Saturday, May 27, 2017

More popular than Hamilton: A history of opera


Opera is an art form that is absurd and incongruous—or, as Samuel Johnson had it, "exotic and irrational." Accompanied by an orchestra, characters sing to one another to express their feelings. They fall in love at first sight. They can behave either in an unrealistically magnanimous, noble and self-sacrificing way, or very, very badly indeed. And often the heroine (sometimes together with the hero) ends up dead.

Given its patent lack of realism or uplift, what explains opera's popularity over four centuries? And yes, I did say "popularity." The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently announced that its paid attendance for the 2016-17 season averaged a disappointing 75 percent. The company staged 225 performances (of 26 operas) in a house with a 3800-seat capacity, not counting standing room. That means that in this sub-par season the Met still sold more than 640,000 opera tickets.

For comparison, let's take a look at one of the most popular shows in Broadway history, Hamilton. Seven to eight shows a week is more than 400 performances in a year, almost twice as many as the Met stages. And yet this year Hamilton sold fewer than 550,000 tickets. Yes: by the measure of tickets sold, opera is more popular than Hamilton. [1]

Despite this, opera is continually in crisis—mainly because no matter how many tickets are sold, the costs for mounting opera are higher than ticket sales can cover. The average ticket price at the Met is $158.50, yielding box-office revenue for 2016-17 of more than $100 million. But the Met's annual budget is over $300 million. The shortfall is covered by the generosity (and vanity) of rich donors and by wringing salary and benefit concessions from the artists and crews whose long-cultivated talents and hard work actually make the shows happen. It's no wonder that in the first half of the 18th century Handel's London opera companies went broke twice, even though he was producing the greatest operas of his time (his own).

For writers looking back over the colorful 400-year history of opera, its continual struggle against reality in all its forms would seem to be very rich material. And the latest attempt to capture the intersection of artistic, social and economic forces on the opera stage, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker's A History of Opera (W. W. Norton, 2012), was widely praised on its initial publication. An updated second edition was published last year; in Opera News reviewer Fred Cohn called it "as good a survey of the art form as any I’ve read." [2]

In any one-volume treatment of such a vast and complex subject, certain elisions and simplifications will be inevitable. But I was brought up short just a few pages into the introductory chapter when Abbate and Parker write,
The aria. . .is a static mode. It is fundamentally about contemplation, and through contemplation the communication of mood to the audience. . .In some sense, then, arias stop time—they let nothing else happen while they unfold, allowing us to sample a kind of internal time, one in which the character's mind reveals itself. And what is said here about arias goes equally for all the contemplative parts of the opera: the duets, trios, and bigger ensembles.
Curiously, they don't mention the expression of emotion, which is what I would have said that arias are "fundamentally about." They go on to qualify their observation by saying that "one of the great departures of nineteenth-century opera is that all these fixed forms may be liable to injections of outside action" (p. 25).

Counterexamples from before the nineteenth century come immediately to mind. Thinking only of Mozart and Da Ponte's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), for example, the Countess's third-act "Dove sono" seems at first to be a straightforward aria of (melancholy) remembrance. As she looks back to the days of her courtship and early marriage, she asks, "What happened to those lovely moments / Of sweetness and pleasure?" But towards the end of the aria, the tone shifts: "Perhaps my faithful soul / Which still loves despite its suffering / Can give me the hope / Of changing his ungrateful heart!" In this section Mozart especially emphasizes the word speranza: hope. This aria is its own four-minute drama, in which a neglected and unhappy wife finds the resolution to try to win back her husband's love. It is hardly dramatically static or simply contemplative or merely mood-setting:



(Renée Fleming as the Countess in the 1994 Glyndebourne Opera production directed by Stephen Medcalf and designed by John Gunter, with the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink.)

