Opera and Drama

Opera and Drama is well-known in the list of Wagner books by the great composer.

From among the many Richard Wagner works, it is precisely in Opera and Drama that the great composer presents his idea that the word (which he terms drama) is an essential component of the opera genre. For Wagner, a 19th century writer and opera composer, drama and poetry are synonymous.

But, what is drama and theatre and what is its relationship to opera for a 21st century student and/or lover of opera?

In theatre drama, music is often the means to achieve an emotional engagement with the audience. And so, orchestral overtures, sometimes referred to as musical introductions set the tone for the drama in an opera. But, there is much more that needs to be considered. Inevitably, for a 21st century opera audience, the dramatic effect (or non-effect) will depend on a variety of factors (continue reading below…).

For those interested, Richard Wagner sheet music is available online.

Read to Discover Opera and Drama:


What is Opera and Drama?

Oper und Drama
Oper und Drama

Opera and Drama (Oper und Drama) is a seminal work by the German opera composer Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). In this book-length essay, R.Wagner explains his personal theories of opera and drama.

Richard Wagner wrote Opera and Drama over a period of 4 months – between October 1850 and January 1851. During the writing process, he exchanged frequent letters with Theodor Uhlig (1822 – 1853), a musician and colleague. Wagner lived in Zurich and Uhlig lived in Dresden, 450 km away. In the 19th century, it could take up to a week to travel that distance.

Richard Wagner first mentions that he would like to write a larger work in a letter dated December 27, 1849. Several weeks later, on January 12, 1850, Wagner once again indicates his desire to write a longer piece about what he considers to be the art-work of the future. Finally, by September 20, 1850, we learn that Wagner has definitely decided to write: “I am therefore thinking, this autumn and winter, of doing some literary work… Now my particular work would be music, and, above all, opera.” (Translated by J.S.Shedlock, 1890.)

By October 9, 1850, Wagner has begun work on his book. In December 1850, the title of the book, Opera and Drama, is finalized with the comment: “My book, which now is to be called Oper und Drama, is not yet ready; it will be at least twice as big as the Kunstwerk der Zukunft. (Translated by J.S.Shedlock, 1890).

The correspondence between R.Wagner and R.Uhlig is a rich archival resource. In their letters the 2 colleagues discuss the development of the book Opera and Drama. Conveniently for English speakers, the letters exchanged between Wagner and Uhlig were published in 1890 in English translation. For those interested, they are available here (a new window will open).


In What Language is Opera and Drama Written?

Richard Wagner. Etching by C.W.Sherborn
Richard Wagner. Etching by C.W.Sherborn

Opera and Drama by Richard Wagner is a work that is frequently quoted and referenced by those who study the history of opera. Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949), a well-known composer, described Oper und Drama as “the book of books on music” (das Buch aller Bücher über Musik).

Nevertheless, very few people actually read the book-length essay.

For English speakers, part of the reason for this lack of enthusiasm is the fact that Opera and Drama is written in German.

But, even for German speakers the book-length essay is a difficult read. This is partly so, because it is written in the literary style of the 19th century and hence, difficult for a 21st century reader to follow and understand.

The best known and most commonly referenced English translation of Wagner’s Oper und Drama is by William Ashton Ellis (1852 – 1919). The translation was first published in 1893 and is available here (a new window will open).

But, be forewarned. Just like the original German, it is difficult reading not because the content is difficult, but because the style of both the original and the translation is in keeping with the literary norms of the 19th century.


What Are the Ideas Expressed by Wagner in Oper und Drama?

Wagner’s Ideas in Opera and Drama
Wagner’s Ideas in Opera and Drama

In Opera and Drama, Richard Wagner argues that for opera, music and drama are of equal importance.

Although Wagner was a composer, one of the main reasons he decided to write Opera and Drama was because he felt that “a Means of expression (Music) has been made an end, while the End of expression (Drama) has been made a means…” (Translated by W.A.Ellis, 1893).

By drama, Wagner does not mean the concept of drama and dramatic that 21st century audiences have come to accept (for a discussion, see below. Instead, Wagner uses the word drama to represent the words written by poets and writers.

Wagner criticizes the fact that in the opera genre the poet or librettist must adapt his writing to the composer’s music. Additionally, Wagner sarcastically comments that the purpose of opera writing is not the stringing of arias, duets, ensembles, choral commentary and ballet into a whole that is called opera.

