Opera: Everything a Young Gentleman Should Know About it

Opera and hip-hop are at once very similar and very different. And in many ways, it is their diametric opposition that unites them. Opera is 400 years old; hip-hop is 40. Opera tends to appeal to elitist sensibilities, while hip-hop is decidedly counter-culture. Opera celebrates the hero and heroine, but hip-hop glorifies the underdog. The spectacle of opera occurs on the stage, whereas the spectacle of hip-hop unfolds in the real lives of its protagonists. Opera singers are esteemed, even if of modest means, but hip-hop stars are oftentimes socially vilified, even if filthy rich. Opera is a famous genre with unknown performers. Hip-hop is an infamous genre with world-renown stars.

The Beginnings of Opera

In 1979, when in The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight the artist spoke what normally would be sung, audiences were delightfully surprised, and the then-nascent genre, hip-hop, became a national and international sensation. Such it must have been when in 1597 in Florence, Italy, at the palazzo of Jacopo Corsi, perhaps as part of the carnival festivities preceding Lent, singers enacted the entire drama of Dafne, telling the tale of the nymph Daphne, who is transformed into a laurel tree in order to escape the amorous pursuit of Apollo. In attendance was the “Florentine Camerata,” a small group of wealthy artists, statesmen, writers, and musicians, formed primarily for the purpose of finding ways to transform Greek and Roman drama. According to Ottavio Rinuccini, author of the words of the drama enacted on that fateful evening in Florence, the performance “gave pleasure beyond belief to the few who heard it.” Thus, opera was born. Most of the music score of Dafne, composed by Jacopo Peri (1561 – 1633), has been lost to time. What has survived, however, is Peri’s vivid description of the music: “a harmony surpassing that of ordinary speech, but falling so far below the melody of song as to take an intermediate form.” What has also survived is Dafne‘s distinction as the world’s first acknowledged opera.

But like most great things, enthralling librettos, grandiose stage sets, and breathtakingly beautiful arias—the stuff of which opera is made—did not just appear out of thin air. What would become “opera”—the art form at the foundation of which is musical speech, had been on its particular evolutionary path for at least 100 years prior to that fateful night at Jacopo Corsi’s Florentine palazzo. During the Renaissance, Roman plays—tragedies and comedies—would be performed on festive occasions at the courts of Italy’s royal houses. And in an attempt to provide lavish entertainment between the acts, it became customary to present “intermezzi,” mini-productions with spectacular stage effects, beautiful costumes, and copious amounts of music and dancing. In 1502 in Ferrara, Isabella d’ Este, in the audience at a performance of a play by Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254 – 184 B.C.E.)—perhaps Pot of Gold, or The Menaechmi, or Braggart Warrior—is said to have delighted more in the spectacular intermezzi, which featured satyrs chasing wild beasts in time to a musical clock, Swiss soldiers engaged in a danse de guerre, and a golden ball that melts away to reveal the Four Virtues (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance) who then proceed to sing a quartet. But the first intermezzi to be preserved in detail were performed at the celebration of a wedding at the Medici court in Florence in 1589. Many of the intermezzi’s spectacles—a heaven made up of clouds in which characters sit and sing, a delightful garden, a rocky cave guarded by a ferocious dragon, and a marine scene complete with mermaids, dolphins, and a ship—would go on to become mainstay motifs of opera over the following 200 years, thereby establishing intermezzi as the precursor to opera. By the end of the 1500s, courtly audiences had grown so accustomed to music combined with extravaganza that opera was the logical artistic extension.

