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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Opera

Opera, whose name comes from the Italian word for a work, realizes the Baroque ambition of integrating all the arts. Music and drama are the fundamental ingredients, as are the arts of staging and costume design; opera is therefore a visual as well as an audible art. Throughout its history, opera has reflected trends current in the several arts of which it is composed. Developments in architecture and painting have manifested themselves on the operatic stage in the design of sets and costumes for specific performances, and opera has also affected the visual arts beyond the stage in such domains as the design and decoration of opera houses and the portraiture of singers and composers. A feature unique to opera, however, is the power of music, particularly that written for the several registers of the human singing voice, which is arguably the artistic means best suited to the expression of emotion and the portrayal of character.

From the Court to the Public Theater
In its origins, opera, like every other type of spectacle, expressed noble prerogatives and was staged in courtly settings. In seventeenth-century Italy, the birthplace of the form, lavish entertainments featuring fireworks and sensational effects as well as instrumental music, singing, dances, and speeches were staged to celebrate princely weddings or to welcome regal guests. Although not operas in the modern sense, these integrated entertainments fostered collaboration among the arts and prompted the theoretical justifications upon which true opera—and ballet, whose early development runs parallel—was built. The Florentine Camerata, a group of composers and dramatists active in Florence around 1600, set out to revive the great traditions of the classical Greek stage, in which music and drama reinforced each other. Toward this end, they developed recitative, a type of sung speech featuring the solo voice and an unadorned vocal line expressive of the text. Early operas, largely based on mythological themes and peopled with noble characters, promoted aristocratic ideals.

Although music and drama were the essential features of opera, visual effects often dominated the court productions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the designers of sets and theatrical machinery sometimes received greater acclaim than the composers who wrote the music. The audiences for court performances were part of the spectacle, since the convention of darkening the theater did not yet exist. Magnificently garbed and seated in orderly ranks, the spectators followed the action of the opera, which might last several hours, in a printed libretto, literally “a little book” produced for the occasion. Today the word libretto denotes the text of the opera, the drama that is set to music, but in the days of court opera, librettos were attractively illustrated and therefore involved the talents of draftsmen and engravers, who were also engaged to commemorate the festivities.

Although the spectacular emphasis of court performances continued as opera evolved, musical considerations guided its evolution. It was early noticed that music could express mood, define character, and enliven dramatic situations, sometimes more eloquently than verbal expression alone. Arias for solo voice might express a sentiment both musically and verbally; ensembles, choruses, and orchestral interludes likewise produced effective color. Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), who used recitative as well as lyrical solos, madrigals, and instrumental color in operas on a variety of classical themes, is considered the first genius of operatic composition, and his “favola in musica” Orfeo (1607) is often seen as the first true opera. Although Monteverdi spent the early part of his career writing for the dukes of Mantua, his last works were intended for the public opera houses of Venice, the first of which opened in 1637. The public became and still remains the primary audience for the opera, although court productions continued to be devised wherever courts existed.

Opera in the Age of Enlightenment
By the end of the eighteenth century, opera was an international phenomenon, and both comic and serious genres flourished in France, England, and the Habsburg empire as well as in Italy, although Italian remained the standard language of the libretto. Decorative objects of the period suggest the popularity of opera outside a court context (17.190.1867). Painters, such as François Boucher and Antoine Watteau, continued to devise set designs, but focus shifted to the quality of the music, which rose very high. Under composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) and Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759), the orchestra expanded to include woodwind instruments, horns, and drums in addition to the original strings. The castrato soprano voice was frequently given the hero’s part, and castrati were among the greatest stars of the period. The magnificently ornamented music written for such virtuoso singers thrilled audiences but also diminished the dramatic element of opera and provoked calls for reform. These were answered by Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–1787), whose Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762 recasts the time-honored operatic story of the artist whose song can thwart death itself.

