However much some may lament the fact, and even though there are now signs of significant change, a large majority of the operas that form the present-day international repertory still hail from a slightly elongated ‘long’ 19th century, from around 1780 until around 1920. The most frequently performed operas all belong to this period. This curious centrality, not to mention the disturbing presentness of the most famous works, their constant ‘re-creation’ in public and private spaces around the globe, makes any broad historical overview a daunting prospect. What is more, internal chronological divisions within the period are neither obvious nor commonly agreed on, nor does separation of the genre into various national schools, though these retained much currency, seem as unproblematic as it might be in dealing with the 18th century. Accordingly, the ensuing discussion does not follow chronological or national boundaries, relying instead on more neutral divisions that could apply to opera in any century.
As §IV indicates, the very term ‘opera’ underwent an important transformation during the 18th century, changing from a sub-species of spoken theatre into what was essentially a musical genre. Even though elements of the earlier definition remained in force in some areas during the early decades of the 19th century, perhaps particularly in the case of Italian serious opera, the period saw a gradual consolidation of this change, with music as more and more the dominant element and with the status of the librettist as a literary figure experiencing a sharp decline. On the other hand, in its new guise as a musical genre, opera lost aesthetic prestige, in particular in comparison to ‘pure’ instrumental music. Late 19th-century attempts to give the genre new status thus often sought to appropriate aspects of the ‘symphonic’ tradition while simultaneously striving to dignify afresh the non-musical aspects: by notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk, by publishing librettos as independent literary works or by developing the idea of Literaturoper, a type of opera that strives to preserve a pre-existing literary source more or less intact.
Possibly connected to the decline in the genre's literary status, the relationship of opera to larger currents in cultural and political history remains a source of lively debate and not infrequent puzzlement. Key cultural terms such as ‘Romanticism’ and ‘realism’ often seem to manifest themselves in opera at periods removed from their appearance in the other arts, or in strangely unemphatic contexts. As just one example, the literary polemics over Romanticism in Italy around 1816–18, or in France in the 1820s and 30s, although they focussed on drama, seemed largely to ignore opera, quite possibly because the genre had already (and without great resistance) escaped those restrictions of time and place that classicists saw as crucial to spoken drama, and because its language, its mode of discourse, was too extraordinary to be co-opted into the debate on either side. Of course, opera partook freely of the new, Romantic dramas as literary sources; but, significantly, it was able do so without radical readjustments to its outer nature, Romantic and classical subjects frequently remaining side by side in an otherwise largely unchanged formal and stylistic language. This is not to say that such broad cultural shifts did not affect opera profoundly: the new subjectivities that emerged with Romanticism certainly played powerfully across opera's expressive world; but the conjunctions are typically not as immediate as the sharing of certain literary texts might at first suggest.
The same caution might be applied to opera's relationship to history in the broader sense. The political revolutions of the period interrupted the steady production and consumption of operatic pleasure in what are arguably no more than superficial ways, and the persistent association of certain composers (notably Auber, Verdi and a number of eastern Europeans) with insurrection and social unrest has far more to do with later 19th-century imaginings – nostalgia for a lost time of action – than with any contemporary evidence. Although it was inevitable that the opera house, as an important meeting-place for the urban bourgeois, occasionally became caught up in the century's great bourgeois revolutions, the theatre was far more often a place where the ruling class could rely on stability. This was more so as the century progressed and revolutionary movements embraced an ever wider socio-economic spectrum, many elements of which were excluded from all but the humblest of operatic representations. This is not, of course, to deny that opera in the 19th century was in many areas inescapably bound up with the idea of nation and national representation; merely that political events and operatic events are very different, their relationship often complex and subterranean.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
Towards the end of the 18th century, regular operatic performances could be seen through much of Europe, even as far afield as Russia. 50 years later, however, the genre had become a well-nigh global phenomenon. Apart from certain pockets of partial resistance, this expansion was primarily of Italian opera, first in a huge wave of Rossini fever (there was a Rossini vogue in Chile in the 1830s), and then of his followers, in particular Verdi. By 1870 the most popular of Verdi's operas were being performed in many a far-flung outpost in North, Central and South America, and they had also travelled to Australia, China, India and South Africa.