In 1607, ten years after the 1597 performance of Dafne at Palazzo Corsi in Florence, Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643), in his capacity as music director at the court of Mantua, presents a pre-Lenten performance of La Favola d’Orfeo, the story of Orpheus’ love for Eurydice and his descent into Hades in an attempt to rescue her soul from the grips of death. Monteverdi’s genre of choice for the production is the then-burgeoning opera. The role of Orfeo is sung by a castrato, starting an operatic tradition of using castrati—male singers castrated in their prepubescent years in order to preserve their high-pitched vocal range equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto—that would endure until the 1870s, the most famous castrato being Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi (1705 – 1782), better known as “Farinelli.” Enduring even longer was the opera Orfeo itself: It is Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera, and it is the earliest opera to maintain a place, 400 years later, in the operatic repertory.

After the death of the duke of Mantua in 1612, Monteverdi accepts the post of Master of Music for the Republic of Venice, his primary charge being to compose sacred music for performance at St. Mark’s Basilica. And it is those sacred compositions that spread his fame across Europe. The composer, however, maintained his interest in opera. And fortunately, for the development of the genre, Venice’s prosperous citizens see no reason why opera should be reserved for aristocrats in their private palaces; as far as the Venetians are concerned, opera should be more public. And to that end, in 1637, when Monteverdi is seventy years old, Venice opens the world’s first opera house: Teatro San Cassiano. (The city would go on, during the 17th century, to boast as many of seven opera houses). Despite his aging body, the opening of the opera house rekindles the flame in Monteverdi’s soul. Two operas, both masterpieces, survive from those later years: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland), which premiered at Teatro San Cassiano in 1641; and L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), which premiered in 1642 at Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, then the grander of the two theaters. Key to Monterverdi’s success as an opera composer are his ability to express emotion and drama in vocal music, so much so that there are contemporary accounts of audiences weeping at his arias, even if by 21st -century standards his work would be regarded as “formal” or “reserved.”

Opera Goes International

By the middle of the 1600s, opera had spread throughout the Italian peninsula and had even made its way to France and Germany. The Baroque period (c. 1650 – 1750) brought the works of Johan Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), George Friedrich Handel (1685 – 1759), and Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) to opera audiences. Baroque opera flourished in the royal courts and opera houses of Europe, the Italian school at the forefront. And in 1689 opera arrived in England when Dido and Aeneas premiered in London: Josias Priest, dance master at a Chelsea boarding school for gentlewomen, had commissioned the work from Henry Purcell, organist in Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal. The relatively short opera, noted for its remarkable intensity, is Purcell’s only opera. And it is the only English opera that predates the 20th century to have a secure place in the modern operatic repertory. Performed primarily by Priest’s young female students, with professional support in the main parts, including the tenor role of Aeneas, the young ladies are said to have displayed their skills in the opera’s 17 dances, all choreographed for the occasion by Priest. Unfortunately for Purcell, in 1689 London has no opera house; but audiences are profoundly moved by the performance, especially by Dido’s great lament upon the departure of Aeneas. (The success of the opera makes Purcell a much-demanded composer in the London theater scene, a profession which at the time was primarily used for adding songs to existing plays and masques. Despite the lack of operatic opportunity in London, Purcell went on to meet the demands as theater composer so much so that his King Arthur [1691], text by Dryden, and The Fairy Queen [1692], based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are still performed).

Germany’s first opera house opened in Hamburg. And in 1705, at age 20, the house’s recently employed young musician, Georg Frederic Handel, presents his first opera, Almira, on its stage. Almira is a success, prompting young Handel to travel to Italy, the birthplace of opera, the following year. In Italy, Handel finds much success: In Rome, where the pope forbids the performance of opera, Handel composes sacred music; and in Florence and Venice he composes operas. Handel’s fame spreads throughout Europe, resulting in his being appointed music director, or “Kappelmeister,” to the Elector of Hanover, the future George I of Great Britain, in 1710. In 1711, Handel is granted permission to visit London, where his first opera, Rinaldo (1711), is warmly received at the English court, even if mocked by some. Handel settles in Great Britain, producing a long list of Italian operas for London theaters and royal occasions, an example of the latter being Zadok the Priest, composed for the 1727 coronation of George II and has been sung at every coronation since. (In 1726 Handel becomes a British subject and goes on to pioneer the quintessentially British form of music, the English oratorio, a large-scale musical composition for orchestra, choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. It is distinguishable from opera in that while opera is musical theater, the oratorio is strictly a concert piece. In an oratorio, there is generally little or no interaction between characters, no elaborate costumes, props, etc. And unlike opera, which typically deals with mythology, history, and includes age-old devices such as murder, deception, and romance, oratorio plots are typically sacred, making it appropriate for performance in church).


