Although it was first developed in 17th Century Italy, there can be little doubt that the unique musical form known as opera (which translates as “work” in Italian) has become a global phenomenon over the last 400 years.
Along with the symphony, in fact, the operatic form has become the gold standard by which most composers are measured. Composers who revolutionized the operatic form include Claudio Monteverdi (commonly referred to as “The Father of Opera”), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Richard Wagner, and George Frideric Handel.
But what exactly is opera? Are operas still being written? Do Kanye West’s recent performances at the Hollywood Bowl count as operas?
The answers to these questions are complicated. While few composers are creating operas in the style of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Verdi’s La Traviata these days, the opera form is still alive and well. (Although Kanye West’s performances might be more accurately described as oratorios.) Moreover, the question of what exactly constitutes an operatic work has beguiled music critics, composers, and the world at large for hundreds of years.
In its barest form, an opera will essentially be a potent admixture of visual art, music, and literature. The way in which a stage is designed and the way in which singers behave and act during a performance will constitute the “visual” portion of an opera; the orchestral and vocal “score” written by a composer will constitute its musical aspect; and the libretto (the words sung by the performers) and its dramatic narrative arc will constitute the literary aspect of a given work.
Traditionally, these three elements have usually been handled by different artists: A librettist will tend to write or adapt a piece of literature for the composer to write music to; a composer will write the music; and a director and/or set designer will typically handle the “visual” portions of each operatic performance.
This may all sound a bit complicated, but in essence, most of us are already familiar with this combination of artistic forms. Indeed, just as we would naturally assume in our own time that a film will feature a dramatic narrative, a soundtrack, and traditional visual-artistic composition in the form of cinematography, most opera fans living hundreds of years ago would have seen no conflict in this combination of visual art, music, and poetry or prose.
In fact, the unique combination of artistic elements that has exemplified good operatic performances through the years quickly raised opera to a “prestige” form in Western Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Due to the rigors of composing a piece of music that might last more than three hours, for example, the composition of operatic works became an important vehicle for composers to show off their abilities. (Even Beethoven felt defeated by the form: The composer only created one opera during his lifetime.) Attempting to outdo even Mozart, the 19th Century modernist composer Richard Wagner wrote a single opera cycle that is over 15 hours in length.
Most operas written today are more modest (and far shorter) affairs than the ones written in Wagner’s day, but opera remains an important form of art throughout the world. Many contemporary composers such as Philip Glass, John Adams, and Karlheinz Stockhausen have excelled in writing operas that appeal to audiences passionate about the form. With luck, the operatic form will continue to develop for another 400 years or more!