Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk

Today let’s talk about a highly influential German opera composer: Richard Wagner. Wagner believed in the synthesis of music and drama into one “total artwork.” Detailing the staging, lighting, costuming, music, acting, etc. in his scores/librettos (yes he wrote the text and music to his operas!), Wagner coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total artwork) to describe his creations.

Another important musical term used in reference to Wagner’s operas is “leitmotif” (leading motive). This word is used to describe main themes throughout the opera that typically represent a specific person, object, etc. This theme occurs in various contexts throughout the opera, and though recognizable, it is varied or transformed in different ways to best depict the current point in the drama. Certain instruments, keys, or harmonies may also be used in connection with various leitmotifs in order to help the listener make the connection.

Wagner’s Ring cycle is an excellent example of a work using leitmotifs to connect music and drama in this Gesamtkunstwerk idea. During these four operas, Wagner introduces various leitmotifs that reappear throughout the cycle. Constantly using this thematic material, Wagner makes these musical ideas integral to the drama on stage. Take a look at this informative video by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra brass section in which they describe several uses of the leitmotif in the Ring cycle.
Wagner had an incredible influence on composers to come after him. His leitmotif ideas have even found their way into film and television scores, composers using certain musical ideas to depict specific elements on screen. One great example of this is the “shark theme” found in Jaws:

Do you have a  favorite Wagner opera? Have you noticed the use of leitmotifs in any of your favorite movies or television shows?


Monday, May 26, 2014

Meyerbeer and Grand Opera

During the 19th century, a new type of opera came into existence: grand opera. This type of opera focused just as much on the staging and scenery as it did the music and was meant to appeal to the middle-class audience. Grand operas included ballets, choruses, the use of stage machinery, etc. Rossini’s William Tell is a great example of this, using an on-stage lake in one of the scenes.

Giacomo Meyerbeer was one prominent composer of grand operas during the 19th century. Meyerbeer made it his goal to use whatever medium he could to help dramatize his operas. One of his well-known operas, Les Huguenots, uses a large cast, ballet elements, and special scenery and lighting effects to add to the audience’s experience. Meyerbeer’s style greatly influenced composers who came after him, among them Richard Wagner who we will talk about on Wednesday.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Popular Melodies of Giuseppe Verdi

On Wednesday we talked about Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century. Today, let’s look at opera in Italy in the later half. Giuseppe Verdi wrote outstanding melodies that became so popular he began to hide them as he composed in fear they would be leaked prior to the premiere.

Verdi preferred to choose the opera’s subject and to pull it from a successful spoken drama from writers such as Shakespeare and Hugo. Verdi also composed with certain singers in mind, creating vocal parts that would best fit the individual’s voice. He typically would wait to complete the orchestration until after rehearsals began.

In his famous Rigoletto, Verdi uses various styles of singing to depict the main characters. The hunchback Rigoletto does not have a clear aria while the Duke of Mantua sings in a tuneful manner. Gilda alternates between both styles.  Here is a clip from Rigoletto:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gioachino Rossini: A New Italian Opera Tradition

During the early 19th-century, several Italian opera composers went about creating a new Italian opera tradition. One such composer, Gioachino Rossini, made it his goal to depict characters on stage as real human beings. Like Mozart, he also often times combined serious and comic characters within the same opera.

Rossini often focused his opera composition on the voice. He believed the voice to be more important than the opera’s plot, the staging, orchestration, etc. He required a style of singing we call “bel canto” (beautiful singing). Singers were expected to use their entire range with ease, singing in a beautiful, soaring, and effortless manner.

You may notice when you hear Rossini on WGUC that many of his pieces sound fun and tuneful. He also often tended to enjoy repeating musical phrases, making it louder each time to add to audiences’ excitement. This became known as the “Rossini crescendo.” Rossini also furthered the plot by adding plot twists or changes in mood within arias or duets.

Here is an excerpt from one of Rossini’s famous operas, The Barber of Seville
Notice how Rosina’s singing style changes throughout the scene. In your opinion, how does this compare to other operas we’ve looked at thus far?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mozart's Don Giovanni

Moving along rather quickly through opera history, today let’s look at a famous late 18th-century composer whose operas are still widely performed and loved today: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni was performed just last summer by the Cincinnati opera. Did you have the opportunity to see it? This particular opera is quite interesting in that it uses both comic and serious characters. Working with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart also created a mezzo carattere (middle character) who acted serious at times and comic at others. This mezzo carattere is exhibited by Don Giovanni himself who, being a seducer, acts as a sort of chameleon as he comes across serious when around a serious woman and comic when around a comic woman.

Mozart also used shocking elements on stage that were not common during that time in history. During the opening scene, Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore on stage. This event is quite surprising for an opera labeled as a comedy.

Here is a clip from the opening scene of the opera. Following the overture, notice how Don Giovanni’s servant, Leporello, sings in a fast, comic way while Donna Anna comes across in a more serious, dramatic manner. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Opera Reform

This month, we are doing a brief overview on opera throughout history. So far we have discussed opera from its origins around 1600 to the classical era. During the mid-18th-century, opera began to reform as Enlightenment thinkers felt it should exhibit more of a balance between music and drama.

In order to create this balance between music and drama, composers aimed to move the plot forward and make the orchestra more of an important role in accompanying the vocalists. Rather than only playing simple harmonies under the vocalists, the orchestra now expressed emotions and moods pertinent to the opera’s plot. They also added choruses to many operas, something not common in Italian opera of that day.