The Transformation of Opera

By the 1730s, Italian poet Pietro Metastasio is living in Vienna, where there is a huge demand for Italian opera. And he has cornered the market on librettos in the “opera seria” style, so much so that some of his texts were given 40 or more operatic settings and by the middle of the 1700s had become formulaic: fantastically artificial plots oftentimes truncated to allow for the then-popular castrati to perform their arias—oftentimes twice in succession! “Da capo!” (meaning, “from the top!”) the audiences would demand, only to be gladly obliged by the directors and performers who had already made accommodations for the repeat performances. “Opera,” the Italian word for “work,” needed to be “re-worked.” And in 1762, that revolution occurrs: German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, court composer in Vienna, joins forces with Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, a librettist critical of Metastasio’s conventions. Together they introduce a form of opera in which words and music work together to convey a direct form of musical drama.

From circa 1750 to 1827, Willibald Christoph Gluck (1714 – 1787), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) emerge as the star composers of opera. During their tenure, the genre developed by expanding in structure, harmony, and plot content. The orchestra was charged with providing more harmonic depth and variety to accompaniments. Haydn alone composed over 75 operas for the Esterhazy court. Gluck advances his operatic philosophy with Alceste in 1767, another Italian opera for Vienna, and with operas written in the French language for Paris: Iphigénie en Aulide (1774); Armide (1777); and Iphigénie en Tauride (1778), for example. During Gluck’s 20-year stewardship of opera, he firmly establishes that opera should be first and foremost music drama, a characteristic that would endure.

The first fruit of his transformation of opera is Orfeo ed Eurydice, performed in Vienna in 1762. The opera is described in the program as an azione teatrale per musica (theatrical action through music). Gluck’s vision for opera is that it should aspire towards “simplicity, truth, and naturalness,” and that it should “serve poetry by expressing the drama of the plot, without unnecessary interruption or superfluous ornament.” Gluck’s Orfeo rises to the challenge: The story is simple and dramatically told, and its arias express the character’s emotions rather than flaunt the singer’s virtuosity. And the contributions of chorus and ballet are fully integrated into the plot, rather than being inserted merely for entertainment, as had become the convention.

In 1780, Mozart is commissioned to compose an “opera seria,” the solemn form of Italian opera, in the tradition established fifty years early by Metastasio. Mozart’s aim is to secure employment at court in Munich. The opera, Indomeneo, premieres in Munich in January of 1781. With unbridled genius, Mozart adds an unprecedented element of emotion and drama to the conventions of “opera seria.” Indomeneo is well received in Munich, but it is shortly thereafter forgotten for the remainder of the young composer’s short lifetime, remaining under-appreciated until the 20th century. In effect then, the real beginning of Mozart’s brief-but-celebrated operatic career begins later in 1781 when he moves to Vienna and wins a commission from Joseph II.

When Joseph II requested a cheerful opera in the German language, Mozart was happy to oblige with Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), which premiered in Vienna in 1782. The opera was immediately successful in Prague and in cities throughout Germany.

In the mid-1780s, Joseph II relaxes his insistence upon operas in the German language, allowing Mozart to collaborate with Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte in an adaptation of the most controversial play of the decade, Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, sensationally successful when first performed in Paris in 1784, primarily because of its criticism, masked in the medium of comedy, of the aristocracy. As such, Joseph II had forbidden any performance of the play in Vienna. But Da Ponte succeeds in convincing him to allow the opera to proceed. When Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) premieres in May of 1786, it is met with mixed reactions, perhaps on account of insufficient rehearsals. But a production in Prague later the same year is overwhelmingly successful—so much so that when Mozart visits Prague in January of 1787, he is delighted to hear everyone humming his tunes from the opera. To the Czechs, the opera was a masterpiece: It was a new development in opera, combining comedy and passion, all the while addressing an everyday, recognizable reality.