And as for the 19th century's "great departure" of injecting action into ensembles, the Act II finale in Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic masterpiece in which, each time it seems that the Countess has made the Count ashamed of his jealous suspicions and Figaro and Susanna have finally won his acquiescence to their marriage, new characters burst in that completely upend the dramatic situation and throw everything into doubt:


(Hermann Prey as Figaro, Mirella Freni as Susanna, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Count, Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, Hans Kraemmer as Antonio the gardener, Paolo Montarsolo as Dr. Bartolo, Heather Begg as Marcellina, and John van Kesteren as Basilio in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1976 film, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm.)

Perhaps, you may be thinking, Abbate and Parker were referring to those benighted operas written before Mozart's time. But in Handel and the Opera Seria (a work that does not appear in Abbate and Parker's bibliography) Winton Dean says that in Handel's works the aria is "a means of dramatic expression" (p. 152). He goes on to detail the many ways in which arias in Handel operas illuminate character, reveal intentions, and, yes, dramatize emotion and conflict.

So Abbate and Parker's generalization does not withstand scrutiny. There are other errors of fact and judgment as well:
  • "For a long time, the historical 'first' in this genre [of German-language opera] was said to be Heinrich Schütz's Dafne of 1627. . .the fact that Schütz was an established master of severe church music made him a particularly attractive candidate" (p. 64).

    More to the point, perhaps, Schütz studied in Venice with Gabrieli and, later, with Monteverdi. With such training it shouldn't be a surprise that he attempted opera. Not to mention that it has never been unusual for composers to write for both the theater and the church: Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini did so as well. And, to my ears, Schütz's sacred music is anything but severe: listen to the sensuously intertwining voices in "Auf dem Gebirge" from Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Music for Choir); this could be an operatic love duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLMds0Skz4w
  • ". . .the version [of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689)] that has survived is one arranged for performance at a girls' boarding school in London" (p. 66).

    Not quite. Nothing is known about the performance for which the earliest surviving score was prepared. That score has been dated after 1748, but it is probably based on an earlier source. The earliest surviving libretto is a single copy from that girls' school performance in 1689, and it is not known whether there was any earlier staging (so to describe it as "arranged" for this performance is misleading). There are textual differences between the score and the libretto, so in any case there is no single version of this work. [3]
  • The authors state that in the later 18th-century opera seria had "not changed much since Handel's day. . .with the action likely to be an evening-long celebration of the status quo, the final curtain closing as an absolute ruler heaps boundless wisdom and mercy on his humble subjects" (p. 127).

    As a characterization of opera seria in Handel's day or any other, this is perhaps deliberately cartoonish. It does not describe, for example, many of the serious operas of Vivaldi, Jommelli, Handel or Haydn. This characterization does seem to betray, though, an unwillingness on the part of the authors to engage seriously with serious opera.
Such sweeping and unfounded generalizations about opera in the years before 1800 might lead you to suspect that Baroque and classical opera aren't really the focus of Abbate and Parker's attention. You'd be right. There are two chapters and 54 pages (or less than 10% out of 567 pages of text) devoted to opera's first 150 years of development; as many chapters and more pages are devoted to Wagner alone. [4]

Opera before 1750 encompasses the works of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Lully, Charpentier, Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Rameau, and Handel, not to mention composers such as Bononcini, Hasse, Jommelli, Leo, Pergolesi, Porpora and Vinci. Most of these composers are ignored. Monteverdi and Cavalli receive glancing attention; a few of the others are the subject of a sentence, a paragraph or a page. Handel is the primary focus of an entire section, but it is only 12 pages long (Wagner gets nearly five times as much space).

Moving into the second half of the eighteenth century, Haydn's operas go completely unmentioned. From this book you would have no idea that Mozart was only the seventh-most-popular opera composer in Vienna, after Paisiello, Martin y Soler, Cimarosa, Guglielmi, Sarti, and Salieri. Salieri, Cimarosa and Paisiello are granted one-sentence mentions; the other composers in that list aren't acknowledged.

