Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons
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?
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.
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.
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.
'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!
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.
Following the towering tenure of Richard Wagner, opera diversified in terms of style, subject, and purpose. Richard Strauss seemed to be following in Wagner's footsteps in the early 20th century with his Salome and Elektra, but later works employed less emotional extremism, although still incorporating some Leitmotif.
Alban Berg burst onto the scene with his first opera, Wozzeck, in 1925. This is where opera really began to deviate from the large-scale fantasy of Wagner. Wozzeck was based on Woyzeck, a play by Georg Büchner, the central character of which is a victimized soldier. The mood is dark, the music melodious yet angular, and the topic down-to-earth. Only about an hour and half in length with a relatable story, Wozzeck has been called an avant-garde masterpiece.
In his operas of the 1950's-60's, Hanz Werner Henze sought to separate himself from Berg and the typical avant garde of the era, bringing back the lyrical and emotional content of the Romantic era in productions such as Phaedra and Elegy for Young Lovers.
The 20th century and beyond brought greater opportunities for singers to gain operatic fame. Some of the most well-known German opera singers of this time have been tenor Max Lorenz (1901-1975; the 'greatest German-born tenor or his day'), soprano Juliane Banse (b. 1969; Metropolitan Opera, and several other companies and opera houses internationally), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012; most famous for performances of German lieder - songs - but also for roles with major opera houses internationally).
Opera, a genre combining music and drama, developed in Germany in the late 17th century. The German national style most popular in the 18th century, Singspiel, was a type of comic opera including spoken text, often with characters drawn from the lower middle class. It encompassed the careers of composers such as Mozart and Hiller. German Romantic Opera gradually morphed into the elaborate and large-scale Grand Opera, of the 19th century, most remembered for themes of fantasy and Wagner's mammoth Ring Cycle. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen more stylistic diversity, including Henze's romantic-style reminiscing and Berg's relatable and less lengthy Wozzeck. As opera continues to evolve, audiences continue to seek this unique musical-theatrical experience.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons
Next LessonGiacomo Puccini: Biography, Music & Operas