On the heels of the success of Le Nozze di Figaro, the Prague company commissions another opera from Mozart and Da Ponte, and the duo responds with Don Giovanni, which premiers in October of 1787 to much acclaim (though it is less successful in Vienna the following year).

The duo’s third opera commissioned in Vienna is Così fan Tutte (Thus Do They [women] All, also known as The School for Lovers), a cynical and unromantic tale that unfolds upon beautiful and romantic music…. Joseph II’s death in early 1790 causes the opera’s first run of performances to be interrupted.

Mozart’s last work for the stage premieres in Vienna in 1791. It is the quintessentially German opera, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Commissioned by businessman Emanuel Shikaneder, it is a tale of strange rituals and rough comedy for the audience of his popular theater (akin to a music hall). Anarchic and unconventional, the work is diametrically opposed to Mozart’s first opera of ten years earlier, Idomeneo. And when taken with the intervening collaborative works with Da Ponte, Mozart establishes himself as the composer with the most varied works in the history of opera. The Magic Flute goes on to make Shikaneder a rich man. Mozart, however, was dead less than three months after its premiere.


The Romantic Period—The Golden Age of Opera

From around 1817 to 1900, Romanticism, followed by Impressionism, took the art world—music, literature, painting—by storm. Verdi, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Géricault, Delacroix, and others ruled the day. During the 1820s, after the French Revolution, a new middle class become theater-goers in pursuit of entertainment. And composers responded by relying upon the literature of Shakespeare, Hugo, and Goethe, for example, rather than Greek or Roman mythology, in an effort to find subject matter that would appeal to the sensibilities of the new-found audience. Italian composers Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868), Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835), and Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) composed operas in the “opera buffa” and “opera lirica” styles. And all three inspired their singers to sing in the “belle canto” style, executing long, challenging, elegantly and beautifully phrased vocal lines; their operas are excellent vehicles for gifted singers to showcase their unique talents. Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cindarella) (1817) employs fioritura technique and comic timing from entire cast; in Norma (1831) by Bellini, a coloratura soprano with superb dramatic skills is required; La fille du Régiment (1840) by Donizetti calls for both a brilliant coloratura soprano and a talented tenor who can achieve seemingly countless high Cs. Witty-sung dialogue, distinctive characters, and beautifully crafted vocal lines are what ensure the success of these operas.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) was the successor to those three, great composers. And fitting successor was he, for many of the operas composed by Verdi serve as the backbone for the present-day operatic canon. In his native Italy, Verdi is celebrated as patriot, statesman, and composer of works that spoke to the politically controversial topics of his day. But his operas have stood the test of time because they are dramatically beautiful, vocally challenging, and filled memorable melodies that were crafted for all his characters. With the exception of his final opera, the comic Falstaff (1893), Verdi’s operas are all based on dramatic plays and texts, among which are Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1847) and Othello (1887); Victor Hugo’s Rigoletto (1851); Alexandre Dumas’ La Traviata (1853); along with Aida (1871), based on a scenario that is oftentimes attributed to French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.

While the “grand opera” genre of the 19th century incorporated all the artistic elements of beautiful solo voices, large-scale casts and orchestras, chorus, ballet, and elaborate scenery typically depicted in four or five acts, lighter opera—“opéra comique” (“opera buffa” in Italy) and “operetta” in Austria and England—emerged and developed loyal followings. Some of the foremost examples of such popular “light” opera are: Gaetano Donizetti’s “opera buffa” Don Pasquale (1843); Jacques Offenbach’s “opéra comique” La Périchole (1868); the Austrian “operetta” Die Fiedermaus (1874) by Johann Struass, Jr.; and Gilbert and Sullivan’s English “operetta” H.M.S. Pinafore (1878). Carmen (1875) by Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875) presented audiences with high drama, exotic locations, and romantic, evocative, and memorable musical themes.

