An opera primer: Glimmerglass regular explains the basics of the genre

An opera primer: Glimmerglass regular explains the basics of the genre


First, opera is supposed to be quite serious.

One writer of praise for Verdi’s “Trovatore” observed, totally without irony: “When the soprano part is sung as Madam X sings it, one cannot survive without tears.”

As for the composer himself: “He made a nest for singers in his music like the mother-bird warming
her young.” Such comments have as much relation to events as political promises for “a new life” — which turn with experience to be even less exciting than a “new laundry powder.” However, humans are
susceptible to such notions — like the “word itself, “the “poem itself,” even the “opera itself” — all without context. Such theories limit experience and blunt contacts with other lives in the human family.(As for that “mother-bird,” Verdi bitterly complained about inadequate singers,
conductors, and impresarios.)

This composer entered profound depression after the death of both children and his wife. The libretto of Nabucco pulled him from the depths.

A reader of the bible and of Shakespeare, he responded to admired language in the libretto Verdi then describes writing one note at a time, then phrase by phrase, “little by little the opera was written.” At a rehearsal, a chorus so pleased the carpenters that they beat on the woodwork with their tools and cried, “Bravo, bravo, vive il maestro.”

Wagner’s “Cycle,” better reduced to another form? It is already a “ring.” A controversy of taste since its origins, the whole lasts many hours. The critic Irving Kolodin proposed a shortened version; the Glimmer-form trims even more. Is this an improvement? What might bother even informed listeners is the pomposity of Wagner’s own text, an extensive mythological soap opera. The composer’s place in musical history is found in reactions to what one biographer in 800 pages called “Wagner’s Mind.” French culture, with its clarity and discipline, was never to his taste. He even prohibited the speaking of French in his own household.

However, French compositions are therapeutic for the pretended grandiosity of this composer. Debussy included a “Tristan chord” in a satiric piano solo with direction that it was to be played “with great feeling.” The composer Eric Satie had great fun with mythological and self-important pretenses. Answering complaints about his lack of musical form, he composed pieces in “the shape of a pear.” He called some of his other works “wall paper music.”

Brahms, however, was a quietly persistent critic. A score by Wagner was on his Streicher grand. A visitor noted the text was upside down. Brahms righted it: “Now it makes no sense at all,” he said.

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was intended as a light entertainment, commissioned by his Masonic friend and theater owner Schikaneder. Is the mythology of the libretto serious? The conductor Bruno Walter thought so, but the light of heart should think otherwise. A baritone roughly imitating a bird song? A Queen of the Night reaching the heavens with her high notes?

The work passes into its own immortality, just as Mozart and other composers of this Glimmerglass season still live through their art.

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