Opera: A primer for the primaries

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/04/opera-a-primer-for-the-primaries/

What could be more melodramatic than the presidential primaries? Opera, of course! So, I’ve created a primer for the soon-to-be opera enthusiasts among our readers. Do you want some history before the fun of listening to our presidential candidates in their title roles? Why, yes you do! But only so you can enjoy this splendid art form all the more.

Opera combines drama and singing in a theatrical setting with a substantial orchestral component. The fusion of music and drama can be traced back to the Middle Ages in Europe, and even earlier in ancient Greece and non-Western nations such as China, where opera began in the 3rd century A.D.

Daphne Chased by Apollo, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1744 (Wiki)

Daphne Chased by Apollo, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1744 (Wiki)

The most noteworthy precurser of modern opera in the Western tradition is Hildegard von Bingen (d.1179), who composed both the verse and music for her dramatic renditions of religious stories. She is considered by most music historians as the first surviving (i.e., named) composer in the Western genre.

In the High Middle Ages (c. 1000 – 1300), the rise of secular music was a significant development for opera. The songs of this period reflected both the local languages and the regional traditions of Western Europe. In France, the trouvères performed their courtly love ballads in the northern part of the country while their counterparts, the troubadours, performed in the southern region of Provence. Similarly, the Minnesänger performed their secular music throughout the Germanic provinces.

By the 15th century, Middle English Lyrics flourished in England and set the tone for colorful musical tales in the vernacular that contained the type of melodious rhythm, succinct poetic language, and ekphrasis (vivid visual description) that would later be used in opera.

After the Middle Ages, the most significant event in the evolution of opera was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, which was first performed in Florence in 1597. It established the standard format that is still recognized today. Shortly after Peri’s opera, Claudio Monteverdi composed Orfeo, greatly expanding the emerging art form. For many critics, his intricate scores represent the definitive inauguration of modern opera.

In the 17th century, interest in opera spread throughout Europe, with works by Henry Purcell in England, Heinrich Schütz in Germany, and Jean-Baptiste de Lully in France. In the 18th century, composers such as George Frideric Handel brought the operatic form to new heights, both in terms of artistic mastery and widespread popularity. For example, Handel’s Agrippina (1709) showcased the soloists’ voices with highly expressive and dramatic arias. The magnificent choruses throughout his vocal compositions were models that inspired many of his succesors, such as Beethoven. Yet the transitions between the songs were still concert-like, and the recitatives were more reminiscent of Bach’s oratorios.

In the second half of the 18th century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart perfected the operatic form in works such as The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), which made full use of the orchestra with flowing recitatives.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819) (Wiki)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819) (Wiki)

By the first half of the 19th century, the potential of opera was fully realized in the ‘bel canto’ format, with its fluid style, agility, and ornamentation. The principal bel canto composers were Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. The second half of the 19th century, known as the “Golden Age” of opera, was led by Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and later, Giacomo Puccini.

The rise of Romantic opera was significant because the emphasis on the text gave new impetus to dramatic interpretation. The expansive operatic solos freed singers to explore heretofore uncharted emotional territory. It combined recognizable principles of harmony, structure, and beauty with an emphasis on unreserved artistic expression, which is why it remains so popular today.

Modern audiences still appreciate a rousing performance. So who better than our presidential candidates to whip up some sensational drama for us?

Let’s hear what the “critics” are saying about the leading contenders in their title roles. Click on their names to hear excerpts from these enchanting operas.

— Donald Trump as Attila the Hun in Giuseppe Verdi’s Attila
“The Donald positively shines as the boorish barbarian!”

Hillary Clinton as Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
“To thunderous applause, Hillary sang as if Shakespeare wrote the part just for her!

— Ted Cruz as the Emperor Hadrian in J. C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria  
“Ted startled audiences with his bold improvisation, ‘Why build just one wall? How about four?’ ”

Bernie Sanders as Robin Hood in Reginald De Koven’s Robin Hood
“Orchestra pit musicians were delighted by the ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’ theme, but balcony patrons worried whether the poor would return the favor.”

Ben Carson as the Greek physician Erasistratus in Étienne Méhul’s Stratonice
“Thing were going well until Ben reached the Egyptian scene.”

Carly Fiorina as Joan of Arc in Giuseppe Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco     
“Carly gave a convincing performance as the proud female warrior roasted by her scheming rivals.”

Marco Rubio as Don Juan of Austria in Isaac Nathan’s Don Juan of Austria
“Against Lepanto-esque odds, Marco tried to ‘burst the battle-line!’ ”

Was that one over your head? Okay, my fine philistine friend, here’s another:

“Rallying his small armada against his mighty competitors, Marco brought the house down on closing night.”

And the winner is ……..  

None of the above! How could I write about opera and not give you a surprise ending?

From, Antony and Cleopatra, 1883 by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Wiki)

From, Antony and Cleopatra, 1883 by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Wiki)

Our next president is Cleopatra! Brilliant, bold, beguiling, and benevolent (well, to those she loves anyway).  Her campaign slogan was, “I don’t need your vote, I’m a queen!” And she’s not afraid of Megyn Kelly: “I’m a formidable force for foreign leaders, friend or foe. Now say that 3x fast or I cut off your head!”

Here she is starring (naturally) as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].