In the more remote regions, opera was often brought in by means of intrepid touring companies, bravely making use of an expanding system of rail transport. Within Europe, however, the number of theatres dedicated to fixed seasons of operatic performance increased considerably, especially during the first half of the 19th century. After the revolutions of 1848 there came about a gradual change, and a gradual decline in opera's economic fortunes in the main centres of western Europe. Partly this was a matter of changed public habits among the privileged classes: there were now other possible meeting-places, and new, competing forms of cultural activity. But it was also to do with the changing nature of operatic institutions.
Although traces of what might loosely be described as ‘court opera’ in the 17th- and 18th-century sense occasionally survived into the early 19th century, notably in Germany and Austria, by far the most common financial basis for an opera house was within a mixed economy. The key figure was the impresario, already much in evidence in the 18th century, who arranged seasons and engaged singers and composers, usually receiving some kind of subsidy from the theatre's owners (who might or might not be the local government) but also speculating at his own financial risk. The highpoint of the impresarios' power came in the first half of the 19th century, a period that saw powerful figures such as Louis Véron and his successors at the Paris Opéra; Alessandro Lanari, who controlled large regions of central Italy and thus to an extent coordinated the repertory and performing resources; and Bartolomeo Merelli, who arranged similar exchanges between such important centres as La Scala, Milan, and the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. Looser connections took place between Her Majesty's Theatre in London and the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, though here the primary link was the shared services of a group of élite singers and their own preferred repertory.
The decline of the impresarios in the latter part of the 19th century marked several important changes in operatic life. The increasing establishment of a core repertory, and the consequent decline in production of new works (see below, §3), reduced the impresarios’ role, as did the gradual strengthening of copyright controls (over both new and repertory works), which vastly increased the power of certain publishers, who now began to take a more active role in operatic production. Competition intensified, and profit margins decreased, with the gathering popularity of large, arena-type theatres later in the century (fig.13). For the major theatres, state funding, with impresarios likely to be little more than paid managers, became the norm; and this model continued its precarious existence through the 20th century.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
One of the key changes during this period was the decisive formation of an operatic repertory, the gradual emergence of a body of works that were revived countless times in countless different venues, and the consequent decline in the production of new operas. Repertory works were of course not unknown in the 18th century and earlier: the operas of Lully and Rameau had achieved something like that position in France, as had the oratorios of Handel in England. It should also be recalled that an operatic repertory of a kind did indeed exist in the 18th century, but that the ‘work’ was typically a libretto, not its musical setting: several of Metastasio's librettos were endlessly restaged in the 18th century, in numerous musical settings. Some of Mozart's operas (in particular Don Giovanni) may have tentatively established repertory status in England and Germany in the first decade of the 19th century, but the crucial change in direction occurred in Italy (the centre previously most resistant to repertory formation) and began with the most popular comic operas of Rossini, which established for themselves a permanent position around the globe, to be followed by various works by Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. By the 1840s the term ‘repertory opera’ was in common use in Italy and rapidly spread elsewhere; the disruptions of 1848–9 and the international successes of Verdi's middle-period operas solidified the process.
In the second half of the century, the idea of a repertory was thus firmly entrenched; but in its earliest phases the corpus changed quite radically. From the 1850s onwards, the first pan-European challenge to Italian hegemony came, from French grand opéra, in particular the works of Meyerbeer, which became a truly international phenomenon, even establishing a (highly contested) position in Italy itself (fig.14). Then, towards the end of the century, Wagner's operas gained ground, in several countries displacing all but the most hardy of Italian operas (it was not until the 1920s and 30s, with the so-called Verdi Renaissance, that Italian and German opera established a comfortable co-existence as the backbone of the repertory). Towards the end of the 19th century, with new operas becoming ever more scarce, we see glimmers of what, 100 years later, had become a major force: the idea of the operatic revival as an agent of repertory renewal. When Handel's Almira was performed in 1878 in Hamburg, it initiated a process that would grow steadily through the 20th century, though still not rapidly enough to challenge the central position still occupied by works from the ‘long 19th century’.
