New York City Opera Project: Madama Butterfly

Italian Opera : Timeline 1600-1900
OrfeoJulius CaesarDon GiovanniTancredi Aïda Madame Butterfly

An opera is a drama that is set to music and combined with costumes, scenery, lighting, and sometimes even choreography. The text of the drama-the speech of the characters-is sung by voices and accompanied by an orchestra. But opera, since its birth in Italy at the turn of the seventeenth century, has enjoyed a long and complex history. Between 1600 and 1900, the style of the singing voices, the sound of the orchestra that accompanies them, and the type of dramatic texts that are employed have all varied enormously.

Greek tragedy served as a distant model for the earliest Italian operas. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, a group of literati known as the Florentine Camerata discussed and hypothesized about the nature of Greek drama. Several of the men concluded that the texts of these dramas must have been realized by a single sung melody (one voice) plus a simple accompaniment (perhaps one or two instruments). The vocal melody, they said, would have approximated the natural rise and fall of the speaking voice. It was, therefore, a kind of heightened speech that, by means of its musical elements, also communicated emotion. Such theories caught the attention of several composers, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) included, and it was then that the recitative style was born. The recitative style consisted of a natural-sounding sung text with minimal accompaniment. It was used to set entire dramatic texts. In Monteverdi's Orfeo, one of the first opera's ever composed, the characters sing a continuous melodic line; it approximates speech but also incorporates stirring lyricism. Monteverdi's is an enhanced recitative that s sometimes referred to as arioso. Beneath the voice, instruments realize the basso continuo, a series of simple chords.

Early Baroque operas such as Orfeo had a tremendous impact on music composition throughout Europe. The genre spread quickly, and even composers who were not Italian, such as George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) attempted to write their own. Handel, in fact, composed more than forty Italian operas. Their subjects were usual for the time; most revolved around serious episodes taken from history and legend. But now, more than one hundred years after the birth of opera, the musical style had changed. In place of a continuous recitative, employing various degrees of lyricism, composers alternated recitatives with musical numbers called arias. In an aria, a character expresses a single mood or emotion: anger, happiness, disappointment, and so on. The vocal lines in these arias veered away from a natural speech-song and toward a much more lyrical and frequently virtuouso melody. Arias were also accompanied by the complete orchestra; vocalists, frequently sopranos (sometimes women and sometimes castrati) were allowed long and complicated solos. The recitatives were now employed solely for plot and dialogue-passages in which words, and not emotions, were central.

After about 1760, the opera seria (or serious operas) of composers like Handel began to decline somewhat in importance while a new kind of opera, the opera buffa (or comic opera), began to flourish. Comic operas were lighter in style and subject than serious operas. They presented characters whose social status was lower than the aristocrats, kings, queens and heroes of the opera seria. Italian comic opera also made significant use of the bass voice rather than just the soprano voice. One of its other great innovative elements was the ensemble. An ensemble, like an aria, is a distinct section of music, or number, but in an ensemble instead of one character several sing at once. Mozart (1756-1791), in Don Giovanni, employed numerous ensembles to great effect. But Don Giovanni was also not a typical opera buffa. In fact, it was originally referred to as a dramma giocoso (literally a jocular drama), owing in part to its sometimes serious and sentimental themes. In Don Giovanni there is a psychological depth to the characters and an infusion of moral issues into the drama.

By the 19th century, Italian opera had established itself as one of the leading genres in Western music. Although the musical characteristics of opera had become somewhat fixed, elements of Romanticism soon began to seep into the musical fabric. Opera seria, in particular, enjoyed a larger orchestra. Rich orchestral colors, in particular from the woodwind and brass instruments, and grandiose choruses were also added. The principal Italian composer of the early nineteenth century was Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868). In both his comic and serious operas one also finds lush vocal melodies and coloratura, or ornamented, passages-elements that made his operas fashionable at the time. But it was Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) who brought Italian Romantic opera to its peak. Over the course of more than fifty years, and twenty-six operas, Verdi achieved enormous popularity throughout Italy not only for his beautiful melodies and rich orchestration but also for his eschewal of foreign influence; to his fellow countrymen he was a patriotic symbol. Verdi was also a master of human drama. He pursued a blending of recitative and aria, abandoning the sharp dichotomy between them that had defined opera of the past in order to more easily adapt music to particular instants of the drama. One hears, especially in Verdi's late operas, a musical continuity throughout passages and a plastic flow of melody.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was one of the last great Italian Romantic opera composers. He also stands as the supreme exponent of a style of opera often labeled verismo. Verismo describes an opera that takes as its subject parts of the real world that were previously considered unworthy of art. Its first sign is the choice of a libretto that presents everyday people in familiar situations. Its second sign is a musical style appropriate to such a libretto. We find obvious examples in La Bohème's (1896) presentation of starving artists in Paris. But Puccini was above all a successful eclectic who reflects variously the late Romantic taste for sentiment, realism, and, as is especially evident in Madama Butterfly, exoticism: the sounds and sights of a particularly alluring locale.

Ruth Longobardi