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Opera: A Brief History of the Total Work of Art

Mary Cassatt, In the Loge, c. 1879, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Art Forms

Opera: A Brief History of the Total Work of Art

When we think of opera, art is not the first thing that comes to mind. Opera simply means “work” and it can sometimes seem over-the-top and old-fashioned to our modern tastes. However, when we consider that opera has been continuously performed since the 1600s, we have to stop and ask, what makes opera so successful? What is it about opera that still moves audiences and performers, even today?

Overture – Short History of Opera

Opera in Art: Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Logue. A couple in fancy dress look at a performance from their theatre box
Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Logue, 1874, Courtauld Gallery, London, England, UK.

You are dressed in your finest, sitting in your theater seat and the stage lights come on. The conductor steps onto his platform to an ovation, raises the baton. The world stops breathing for a brief moment before music fills the whole room. It’s the beginning of an adventure!

In his class, How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera, Professor Robert Greenberg defines opera as:

“(…) a drama which combines soliloquy, dialogue, scenery and action and continuous or nearly continuous music—the whole always greater than the parts.”

Robert Greenberg, in: How To Listen and Understand Great Opera.

The earliest antecedent of opera is the Greek tragedy. According to Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy is to bring about catharsis in the spectators. This means that the action should move the audience to pity and fear, to purge them of these emotions. They could then leave the theater uplifted, with an increased understanding of humanity and their place in the world. 

During the Middle Ages, the majority of musical output was dedicated to religious worship. Then the Renaissance brought with it an interest in the Greek past. Composers wished to move their audiences as Greek drama had done, so they created new theories of music that led to the development of opera.

Act 1 – Opera During Baroque and Enlightenment

Scene I – Recitative

The curtain opens to the first operatic masterpiece, originally performed in 1607. It was composed by Claudio Monteverdi and called Orfeo. It is appropriate that Orpheus is the protagonist of the first great opera, since he was the greatest musician of all and represented the power of music.

Opera in Art: Camille Coro, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, Orpheus holds his lyre in one hand, as he leads Eurydice out of the misty forest of the underworld. Figures huddle and look downcast in the background
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston, MA, USA.

In Orfeo, Monteverdi successfully combines many different elements: instrumental music, song, spoken dialogue, dancing, drama, stage scenery, and machinery. All are directed to move the audience, calm their hearts, and inspire their minds, as his character Ritornello announces at the beginning of the action. However, his great contribution was the recitative. Recitative is a style of sung recitation, more like speech than a song, that the composer used to move the action along. Recitative was a vehicle for furthering the opera’s plot and did not have a self-reflective element.

Scene II – Aria

The next big development in the history of opera came some hundred years later with the aria. An aria is a musical number where all action stops and a character reveals his thoughts and feelings to the audience, with a song. Where the recitative was mostly descriptive, the aria brought the audience one step closer by revealing the character’s emotions.

Opera in Art: Thomas Eakins, The Concert Singer, a lady in a pink dress sings, as the audience toss flower bouquets toward the stage
Thomas Eakins, The Concert Singer, 1890-92, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Opera became incredibly popular during the Baroque era. Composers and librettists worked to meet the demand, but such speedy work did not always produce high quality results. This may explain why there are not many Baroque operas currently being performed. Some reformers attempted to return opera to its classical roots, prompting the development of two important operatic styles: the Italian Opera Seria and Opera Buffa. 

Scene III – Opera Seria & Opera Buffa

Opera seria was inspired by mythological characters and ancient history. In this category we find works such as Mozart’s Idomeneo, King of Crete, or Handel’s Rinaldi.

Opera buffa was a comic opera that had its roots in popular entertainment. The Enlightenment had brought with it a desire for equality for all classes. Philosophers saw opera buffa as an ideal medium, through its accessible melodies and everyday dramatic situations. A good example of an opera buffa is Mozart’s The Marriage of Fígaro.

Opera in Art: Eugene Berman, Set Design for The Barber of Seville, sketch showing a house with a balcony that features on the first scene of the opera
Eugene Berman, Set Design for The Barber of Seville, 1953, Fenimore Art Museum, New York, NY, USA.

