A Guide To Opera For The Beginner

Guide to opera; learn terms like aria and recitative, as well as the best operas for beginners.

Opera is a tricky world for the novice. Understanding this glorious art requires patience and a willingness to learn. Most opera is hard to comprehend because it carries the strength of centuries of tradition behind it. It is a glorification of the human, however, and understood in that respect, it can bring the viewer to great heights of understanding and self-awareness.

Opera is a mixture of singing, dancing, stage design and elaborate costuming. It is often spectacular due to it's roots in European aristocracy. Opera is a descendant of the courtly entertainment, a form of play that was performed for nobility before the Renaissance. Opera itself was formed in the late sixteenth century with the rise of two things: the pastorale, a form of poetry, and monody, a form of speech-song taken from the Greeks. The Florentine Camerata, a group of thinkers sparked by the Renaissance and its new humanistic wave of thought, united these two concepts in an attempt to return to the aesthetic ideals of the Greeks. What they formed, instead, was the spark that brought Opera into existence.

The first combination of monody and the pastorale was attempted by two members of the Florentine Camerata, Peri and Caccini. While some would argue that these two created the first operas, it is unanimously agreed that the first opera composer was Monteverdi, whose Orfeo was performed in 1607. Peri and Caccini's works were constrained by the idea of monody, which took the form of a chant. Monteverdi introduced the idea of a musical line into his opera, and from this point onward monody was used to move plot forward in the form of recitative, or speech-song.

The first public opera house was created in Venice, Italy, in 1637-8. It was just in time to herald a new group of operatic composers into the limelight. During the later half of the seventeenth century, the Neapolitan school of thought arose in Italy, teaching that the aria was the most crucial part of the opera. This rise was supported by the works of the librettist Metastasio, the most influential opera writer of his time. Opera today is a reflection of this school of thought; it consists of alternating periods of recitative and aria, where the recitative introduces an occurrence and the aria is a reflection on the new event.

Opera flourished in Italy from this humble beginning, creating such composers as Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Puccini. Their operas are a beautiful expression of the Italian spirit, and consist of such masterpieces such as Il Trovatore, (Verdi), Madame Butterfly, (Puccini) and Norma (Bellini). The Italian language is best adapted to operatic performance as well, due to the predominance of vowels. Many of the most famous early operatic performers were Italian-born and trained. Italian opera is often renowned for having tragic falls and passionate love affairs, and these stem from the radical waves of thought that were forming at its inception. At the time of the Florentine Camerata, Italy was experiencing a shift from the overtly religious Middle Ages into a celebration of human emotion and experience. For this reason, it over-dramatizes certain aspects of our existence.

Opera did not confine itself to Italy, however. It spread throughout Europe, touching France, Germany, England, Austria, Russia, Spain, and many other countries. Most notable in the composing world during this gradual spread are composers such as Handel, a German composer most popular in England, Lully, an Italian composer from the French court of King Louis the Fourteenth, Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer, Mozart, whose glorious melodies charmed Vienna, Prague and Germany, among others, and Wagner, who revolutionized German opera to create an operatic form dependent on symphonic sound. During it's spread, opera also took on branched into several categories. Most notable is the opera seria, or operas which contain dramatic, usually morbid plots, the opera comique, or operas which are light-hearted and comical, and operettas, which are shortened operatic plots that generally tend toward the comic.

If you are new to opera and would like to learn more through watching several performances, it is best to begin with Mozart's light comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro. This opera is an excellent place to start because it combines a light, entertaining libretto with music that the non-Italian speaker can enjoy. A good second choice is a passionate Italian opera from a thoroughbred Italian composer. Watch Puccini's Madame Butterfly. From there, I would suggest moving to the dramatic masterpiece of a French composer, Bizet's Carmen. For the truly devoted, a good next step would be an opera of the German composer Wagner, Parsifal. Finally, a twentieth century opera would provide a good vantage point to see where opera is now. I would suggest Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which is in English. When you watch these operas, realize the strength of the tradition behind them. Born from the roots of the Renaissance, they are a true, moving expression of what it means to be alive.

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