that misunderstanding. Of course, it's in a different language and it's being sung, but sometimes, and especially in this period, there's very real graphic, difficult things being depicted or worked out within the music.
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: The French are, they're obsessed with opera in the 19th century. So much so, symphonies aren't really getting much traction or a plate. It's like you have a symphony, I don't care, go to Germany. This is France, we're doing opera. And it was just, it really, really, really took hold in France.
Linda Carducci: And wonderful composers, Gounod, and Massenet, and Bizet, just to name a few.
John Banther: Yes. Now, someone we've mentioned a couple of times, and it's impossible to get through opera without going through the wall, that would be Richard Wagner, and how much he just absolutely changed, like Beethoven did with the symphony.
Linda Carducci: We could do a whole podcast just on Richard Wagner, alone.
John Banther: A series.
Linda Carducci: Yeah, a series. He did bring innovation, starting with his middle- era operas, almost as we saw with Gluck. He started to believe that music and text were integral. They were of equal importance, and so they should work together. It shouldn't be a scenario where we have a singer showing off her beautiful voice or his beautiful voice, accompanied by some nice music. No. Now the music and the text worked together with Wagner. He also brought into a style through composing, which means that there was uninterrupted music. We no longer now have arias that end and everybody applauds, and then we go on to the next thing, maybe recitative, and then another aria. No, everything, now, with Wagner was through composed. We have uninterrupted music so that there were no breaks and no repetition, as we hear sometimes in common songs where we repeat a verse. No, no, because now we're having the characters almost speaking through music.
John Banther: Yes. That is the biggest change, I think, this through composing where it's all written fluidly throughout. Because before, we've not mentioned it, but it's, you hear it when you hear it; things start and stop, start and stop. This happened, and then that happened, and then this happened, and then that happened. And with Wagner, it is, it's a three, four hour film that you're. And actually, these are incredibly long, too. Don't be too daunted by that, you can pause it, but they are very long, they're through composed. And he's also writing his own librettos, he's writing the text himself, which most normal people would say, " Yeah, you probably shouldn't do that, have someone else do that." But Wagner did it all himself.
Linda Carducci: He considered it a complete work of art. He called it, and I will probably not say this correctly, but gesamtkunstwerk.
John Banther: Gesamtkunstwerk.
Linda Carducci: Okay. Thank you. Which means it's a complete work of art; the text, the poetry, the music, everything. And it's intended for audiences to experience communally. We were talking about through composing and how he wanted to create a natural setting with people speaking.
John Banther: Yeah.
Linda Carducci: And so there wouldn't be stopping and starting. Also, he wasn't big on choruses for that reason, because he thought, well, in real life you don't have a chorus sitting there singing behind you.
John Banther: And even as some of his operas are huge in scale, in terms of the content and the depth, which he takes the music. Like Tristan und Isolde, there might only be a few singers. It's not a huge long cast of singers with all these different parts.
Linda Carducci: And extremely taxing for singers to get through Wagner operas. Extremely taxing. One of the other things that he introduced was the use of leitmotifs, which he wasn't the first one to do that, but he really expanded on it. So what he would do is have a music, maybe just a phrase, maybe just a very short phrase that would represent certain things, he would continually bring back on a repetitive basis within the opera so that we, as listeners, would understand, oh, okay, now the character is thinking about that object because the music that represents that object is being played.
John Banther: Yes. The easiest way to think about this is just Star Wars. That's filled with leitmotifs. You hear Princess Leia's theme or that tune and you hear it come into the movie at different points. And Wagner, he takes it to an absurd level, really, where there's hundreds of references, and sometimes they might only be a bar long within one part, and you can't even hear it. But I guess it's with that whole complete mindset that he has, that there's all these little bits in there. But that's what's happening. And you can hear, like you said, these little motifs or moments that represent things and it prompts you or puts you in the right mood or mind frame when you hear that again, oh no, something's about to happen. Or maybe something good.
