Offshoots And Curiosities Of Opera
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The chief offshoot of opera proper is opera comique, or Singspiel—opera interspersed with spoken dialogue, not necessarily of a humorous nature. The mere fact, however, of the introduction of such dialogue confers on the work the title of opera comique in France and that of Singspiel in Germany. When one remembers that such works as Beethoven's "Fidelio" and Weber's "Der Freischiitz" belong to this type, it is evidently of great importance, and a very large number of operas by a variety of composers come under this heading.
Next, perhaps, in interest is the operetta, or short opera, originally a one-act light opera frequently employing spoken dialogue ; the general style, more-over, is lighter and of less imposing proportions than serious opera. In later days, operettas are often prolonged into two or more acts and have been made very familiar by the long series of works by Gilbert and Sullivan, which, properly speaking, belong to this category.
Of a somewhat lower grade is musical comedy, a popular type of stage piece making considerable use of music, but of only the less exalted forms of the art. No serious pretensions to artistic beauty are claimed by these works, the taste for which seems to be, at the present time, somewhat on the wane.
A form of opera for which the English have always had an affection is the ballad opera, really a string of airs, often by different composers, thrown more or less promiscuously into a story, with which they often appear to have no very close connection. There is practically no concerted music, and the whole bears some resemblance to a ballad concert. The renowned "Beggar's Opera," which for years was a model for English entrepreneurs, belonged to this category, and set an example for hosts of imitators to follow. Indeed, England is only now beginning to shake her-self free from the trammels of this class of work, to which such operas as "The Bohemian Girl" and "Maritana" tend to approximate. The ballad opera also took root in America, where hundreds of such works flourished for a time, and it is not unknown in Germany, where it is called Liederspiel.
Of more artistic merit and interest is the masque, which really preceded opera. Originally developing in carnival processions through the streets of Italian towns, it was adopted in England during the reigns of Henry VIII and some succeeding monarchs. Theplan of such works was the presentation of some allegorical idea upon a stage, with descriptive music, both vocal and instrumental, and a large proportion of dancing. Campion, Lock, Coperario, and many others took part in the composition of these divertissements, which were in great demand for such functions as royal weddings. They were staged in the most sumptuous manner, great attention being paid to stage machinery, costume, etc. Much of the music has been lost, but what remains shows it to have been excellent of its class, and it is effective even in performance to-day.
In early days of operatic history there was no radical difference between the masque and the ballet. An entertainment of vocal and instrumental music in celebration of the marriage of the Duke of Joyeuse in 1581 (costing three and a half million francs to produce) was termed "Ballet comique de la Rayne." As an illustration of the dance alone, which is its present signification, the ballet appears to date from the foundation of the opera in France, with which it has had a very close and lasting connection.
Indeed, until recently grand opera without a ballet was unknown. Beginning with Lulli, and continuing even up to the present day, the ballet has maintained a position of great importance ; and although it has never appealed to other peoples to the same extent as it appears to have done to Continental nations, it has been transported with the works in which it was introduced and has become a familiar feature to operagoers everywhere.
The great disadvantage of the ballet is that it breaks up the continuity of the story; the development of the interest of the opera is arrested, and so far as the music is concerned a complete difference in style is often necessary, the result being that the old train of thought and idea is often only to be resumed with difficulty. Hence it happens that, with a growing appreciation for artistic truth in opera, the ballet has fallen into the background, and most operas seen to-day do not include any performance of what is, at best, a somewhat irrelevant interlude. A few attempts, such as that by Wagner in "Tannhauser," to introduce a ballet as an integral factor in the denouement, have not been specially successful, nor have they been widely imitated. As a separate form of entertainment, apart from opera, the ballet has had excellent music written for it by Adam, Sullivan, Tchaikovsky, and others (in Russia it is a very popular amusement) ; but in England its appearances are now mainly confined to the music hall, where it is wedded to music of a light and charming character. In our own country the ballet, at its best, is generally enjoyed along with other features of the opera in which it occurs.
A few words as to curiosities of opera. These may be grouped somewhat as follows : ( t) Curiosities of construction and design; (2) curiosities of stage requirements; (3) curiosities of the music.
The old manner of collecting a mass of heterogeneous materials in the way of airs and songs, and of turning them into a kind of opera, is certainly curious. The name pasticcio, or pie, is very applicable to this hybrid growth, which, however, has at times attained to great popularity. One of the most famous in-stances of its kind is "Muzio Scevola," produced iii 1771. This work was in three acts : the first composed by Ariosti, the second by Bononcini, and the third by Handel. The last-named great composer, with an easy manner of doing things which would certainly not pass muster at the present day, also brought out in 1738 an opera almost entirely made tip of favorite airs from his other works ; an example which Gluck followed a few years later. The clay for this kind of thing is fortunately past, and no composer of serious operatic work would revert to a procedure which is more suggestive of the construction of a pantomime.
The singing by different performers in different languages at the same time is another defunct custom. So little regard was paid to the importance of the libretto that it used to be quite a common occurrence for each person on the stage to sing in whatever language came easiest. On the Continent the airs would perhaps be sung in Italian and the recitatives in German, with an inconsistency that is almost in-credible. When, however, agility in vocalization was the chief attraction in operatic representation, it is to be presumed that intelligibility of utterance was not an important consideration.