The effects of this repertory formation on operatic institutions are referred to in §2 above. But there were other, equally important repercussions. During the first few decades of the 19th century, star singers tended to limit themselves to works in one national tradition, and could rely on making a living out of roles either written specially for them or in some way adapted to their strengths and weaknesses: choice of a company of singers would typically precede choice of repertory for a given season. By the end of the century this situation was often reversed, singers tending more and more to adapt their voices to a variety of roles and musical styles and composers being less willing to tailor roles for a particular voice. An international singing style emerged.
But perhaps the most fundamental change brought about by repertory opera occurred in the nature of operatic communication. In an operatic world based primarily on new works, composers had to produce quickly and to communicate immediately with audiences: if a work failed at its first performances, that failure was often absolute. Hence the importance of generic conventions, whose presence could stimulate and ease creative endeavour while at the same time offering audiences ready points of contact and a reassuring familiarity. Small wonder, then, that these conventions lost ground as the repertory set in. New works now had to pass a sterner test, defining themselves as ever more radically different from their competitors. As originality became increasingly the watchword, original composition became ever harder. The sense of an operatic tradition was lost, or rather was searched for in the ever more distant past.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
The separation of comic and tragic genres that had been established in the 18th century was firmly in place, whatever the national school, at the start of the 19th century, and remained fairly constant for the first few decades. True, there was also a tradition of so-called ‘mixed’ works (the French comédie larmoyante or the Italian opera semiseria), but, rather than escape the traditional divisions, these types, the latter especially, tended to emphasize them further by using genre juxtaposition as a primary means of dramatic articulation. An additional continuity with the 18th century was in the tendency of comic works to occupy a less elevated position in the operatic pantheon, frequently appearing in minor theatres and addressing a less elevated audience. This tendency hardened in the decades around the middle of the century: Rossini-style comic operas, though retaining a robust currency, particularly in dialect traditions, became unpopular with the most successful composers.
However, this falling away or diluting of comic opera was accompanied by two highly significant developments. The first was an increased infiltration of comic scenes into serious opera. In Italy Verdi was active in this fusion of genres, integrating frankly comic scenes into several of his post-1850 operas. Perhaps even more striking, in France the later 19th-century drame lyrique owed at least as much to an earlier tradition of opéra comique as it did to grand opéra. Other national opera traditions of the later 19th century, the Russian and the Czech, seemed easily to embrace this mixture of the comic and the serious.
The second development was the emergence of a new genre, now known under the broad title of operetta. Though there were important precedents both in France and Germany, the decisive point is usually seen to be marked by the works of Offenbach in the 1850s, first known as opéras bouffes after the theatre in which they were initially presented (fig.15). The international popularity of this new style led to offshoots in other countries, each with a distinctive national character, and each drawing from indigenous traditions: the Operetten of Johann Strauss and others in central Europe (which owed something to the earlier Singspiel); the works of Gilbert and Sullivan in England (which drew energy from vaudeville and ballad opera traditions); the revival of the zarzuela in Spain and from there its dissemination to Central and South America.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
Among the huge diversity of operatic plots in the 19th century, it would seem very difficult to trace purposeful lines of development. On the most basic level, however, one might hazard that the domination of French dramaturgical models seen at the end of the 18th century was in large part maintained through the next 100 years. When sea changes occurred in the manners of French spoken theatre – for example the advent of mélodrame in the early years of the 19th century, or the subsequent turn towards ‘realism’ around mid-century – then opera followed, and did so regardless of the various inflections brought on by national differences.