As the 19th century progressed, the symbiotic relationship between literature and opera became more pronounced. Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) creates a new genre in opera in which the primary purpose of the music is to serve dramatic expression. His masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring [Cycle]), draws upon Norse mythology (as opposed to the “go-to” Greco-Roman myths) and employs the theatrical and cinematic device of “leitmotif” or “signature tune,” a short, constantly recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place, or idea, in order to help the viewers identify the various characters as well as to unite the four operas that comprise the masterpiece: Das Rheingold (Rhinegold); Die Walküre (The Valkyries); Siegfried; and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The series, which occupies about 15 hours of performance time and is generally presented over four consecutive nights, took Wagner over 23 years (November 1851 to November 1874) to complete. As complex as the plot line is, with its multiple subplots, it is fundamentally about Wotan, king of the gods, who steals a magic ring from the dwarf Alberich, who had himself stolen the ring from the Rhinemaidens. Two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, then steal the ring from Wotan, and much of the story is about Wotan trying to recover the ring. Wagner’s aim was to create a “gesamtkunstwerk,” a “complete work” that is a synthesis of music and drama where the focus is on both, as opposed to one or the other. Wagner’s compositions required the expansion of the opera orchestra from 50 to 60 musicians to about 90 to 100. And The Ring Cycle character Brünnhilde, a valkyrie, typically portrayed wearing a bull-horned helmet, is one of the all-time iconic, and arguably clichéd, images of opera.

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) followed in Wagner’s footsteps, employing even more elaborate orchestras and introducing dissonance as an expressive means of achieving drama. Salomé (1905), Elektra (1909), and Ariadne and Naxos (1912) are some of his best-known operas.

As music’s Romantic period drew to a close, composers Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) began exploring with Impressionism in music by expanding the boundaries of tonality and form. Debussy is credited with one successful opera: Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). It is based on the Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlink. And Ravel demonstrates his creativity when, in his delightful opera L’enfant et les Sortilèges (The Child and the Spells) (1925), he situates the singers in the orchestra pit from where they depict the various items in the child’s room as they come to life on stage. Meanwhile Italy’s Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924), taking up where his great countryman Verdi had left off, composed operas in the “verismo” (truth) style: presenting everyday people who find themselves caught in extraordinary, melodramatic circumstances. (All verismo operas require mature voices and dramatic singers with stage-presence). Puccini’s operas are at once musically visceral and emotionally bold, and are composed for big voices aided by rich, full orchestrations. Like the work of Verdi, Puccini’s operas serve as the backbone of the operatic repertoire: La Bohème (1896); Tosca (1900); and Madama Butterfly (1904). (Other noted Italian verismo composers are Umberto Giordano; Ruggero Leoncavallo; and Pietro Mascagni [1863 – 1945], best known for the masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) [1890]).


