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Since the rise in popularity of The Phantom of the Opera and Phantom of the Opera songs, many theatre goers would like to discover: what is opera?
Numerous cities around the world have a grand opera house, the venue where opera performances take place: Opera UK which includes the Scottish opera and Opera London; European opera which includes the Riga opera in Latvia, the Copenhagen opera in Denmark, the opera in Paris France, the Rome opera in Italy, the Budapest opera house in Hungary; the Canadian opera which includes Vancouver opera in British Columbia, the opera Montreal in Quebec, the Toronto opera in Ontario.
Joseph Kerman in his book Opera as Drama (2005) writes: “… opera is properly a musical form of drama, with its own individual dignity and force.” This statement is a paraphrase of the ideas that were originally presented by Richard Wagner in his literary work Opera and Drama (published in German in 1852 as Oper und Drama).
The dramatic feelings and emotions that are experienced when audiences participate in an opera production are mostly due to the music. Drama, in an opera production, comes from and through the music. To a lesser degree, drama also comes from the plot of the opera.
An opera has a musical score, sometimes referred to as an opera music score or a conductor score. Every note that the musicians play on their instruments and the soloists and choir sing, is written on separate staves on a large piece of paper.
The opera conductor uses an opera music score:
to prepare for an opera production
to rehearse with the orchestra
to conduct the opera performance before an audience.
Music conductors frequently make markings and reminder notes in their personal composer score.
An opera has a libretto. The word “libretto” comes from Italian and means “a booklet” or “a little book”. Although the correct plural form is libretti, many people prefer to use the term opera librettos.
An opera libretto is the script that is sung by the soloists and choir. A libretto also includes stage directions and instructions, which are usually written by the librettist, for the singers and dancers. A librettist is the person, who writes the libretto.
Sometimes, the composer and the librettist are one and the same person. The most famous composer-and-librettist-in-one is Richard Wagner.
However, it is more common that two people have collaborated on the writing of an opera: a librettist and a composer.
Some operas are created where the composer takes a piece of dramatic work and writes music. Sometimes the composer and the librettist collaborate very closely during the creation of an opera, adjusting both as the work progresses. And sometimes, the music is written first and then the librettist has to fit the words to the music.
What Members of the Orchestra Perform During an Opera?
Classical Symphony Orchestra at the Lviv Opera House
A classical opera is performed with a full orchestra composed of the various musical instrument sections:
strings – violins, violas, cellos and basses
woodwinds – oboes, flutes, bassoons, clarinets
brass – horns, trumpets, tuba
percussion – drums, metal plates, chimes, xylophone
The lead musician of an orchestra is the concertmaster. The name “concertmaster” comes from the German “Konzertmeister”, which literally means “the concert chief”. The concertmaster plays the violin and sits at the front of the orchestra, near the opera conductor.
In an opera house or opera theatre, musicians perform an opera either every night or every other night. Such an active schedule is acceptable for the strings and percussions. However, musicians that play woodwind and brass instruments can’t perform 5 or 6 evenings a week without experiencing burn-out or loss of quality. Therefore, many companies will rotate their woodwinds and brass or have alternate musicians.
Classical operas require large orchestras that have from 70 to 100 musicians.
Soloists are singers that play a leading or secondary role in the opera plot. The leading female singing role is sometimes referred to as the prima donna. Female soloists, who have sung many leading roles are often called divas.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, soloists were required to only sing. Today, however, engaged audiences demand that soloists have more. They must:
look the part
During an opera, soloists sing:
solos –sung by one soloist
duets – sung by two soloists
trios – three soloists singing singing individually and together
ensembles – several soloists, each singing their own part, sometimes together and sometimes with the chorus.
What is the Relationship Between Opera and Ballet?
Ballet and Opera in G. Verdi's Aida
Opera & ballet is not what most opera lovers consider together. However, many operas have scenes, that can only be performed by classically trained ballet dancers.