But certain large shifts in cultural attitude nevertheless left their mark. For example, opera plots are surely implicated in the now familiar idea that the 19th century saw an important turn away from what the sociologist Richard Sennett has called the idea of ‘public man’: an increasing tendency for ever more stressed and crowded urban dwellers to seek coherence not within the public world of politics and public display, which had so often betrayed them and was ever more obviously beyond their control, but rather within the private world of the family and of personal relationships generally. It has been plausibly suggested that this change is played out in operatic subjects: that those grand historical canvasses of the early century gradually gave way to ‘claustrophobic’ dramas, in which the individual's plight became the chief focus of attention (related to this could be the decline in the prestige of comic works, which inevitably lie more in the public world). For example, the decline of French grand opéra of the Meyerbeerian type has been traced in precisely these terms (Gerhard, E1992), and the progress of a composer such as Verdi, whose operas span a large part of the century, is a further case in point: although grand choral effects nearly always played a part in his works, the increasing manner in which individuals come to dominate the drama is obvious. Wagner's ‘retreat’ into myth in the second half of his career might be taken into this story with only a little sense of strain; and a seemingly logical end-point occurs in the early 20th century, with purely psychological works such as Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Schoenberg's Erwartung, or with the operas of Puccini, in which any political aspects are typically overwhelmed by the focus on individual passions.
However, objections to this neat sense of progress come readily to mind. In the case of Verdi, while the progress from (say) the grand public spaces and themes of Nabucco to (say) the claustrophobia of Otello might seem compelling, important mature works such as Don Carlos will give pause, not least because that opera is arguably one in which the force of history, and thus of the public world, plays with unprecedented influence on the lives of the characters. And with Wagner there is the case of Die Meistersinger, in which the composer's dramaturgical techniques adapt with seeming ease to grand public spaces and overt historical gestures. More anomalous still are the operas from emerging national traditions such as those in Russia and elsewhere in eastern Europe, in which the epic style and large historical canvas continue to occupy the centre, albeit sometimes chaotically juxtaposed with an intense focus on individuals.
Undoubtedly related to these matters, and equally problematic, is another large shift, towards what is loosely called ‘realism’ (or verismo). Certain key works are routinely mentioned in this light: Verdi's La traviata, which was originally set in almost-contemporary Paris, and which is suffused by the then modern rhythm of the waltz, or Bizet's Carmen, with its factory girls, common soldiers and criminals. However, in both cases, as in many others, the ‘realistic’ effects thus obtained are constantly compromised by their simultaneous status as elements of local colour, which causes them to be in some senses distanced from audience identification and thus made less realistic (there is also the obvious point that the reality of a Violetta or a Carmen was certainly not one to which the contemporary operatic audience would have aspired). Perhaps the literal geographical expansion of opera plots in the later 19th century, their tendency to explore ever more remote and mysterious areas, is in this sense a more significant development, not least because of the musical explorations that it inspired in so many composers. By the closing decades of the century, operatic ‘exoticism’ – particularly in the French and Italian traditions – had become so common as almost to function as an alternative routine, with its own stock collection of much circulated musical and visual representations.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
6. Stylistic and formal changes.
The 19th century is conventionally seen as the great age of progress, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the history of its most important cultural products is also depicted primarily as an achievement of goals. In terms of opera, this sense of a gradual move towards some distant oasis (a goal often associated with some vaguely value-laden concept of drama) is typically inscribed on to the lives of individual composers or national schools. This is most striking in the case of Italian opera, whose 19th-century history is still sometimes thought of as a painful achievement of genuine dramatic values, effected by heroic individual effort in the face of formidable resistance.
In such a historiographical context, it is salutary to try to construct a more international picture, one that involves trends larger than those found in any individual composer or even national school. The rigid alternation of recitative (involving dialogue and stage action) and aria (involving monologue and reflection) had already been challenged by the later decades of the 18th century; but the first decades of the 19th century saw the decisive emergence of the multi-movement ‘number’ as the basic unit of operatic form. This unit was (perhaps as always) more predictable in Italy than elsewhere, but it nevertheless formed the backbone of much opera elsewhere (the partial exception was German opera, which favoured the strophic romance and tended to use multi-movement forms only to demonstrate a character's supposed italianate qualities). The number contained within it both static and kinetic movements, thus allowing for a variety of emotional representations (and a variety of vocal manners), as well as the injection of stage action – typically the entrance of a character with news from outside – to precipitate contrasting moods. During the early decades (longer in comic opera), recitative or spoken dialogue remained in currency; but this gradually became absorbed stylistically into the number. At the same time, the numbers tended to become less formally predictable and, above all, longer and more complex. Opera across all national styles became increasingly connected musically. By the end of the century it was common, at least in the most elevated styles, for act endings to become the only places of complete musical pause.
