Opera is drama set to music, and when done well it can be mesmerizing. Opera covers a broad spectrum of styles, vocal techniques and subject matters but what unifies all great opera is telling stories about human existence – love and loss, betrayal, family feuds, power struggles, politics, death and resurrection are all integral parts of an opera that has delighted audiences for centuries.
Opera is different than musicals in that words are sung rather than spoken and requires vocal skills of exceptional intensity to encapsulate its world. Music not only serves to enhance drama; but is an integral component that draws you into its world, often acting as dialogue itself or even becoming part of its characters themselves. Opera also includes spectacle with sets, costumes and staging elements being included into performances; we will cover these subjects along with some of its most celebrated works in this article.
If you want to experience what opera has to offer, we suggest starting with La Boheme, an epic tale of love and betrayal that has entranced audiences since it premiered in 1896. La Boheme follows four young people living in a bohemian setting who are torn apart by love and betrayal; Puccini uses short musical themes called motifs to bring characters to life while creating an impressionistic view of their time and place that resonates even today.
Berg’s operatic adaptation of Georg Buchner’s play Woyzeck by Georg Buchner is also an outstanding choice, featuring modernist composition yet with warm lyricism. Wagner used orchestral innovations as part of their vision to transform music into art forms that broke with accepted musical conventions and furthered his craft.
By the mid-18th century, France had seen the emergence of a distinct genre of opera known as ‘opera comique’ which featured castrato singers who typically sang male roles – Gluck’s works Rinaldo and Radamisto as well as Gossec’s Cleopatra are iconic works from this era.
As Napoleon and the Revolution took place, an increasing desire to explore political issues was seen reflected in operas composed at that time. Verdi and his contemporaries produced many dramatic works with political undertones ranging from war, love, betrayal and corruption as themes.
Wagner revolutionized opera with his revolutionary techniques that brought it towards modernism. His music featured leitmotifs – repeated themes associated with characters or concepts and which intensify as drama intensifies – which became more intense as drama progressed, culminating in The Ring Cycle where all these leitmotifs came together into one overwhelming theme that heralded its end – techniques employed by many other composers today.