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!

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The chicken or the egg?

Chicken or egg

Prima le parole e dopo la musica, or Prima la musica e dopo le parole?

The other day I was thinking about the fact that opera still has the power to command people, and I don’t just mean in an emotional sense even if it certainly does that too.  What I mean is that people who love opera, “afficionados,” love it and would kill for it; yet, those who hate it, HATE IT!  For those of us who love it, it is infinitely difficult to convert someone from “the other side,” but it is possible, trust me!  So, what is it?  What is this thing called opera, this thing that has been an emotional, social, political vehicle, fully encompassing every artistic genre in order to achieve its premise?

In order to answer this question accordingly, we would have to embark on a serious study of this genre that has existed for centuries, now (sometimes I feel like I’ve been studying it for centuries, as the grey hairs on my head seem to suggest). But, to give a surface scraping answer:  opera is a spectacle of combinatory proportions with the sole purpose of “affecting” the listener beyond the manifestation of words alone.  It is meant to instruct us, frighten us, to arouse us, to seduce us, to make us laugh, to make us cry, and to infect us with the grandeur of life.  Opera, is life.

Of course, it combines music, staging, drama, literature, orchestration, costume, movement, and often dance, but the magical element above all these is the inclusion of the Voice, a most seductive and dangerous being.  As it is, the Voice can represent any number of things and often serves purposes that are not always relegated to singing, per se.  To me, the voice is a metaphysical being (which is why I capitalize it); that is, something that is not entirely of this world, something that descends from a higher realm and does not have a bodily or visceral form.  If that’s true, then how does it come from the body of a singer?  While some might think that the singer embodies the voice, I tend to think that the voice embodies the singer, which is why many singers actually transcend as they’re performing, a wonderful feeling to be sure (and I don’t mean they levitate…that would be scary…or wonderful, who knows?)

Since its inception in Italy around the 1600s (yes, it was us hot-blooded Italians that started this all…mix in some good food and vino and you’ve got a full evening’s entertainment), Italian composers and dramatists recognized the affects of the voice on the body, especially the solo voice, which is why they created “monody.”  Monodic songs (they weren’t really considered arias as of yet), had the power to shift the “affections”.  During the Renaissance, the general thought was that certain vibrations affected the body.  These vibrations, called hot and cold vapours, could either warm or cool down the body temple.  In other words, voices can either turn us on or turn us off.

Interestingly, one of the first imprecations in opera still remains today, whether the words or the music should come first, akin to the proverbial “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Prima le parole e dopo la musica or Prima la musica e dopo le parole? Actually, come to think of it, this was the first thing I ever learned about opera and it’s certainly intriguing that after so many years of studying this genre, I keep returning to this point.  Of course, it depends on the composer.  Would it surprise you to know that Puccini wanted the text to, “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” before he composed the aria?  When you listen to that aria, it seems almost unbelievable that he would manifest the type of melody he did, especially when the words and music seem so homogeneous.  But, then, this is the sign of a great melodist.

There were, however, other composers who wrote melodies first and then decided on the text.  If you were an opera composer, which methodology would you choose?  It’s an interesting topic, for sure, and there have been many studies on whether or not the overall success of an opera is measurable by this question?  Perhaps.  Some food for thought……