Operas often require ballet performers. Large ballet and opera companies draw on their ballet soloists and corps-de-ballets to provide the dance numbers, that are required in an opera production.
Ballet performers “express extremes of emotions through music alone”, whereas opera singers do the same through their vocal capabilities, writes Jessica Duchen in her article “Ballet and Opera – The Odd Couple” in The Independent on November 20, 2009. The two art forms of ballet and opera together, make an incredible combination for audiences.
There are about 400 opera theatres and houses of opera that currently stage and produce operas. The most well known of these opera houses are in Europe. About 40 are situated in Asia and over 60 in North and South America.
Most people imagine opera houses to be guilded and opulent. And although this may be true of many of the great opera houses of Europe, the more recently constructed opera theatres have tended to place more emphasis on acoustics and audience comfort.
Operas are performed in theatres, on an open-air stages and, sometimes, even in an arena. Some opera audiences like to see an opera spectacle.
Opera companies employ stage designers to design sets, scenery and props.
Costumes are an important feature of opera productions. For the soloists, chorus members and supernumeraries costumes can be quite elaborate. On the other hand, orchestra members are usually dressed in black.
An important feature of contemporary operas is the lighting, which can enhance the drama of the music.
Operas are theatrical productions. However, when there are limited budgets or facilities, an opera can be performed as an opera-in-concert, with no costumes, scenery or lighting.
What are the Characteristics of an Opera Audience?
Opera Audience in Lviv, Ukraine
“A performance of opera in itself is nothing without its audience”, stated Graham Vick, artistic director of the Birmingham Opera Company, during a keynote addressed delivered at the Valencia Conference of Opera Europa on March 11 – 13, 2005.
There are many types of audience. An opera audience is one that likes opera and enjoys it primarily for the music.
Opera is an art form that has a potentially large world audience. Because it tends to be sung in a foreign language, most audience members have come to accept that they needn’t understand every word to appreciate and enjoy the performance.
“The audience for opera is groing faster than for any other arts medium except film” was the conclusion reached in the “Opera For Now” report in the United Kingdom.
“The audience for all art forms, except opera, are aging faster than did the entire sample”, which included various age groups, is concluded by the “Age and Arts Participation” study funded by the National Endownment for the Arts in the USA.
For the soloists choir, musicians, conductor interacting with your audience is not an easy matter. A laughing audience at an opera usually means that something is wrong. On the other hand, a clapping audience, particularly at the end of a difficult aria or choral ensemble, is very desirable.
What are The Flashing Words Above the Stage at an Opera?
Surtitles During An Opera Performance
Surtitles are shown on electronic boards often placed above the stage.
Today, opera productions are performed in the language written by the librettist. In many cases, the audience doesn’t understand the language. Sometimes soloists and choruses are difficult to understand, even if you know the language they are singing in.
This wasn’t always so. During the 19th century and for most of the 20th century, opera singers sang translations, so that audiences could understand.
The first surtitles in operas were introduced by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, Canada in 1983. Today, they are a common feature of most theatres and opera houses around the world.
What is the Responsibility of The Opera Conductor?
Opera Conductor Myron Yusypovych
A musical conductor stands in front of the orchestra and waves his baton or hands in time to the music’s beat. What a simple job! Or, is it?
An opera conductor’s job description includes:
researching the music and opera background before rehearsals begin
developing a common vision for the opera production with all support staff
planning the rehearsal schedule
rehearsing the orchestra
working with the soloists and choir members
conducting the opera performance in such a way, as to ensure the best possible performance from each participant.
Audience applause is something that some opera conductors know how to handle and others don’t. Knowing when to restart the performance, when to cut into the applause and when to let it continue will either ensure the smooth contintuation of the opera performance or cause it to limp on awkwardly.
Most opera conductors use a baton, although there are instances when, during an opera performance, a conductor will lay aside the baton and use only his hands. Some musical and opera conductors reject commercially produced batons and prefer to either have them custom made or make them themselves.