In short, if you are interested in a history of the culture of opera and of opera's place in culture, this isn't the place to look. As an example of where the authors direct their attention, the "inexorable rise in the power and prestige of music publishers," a hugely important development in the later 19th century, is confined to a single remark (and a parenthetical one at that). In the very next paragraph, Wagner's "penchant for silk" is discussed at length, including a substantial quotation from one of his letters (p. 343).

Another odd emphasis is the profusion of film references scattered throughout the text. The chapter on Mozart begins with a lengthy description of a scene from the Coen Brothers' The Shawshank Redemption that features prisoners listening to the duet "Canzonetta sull' aria" from Le Nozze di Figaro; the very first illustration in the book is a still from this movie. But at least this reference is used to make a point about the sheer beauty of Mozart's music complicating and deepening our responses to the opera's comedy. [5]



(Renée Fleming as the Countess and Alison Hagley as Susanna in the 1994 Glyndebourne Opera production. The Countess dictates a letter to be sent from Susanna to the Count arranging a meeting that night in the garden; an English translation of the words might be: "'A song on the breeze: A gentle zephyr/This evening will sigh/Beneath the pines in the grove.' The rest he'll understand." Susanna agrees: "Certainly, the rest he'll understand.")

Other film references strain to make a point. Sure, perhaps the existence of Laurel and Hardy's The Devil's Brother/Bogus Bandits (1933), an adaptation of Auber and Scribe's Fra Diavolo, makes a point about the once widespread but now faded popularity of that opera. But what does the performance of "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Le barbiere di Siviglia in Broadway Melody of 1938, or Lauritz Melchior singing "Winterstürme" from Wagner's Die Walkure in the Jane Powell vehicle Luxury Liner (1948) signify, other than that these are famous and readily excerpted arias?

And despite the authors' apparent encyclopedic enthusiasm for movies featuring opera, they miss some highly pertinent examples. "Largo al factotum," for example, features in Peter Yates' 1982 film Breaking Away (not mentioned by Abbate and Parker) where it is not a standalone showpiece but an expression of townie Dennis Christopher's love of bicycle racing and also his social and romantic aspirations. Speaking of Rossini, Chuck Jones' great Rabbit of Seville is mentioned, but mysteriously absent is his even more brilliant Wagner parody What's Opera Doc? ("Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!") And while we hear about the use of the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Fritz Lang's Blue Gardenia and in Lars von Trier's Melancholia, inexplicably the authors don't discuss its incorporation into Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of obsessive love, Vertigo.

In the final chapter the authors pull together a more extensive discussion of opera on film (although they ignore its place on television). ". . .[T]o track 'opera' in cinema over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is to see a kind of seismographic trace of its place in culture." They point to examples primarily from the first two decades of sound film and note that in more recent times opera appears more rarely in movies and when it does has generally become a signifier of "European elitism." "If the movie seismograph is correct," they write, "this falling-away on the part of the general public has been going on for more than fifty years" (pp. 548-549). This analysis conveniently ignores movies from the past two or three decades where opera plays a more complicated or different role, such as Moonstruck, Pretty Woman, La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful), Quantum of Solace, or, indeed, The Shawshank Redemption. And if TV is included, what are we to make of Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from Turandot becoming the theme of the World Cup, watched by billions?