These formal changes brought with them other, equally important and equally pan-European, developments. One of the most striking was what has been called a ‘dialoguizing’ process, the sense in which opera in this period begins to present dialogue – which in classic 18th-century opera seria had taken place almost exclusively in recitative – as an increasingly central aspect of its communicative project. This in one sense brought opera closer to spoken drama, by the end of the century allowing such types as Literaturopern (works that use as their libretto an existing spoken drama with minimal alteration, although inevitably some cutting). It also meant that the duet in some ways replaced the aria as opera's normative mode of discourse. This should not be exaggerated. Partly because it was so central to opera's dissemination outside the theatre, in concerts and private venues both humble and elevated, the solo aria (or at worst the chunk of monologue) continued in firm currency in almost all types of opera through to the end of the 19th century, typically remaining an unproblematic aspect of the dramaturgy, not for example requiring special plot preparation to justify its presence. If anything, the hegemony of the aria in the public's operatic imagination was further strengthened by the appearance of recording, which was gathering pace as the century came to a close.
However, the combined effects of ‘dialoguizing’ and increased continuity, together with a falling away of predictable formal patterns, left room for, and perhaps necessitated, other levels of musical communication within opera. Probably the most important of these was by motivic means. Reminiscence motifs began to be extensively used during the last decade of the 18th century, mostly in France; during the first half of the 19th they appeared in most national styles, perhaps most commonly in German opera, least often in Italian, a point surely reflecting the so-called symphonic aspirations of German composers. In the second half of the century, this tendency to supply an opera with some degree of motivic coherence became even stronger, most famously in Wagner's systematic use of the leitmotif in his later operas, a technique taken up by a great many at the fin de siècle. It is often said that leitmotifs should be rigorously distinguished from reminiscence motifs, in that the latter merely punctuate the musical discourse (in fact tending to articulate their message by their difference from their surroundings) while the former constitute the very basis of the musical fabric. But the matter is far from clearcut, not least because there are many stretches of mature Wagner that are (arguably) without leitmotifs: to characterize the musical material of his later operas as deriving exclusively from leitmotivic activity requires a degree of special pleading.
Just as significant: opera got noisier. Although (contrary to general belief) the string sections of operatic orchestras did not get much larger during the 19th century, what might be called the centre of gravity of the orchestra gradually slipped, with lower tessituras used for certain woodwind instruments (flutes and bassoons), a strengthening of the lower brass and the gradual addition of wind instruments of various kinds. These changes were of course related to developments elsewhere: in the demands made of operatic orchestras in the increasingly continuous operatic fabric; in theatre architecture and in the sheer size of venues (dictated by economic considerations); in changes in singing style; and in more general organological developments.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
7. National traditions.
In §1 it was suggested that the national differences so important to 18th-century opera gradually began to erode during the 19th century, to give way to an international style; but significant differences remain between the mainstream traditions even in the last decades, ones not only tied to the use of language. However, this process of internationalization may not always move in a direct line towards the century's end. It can be argued, for example, that the pull of French dramaturgical practice, together with the unprecedented prestige and magnificence of French grand opéra and the cosmopolitan leanings of Paris, made the 1830s and the beginning of the 40s an earlier moment of rapprochement between the major European traditions, at least within the most elevated genres (similar arguments might also be made for Paris in the first decade of the 19th century). With Italian composers such as Donizetti looking towards Paris and Parisian style, and with the young Wagner deeply influenced by grand opéra, one could suggest that Paris had fashioned around itself a European style. But it was not to last. The three most influential composers of the 1850s and 60s – Meyerbeer, Verdi and Wagner – all to some extent redefined a sense of national difference, even while the dissemination of their works was responsible for an internationalization of the repertory.
