Let’s start at the very beginning: the origins of opera

It’s hard to approach an art form as vast as opera and accurately pin-point the moment of its birth.  Although there are a surplus of history books, texts, critical biographies, etc., many of these sources use different starting points, so, I’m going to begin with my own starting point, just cause I can and because I’ve never been completely convinced of the traditional story of how opera began.  Most histories of opera begin with concepts of monody (one line vocal melody, rather than the 6 and 7 voice madrigals that had been popular at the time), the Florentine Camerata–I’ll leave that one for another post–and then lead into Claudio Monteverdi’s first attempts at opera.  Monteverdi has since been considered the “father of opera,” and probably rightly so, but I’m going to stretch the limits a little and start a little earlier than Monteverdi.  What if I were to say that the first composer of opera was a woman, and that it was as early as 1089?   I’m talking about Hildegard von Bingen (1089-1179).

Hildegard of Bingen….the mother of opera?

Now, you might think, well…she was a nun; in fact, the founder and abbess of a convent at Rupertsberg in Germany, and also a visionary, famous for her prophetic powers.  How could she possibly have come up with “opera”?  Actually, I’m not going to suggest that she formulated opera as we know it, but that she foresaw the benefits of merging opera and drama.  Since she lived during Medieval times, her dramas are sacred in their content, which is a reason why scholars might not be so quick to give the Mother Superior any additional accolades; however, who said that opera’s couldn’t have sacred content?

The convent at Rupertsberg

In 1151, Hildegard wrote Ordo Virtum, which is actually unusual for its time because it doesn’t fit the mold of the other liturgical dramas of the day in that it isn’t a supplement to a Mass (which was the main platform for music during the Medieval period).  Therefore, Ordo Virtum is an independent Latin play that was written as entertainment for Hildegard’s select community of noblewomen.  To be accurate, it is a morality play in which all the parts are sung in plainchant, except for the role of the Devil.  The singers represent the Patriarchs and Prophets, 16 female virtues, including Humility, Love, Obedience, Faith, Hope, Chastity, Innocence, Mercy, etc…, a happy soul, an unhappy soul, and a penitent soul.  Then, of course, there is the Devil who can only shout and bellow.

Sounds operatic to me?

Basically, the work begins with the chorus of Patriarchs and Prophets who express their wonder at the sight of the richly robed Virtues.  Other souls are walking in a procession around them and beg the virtues for divine insight, which musically corresponds to alternating solos and choral responses.  As this transpires, the Devil tempts the souls, because, as is per usual, the Devil has nothing to do but make trouble.  He finds one unhappy soul and clings onto him, nagging him, and urging him to follow him.  Later, this soul returns a beaten up, hurt, and really sorry for ever having followed Mr. Mefistofele.  The Devil, never being satisfied, tries to reclaim the soul, but the Virtues, led by Humility, protect it and consequently capture and bind the Devil.  In the end, the Virtues invoke Christ who urges them to aspire to Godly fullness.

If you take out the sacred titles: virtues, prophets, christ, soul, etc…, and put in a few names like Leonora, Manrico, Fidelio, Rigoletto, or Macbetto, isn’t this an operatic plot?  Some might argue with me, but since I like to push the limits, I’m going to stick by my opinion.  Although she didn’t classify her work as “opera” per say, it is dramatic, musical, has a moral point, used instruments, and is therefore not far removed from what Monteverdi would call “dramma in musica” 400 years later.  Way to go Hildegard!

Carmen, “whoever she is”, seduces her way into the Canadian Opera Company

A scene from the COC’s “tawdry” Carmen.

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bizet’s audience favourite, “Carmen,” opened at the Four Seasons Center two nights ago.  The original announcement had Beth Clayton in the role of the seductive gypsy, but according to “Fashion Magazine,” Ms. Clayton announced her withdrawal from the role on January 20th, leaving little time for the COC to find replacements for a production that would begin in a few days.  The second announcement had Israelli mezzo-soprano, Rinat Shaham (above), replacing Clayton, who withdrew for “health reasons.”  Shaham is performing Jan. 27, 30, Feb. 2, 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, and her alternate, Anita Rachvelishvili on Feb. 17, 20, 23, 27.  Micaela is portrayed by Canadian soprano, Jessica Muirhead, Don Jose is played by both Bryan Hymel (above) and Garrett Sorenson, and Escamillo is Paul Gay.

In and of itself, Bizet’s opera was controversial in its day, for its fusion of comedy and tragedy, its gutsy realism, and in-your-face female heroine, the universally desired, Carmencita.  But, it seems that controversy follows Carmen wherever she goes, the COC notwithstanding.

Here are some reviews.  Enjoy.

COC Carmen too Tawdry by John Coulbourne of the QMI Agency

Trio of Singers Redeems Flawed Carmen from the Globe and Mail

Carmen in Eyeweekly.com

According to these, once again, the purity and authenticity of opera has been marred by producers and directors trying to project more from the opera than is actually necessary.  Actually, it’s more a “dumbing down”, which probably should offend the intelligence of operagoers.  If you strip it down to the nitty-gritty, opera says everything it needs to say, as it is.  I wonder whether directors feel that to make it “sexier,” “more disturbing,” or even “more interesting”, they need to over-emphasize the wonderful subtleties that audiences actually adore, subtleties that composers like Bizet, Verdi, and even Beethoven, already imbedded within their operatic fabric.  Have audiences changed all that much that we need it–whatever “it” is–shoved in our faces for fear we didn’t get it?   I think we get it!