Linda Carducci: Yes. For example, in his ring cycle, he has a motif of a sword. This is just one of many. But, so when we get to the action where the character's going to draw his sword, all of a sudden you'll hear that motif. But sometimes he doesn't make it that obvious. Sometimes he'll bury it, just do it very subtly in the orchestra, but you hear it subliminally.
John Banther: A lot of Wagner talk there for this time period. Because Wagner, he's sucking the oxygen out of the room. But your favorite romantic composers, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Verdi, they are writing, also, incredible operas at this time.
Linda Carducci: Yes, we were talking about Bel canto earlier. Bellini was the master of Bel canto. He didn't have a long life, but he wrote some beautiful operas. And I would say the prime example of Bel canto would be from his opera Norma. Probably the best known aria in there is Casta Diva. So if you want to hear an example of Bel canto, I would say go to YouTube or wherever you get your listening pleasure, and listen to a beautiful soprano voice singing Casta Diva.
John Banther: And we're actually going to put on the show notes page at Classicalbreakdown. org, some of these there, as well, with either maybe a playlist or videos, whatever we can put there. So that is a great one, Casta Diva.
Linda Carducci: It is. Now we also have to talk about Verdi. Verdi was a major force during this time. He was born around the same time as Wagner, but he had a different idea as to how to project opera. Verdi was Italian, Wagner was German. Wagner wanted to draw on German myth and Norse myth as his subject, so he went back to that sort of heroic, mythological subject that we saw early on with opera seria, and Wagner's were written, sung in German.
Verdi, on the other hand, looked at plays about human beings and the human struggles, almost like verismo, and wrote operas in Italian. What is stand out, I think, about Verdi in this era is how he was able to write music that really showed that character, that human quality of the character and what they were going through at any particular point in the opera. He had a real great gift for that.
John Banther: What can we recommend, specifically, for an opera and an aria here?
Linda Carducci: Well, from Verdi, from La Traviata, one of the best- known arias there is Sempre Libera. Also from Aida, Celeste Aida, where the main male character comes out and sings his love for Aida. That's a story of forbidden love between members of warring factions, very dramatic grand, grand opera, Aida.
John Banther: Okay, so the Romantic period, things go in all these different directions with composers doing their own things, especially Wagner. He is the one who's changing the game here. So we can get back in her time machine, Linda, for just another stop here, let's head to the late 19th and the early 20th century.
Okay. This is where things get interesting to me, Linda, because for all the previous time periods, if I just told you, Linda, lover of opera, if I just mentioned Baroque opera, you would already have a sound in your head. Oh yeah, I know what that sounds like. But if I mention 20th century opera, am I actually telling you that much? Probably not.
Linda Carducci: No.
John Banther: These composers have such extraordinarily different sounds as everyone takes things in many, many, many different directions with, so much in arts and culture of the 20th century, it's more accurate or better for me to say, hey, think of an opera by Puccini or Debussy or even Philip Glass, three composers from this century with completely different sounds.
Linda Carducci: Yes. And once again, as we've noticed in other eras, the opera music is reflecting what is going on with instrumental music during that era, and that is greater experimentation, greater liberties.
John Banther: And also like the symphony, there's a decline in popularity, it seems like, in this time period compared to before, I think. Right? I imagine there's not as many governments putting on these operas. They are extremely expensive to produce. We had two world wars, a lot happened.
Linda Carducci: Yes, the sets were getting expensive. Singers, now, were getting expensive because now we're getting into very virtuosic singing, and you have to have very skilled singers, and sometimes, those are a little bit more expensive. So if we're talking about ideas from this era, we might look at, if we look at Puccini, for example, who was a major composer from this era, it was almost with him, you can see an outgrowth of both Bel canto, because it was beautiful melodies that he wrote, but also through composing, that we were starting to see with Wagner. So Puccini will also have endless stream, an uninterrupted stream of music as the singers are singing and projecting the narrative forward instead of just Aria break. Aria break.
Also, he was a wonderful orchestrator, and some of his orchestration is very luminescent, and so when he's projecting, say for example, lovers in very tender scenes that we see in La bohème, the music is just perfect for that, very tender and luminescent.