However, the 19th century also saw the decisive establishment of a number of other national traditions, in particular those in Russia, Poland and various parts of the Habsburg empire, notably the Czech lands and Hungary. All these areas saw vernacular opera during the 18th century, but – as in the case of Germany a little earlier – the formation of a ‘national opera’ was bound up with a gathering sense of national cultural identity. In all cases one can identify key works that managed, more by dint of multiple performance and/or association with political events than by using folk materials, to collect around them a potent miscellany of musical and dramatic or literary motifs that could come to symbolize the nation. The process here is important: rather than appropriating an already existing fund of national musical material, these operas typically constructed that material, becoming ‘national’ through their cumulative reception. In both Russia and the Czech lands, the founding fathers (Glinka with A Life for the Tsar, 1836: fig.18, and Smetana with The Bartered Bride, 1866, respectively) were merely the start of a flourishing tradition (albeit one that in Russia continued to find fierce competition from Italian opera), while the work of Erkel in Hungary and Moniuszko in Poland remained to some extent isolated. What is more, Russian opera in particular managed to penetrate the western European repertory, functioning within it as the standard representation of ‘other’ opera, not bound by any supposed dramaturgical or musical rules associated with the mainstream traditions.
For various political and cultural reasons, other countries found it more difficult to establish national traditions, although many tried. Spain is a typical example, first in the grip of Rossini, then Verdi, then (and always belatedly) dealing with the equally stifling influence of Wagner and Wagnerism. Other nascent traditions, in countries as far-flung and diverse as Argentina, Greece, Sweden and the USA (many more could be mentioned), had to wait until the 20th century for any decisive national opera to be formed.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
8. Singers and other performers.
As has already been mentioned, singers – those central purveyors of opera's message – maintained a substantial influence over the operatic event during much of the 19th century. During the first half of the century, and far beyond that in certain areas, the choice of a roster of singers was the first decision to be made in the construction of an operatic season: only when the performers had been fixed would composers and librettists be contracted, and these ‘creators’ would then make their decisions about subjects and treatments with a particular cast in mind. This applied even to composers of the greatest imaginable eminence. Verdi or Meyerbeer, for example, were both well aware that their new operas, if successful, were destined for repertory status, and thus to be performed under many different conditions and with many different casts; but they nevertheless tailored individual parts to the première cast, a restriction that seemed if anything to stimulate their creativity. However, as mentioned earlier, the increasing hold of the repertory system in the second half of the century inevitably meant that singers were less and less often involved in creating new roles, and so lost much of their influence, even at a time when increased mobility assured the most famous of them unprecedentedly large earnings.
One of the most striking aspects of vocal change during the period is the extent to which singers altered in type. By the 1830s the castratos, already in steep decline during the later 18th century, had all but disappeared from the operatic stage, their heroic roles first taken by the contralto musico, then by the Romantic tenor. This drop in the tessitura of heroes continued through the 19th century. In the early decades, for example, tenors freely used a ‘mixed voice’ to produce graceful high notes, but by the 1840s this had for the most part disappeared, giving way to a concentration on the more baritonal, heavier tenor range. The rise of the so-called heroic tenor roughly coincided with the emergence of the dramatic baritone as his central antagonist, or even, particularly after 1850, as the principal character. All voice types gradually sacrificed flexibility for sheer power: the ornamental vocal writing that had been the province of all up to about 1820 had become by mid-century the exclusive domain of female singers, and then only a sub-group of them.
These changes, as already mentioned, are related to other developments in operatic practice: the need for greater power, for example, clearly went hand in hand with the expansion of the orchestra and of theatres generally. The shift away from soprano voices (which had dominated 18th-century opera) in heroic roles, and also perhaps the rise of the baritone, could be related to an increasing desire for a degree of operatic realism: opera came closer to the communicative codes of spoken drama if the singing voices of characters were differentiated in a manner similar to their vocal differentiation in a stage play. But there are also interesting ways in which these developments might cautiously be linked to wider cultural change.
