Introduction | Modern Era | Opera

The opera house and, more specifically, opera audiences, were among the last to be receptive to the new musical language that developed during the twentieth century.

Slow, as well as reluctant to vary their traditional musical tastes, perceptions and expectations, many viewed the opera house with nostalgia; as a symbol of the establishment, holding on to the last vestiges of a secure, civilized and supremely hierarchical culture.

Early in the twentieth century, Richard Strauss’s (1864–1949) Salome (1905), had pointed the way to the future, followed by Elektra in 1909, both of which employed new and bold musical language to push chromaticism to its breaking point and thrust tonality towards the edge of the abyss. For his part, Strauss subsequently resurrected his late-Romantic style and embraced musical conservatism, thus allowing other composers to ignite the torch of modernism. Whereas entertainment had always been light opera’s strongest component, serious music drama could be divided into two categories: opera of ideas and opera of realism. Opera of ideas is derived from the Wagnerian model, while opera of realism springs from Verdi’s style of dramatic realism, expressing inner feelings that adhere to the verismo (heightened realism) tradition.

The Ballets Russes

Ballet plunged headlong into the new sound, embracing theatricality and daring the Ballets Russes and their producer, Serge Diaghilev (1872–1929), to commission Igor Stravinsky’s (1882–1971) compositions The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). The riots provoked by The Rite of Spring are legendary, yet the opera world would have to wait another 12 years to experience that kind of boldness and theatricality in the form of Alban Berg’s (1885–1935) Wozzeck (composed 1917–1921). This opera, with its use of atonality and serialism and its story of an ordinary, troubled man, was nothing short of revolutionary. Erwartung (‘Expectation’, 1909), on the other hand, composed by Berg’s serialist teacher, Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), was somewhat mired by a static monodrama format. The conflict during this period between theatrically conceived opera and the formalized structures of serialism would ensure the former’s slow advancement in deference to the opera-cantata form.

An Era of Experimentation

Bold and original voices from outside western Europe were beginning to be heard: Russia’s Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–75), Leoš Janáček (1854–1928), once viewed in Czechoslovakia as a ‘rural, home-grown talent’, but now poised for operatic immortality courtesy of his substantial oeuvre, and Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881–1945), whose sole opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), would also make an indelible mark. As others responded by breaking with Austro-German tradition, so new creative voices emerged, each bolder and more confident than their predecessors.

Western music, rather than crystalizing or formalizing, was expanding and in a state of total experimentation, and many individuals were emboldened by the ability to express themselves. However, some also paid the price by means of harsh and demeaning criticism of their work, as well as being banned from public performance. Shostakovich was one such victim, his creative lights having been dimmed after Stalin attended...

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