A Short History | Modern Era | Opera

Although the art of the classical singer has traditionally been perceived as the pursuit of technical perfection and tonal beauty, the twentieth century enabled a re-evaluation of what that art should be.

Due in part to the technological advances and harrowing events of the times, much of the music was innovative, challenging, moving, powerful and, in many cases, an assault on the senses and sensibilities of the listener. Accordingly, twentieth- and twenty-first century opera has often provoked controversy, while opening the door to those who previously did not subscribe to its more bourgeois attributes.

The twentieth century’s burgeoning spirit was not fully revealed until after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Many Europeans sought a new life in America, while others set about bringing a new order to the old regimes. A political vacuum in some countries would soon open the doors to Fascist opportunists, yet the US thrived, its economy boosted via the sale and distribution of products in Europe. America’s own mushrooming population now included some of Europe’s best and brightest talents from every walk of life, and this exodus continued throughout the 1930s. Music and modernism became inextricably linked, when various aspects of modernity – the avant-garde, Dadaism, surrealism, modernism and expressionism – began to explode across the socio-cultural landscape. The bourgeois aesthetic was replaced by a leaner, sparser, musical palette that was often driven by ethnically influenced rhythms and harmonies; music that defied explanation and flew in the face of traditional Western harmony.

As the upheaval of the world wars and various political movements died down, the individual came to prominence in art once more – or at least, an increased perception of the importance of the self. Certainly, grand statements about the ‘big questions’ are still a common presence on the operatic stage, such as social (in)justice and more recent global issues such as climate change, the increasing power of corporations and the fear of terrorism. As the new century settles, there is also an emerging trend towards a more intimate study of humanity. There is a clear fascination in many contemporary operas with psychological subtext and introspection; a number of chamber pieces explore the minutiae of everyday life.

Key Events

1917 February and October revolutions in Russia end in the Bolsheviks taking power
1918 End of the First World War
1921 First Salzburg Festival takes place
1929 Stock market crash on Wall Street
1933 Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany
1936 The Spanish Civil War begins
1939 Britain and France declare war on Germany after its invasion of Poland
1941 Germany invades Russia; Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor leads to US entry into the war
1945 The Second World War ends
1953 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin dies
1956 Hungarian revolt is crushed by the USSR
1963 Martin Luther King leads the freedom March on Washington
1969 Man walks on the Moon
1980 Philips releases the first compact discs
1985 Gorbachev becomes president of the USSR
1989 End of communist rule in many...

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