The situation of women on stage, for example, seems to invite such speculation. Although women were an accepted part of 18th-century theatrical life, their social position was frequently precarious. In part for this reason, women singers tended to come from theatrical families (where they would enjoy a degree of protection) and to come a poor second to the castratos in terms of earning power. However, the 19th century saw a great rise in the hegemony of the prima donna, and through most of the century (despite competition from star tenors) they could often outstrip their male colleagues in fame and fortune. Women of many stations now chose the life of an opera singer, seeing in it a chance for individual professional advancement otherwise rather rare for their sex. But it is at least arguable that this rise in status and professional power was accompanied by a tendency in opera plots to treat female roles as increasingly ‘other’: ever more powerless to effect the violent events that surround and all too often overwhelm them.
During the second half of the 19th century, the power of singers of either sex to influence the operatic event was being challenged by another interpreter: the conductor. At the start of the century, the typical method of coordinating the musical aspects of an operatic performance was by means of two directors: the maestro al cembalo, who at premières was often the composer and who often had a special responsibility for the vocal aspects; and the principal violin, who would use his bow to beat time and generally marshal the orchestra. This system fell into disuse around mid-century (earlier in Germany and England, later in Italy), to be replaced by something more like the modern conductor. By the end of the century the star conductor was gaining in influence, the most prominent of them having considerable sway over many aspects of the operatic event.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
The idea that staging might be closely coordinated with other aspects of operatic performance of course existed well before the 19th century, but this period nevertheless brought about extensive revisions in both the practice and the philosophy of opera's visual system of communication. Much of the stimulus for this came first from German-speaking theatres, where already in the late 18th century considerable attention was being paid to the total effect of theatrical performance. By the 1820s Weber, in Dresden, was putting into operation a system in which all staging elements of an opera were selfconsciously to be united, taking particular trouble with soloists' (and even the chorus's) histrionic abilities.
Many of the developments were fuelled and encouraged by technological change: gas lighting appeared in theatres around 1820, electricity in the second half of the century (fig.20). Both of these were of course safer than previous, naked-flame alternatives; but they also allowed for greater sophistication of stage illusion, as did enlarged backstage spaces and more complex machinery. By the 1830s the acknowledged leader in these fields was the Paris Opéra, in which vast expense and untold energies went into creating elaborate visual display. This activity was marked by the emergence of the so-called livrets de mise en scène, production books in which many aspects of the visual would be painstakingly notated, and which were intended to ensure that works first given in Paris would be ‘correctly’ mounted in the provinces and elsewhere. The livrets' appearance thus coincided with, and was inseparably linked to, the establishment of repertory opera, and called into question a crucial aesthetic issue: when revivals of a classic work were mounted, how far should the original staging of that work be considered part of its basic ‘text’? The appearance of the livrets reflected a radically restrictive answer to these questions, each livret aiming to make certain aspects of the production a fixed text, and (often explicitly) to govern the visual manner in which the operas would be revived.
In houses devoted to Italian opera, whether in Italy or elsewhere, such issues were less pressing. During the first half of the 19th century, the librettist (or house poet) generally took charge of staging, and the sheer speed at which productions went on stage suggests that there was far more reliance on convention and routine solutions. However, the influence of French theatrical practice spread and by the 1860s elaborate disposizioni sceniche, directly modelled on the livrets, began to accompany the most prestigious premières (fig.21). By the 1870s and 80s, the grandest of grand operas, whether in France, Italy or Germany, were vast and fearsomely complex undertakings, great monuments to archaeology and Romantic illusion. The prototype of the modern director emerged, most obviously in the formidable presence of Richard Wagner, whose Bayreuth stagings of his operas in the late 1870s and early 80s pioneered a darkened auditorium, an orchestra hidden from view and a new, more ‘naturalistic’ acting style, all of which further intensified the sense of audience involvement in the visual spectacle (fig.22). Wagnerian attention to the spectacle was as much a revolution in audience behaviour as it was in directorial practice. Through much of the 19th century, the audience was by modern standards undisciplined and noisy: it was only when the advent of electric stage lighting allowed the auditorium to be in almost total darkness that anything like present-day silence became the norm.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
10. Sources, dissemination.
The practice of printing a libretto for each revival of an opera, for sale in or near the opera house and with information about the cast, other executants and often with a preface by the librettist, continued to roughly 1850 and was then gradually replaced by generic librettos produced by publishers. These documents served as an important point of communication with the public, were consulted by many in their (dimly) lit auditoriums and doubtless influenced the manner in which an opera was received in ways now difficult to imagine – surely, for example, highlighting the manner in which operatic music is a setting of a poetic text.
