Listen to part of a lecture in a music history class. The professor has been discussing Opera.
The word opera means “work.” Actually, it means “works.”
It's the plural of the word"opus"from the Latin.
And in Italian it refers in general to works of art.
“Opera lyrica,” or lyric opera, refers to what we think of as opera, the musical drama.
Opera was commonplace in Italy for almost thousands of years before it became commercial as a venture.
And during those years several things happened primarily linguistic or thematic and both involving secularization.
Musical drama started in the churches. It was an educational tool.
It was used primarily as a vehicle for teaching religion and was generally presented in Latin, the language of the Christian Church, which had considerable influence in Italy at that time.
But the language of everyday life was evolving in Europe, and at a certain point in the Middle Ages, it was really only merchants, aristocrats, and clergy who can deal with Latin.
The vast majority of the population used their own regional vernacular in all aspects of their lives, and so, in what is now Italy, operas quit being presented in Latin and started being presented in Italian.
And once that happened, the themes of the opera presentations also started to change, and musical drama moved from the church to the plaza right outside the church.
And the themes again, the themes changed, and opera was no longer about teaching religion as it was about satire, and about expressing the ideas of society or government without committing yourself to writing and risking imprisonment or persecution or what have you.
Opera, as we think of it, is of course a resurrected form.
It is the melodious drama of ancient Greek theater, the term "melodious drama" being shortened eventually to "melodrama" because operas frequently are melodramatic, not to say unrealistic.
And the group that put the first operas together that we have today then,were, well... it was a group of men that included Galileo's father Vincenzo, and they met in Florence he and a group of friends of the Count of Bardi and they formed what is called the Giovanni de' Bardi.
And they took classical theater and reproduced it in the Renaissance time.
This... uh... this produced some of the operas that we have today.
Now, what happened in the following centuries is very simple.
Opera originated in Italy but was not confined to Italy any more than Italians were.
And so as the Italians migrated to across Europe, they carried theater with them and opera specifically because it was an Italian form.
What happened is that the major divide in opera that endures today took place.
The French said opera ought to reflect the rhythm and cadence of dramatic literature, bearing in mind that we are talking about the golden age in French literature.
And so the music was secondary, if you will, to the dramatic cadence of language, to the way the rhythm of language was used to express feeling and used to add drama, and of course as a result, instead of arias, or solos which would come to dominate Italian opera, the French relied on what the Italians called “recitativo” or “recitative” in English, the lyrics were spoken... frequently to the accompaniment of a harpsichord.
The French said, “You really can’t talk about real people who lived, in opera.” And they relied on mythology to give them their characters and their plots. Mythology, the pastoral traditions the... the... novels of chivalry, or the epics of chivalry out of the Middle Ages.
The Italians said, “No, this is a great historical tool, and what better way to educate the public about Nero or Attila, or any number of people than to put them into a play they can see and listen to.”
The English appropriated opera after the French.
Opera came late to England because all theaters, public theaters were closed, of course, during their civil war.
And it wasn't until the restoration in 1660 that public theaters again opened and opera took off.
The English made a major adjustment to opera and exported what they had done to opera back to Italy.
So that you have this circle of musical influences. The Italians invented opera. The French adapted it. The English adopted it. The Italians took it back.
It came to America late and was considered too elitist for the general public, but Broadway musicals fulfilled a similar function for a great long while.
John J. Chapman wrote about opera, quote, “If an extraterrestrial being were to appear before us and say, ‘What is your society like? What is this Earth thing all about?’ you could do worse than take that creature to an opera,” end quote.
Because opera does, after all, begin with a man and a woman and an emotion.