Christoph Willibald Gluck was a pioneer of this new opera reform style. His Orfeo ed Euridice is an example of this. In this opera, Gluck uses the music to help further along the drama. He even uses a chorus as part of the action in the Chorus of the Furies of Act II. During this section, the orchestra certainly helps to convey the mood by using harsh strings, horns, and trombones to depict the Furies as Orfeo enters the Underworld. Gluck then uses a harp and softer, plucked strings to accompany the desperate Orfeo as he begs for mercy.

You can hear a clip from Gluck’s opera here:

How do you think this compares with operas earlier in the century?


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Opera Outside Italy

The last few days we have focused our attention on operas sung in Italian. Did opera exist in other languages at this point in history? Certainly! Today, let’s look at a few examples of opera in neighboring nations and see how they compare to what we have seen so far.

Comic opera sung in French was known as opera comique. Early in the century, opera comique pulled selections from popular tunes of the time. After Italian opera styles began growing in prominence, however, opera comique gradually began adding newly-written arias. Unlike opera buffa, this type of comic opera uses spoken dialogue rather than recitative.

In England, the common type of opera at that time was known as ballad opera. This type of opera was sung in English and, like opera comique, used spoken dialogue in place of recitative. It also set new words to old tunes that people would recognize as folk songs or dances of that region.

Singspiel is the term used to describe opera in Germany at that time. These operas often used a comic plot and, like the other opera types we’ve looked at today, consisted of spoken dialogue alternating with musical sections.

Join me next time as we move forward to discuss opera reform followed by late Classical and early Romantic opera next week!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Italian Comic Opera

On Friday we discussed serious opera during the early classical period. But what about operas with comic subjects? Unlike opera seria that extended beyond borders, comic opera was a bit different depending on the nation. Today we will look at a few of these forms found in Italy.

Opera buffa was the main form of comic opera found in Italy during the classical period. Unlike other nations, the opera was sung throughout with no spoken dialogue. It typically contained around six or more characters and took place during present day rather in historical times as in many opera serias.

Another form of comic opera found in Italy is known as an intermezzo. Intermezzos are two act comic operas performed in between the acts of an opera seria. They typically only contained two singing characters with one possible third character acting as a mute.

One example of an intermezzo is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La Serva padrona that you may remember from one of my January posts, sparked the Quarrel of the Comic Actors in France. Here is a clip:
Notice the simplicity of the recitative and accompaniment. What do you think? How does this compare to other operas we’ve looked at so far?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hasse, Bordoni, and Opera Seria

Last time we discussed the origins of opera and early opera composers. Now, let’s step a bit forward in time to the 18th century and discuss various types of opera that emerged on the musical scene.

One type of opera, known as opera seria, extended across borders and was found in quite a few European nations. Its name means “serious opera” and is just that: an opera in three acts, alternating between arias and recitatives (see last week for a definition) and based on a serious, often historical, subject. One famous librettist of the time named Pietro Metastasio, was known for using two sets of lovers as the main characters in his various dramas.

Unlike earlier operas in which arias conveyed one specific mood, operas of this period expressed multiple emotions. One 18th-century opera seria composer, Johann Adolf Hasse, was married to star soprano Faustina Bordoni who held lead roles in many of his operas. Hasse was known to compose his arias for Faustina’s voice, accentuating her strengths. Faustina was known to add embellishments throughout the arias to “show off” her virtuosity.

One of Hasse’s operas, Cleofide, is a great example of opera seria from this time period. Check it out. Also note the caricature of Faustina in the video! 


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Early Opera: Peri and Monteverdi

Credited with composing the first opera in history, Jacopo Peri wrote Dafne in 1598. He modeled it after Greek plays by creating a drama that was sung throughout.

Two years following Dafne, Peri set the drama L’Euridice to music. The plot is based on the mythological tale of Orfeo, who uses the emotion created by music to persuade the creatures of the underworld to let his wife, Euridice, return to life. In his opera, Peri created a new technique now widely known in the opera world as recitative. This musical term refers to a type of singing meant to resemble speech. He also used what is known as arias between the recitative sections during which singers had the opportunity to show off a bit in a solo song.

Peri’s L’Euridice was performed at the wedding celebration of Maria de’Medici to King Henry IV of France. Around the same time, another early-opera composer was emerging on the scene with an opera of the same plot. Though not opera’s originator, Claudio Monteverdi is recognized in high regard by music historians for his accomplishments with his first opera, L’Orfeo (1607). Like Peri, Monteverdi used the same mythological story of Orfeo and Euridice as well as arias and recitative. He expanded the instrumental ensemble and also included various duets and dances throughout to better reflect the drama.
Monteverdi does an excellent job in L’Orfeo at conveying the character’s emotions through music. For instance, when Orfeo discovers that his wife has died, the music changes from a major mode to minor and adds an organ to reflect his sad state. Listen to Orfeo’s lament here:

Do you think Monteverdi effectively conveys Orfeo’s emotion following this tragedy?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Forerunners to Opera

This month, our topic will be opera. Because it is a broad topic that we could literally spend months discussing, I will only hit a few opera highlights throughout history this month and perhaps we can explore other additional operas in future months.

Though the first opera was not composed until the year 1600, opera characteristics existed within various Renaissance genres years before operas emerged onto the musical scene. Here are a few forerunners to opera with their descriptions:

Pastoral drama: play with songs throughout

Madrigal: poem set to music with multiple voice parts

Intermedio: musical interlude performed between acts of a play (usually the topic related to mythology)

Greek tragedy

Next time we will discuss two major early operas, dating around the turn of the 17th century. Think about how these operas may be similar or different to others you may be more familiar with.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impression of the music. Did you hear any soundtracks that sounded minimalistic?