To the same cause must be attributed the extraordinary fact that the dramatis personae were the same for nearly all operas during a certain period. Whatever the story or plot to be unfolded, it was essential that there should be six principal characters —a high soprano, a mezzo, and a contralto, a male soprano, a tenor, and a bass. Of course slight modifications in the character of the voices was occasion-ally allowed, but the main lines followed were as above. And whether it suited the story or not, each singer expected to have an important air to sing in each act, and woe betide the unhappy composer who wrote a more attractive piece for one of them than was supplied to a rival singer! From this stereotyped form of bondage, with all its artificiality, opera is now free; and it is due to the observance of these conventions that works of Handel and other composers, who wrote really good music, are absolutely dead.
Apart from the construction in the form of the opera, there have been from time to time interesting experiments made with regard to the housing of that integral portion of it—the orchestra. Wagner's innovation, the placing of the band out of sight and below the stage. although it necessitated the increase of the string sections, has proved on the whole good. Other designs have been the entire covering in of the orchestra with a thin transparent substance, which has had the effect of subduing the sound, but whichhas also proved disastrously hot for the poor players. One idea emanated from the New York Metropolitan, when Conned suggested the placing of the brass players upon a movable platform, which could move up or down at will ; if it is desired that their instruments shall sound prominently they will be raised into the air; if, on the other hand, a subdued effect is required, they will be- lowered a few feet; a long crescendo will, presumably, be effected by a gradual elevation of this movable floor! One has yet to wait to see this invention adopted.
In days when enormous groups of performers were considered indispensable for grand effects in opera, one reads of many extravagances in the way of display. In modern scenic dramatic works, in the ballet, and in pantomime, these effects are no doubt legitimate enough ; but inasmuch as the cumbering of the stage with voiceless supers hardly helps on the cause of opera, it is a matter for congratulation that these exceptional stage demands are no longer made to any great extent.
Here, for instance, is the modest list of performers that took part in Freschi's "Berenice" in 1680:
100 Horsemen in iron armor.
40 Cornets on horseback.
6 Mounted trumpeters.
12 Minstrels playing on Turkish instruments, etc.
2 Lions led by 2 Turks.
4 Horses with Berenice's triumphal car.
12 Horses drawing 6 cars.
A stable with 100 living horses.
A forest filled with wild boar, deer, and bears.
However magnificent and imposing in effect such a spectacle may be, its proper sphere is not opera. With Meyerbeer, Spontini, and other composers of grand opera these ideas have found favor; but they are a bar to the production of their works to-day. not only on the score of very considerable expense, but also because the artistic sense that delights in beautiful music wedded to appropriate drama will hardly find pleasure in such merely sensuous effects of the eye.
The difficulties of modern stage management occur chiefly in the presentation of the supernatural. Huge crowds are easy enough to put upon the stage, but to make a bird fly across naturally is a more involved matter. In many of the Wagner operas these super-natural features are essential elements of the situation: the Rhine maidens must appear to be swimming in real water, the bird must fly ahead of Siegfried to show him the rock on which Brunnhilde sleeps, and round that rock living flames of fire must dart and play. It is such points as these which arc difficult to stage convincingly. Has any one ever felt much frightened at the dragon Fafner? The fire has a way of coming out of his mouth at the wrong time, his head and his tail seem to have little connection with one another, and the impressive effect of his deeply sonorous utterances is often marred by the very visible megaphone through which they are uttered. In these strange beasts, for which machinery is ineffective, there is still scope for improvement in modern stage management.
Curiosities in the music occur now and then : such, for instance, is the weird portion in the middle of Weber's "Euryanthe" overture, where the curtain rises momentarily to display a gruesome tomb : such is the thrusting aside of the stage curtain in the midst of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" prelude for one of the characters to sing a song; such is the curious vocal scherzo upon one reiterated note, for the chorus of seraphim in Boito's "Mefistofele."
On a bigger scale is the curious experiment made by Michael in the opera "Utal," in writing his work without any violins in the orchestra. Of more frequent occurrence than the omission of instruments is the inclusion of various unusual effects, such as the introduction of a mandolin for the serenade in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," of the Glockenspiel for Papageno in "The Magic Flute," of peal of bells in many works, and so forth, whereas Handel sighed for a cannon, and Tchaikovsky actually used one in his "1812" overture. The maximum of stage noisein this way was probably reached by Spontini, who in his opera "Alcidor" had a number of anvils upon the stage tuned to certain notes! An anvil accompaniment, not ineffectively used, may be heard in Gounod's "Philemon et Baucis."
Among curiosities of the music must be mentioned the vocal cadenzas, etc., written for exceptional singers ; and in the days when these singers used to include male sopranos and contraltos (termed castrati) the majority of singers appear to have been exceptional. For a man to develop a high soprano voice seems not only unnatural but inartistic ; and these singers, some of them most famous, belong to an order of things that obtains no longer, being contrary both to modern ethics and to good taste. What the male soprano could do can usually be done equally well by a good woman singer, and of these there is usually a sufficient supply.
For women singers with voices of exceptional compass special music has often been written, as witness the part of "Queen of the Night" in Mozart's "Zauberflote," much of which lies abnormally high. Even where not written, singers of Italian opera have often introduced elaborate and wonderful cadenzas for the purposes of display, and these, although not tolerated in opera of the most exalted kind, may still be frequently heard.
Nowadays little of this kind of music is written for the voice, so far as opera is concerned. The work required of the modern operatic singer is more dramatic by nature, and makes demands upon technique of a different order.