German Opera: Composers, Singers & Music

Instructor: Sarah Porwoll-Lee
Learn about the development of opera in Germany, musical styles throughout the centuries, and some of the important composers and performers in German opera from the 17th Century to today.

Opera and its Genesis in Germany

Still popular among classical music lovers today, opera is a genre combining music and drama - sort of like upscale musical theater. Operas are primarily sung, sometimes including spoken word, and typically accompanied by an orchestra or instrumental ensemble. Opera began in Italy at the end of the 16th century. It is thought that the first opera performance in Germany was Italian composer Ottavio Rinuccini's Dafne at the Landgrave of Hesse's wedding in 1627. Things sure have changed - can you imagine seeing a fully staged opera at a wedding today?

Development and Growing Popularity

Throughout the 17th century, German opera grew in popularity. The first commercial opera venture was in Hamburg in 1678, with the Theater am Gänsemarkt. The central figure of the Hamburg opera scene was Reinhard Keiser; not only was he the principal composer, writing over 100 operas in 1694-1734, but he also directed and managed the theater. Needless to say, Keiser was a busy guy! The establishment of the national theater in 1778 encouraged more composers to become involved in writing opera.

18th Century Composers, Style, and Singers

Opera flourished throughout Europe during the 18th century. National styles developed in several countries, including German Singspiel. Singspiel was a type of comic opera including some spoken dialogue, often with characters drawn from the lower middle class. Audience members could relate to topics in Singspiel because the characters were more like the average person, as opposed to the upper-class characters of serious opera.

Two important composers of Singspiel were W.A. Mozart (Austrian-born, but wrote in the German style and did extensive work there) and Johann Adam Hiller. Hiller composed approximately fourteen Singspiel between 1766-1779. One of Mozart's most famous Singspiel operas, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), was dramatic, musically diverse, and incorporated comedy and fantasy. Opera companies today perform this opera regularly, sometimes with modernized characters and costumes - even the occasional jeans and leather jackets! - because of its continued popularity.

Mozart portrait

Although singers of this time could rarely make a living by performing, there were still some who became quite famous. German tenor Valentin Adamberger was known for his precise vocal technique and incredible agility. Mozart and other composers wrote roles specifically for him. Ludwig Fischer was another friend of Mozart's, and a fantastic bass voice.

19th Century: Big Changes, New Faces

'Stylistic transition' was gospel in the 19th century. Although some composers still wrote Singspiel, Romantic Opera and, to a lesser extent, operetta, began to dominate the German opera world. These two genres were, in some ways, opposites. Romantic Opera expanded the importance of the orchestra, grew in terms of size, length, and emotional content, and increasingly utilized musical motifs to represent characters. Operetta essentially downsized the entire production, both in terms of personnel and length.

Grand Opera developed in the mid-19th century, further expanding on the ideas that began with Romantic Opera. Everything was large-scale - orchestras, choruses, the inclusion of ballet, elaborate scenery - even plot conflicts were on a larger scale. Romantic ideas, including folk elements, nature, and supernatural themes, were also common.

The most prominent operatic composer of this time was Richard Wagner. One of his most well-known operas, still an obsession with opera-goers today, was the Ring Cycle. This cycle is actually a set of four operas - Wagner's ideas of expansion went so far as to say that sometimes, one opera just is not enough! This set of operas especially developed Wagner's use of the Leitmotif, which is a recurring musical idea that represents some aspect of the drama or an individual character. These operas also utilized ideas of mythology and fantasy. Some critics have compared J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy to Wagner's Ring. Parallels may be found if you look closely, but the author denied they are related, save the basic idea of the ring!

Wagner Ring Cycle Valkyrie

Due to the virtuosic and singular nature of Wagner's writing, certain singers became known as 'great Wagnerians.' One such soprano was Lilli Lehman, cast by the composer in the first Ring Cycle performances. She helped popularize the composer's music while working with the Metropolitan Opera.

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