During the 19th century, opera buffa developed into the bel canto style. In bel canto, the characters are rather one-dimensional, but they sing popular, catchy, melodious music, that is appealing even today. One example of bel canto opera is Rossini’s The Barber of Seville—another famous opera about the fabulous character of Fígaro!

Act 2 – 19th Century Bloom of Opera

Scene I – Opera Goes International to Become National

The action continues headlong to its peak. The 19th century was marked by deep nationalism across Europe, which manifested itself in all forms of art. Many composers began experimenting with different styles and local flavors, though still heavily influenced by Italian opera. 

Opera began to be written in other languages, though it was difficult to achieve the same effects or rely in the same strategies that made Italian music so unique. Here is where things began to change, as composers sought to adapt opera to the characteristics of their own language and culture. In Paris, for example, composers celebrated magnificence, heroic situations, and high drama. French opera developed styles like opéra comique and lyric opera. Bizet’s Carmen is an example still in the repertoire today.

Opera in Art:  Édouard Manet, Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen, a lady dressed in traditional Spanish costume
Édouard Manet, Portrait of Émilie Ambre as Carmen, 1880, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Scene II – Singspiel Like Musical

In Germany, the Singspiel, part opera-part theater, laid the foundation for a truly German art form. The singspiel was similar to the American musical, or the French opéra comique. Its origins within German tradition ensured that singspiels were free from the conventions of Italian opera, so the folk themes, verbal puns, and popular tunes, deeply resonated with audiences. The most famous singspiel is Mozart’s The Magic Flute, still performed today.

Opera in Art: Karl Friedrich Thiele, Design for The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night is the main figure, standing in the middle of a vault of stars
Karl Friedrich Thiele, after Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Design for The Magic Flute: The Hall of Stars in the Palace of the Queen of the Night, Act 1, Scene 6, 1847-49, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Carl Maria von Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz, became the first German operatic masterpiece, and the inspiration for the work of Richard Wagner. Wagner was, and still is, a very controversial figure, but he took opera in an entirely new direction. While in exile because of his political activities, he began to formulate musical theories that became the basis for his later work.

Wagner felt that opera had fallen far from its classical origins into very dark depths. He viewed himself as the artist of the future and, his most important mission, to restore opera to its classical origins. To do this, Wagner turned to Greek theater, believing it a superior form for several reasons: it encompassed a combination of all the other arts; it was inspired by myth, with its power to enlighten human nature; it had religious significance; and the entire community took part, either as performers, organizers, or spectators.

With this ideal in mind, Wagner began to call his own compositions music dramas, as opposed to opera with all its negative connotations. Instead, he advocated for what he called Gesamtkunstwerk—the all-inclusive art form. 

Scene III – Gesamtkunstwerk & Leitmotif

Gesamtkunstwerk is a work of art produced by a synthesis of various art forms. The term comes from the combination of three German words: gesamt—whole, kunst—art, werk—work. Wagner was trying to unite resources from poetry, literature, instrumental music, acting, costumes, scenery, vocal music, into the presentation of myth. He chose myth because it comes nearest to reaching the human unconscious and gets closest to the core of the human experience. The resulting work would be transformative, elevating the audience and producing in them an emotion akin to religious fervor.

Wagner was deeply influenced by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s book, The World as Will and Representation. In this book, Schopenhauer wrote that only instrumental music was capable of expressing the deepest, most primal human thoughts and emotions. This idea inspired Wagner to create the concept of leitmotif, which was one of his greatest innovations. If you have ever heard the soundtrack of Star Wars, or The Lord of The Rings, and have come across Leia’s Theme, or Concerning Hobbits, you have heard a leitmotif.

Opera in Art: John William Waterhouse, Tristan and Isolde with the Potion, Isolde and Tristan, who is dressed in full armor, stand on the ship, as she offers him the poisoned cup
John William Waterhouse, Tristan and Isolde with the Potion, c. 1916, collection of Fred and Sherry Ross. Art Renewal Center

A leitmotif is a theme associated with a particular person, situation, or idea. Wagner used these to illustrate those unspoken thoughts and longings that humans have. While the actors onstage would be singing about one thing, the orchestra could be playing a completely opposite leitmotif that would let the audience know to pay attention.