Opera in the 20th Century

During the 20th century, drama became even more important to the portrayal of characters on stage. And composers began creating operas for the actor-singer, as opposed to primarily for the singer. Composers such as Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950), best known for Lost Under the Stars (1949); Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), composer of The Rake’s Progress (1951); and Benjamin Britten, remembered his 1945 opera Peter Grimes, all composed in a less tonal idiom, focusing instead on plot drama. The singers who tackle the principal roles of these operas, then, must be excellent musicians, vocal technicians, and superior actors. The 20th century also saw opera composers experimenting with polytonality (music in more than one key occurring simultaneously), minimalism (music with repetitive structures), and theatricality. Opera of the 20th century also became more “cerebral” and more “psychological” : Austrians Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951) composed the monologue opera Erwartung (Expectation) in 1924; and his pupil Alban Berg ( 1885 – 1935) composed the opera Wozzeck (1925), with its abrupt and sometimes-brutal language, delving into themes of casual sadism and brutality, militarism, social exploitation, and the haunting realism of the everyday life of soldiers and townspeople of a rural, German-speaking town. Meanwhile American composers created works focusing on historical and social American themes: the beloved Porgy and Bess (1935) by George Gershwin (1898 – 1937); Aaron Copeland (1900 – 1990) composed The Tender Land (1954) with its mid-western setting, originally conceived for television; and Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926) set his Susanna (1955) in the state of Tennessee. By contrast, other American opera composers of the 20th century explore minimalism more profoundly: Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Akhnaten (1984) by Phillip Glass (b. 1937); and Nixon in China (1987) and Death of Klinghoffer (1991) by John Coolidge Adams. Ensemble operas, the focus being on the entire cast rather than on soloists, also became a popular theme of American operas at the end of the 20th century, Metropolitan Opera-commissioned The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) by John Corigliano (b. 1938), Little Women (1998) by Mark Adamo (b. 1962), and A View from the Bridge (1999) by William Bolcom being among the most regarded.


The Future of Opera

Opera, one of the performing arts’ grandest, most venerated, and most storied genres, continues into the 21st century, thereby spanning six centuries of artistic heritage and enduring more than 400 years. But to observe the composers of the foremost operas of the 21st -century is to take note that unlike the great composers of past centuries, who generally produced their most celebrated works in their twenties and thirties, present-day opera composers are, for the most part, musicians born in the early years of the second half of the previous century: Dead Man Walking (2000) is the work of Jake Heggie (b. 1961); Aidanamar (2005) is by Osvaldo Golijov, born in 1960; Doctor Atomic (2005) was composed by John Coolidge Adams, born in 1947; and Tan Dun, born in 1956, is the composer of The First Emperor (2006). Champion (2013), the two-act, 10-scene opera in jazz about the life and times of Virgin Islands-born Welterweight boxing champ Emile Griffith, was composed by five-time Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard (b. 1962), with libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer (b. 1945). Based on those numbers, then, a convincing argument can be made that opera composers are an aging, if not dying, breed. And even if the opera repertoire is replete with centuries-old mainstays, one of the reasons opera has stood the test of time is that it has always spoken to its times. And it is the young people of the time who are generally best at interpreting the times—via the performing and fine arts. But are young people attending opera? And if not, have any of the great opera companies commissioned operas in hip-hop? After all, hip-hop and opera are at once very different and very similar, as stated above. Music legend Gladys Knight can still sell out a venue—with fans she first cultivated during her early years in the business. But if she wants a chart-topping pop hit today, she is more likely to achieve her goal with a collaborative effort featuring one of music’s current stars. The primary consumers of popular music have always been young people. So if 21st -century opera has no mechanism in place to cultivate young fans, will the genre even have a fan-base of middle-aged connoisseurs—the typical opera-goer—in 20 years? Opera is not like ballet: all little girls want to be prima ballerinas; but all little girls do not aspire to become prima donnas. Ballet may forever have an audience, but opera may not. And who are the hip-hop star equivalents of opera? Who are opera’s brightest and best young, creative minds? And which, if at all any, 21st -century opera arias are hummed on the streets the way Mozart encountered the residents of Prague humming his tunes from Le Nozze de Figaro in January of 1787? With the special effects possible in cinema, have the spectacle that made opera, opera been relegated to child’s play? Is Wagner’s The Ring Cycle as grand as opera can get?

Music tastes are oftentimes ingrained and imprinted onto young minds. The remaining handful of present-day opera composers grew up looking at Looney Tunes’ animated films starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig set to classical compositions, many of them tunes from well-known operas. Those musicians, then, were indirectly introduced—within the context of Saturday morning television viewing—to opera and its music from before they could speak, let alone sing or play an instrument. But animated films today rarely, if ever, incorporate classical music for dramatic effect. How, then, is opera to reach the masses? And if it does not, how is the genre to survive another 400 years in the midst of competition from other forms of entertainment?

