Classical era opera offers a dramatic reflection of the society of its time. Read on to learn about opera seria and opera buffa, the two popular styles of Classical era opera.
Classical Era Opera
If I asked you to name musicians who wrote songs protesting the establishment, my guess is you'd think of the bands like The Rolling Stones before you'd think of Mozart. But during music's Classical era, which lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century, big social changes were happening, and composers were there to portray every step of the story. Some of the era's most outspoken statements about society appeared in the dramatic stories of opera.
The Classical era came at a time when people were questioning the power of aristocrats who had ruled Europe for centuries. A contemporary philosophical movement called the The Enlightenment fueled this discussion. Enlightenment thinkers believed in class equality, and they thought that reason and natural human expression could bring about goodness and justice. Upheavals like the American Revolution and the French Revolution resulted from Enlightenment thinking.
There were two popular styles of Classical opera. Taken together, they're a great illustration of the Enlightenment-era struggle between upper and lower classes. One style was opera seria, an older variety of opera with plots that celebrated the power of the aristocracy'. The other was opera buffa, a new style with plots that questioned authority and featured everyday characters.
Opera seria is Italian for serious opera. This solemn style was old-school from a Classical perspective: it had been around since the mid-17th century. The plot of an opera seria usually concerns a noble protagonist who faces a tough moral decision. The characters are exalted types, like monarchs or Greek gods, and the settings are mythological or historical, with extravagant, high-budget stage sets. Opera seria was popular with the ruling classes. It portrayed the aristocracy as they liked to see themselves: noble, profound, and intimidating people with their epic costumes.
One famous Classical-era opera seria is Orfeo ed Euridice, (that means Orpheus and Eurydice) composed in 1762 by the German composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787).
This opera was based on an ancient Greek myth about the god Orpheus, who visits the underworld hoping to free his dead bride Euridice through the power of song.
Gluck was interested in the Enlightenment's ideas about naturalness, and it shows in his music. He portrayed Orpheus's heartbreak with elegant, simple melodies that were solemn enough to express the characters' nobility, but simple enough that anybody could relate to the characters' feelings. It was a gentle statement against the elitism of traditional opera seria.
Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is the most famous of Classical era opera composers. His operas are known for powerful music and psychologically realistic characters. His best-known opera seria is his mythological masterwork Idomeneo, written in 1781.
Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, the story concerns Idomeneo, King of Crete. Idomeneo faces a terrible choice: he must sacrifice his son to the god Neptune, or his kingdom will be destroyed. Idomeneo contains the classic ingredients of opera seria: a mythological plot, a tough moral decision, and a powerful but benevolent monarch. Here's a picture of the original star of Idomeneo, looking quite noble and idealistic.
Idomeneo character from opera seria by Mozart
If you're thinking that opera seria sounds a bit boring, you're not alone. Even in the Classical era, not everybody wanted to sit through three hours of Greek gods making profound moral choices. To add a little comic relief, producers started to insert comic mini-operas called intermezzos between the acts of serious operas, like a halftime show in the middle of a football game.
In 1733, Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) wrote an intermezzo that became a major hit: La serva padrona, which means The Maid as Mistress. The protagonist is a wily maid named Serpina (yes, that means little serpent) who climbs the social ladder by conning her rich, grouchy old boss into marrying her.
La serva padrona did not sit well with upper-class listeners, since it portrayed them as gullible idiots. But lower-class listeners loved it, and soon composers were writing full-length comic operas for the middle-class market. This new genre was called opera buffa, which is Italian for comic opera. Unlike opera seria, opera buffa featured modern, realistic settings, and everyday characters that the average middle-class listener could relate to. And like La serva padrona, opera buffa poked fun at the aristocracy.
Mozart was a master of opera buffa, and one of his best is the hilarious and moving Le nozze di Figaro (in English, The Marriage of Figaro) composed in 1786. In this show, the street-wise servant couple Figaro and Susanna outsmart their manipulative, predatory employer Count Almaviva. Here's a picture of Count Almaviva trying to pull the moves on Susanna, while the sneaky pageboy Cherubino spies on them. The Marriage of Figaro was based on a French play so controversial that it had been banned by Parisian censors. Turning that play into an opera buffa was a daring move for Mozart.
The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
Another great opera buffa is Mozart's Don Giovanni, composed in 1787. This show is a dark comedy about Don Juan, the legendary Spanish nobleman who traveled the countryside seducing women. Don Giovanni is a complicated character: he's charming and funny, yet totally unconcerned with the destructive outcomes of his behavior. Don Giovanni receives his come-uppance in the end, when the statue of one of his murder victims walks into his house and drags him down to hell. Don Giovanni is darker than most comic operas, but its critical depiction of the aristocracy is quintessential opera buffa.
Music's Classical era lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. Opera in the Classical Era reflected the social atmosphere of its time, and was influenced by The Enlightenment. Opera seria (serious opera) was a genre which portrayed exalted characters in historical or mythological stories. Examples of opera seria include Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice and Mozart's Idomeneo. Opera buffa (comic opera) was a genre that questioned the aristocracy's authority. Pergolesi's intermezzo, La serva padrona, was a forerunner of opera buffa. Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are two masterpieces of the genre.
When this lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Define classic era opera, opera seria and opera buffa
- Identify composers and operas of opera seria
- Recall some of opera buffa's great composers and examples of their works