Wagner’s work was deeply influential to the music that came after. Many composers either drew inspiration from it, or reacted against it. His vision of opera as a meaningful whole, where all the parts work in unison to achieve an end—Gesamtkunstwerk—gave it meaning and direction.

Intermission – Gesamtkunstwerk in Other Arts

Gesamtkunstwerk, as a concept, appeared in other movements at the turn of the 19th century. In literature, writers like Proust tried to awaken one sense while appealing to another, as Wagner had done with the leitmotif. Baudelaire and the Symbolist poets spoke of correspondences between the arts and the senses.

Artists during this time were concerned with their role amid industrialization. Manufactured goods could quickly—and more economically—replace handmade craftsmanship. In response, artists believed the unification of all arts would enhance the user’s experience and quality of life. 

At this intersection, we find creators such as William Morris, Gustav Klimt, and even Walter Gropius. Many interesting interdisciplinary projects came to life from their collaboration. One example is Morris’ construction and furnishing of the Red House, his home in Bexleyheath, UK. This artistic climate also fostered “cross-inspiration”. Writers like Nietzche could inspire paintings, like Klimt’s Philosophy, and even music, such as Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Opera in Art: Gustav Klimt, Philosophy, Ceiling Panel for the Great Hall at Vienna University, detail showing bodies writhing, on top of each other, while at the bottom a woman stares at the viewer
Gustav Klimt, Philosophy, ceiling panel for the Great Hall at Vienna University, 1900-07, Vienna, Austria. Gustav-Klimt.

Act 3 – Opera as Total Work of Art

Scene 1 – Work of Many

With all this in mind, we return to the final act: Opera as Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art. The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. To achieve this unity, Wagner became his own librettist, but this is rare. In our own day, creatives work together to accomplish a single vision. One of the things that makes opera such a compelling medium is, precisely, this interaction between all the arts!

Opera in Art: Édouard Manet, Masked Ball at the Opera, a party portrayed in an impressionistic style, colors in the family of ochre, green, brick, black, white
Édouard Manet, Masked Ball at the Opera, 1873, The Artizon Museum, Tokyo, Japan.

It takes an incredible number of people to put together an opera. First, the head of an opera company selects a producer to guide the overall concept. The producer devises interesting ways of presenting the material, while staying true to the original vision of the librettist and composer. He or she also finds the right people to be in charge of scenery, costumes, choreography, and all other aspects of the show.

The stage director realizes the creative vision of the performance, while the music director guides the orchestra and all the musical aspects.

Scene 2 – A Masterpiece is Born

When all these aspects work seamlessly, a masterpiece is born. And, in opera, it usually begins with a libretto.

Libretto—the Writer

Libretto simply means ‘booklet’ in Italian, and it is the text that the composer will set to music. The libretto provides the literary drama in an opera, musical, cantata, or other extended musical work. It is generally written in verse and, usually, written by a famous poet.

Composers have tended to receive more attention than their literary counterparts. However, brilliant librettists deserve credit for giving words to such unforgettable characters as Carmen, Fígaro, and, in the case of contemporary musicals, Maria von Trapp and Jean Valjean.

Opera in Art: Michele Pekenino, Portrait of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s Librettist, engraving
Michele Pekenino, after Nathaniel Rogers, Portrait of Lorenzo da Ponte (Mozart’s Librettist), 19th century. World of the Habsburgs.

Music—the Composer

Having a good libretto is important to establish all the story elements. In opera though, it is the music that carries the message to the listener’s heart. Perhaps this is why composers have traditionally received most of the credit for an opera’s success, since brilliant music can elevate any libretto. 

The composer takes the words of the librettist and sets them to music, so that their emotional power can be fully felt. In a way, the composer interprets the text and enhances it for the audience, highlighting and giving character to the words. Great composers such as Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi, and even Wagner himself, have given audiences a platform to explore the deepest longings of the heart, from the comfort of their theater seats.

Opera in Art: Giovanni Boldini, Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, Verdi, dressed in black, looks straight at the viewer
Giovanni Boldini, Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, c. 1886, private collection. Giovanni Boldini.