The reinvigoration of opera at the end of the eighteenth century was assured by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), whose music for voices and orchestra is alive with dramatic purpose. In The Marriage of Figaro (1786), for example, exquisite melodies describe and enrich the personalities of the clever servant Figaro, his vivacious fiancée Susanna, the lovelorn Countess, the philandering Count, and the eager teenager Cherubino. The extremely effective libretto for this opera, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838), was based on a contemporary French play by Beaumarchais. Don Giovanni (1787), another collaboration between Mozart and Da Ponte, presents the last days of an unrepentant seducer and culminates in two unforgettable scenes in which the statue of a man whom he has murdered accepts an invitation to dinner and arrives to escort him to hell. Mozart’s last opera, a German comedy called The Magic Flute (1791), takes place in fantastic settings that still inspire experiments in set and costume design; two recent productions at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for instance, were devised by the artists Marc Chagall and David Hockney.

The Flourishing of Opera in the Nineteenth Century
In the nineteenth century, conditions were ripe for broadening the audience for opera and for changes in the form itself. Bourgeois taste displaced court concerns in the selection of dramatic subjects, while composers, singers, and theater impresarios vied for popular success. In France and Italy, broad cultural movements like Romanticism, Orientalism, and Realism manifested themselves in opera as in the visual arts, while the rise of nationalism produced vigorous new operatic traditions in Germany and Russia.

The Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century launched a burst of interest in the irrational, the otherworldly, the exotic, and the historical, all subjects admirably suited to operatic portrayal. For instance, Gaetano Donizetti’s (1797–1848) Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, includes such themes as ancestral enmity, star-crossed love, and the tragic death of the heroine—which, in this case, is preceded by a vocally demanding expression of madness. Similar concerns were paramount in the contemporary French opera, whose leading composer was the German-born Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864). His Robert le Diable (1831), like the several other successful works that he created for the Paris Opéra, was staged with lavish effects, spectacular sets, choreographed dances, and huge onstage ensembles, that is, with all the hallmarks of French grand opera (29.100.552). The devil himself is a primary character in another example of the genre, Faust (1859), written by Charles Gounod (1818–1893). Because nineteenth-century operas were often based on earlier stage plays or literary works, Romantic subject matter prevailed in opera long after writers and painters had turned to other concerns. Georges Bizet (1838–1875), for example, based his Carmen (1875) on an early nineteenth-century novella by Prosper Mérimée and, like its source, the opera is full of the Spanish flavor that so appealed to French nineteenth-century audiences. The passion, violence, and impropriety so prominently featured in opera ran contrary to the ideals of contemporary bourgeois society, and artists’ portrayals of spectators, particularly women, watching from the privacy of their boxes suggest the constraints placed upon them as well as the attraction of opera’s cathartic subject matter.

High tragedy dominates the operas composed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), whose feeling for drama helped him produce wonderfully expressive music for chorus, ensembles, solo voices, and the orchestra. His first public success came with Nabucco (1842), in which a stirring chorus expresses the longing of captives for their homeland. The plots of Verdi’s operas involve moral conflict and powerful emotions: Rigoletto (1851) presents a court jester whose desire for revenge inadvertently leads to his own daughter’s death; Aida (1871) tells the story of an Ethiopian princess in love with an Egyptian general who represents her country’s enemy; Otello (1887), adapted from Shakespeare, concerns the hero’s fatal jealousy, which results in his undoing and the murder of his wife. Verdi’s operas are full of memorable scenarios, and the exotic settings invite set designers to explore the whole history of art. On stage, the triumphal parade in Aida can evoke the grandeur of pharaonic Egypt, and the arrival of the ambassadors in Otello may resemble a Venetian painting brought to life.

Verdi’s contemporary Richard Wagner (1813–1883) took a completely different approach to opera. His ideal was the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, in which drama, staging, and music would forge a powerful unity. Wagner realized these aims by controlling every aspect of his works, writing his own librettos and supervising set design as well as composing the music. In many ways, Wagner magnified the opera beyond any proportions it had attained before. He scored his works for a large orchestra, requiring herculean voices to complement it, and he raised in his dramas such profound themes as redemption through love and the rapport between humanity and the divine. His largest project, Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74), is a sweeping drama in four parts, each one longer than a standard Italian opera. The story of the Ring, based on Germanic mythology, presents many opportunities for visual spectacle, among them the Rhine Maidens swimming under water, the Valkyries riding in on winged horses, Siegfried’s combat with the dragon Fafner, Brünhilde asleep in the midst of magic flames, and the fall of Valhalla itself. Frustrated with the physical limitations of contemporary theaters, Wagner found the means to build a new house to his own specifications at Bayreuth in Bavaria, and here he departed from established convention by darkening the auditorium during performances and covering the orchestra pit so as to focus all attention on the stage.