Once decidedly elitist, exclusive, and expensive, by the end of the 20th century, opera was making bona-fide attempts at bridging the mainstream, the genre’s greatest names joining forces with each other or collaborating with the foremost stars of popular music. The recording of the July 1990 debut concert in Rome of “The Three Tenors,” featuring José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti, became the all-time best-selling classical album. And 1.3 billion people viewed their second televised performance four years later. And just as Latin heartthrob Julio Iglesias had teamed up with pop diva extraordinaire Diana Ross in 1984 in order to break into the English-speaking market, Carreras and Domingo joined forces with Ross for the “Christmas in Vienna” concert in 1992, the broadcast of which became an instant television Christmas classic. Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury teamed up with opera powerhouse Montserrat Caballé in 1988 in Barcelona to celebrate the city’s selection for the 1992 Olympics. And in 1998, when Pavarotti, upon doctor’s orders, had to cancel his performance at the Grammy’s, he called upon his dear and admired friend, “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin—at a moment’s notice—to sing Nessun Dorma in his stead, Franklin’s stand-in performance receiving a sustained standing ovation.

But for many a young man with an interest in opera, securing opera tickets at the world’s premier opera houses—Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, Paris Opéra, Venice’s La Fenice, Vienna Staatsoper, Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, Florence’s La Pergola, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, Royal Opera House of London, Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colon, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, and the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, for example—is prohibitively expensive. And tickets, which oftentimes become available two months before the opening of the opera season, are typically sold out a day or two after they are made available for purchase. A young man living “paycheck-to-paycheck”, then, even if he has an entertainment allotment factored into each paycheck, generally will not be able to find tickets at such houses when he wants them and can afford them. Yes, there are annual opera festivals such as: Munich Opera Festival, which takes place in the opulent Munich Opera House, one of the world’s most beautiful, and being an enclosed, contained space, presents opera in a controlled environment as it was meant to be heard; The Proms at London’s world-famous Royal Albert Hall; and France’s Chorégies d’Orange, held in a Roman amphitheater with a seating capacity of 9,000, singers performing without the aid of amplification. Opera’s biggest and brightest stars perform at the many opera festivals around the world. And though such events are affordable, they occur only in the summer months—when many young men prefer to be outside engaging in physical activity rather than sitting quietly and listening attentively to opera. But furthermore, just as jazz connoisseurs are not created at annual jazz festivals, but instead in small, smoke-filled jazz clubs all year long, opera is best cultivated during the opera season, from November to about April or May, inside opera houses, the venues specifically designed and built for the genre.

Livorno’s Teatro Goldoni

The problem, then, is that world-class opera is generally very expensive or very infrequent. Enter: Livorno, Italy’s Teatro Goldoni, a stately, elegant, 950-seat, neoclassical theater that has seen the likes of opera greats such as Enrico Caruso and Galliano Masini in its now-170-year-long history, and each season presents the genre’s biggest productions—from Aida to La Bohème to Turandot, for example. Designed in the classic, horseshoe-shaped, “teatro all’italiana” model popular in the 18th century, Teatro Goldoni features four tiers of box seats surmounted by a “loggione,” where tickets are least expensive but the acoustics are reportedly the best. The loggione (gallery) makes for an interesting mixture of “loggionisti,” opera aficionados who specifically select that section of the theater so as to be able to more liberally approve—or disapprove—of performers, and opera-goers seeking fine entertainment at bargain prices. The theater also boasts an iron-and-glass skylight ceiling, innovative for its day, that allows for natural lighting during matinée performances, a cost-cutting feature that has saved the theater considerable funds over its long history. There is also the “Goldonetta,” a mini-theater within the theater that seats 200 and is suitable for more intimate performances such as jazz concerts, chamber music, recitals, experimental theater, and lectures. And Teatro Goldoni offers special rates for students and persons under the age of 30—opera tickets for about the price of the average cinema ticket. So for what it would cost a young man to purchase two tickets at one of Italy’s top-level opera houses, he could secure two excellent tickets at Teatro Goldoni, take the train to Livorno, book a room at a bed-and-breakfast, have dinner and a bottle of wine in one of the city’s restaurants, enjoy a big-name opera directed by an up-and-coming artist, hear arias performed by some of opera’s rising stars, enjoy a classic “Ponce livornese” the following morning, then hop onto the train and head back home—with money in his pocket. Dollar for dollar, euro for euro, Teatro Goldoni is one of the world’s best opera houses for introducing young men on a strict budget to the luxurious art of opera.