Music—the Orchestra

Musicians have been putting together different combinations of instruments from the beginning. It wasn’t until Monteverdi’s Orfeo however, that this assembly of musicians began to look like a modern orchestra. Monteverdi knew exactly what he needed from his instrumental music, and he specified this in his score.

Later, Wagner relied on the orchestra to perform the same functions as the chorus did for Greek drama, through the leitmotif. So, in essence, the orchestra became another character on the stage, highlighting the real motives that the singers were not expressing vocally.

The Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Wagner’s own theatre, is the only great opera house in the world where the orchestra is completely invisible. With this arrangement, the orchestra can add its own contribution, without distracting from the main action. 

Opera in Art: Edgar Degas, Orchestra Musicians, painting view from the orchestra pit, showing three musicians, with a prima ballerina making a courtsey
Edgar Degas, Orchestra Musicians, 1874-76, Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany.

Music—the Singers

When we think of opera, what generally comes to mind is the stereotype of a lady shattering a glass through her singing, or the big guy with the baritone voice, wearing a horned helmet. The truth is that a singer’s natural capabilities determine his or her singing style, as well as the roles they will perform best.

Singing voices are classified depending on the singer’s vocal range and timbre. Range is the span between the highest and lowest note the singer can produce. This depends on the size of their vocal chords, and the speed at which they vibrate. Timbre is that quality that makes a voice distinct, often characterized in terms of color. The timbre influences a singer’s ability to project their voice above the orchestra, without a microphone.

All of these considerations influence the roles a singer can perform. When a singer is particularly suited to a role, the experience of their performance is memorable and thrilling. Many of the great operatic voices we remember today have become famous for distinct performances, as in the case of Luciano Pavarotti, best remembered for his singing in bel canto operas.

Opera in Art: Titian, The Concert, Three musicians prepare to perform
Titian, The Concert, 1510-11, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Set Design—the Artists

A singer may sing on an empty stage and still move the hearer. However it takes clever, careful planning of the set and scenery to truly immerse an audience in the full operatic experience. 

Set Design involves several moving parts. Set or scenic designers are responsible for creating the layout of a theater set. They design walls, natural scenery, interiors, and all the elements required by the libretto to bring the story to life. A performance designer may be involved in supervising all the major elements of a production. A diorama artist builds all the models. 

Add to them a host of carpenters, painters, builders, artists, electricians, and lighting experts and you begin to see the scope of people involved in putting together one single show. Artists like Picasso, Dalí, Chagall, and even Maurice Sendak, have been drawn to design for opera. Through their work, the boundaries between creator and audience blur into a communal experience. 

Opera in Art: Pablo Picasso, Set and Costumes for Parade
Pablo Picasso, Set and Costumes for Parade, 1917. Artsy.

Costume Design—More Artists

Designers are often responsible for both set and costume design, allowing the development of a seamless vision for the performance. Costume design is an art in itself. Stage costumes have to read well both from up-close and from the back of the theater. They also have to accommodate the movements of the performers, while keeping true to the look and feel of the opera. 

Costume designers look to museums, art, and historical sketches for ideas on how to recreate period fashions. The wardrobe needs to be historically accurate, functional, appealing to the modern audience, and within budget.

Opera in Art: Costume Design for Act II of Turandot, Turandot’s elaborate dress, embroidery on dark velvet
Costume design for Act II of Turandot, 1926, Puccini Museum, Lucca, Italy. Author’s photograph.

Finale – Applause!

The final notes drown in the applause and the adventure comes to an end. Or, does it? Critics and art amateurs continue to debate the definition of art, what classifies as art, and what it has to do with our daily living. Regardless of the many technical definitions, what is art but the deepest expression of our own selves? The artist Joan Miró expressed a similar thought when he said:

“A simple line painted with the brush can lead to freedom and happiness.” 

Joan Miró

Both Greek drama and opera have attempted to achieve these expressions of pure humanity, in their own way. In the end, opera’s true objective has always been to make the viewer feel something—and then do something about it. Whether or not opera achieved total Gesamtkunstwerk, it has certainly reached audiences across the world and within all external divides, leaving them with something uniquely human, mystical, and unforgettable. 


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