The 19th century also saw a consolidation and then vast expansion of the vocal score as the prime physical means of disseminating the musical text of an opera. Early in the century, particularly in Italy, individual numbers (‘pezzi staccati’) would often be released first; the complete score could later be assembled by binding these pieces together. Printed full orchestral scores were rare in Italy until near the end of the century (and then were usually for hire only) and appeared in Germany only in certain exceptional cases (Mozart, Weber and especially Wagner). In France, however, the earlier tradition of publishing full scores of the most successful works continued through much of the century. Even where printed scores existed, however, manuscript copies were still the primary means by which the complete text of an opera was distributed to theatres.
While vocal scores clearly aided the dissemination of operas into both private and public spaces, a far more widespread and voluminous means, practically the invention of the 19th century, was the published operatic transcription. In Italy and France particularly, a successful opera of mid-century would be released in an enormous number of arrangements: for piano solo, piano duet, for various instruments and piano, for other (sometimes unlikely) combinations and also in numerous more ‘creative’ versions, entitled fantasias or reminiscences, sometimes as grand and ambitious as those of Liszt, sometimes much more modest. This corpus of material suggests that operatic music was a major part of the repertory of private salons, or indeed of anywhere that the piano and other instruments were played by amateurs. 19th-century concerts, too, were much more likely to involve either operatic excerpts, arrangements or reminiscences than their counterparts today. Operatic texts and subjects were diffused in less grand venues: in the marionette theatres of Italy, the burlesques of England, the magic lantern shows of Germany and of course the barrel organs of all these places. There is even evidence that operatic melodies sometimes drifted into the channels of oral transmission, to re-emerge as supposed folk material collected by ethnographers in the 20th century. It is probably true that opera, as publicly performed in urban theatres, can rarely be termed popular entertainment in anything like a modern sense (a partial exception might be made of the period between about 1860 and the advent of the cinema, but then only in places with a large Italian population). It is however also true that opera during this period became a phenomenon much broader than merely its theatrical diffusion, however extensive, might suggest.
Opera, §VI: The 20th century
11. Criticism, aesthetics.
The considerable expansion in so many domains of operatic activity during this period is nowhere more evident than in discourse about the topic. The 19th century saw a huge rise in periodical publication, and a large number of periodicals either included extensive reference to, or were entirely dedicated to, operatic activity. Distinguished titles such as the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (Leipzig), the Gazzetta musicale di Milano and the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris were accompanied by an enormous number of less ambitious publications. The centre of this activity, at least in terms of bulk, was Paris, in which an important première at the middle of the century would stimulate as many as 20 or 30 separate reviews, many of them lengthy. This outpouring only increased as the century went on, with periodicals tending to become yet more specialized, sometimes even being devoted to a single composer (usually Wagner).
Much of the criticism thus produced was of course directed towards performances and performers, and was written to routine formulae; what is more, many of the opinions expressed were evidently inspired by the owners of the publication, who frequently had biasses deriving from financial and/or political interests. Many of the century's most acute critics, however, plied their trade in periodicals: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Schumann, Hanslick, Berlioz, Castil-Blaze, Basevi, Boito, Serov, Stasov and numerous others. The fact that several of these writers were also composers marks an important change in the status of writing about music, one that was perhaps not to reach its climax until the 20th century. The most influential writer about opera in the later part of the century was of course also its most influential composer. In one sense, Wagner's programmes of operatic reform had echoes in countless other such proposals from the past, some of them (Mercadante's, for example) quite recent: a call for renewal in the relationship between music and words; a return to an ancient, ideal concept of drama. But one important difference was that Wagner wrote from an aesthetic standpoint in which absolute music was in a position of ascendancy in relation to opera, at least among an élite of philosophers. It was a standpoint he attempted, by complex reasoning, to challenge as far as his own operas were concerned, and his views were enormously influential, not least among the scholars who now began to analyse his operas within the newly formed discipline of musicology.