John Banther: Puccini feels like a real holdover from the last century, in terms of how he's really getting into and presenting opera compared to later on what we see in the 20th century. Benjamin Britten, another composer, too, of opera at this time.
Linda Carducci: Yes, Benjamin Britten was well- known for his emphasis on word and his real great gift for using word with the music to project the narrative. And I know we've heard that before, but he had a real gift for being able to put words together very concisely, and to project them in really unique phrases of music. I recommend, for Benjamin Britten, listening to Peter Grimes. He wrote a number of operas, but Peter Grimes is just extraordinary. And even just the interludes, the musical interludes that he used in Peter Grimes, are really extraordinary.
John Banther: So there's not all that much to say, I think, about this time period. Composers, they take it in their individual directions. We had a lot of interruptions with world wars stopping everything in Europe for years. Shall we get back into our time machine and head to the present?
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: So we are back home. We are in today, the present time, whatever time it is that you are listening to this. As we mentioned, opera is very difficult and expensive to put on, and so for the last couple of decades, in this century, I was actually, Linda, looking at to, well, who's composed the most operas recently? Who's composing the most right now? Kaija Saariaho. She composed six operas between the year 2000 and then this year, when she passed away in June.
Another composer, John Adams, also wrote six operas and a couple of large Oratorio opera type works, and he probably still has another couple left in him. So those are two composers who are, right, I always forget. Yeah, they're writing a lot of opera, but it is very expensive. So it's these big opera houses that are able to commission big composers like Saariaho and Adams.
But we also see shorter operas coming into fruition. They're cheaper, the more feasible to put on. The Washington National Opera, this year, Linda, has a performance where they're doing in one night, it's three one act operas by different composers.
Linda Carducci: Yeah, The American initiatives, yeah. A lot of these operas from the 20th century and beyond and in our era are addressing social issues. So we don't see the themes anymore based on the old Greek mythology or poking fun at nobility, like we saw during Mozart's era. A lot of these, now, are addressing social issues or just even addressing a current event.
So like you were talking about John Adams; Nixon in China is a staple that was projecting an event that happened with Nixon. Dr. Atomic and Jake Heggie will be having A Dead Man Walking, his Dead Man Walking at the Met in this coming season, which we will hear on WETA and the broadcast. And Terrence Blanchard is doing some things, too, that address social issues. So that's one of the themes, I think one of the hallmarks, of current opera.
John Banther: Yes. And opera has always been looking at and addressing issues from the beginning. Sometimes surreptitiously composers doing things in the music to undermine, maybe, certain ideals or customs to now, what we're examining. There's always been drama. There's always been controversy. Back in the day, they had to deal with censors, your opera, may it banned. People would actually go to jail for some things like that, for a night, back in the day, as we heard with some composers. So The Met is a great resource for, well, every Saturday afternoon coming up at one o'clock, probably on a radio station near you, you can hear these operas.
Linda Carducci: I would recommend to our listeners that if they want to jump in, or maybe even if they are familiar with opera and they want to learn a little bit more about it, to look online and get a libretto for a particular opera, then they can follow along every word that is being sung, and in the translation, the English translation.
John Banther: Yes.
Linda Carducci: You really get a heightened experience that way, and you understand what they're saying.
John Banther: Okay. That's great. I'll try to put something on the show notes page linking directly, maybe, to one, or a resource for that. And my advice would be is if you're listening to something opera, and I just don't like this, well just stop listening to it. There you go. And then just find something else. We're talking about centuries and centuries of an unimaginable amount of music here. You're going to find something. You might just start with your favorite composer and see if they wrote an opera.
Linda Carducci: Right.
John Banther: And you may have never heard it, and you are going to find something you love no matter what, if you dig into opera,
Linda Carducci: There's also always Nessun dorma, by Puccini.
John Banther: Yes.
Linda Carducci: Start with that.
John Banther: There's always that. Well, thank you so much, Linda, for enlightening me on all things opera.
Linda Carducci: Thank you, John.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to Classicalbreakdownatweta. org. And if you enjoy this episode, leave a review on your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.