Livorno is Tuscany’s most important port city. And Teatro Goldoni is one of the city’s few major buildings to have survived the Allied bombings during World War II. As such, the theater was popular for American soldiers immediately after the war. It is said that Frank Sinatra wowed audiences there during the early years of his performance career. But the theater’s history predates the historic war by almost a century.

On October 1, 1842, Francesco Caporali and his son Alessandro decided to “erect a new and magnificent theater” in Livorno. The theater was part of an urban and architectural initiative led by Italy’s Lorena family during the first half of the 19th century, the initiative’s aim being to have Italian cities reflect the wealth of their bourgeoisie merchant class. The architect commissioned for the opera house project was Giuseppe Cappellini, who, with a team of craftsmen—Benedetto Malfanti as foreman, Ceccardo Ravenna as marble specialist, Pietro Bernardini in charge of stucco work, and the brothers Giacomo and Giovanni Medici of Milan in charge of interior decorating—labored on the building from 1843 to 1847.

The theater, originally named “Imperiale e Regio Teatro Leopoldo” in honor of Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II of the Habsburg-Lorraine family, opened its doors to the public on July 24, 1847. The inaugural performance was Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil) (1831), with libretto by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne, regarded as one of the first “grand operas” at Paris Opéra. But despite the thunderous success of opening night at Teatro Leopoldo, it was as if the devil himself had cast a curse upon the new theater, for its problems were almost immediate. Almost immediately after opening, ownership of the theater passed from the Caporali family to Giuseppe Varoli, their former business partner, the theater falling into such decline during Varoli’s brief tenure that by 1855, less than ten years after its illustrious inauguration, the building had been acquired at auction and restored by its new owner, Pandely Rodocanacchi (1818 – 1882). Rodocanacchi, during a two-year restoration between 1853 and 1857, brought the theater back to its former splendor.

After the fall of the Lorraine family in 1859, the theater was renamed “Teatro Caporali” in honor of its original owners. But by 1860 the name of the theater had once again changed, this time to “Regio Teatro Goldoni” in honor of beloved Italian playwright and librettist Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni (1707 – 1793) who had a particular affinity for Livorno and set some of his works, perhaps most famously La Trilogia dela Villeggiatura (The Trilogy of the Vacation Resort) (1761), in Livorno.

Ownership of the theater changed several times from the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. But at the beginning of the 21st century, the building was acquired by the municipal government, immediately thereafter undergoing a long and accurate renovation. On January 24, 2004, in a ceremony presided over by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, then-President of the Republic of Italy, the theater was reopened. And selected for the inaugural performance was Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) (1890), the masterpiece by Livornese composer Pietro Mascagni (1863 – 1945).

For a young man interested in an authentic, affordable introduction to opera, Livorno’s Teatro Goldoni is unequaled. There, he will find a beautiful theater, a courteous staff, world-class productions by opera’s rising stars, and Livorno—an authentic Italian town, at once ancient and modern, elegant and gritty, set upon the shores of the magnificent Mediterranean Sea. At Teatro Goldoni, in the city of Livorno, a young man will encounter the thing that gives rise to great opera: reality.


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