The Voice | Vernacular Opera | Classical Era | Classical
Opera was essentially an Italian genre: it had been born in Florence, come to its first maturity in Venice and developed next in Naples and Rome. However, Italian art of all sorts was admired across Europe, and opera soon took root in France, Austria, Germany, England and Spain, even in distant Sweden and Russia.
At first this was Italian opera, particularly in the courtly establishments where this luxury entertainment could be afforded and where Italian could be understood. Centres for Italian opera in the early to mid-eighteenth century included Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Dresden, London, Prague and St Petersburg. But with the development of public opera houses and the advent of a merchant class eager to savour the pleasures that had generally been the preserve of the aristocracy, a need arose for opera in a language these audiences could understand.
In Germany, opera in the vernacular began early: in 1678 an opera house opened in Hamburg – a trading city with no court, but with a large middle class. Leipzig, another city with no court, soon followed. But these and similar enterprises ran foul of church authorities and floundered. A firm German-language operatic tradition had to wait until the mid-eighteenth century, when works of the genre now called Singspiel (originally meaning simply a play with music) were given, chiefly translations of works from England. In Vienna, Emperor Joseph II established a Nationaltheater to give German opera in 1776, but it had limited success and was scrapped in 1783. Nevertheless, a new genre had been created: German opera, with songs and spoken dialogue.
In France there was a different situation. There, an Italian-born composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, had established a new type of opera, drawing on Italian style and French traditions of theatrical declamation. The rise of a middle-class opera came about through the popular Paris fair theatres, where troupes put on lively, often scandalous musical entertainments. This eventually led to the rise of opéra comique, French-language opera with spoken dialogue. In England, The Beggar’s Opera, a political and social parody with songs culled from a variety of sources, had in 1728 created a scandal. This was a ‘ballad opera’ – an opera based on popular ballads – as were many in the succeeding years, but more were freshly composed, with songs and English-language dialogue.
In these countries, and others, vernacular opera avoided the elaborate plots used in serious opera in favour of simpler tales, often in a rural setting, predominantly about young lovers whose happiness is threatened by parents or elderly lechers. Composers used a much more direct musical style than those who wrote serious Italian operas, with less florid vocal writing, which suited the Italian language far better than any other anyway.
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