Styles & Forms | Modern Era | Opera
Throughout the twentieth century, opera constantly re-evaluated and redefined itself. Two world wars created a crisis of national identities that was reflected in a series of artistic challenges within the world of music – tradition over pluralism, experimentation over formalization – as composers sought to free themselves from Austro-Germanic influences.
Janáček is a case in point. Quitting his studies in Vienna, he returned to Brno and began to write in his own idiomatic way, utilizing a ‘through-composed’ style. Bartók similarly took the Hungarian language and, creating a declamatory style that followed the patterns of speech, applied it to Freudian tensions between man and woman. And then there was the work of French composers Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) and Claude Debussy (1862–1918), who moved away from the tonal and harmonic influences of Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Certainly, the nationalistic idiom prevalent before World War I was unsustainable after it: bolder attitudes were inevitable as composers sought to create musical dialects that could somehow express global post-war devastation and the new political and social orders that were emerging as a consequence.
New Language and Devices
Many devices, such as recitative, aria and ensemble, are a part of the neo-classical style that is prevalent in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Yet, in spite of all its influences from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), it still sounds like a modern opera. Such is the result of pairing twentieth-century tonal and harmonic language with older organizational devices. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, performance art enters the realm of opera, courtesy of Kagel’s approach to ‘anti-opera’ in his work Staatstheater (1971). The nine scenes, each self-contained, can be reorganized into any order the director wants.
The Splintering of Opera
With opera splintered into mainstream, alternative (experimental, chamber, contemporary) and music theatre (of the Broadway and West End variety), this raises the question of ongoing financial viability. Many regional opera houses are expanding their repertoire to include operetta and music theatre – some European houses have programmed West Side Story (1957) in their season, while even the German Staatstheater and Viennese Volksoper have hosted everything from operetta to Broadway musicals. As Théâtre de Châtelet, Paris, has demonstrated more recently, works from this genre (from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady to major works by Stephen Sondheim) can be woven successfully into each season. As these venues are well aware, survival is dependent not just on a production’s quality, but also on its perceived ‘entertainment’ value.
Accordingly, composers are often caught in a struggle to fulfil their artistic vision while attaining patronage for their work, usually in the form of commissions. Commissioned works often come with particular demands or constraints: operas can be a costly venture, often with high production values that do not just involve singers and an orchestra but lavish theatrical sets and effects, costumes, dancers and supernumaries. It is therefore little wonder that Benjamin Britten (1913–76) founded his English Opera Group (1947), whose mission was the performance of chamber...
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