During his lifetime and in his essay Opera and Drama, Wagner was extremely critical of many opera composers (particularly Giuseppe Verdi and to some degree W.A.Mozart because he felt that they considered music to be central in the opera genre. Conversely, Wagner postulated that the words (the drama) sung by the choir and soloists must be focused on conveying an understanding and a feeling based on human logic and reason. For Wagner, both the words and the music must be content (meaning) focused.

In a letter to his friend and colleague Theodor Uhlig in December 1850, Wagner wrote: “I add a diagram, as to which I am not sure whether I shall put it into my book or not.” (Translated by W.A.Ellis, 1893.)

The diagram is a visual presentation and opera guide of Wagner’s ideas on the ideal opera. Unfortunately, the visualization of Richard Wagner’s ideas about opera and drama was not included in the final publication of the work. For our opera community, an English version of the diagram based on the translations of Richard Wagner’s Opera and Drama by J.S.Shedlock (1890) and William Ashton Ellis (1893) appears here, to your right, in English translation.

Finally, in trying to understand Wagner’s point of view, it is good to keep in mind that Richard Wagner was an opera creator who wrote his own texts (libretti), composed his own music, supervised his own productions and conducted the performances of his own operas. He even built his own theatre, ensuring that he would have total control over every aspect of his opera productions. Ultimately, Wagner exposed himself as the conclusive individualist who was uninterested in cooperating with anyone else.


What Are the Similarities Between Contemporary Opera and Drama?

Drama, Tragedy, Comedy in Opera
Drama, Tragedy, Comedy in Opera

The word drama is originally from the Greek word meaning action. In Greek times, the word drama meant a play performed on stage.

Greek dramas included actors who spoke in monologue or dialogue and wore masks. Additionally, there was a chorus which either spoke or sang in unison. The role of the chorus was to comment on the actions of the main characters.

Unfortunately, the actual musical renditions of Greek, and later Roman, dramas have not survived to our time. Therefore, it needs to be remembered that any analogies from Greek drama to contemporary opera are highly speculative.

In traditional Greek theatre, dramas (or plays, as we would call them today) were either tragedies or comedies. Traditionally, these are depicted as two masks. It wasn’t until the 19th century (the same period when Richard Wagner lived and created, for a discussion see above that a third type of theatrical genre was developed – the drama. The word is the same as the Greek, but the meaning became narrower. The 19th century drama was neither a comedy nor a tragedy. Instead, it depicted a third type of theatrical genre. Its purpose was to evoke emotions in the audience who became immersed in the conflict happening on stage.

Today, the word drama tends to have an even narrower meaning. Today, friends will tell each other – “don’t be so dramatic”. Or, a critic or teacher might say – “there was a lot of drama in that film”.

In film and stage productions today, reference to drama imply scenes evoke highly emotional responses in the audience. Of course, today, highly charged and highly passionate scenes in film and theatre are produced not so much through the conflict or even the words spoken by the characters, as through lights, sound effects and music.

Similarly, dramatic effects in contemporary opera productions are often achieved through costumes, make-up, lighting and sound effects. But more importantly, for a 21st century opera audience, the interpretation and proper performance of the composer’s musical score will evoke an emotional (dramatic) reaction in the audience.


Why Are Opera Highlights So Full of Drama?

Contrary to what Richard Wagner proposed in the 19th century, opera today focuses on the aural and the visual. For a 21st century audience much of the drama in opera does come from the music.

Drama in Opera at Lviv Opera House
Drama in Opera at Lviv Opera House

Additionally, opera highlights in full scale productions are full of drama because they combine music and conflict with lighting and sound effects to induce an emotional response in an audience that is enjoying a night at the opera.

Consider the well-known Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves – “Va, pensiero from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. When properly costumed and staged with lighting that enhances a correctly interpreted musical score, the performance can have a highly charged dramatic effect on audiences all over the world.

Alternatively, a musical introduction or entract between scenes in an opera can arouse an emotional reaction in the audience and enhance both the emotional and musical experience. For example, the Intermezzo in Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni has a poignant theme of regret, reinterpreted and enhanced through a ballet scene.

Certainly, even Wagner’s opera music is full of drama, in the 21st century meaning of the word. The opera video clip below is a clear example of opera music as drama.

The above is from a special production entitled Harmony of the Spheres at the Lviv Opera House conducted by Myron Yusypovych. It features art, sound and light. In the evening's introduction we hear the Introduction (Vorspiel) to Act 1 of the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner.


More to Explore: