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!