The culmination of Wagner’s career in Germany coincided with the building of a new opera house in Paris, designed by Charles Garnier and opened in 1875. The prominent position of the Opéra within the new system of boulevards devised by Baron Haussmann during the Second Empire demonstrates the social importance of opera at the time, while the lavish ornament of the building makes it seem at once a temple and a palace. Among the artists involved in decorating the Opéra were Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, who designed bronze figures carrying candelabra for the grand staircase, and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who contributed an animated marble group for the facade (11.10).

By the late nineteenth century, opera was viewed as the ultimate art form, suitable for portraying the grandest aspirations not only of heroic men and women but also of peoples and nations. The celebrated Russian opera Boris Godunov (1874), written by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), dramatizes a stormy period in Russian history and gives special emphasis to the chorus of common people that crowd around the glittering world of the czar. Although Catherine the Great promoted Italian opera and even wrote some of her own librettos, Russian opera was largely an invention of the nineteenth century, a sign of social ferment as well as rising nationalism. The vigorous Russian literature of the period furnished rich material for such operas as Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s (1840–1893) Eugene Onegin (1879), based (like Boris Godunov) on a work by Aleksandr Pushkin. Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891–1953) War and Peace and The Gambler were based on works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, respectively.

Although the great operatic composers devoted much of their attention to subjects tragic, awesome, or macabre, they also produced comic operas that are still staged and loved. Mozart’s operas contain much that is humorous, both musically and visually. Verdi scored a colossal failure with an early comic opera but ended his career with Falstaff (1893), based on the antics of the jolly Shakespearean knight. The comic operas of Gioacchino Rossini (1792–1868), such as The Barber of Seville (1816), are rife with tunes that brilliantly express fast-paced intrigue in hilarious situations. Even Wagner composed one masterpiece, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), with a happy ending and a number of comic features. The setting is sixteenth-century Nuremberg, and the action revolves around a group of craftsmen-singers, foremost among them the shoemaker-poet Hans Sachs. The discussion of art that runs throughout the opera applies specifically to music but may also be extended to other genres; the artist Albrecht Dürer, presumably alive among the characters, is mentioned in the opera.

Opera and the Kinship of the Arts
On occasion, the opera has magnified the lives of artists actual and fictional as well as the heroics of warriors, princes, and revolutionaries. The flamboyant sixteenth-century artist Benvenuto Cellini provided material for the eponymous opera (1838) by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), which culminates in the casting of a bronze statue on stage. More recently, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) wrote an opera, Mathis der Maler (1938), about the German Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald, and Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) composed a chamber opera, The Rake’s Progress (1951), inspired by the well-known cycle of satirical prints—and their painted prototypes—by William Hogarth. Artists are among the characters in two of Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) most popular works: Cavaradossi, the leading man in Tosca (1900), is a painter, as is the sympathetic Marcello, companion to the poet Rodolfo, the tragic hero of La Bohème (1898).

Finally, portraits of singers demonstrate the complementary histories of art and opera. Andrea Sacchi’s portrait of Marcantonio Pasqualini (1614–1691) represents the castrato in a classical landscape that evokes the pastoral subjects of much seventeenth-century opera (1981.317). In a painting by François Hubert Drouais, the eighteenth-century singer Madame Charles Simon Favart (1727–1772) appears in fashionable attire rather than stage costume (17.120.210), but later portraits capture operatic characters as well as the singers who portrayed them. Gustave Courbet painted the Paris Opéra tenor Louis Gueymard (1822–1880) in the role of Robert, the complicated hero of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (19.84), and Augustus Saint-Gaudens portrayed the soprano Eva Rohr in the costume of Marguerite from Gounod’s Faust (1990.317). Édouard Manet’s several portraits of the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830–1914) capture the singer’s piercing eyes and expressive face, which gave credibility to his portrayals of Mephistopheles and Hamlet (59.129).