The authors do occasionally offer some interesting insights. Among them:
  • "Amid competition from increasingly revered masterpieces, writing new operas became ever more perilous" (p. 373). About opera after 1950? No—after 1850, when the programming at La Scala in Milan became dominated by revivals of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. Concerns about the dearth of viable new operas are nothing new, it seems.
  • In recent years with the rise of broadcasts of live opera into cinemas there has been a supposedly new emphasis on eliciting convincing, realistic acting (and not just beautiful singing) from opera stars. But the authors point out that this was an important concern of both Verdi and Wagner, and indeed the basis of critiques of singers in 18th-century French tragédie-lyrique (p. 398). I would go back even further and point to Monteverdi's famous letter to librettist Alessandro Striggio in 1616, in which he asks for realistic characters for whom he can write music that will "move the passions": "Ariadne moved the audience because she was a woman, and similarly Orpheus because he was a man. . ." [6]
  • The authors suggest that one reason for the theatrical effectiveness of Puccini's operas is their "blatant discontinuity" and lack of concern for "trivial narrative coherence." They give the example of Manon Lescaut, in which we never see Manon and Des Grieux during their blissful days of love. Instead we witness their meeting in Act I, and at the beginning of Act II discover that, after their breakup, Manon is living with another (richer, older) man (pp. 416-417). Another opera that reinforces this apparently paradoxical point is La Bohème, where we witness Mimi and Rodolfo vowing to stay together at the end of Act III, and at the beginning of Act IV discover that, after their breakup, she is living with another (richer, older) man. Puccini had a relentless focus on dramatic momentum, and to maintain it cut an entire act from La Bohème.
    But a few good insights can't redeem the whole book. Abbate and Parker's A History of Opera is actually quite old-fashioned: in their view operatic history begins in earnest with Mozart, hits the bel canto high points of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and reaches its apotheosis with Verdi and (especially) Wagner. Both authors are 19th-century specialists, and it shows: in this book it's as though the rediscovery of Baroque opera that's occurred over the past 50 years or so never happened. Most of the text is devoted to retelling 19th-century opera plots and pointing out musical details. Sometimes those details can be illuminating, but what's missing is a fuller sense of opera's context, significance and history.

    The death of opera has been reported many times, and each time the reports have been greatly exaggerated. Opera will survive as long as humans are susceptible to beauty and to the emotional power of music. To prove the point, Lucia Popp as Susanna from the Act IV garden scene of Le Nozze di Figaro:



    (From the 1980 production at the Paris Opera conducted by Georg Solti. A translation of the words: "At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, leave my heart, and do not trouble my delight. Oh! I feel this place, the earth and the sky, are responding to love's fire; the night conceals my secret joy. Come, my love, do not delay: love's joy awaits you. The sky is dark and all is hushed. Here the brook murmurs; the breeze plays, whose sighs soothe my beating heart; the flowers smile and the grass is cool; everything invites us to love. Come my beloved, amid these sheltering trees, and I will crown you with roses.")


    1. Opera is also more popular by the measure of ticket revenue: Over the same number of performances, 225, the Metropolitan Opera took in more money at the box office than Hamilton (more than $100 million versus less than $90 million)—despite the average ticket price at Hamilton being almost twice that at the Met ($300 vs. $158.50).
    2. Fred Cohn, A History of Opera [review], Opera News, Vol. 80 No. 9, March 2016: https://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2016/3/Departments/Chronicle_Plays.html
    3. The textual and musical sources of the opera are described in detail in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas by Ellen Harris (Oxford University Press, 1987) and Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: An Opera edited by Curtis Price (W. W. Norton, 1986), neither of which appears in Abbate and Parker's bibliography. 
    4. For comparison's sake, opera before Gluck is covered in 252 pages (out of 785 pages of text, or about one-third of the total) in A Short History of Opera, 4th ed. by Donald Grout and Hermine Weigel Williams (Columbia University Press, 2003), and in 85 pages (out of 364 pages of text, or about one-quarter of the total) in Opera: A History by Christopher Headington, Roy Westbrook and Terry Barfoot (St. Martin's, 1987).
    5. Although one of the characters says that "I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid." In fact, this duet happens at a dramatically crucial point in the opera and sets in motion the action which will conclude it—again, so much for the static nature of song in opera. As for the beauty of Mozart's music complicating the comedy of Da Ponte's libretto, Bernard Williams makes this point more tellingly in his brilliant essay on Cosi fan tutte published in On Opera (Yale University Press, 2006).
    6. Quoted in The New Monteverdi Companion, edited by Dennis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, Faber and Faber, 1985, pp. 34-35.

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