Opera theatre tells dramatic stories using music and spectacle. It requires a special kind of musician with the ability to translate words into musical themes, and actors who can portray their roles without spoken dialogue.
Early operas were based on mythological themes and peopled with noble characters. Later, composers like Gluck sought to balance music and poetry or text, creating a form of sung drama known as recitative.
An opera is a dramatic musical play that includes music, singers and a stage. It is usually performed in a large, special building called an opera house. It has a large backstage area, a pit for the orchestra and seating for an audience.
Musicians play the music of an opera from a written score. The librettist may also write musical themes that recur throughout the opera to identify characters or situations.
Many composers use recurrent musical motifs to suggest emotions, such as the sorrow of Tristan and Isolde or the lovers’ impending doom in the Love Potion. The music can create atmosphere that words alone cannot convey. Some modern operas experiment with atonality, serialism and other musical styles that challenge traditional tonality. Most operas require the use of a chorus.
Several people are required to tell an opera’s story: actors who sing, librettists who adapt texts to fit the music, and directors who shape how the action is conveyed. Costumes, special effects and props also are utilized to create the world in which the story unfolds.
For centuries, opera performers believed they were creating a new art form in which music and poetry or text fused into an inseparable whole. Over time, the balance shifted to favor the music and away from the drama, but broad cultural movements like Romanticism and Orientalism often spawned parallel operatic traditions as well.
Although musical theater is a more recent addition to the theatrical canon, some composers like Stephen Sondheim have written works that straddle the line between opera and musical theater. These shows feature singing characters that may require dancing skills as well.
The music and lyrics of an opera are both important elements of the art form. The music score provides the mood and emotion while the libretto carries the story and character dialogue.
Verdi (1813-1901), for example, used high tragedy as a means to express strong emotions: Rigoletto concerns the court jester’s unwitting revenge; Nabucco explores the longing of captives for their homeland.
Wagner (1813-1883) took a different approach, creating the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, in which drama, staging and music would forge a powerful unity. His works often featured sung dialog punctuated with recitative, or sung speech, and his musical language employed recurrent melodic motifs to suggest characters or events. In the 21st century, composers such as George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Leonard Bernstein (Candide) and John Adams (Nixon in China) have used popular musical styles to create new English-language operas.
The set designer brings to life the director’s vision for a production by building the physical environment in which the action takes place. This includes rooms, buildings and outdoor space as well as furnishings, props and backgrounds.
For example, the play “Windfall” by Norm Foster requires the set designer to design flats into a backdrop that indicates a wealthy family home. The set designer also situates doors for entrances and exits either as the playwright’s instructions dictate (a character goes into a games room), or to work within the limitations of the stage facility.
It is important for the set designer to plan ahead and sketch where all movable pieces like furniture and background elements will be placed, using an overhead perspective. This will help them make sure that the audience can see everything.
The art of opera is universal and appeals to people around the world for passion, recreation, education, and solace. The scores are written to evoke feelings that are human and not elitist, but the way that people experience the opera is different depending on their culture, age, and personal history.
Bringing new audience members into the theatre can help grow a long-term audience. This means that they will attend performances regularly and may start to seek out other opportunities to explore the music, stories, and creative interpretations that opera has to offer.
Arrive early to help your students find their seats and enjoy the beauty of the theatre before the performance starts. Remind them to silence their phones, bring snacks and water (if it’s not included in the ticket price), and be prepared for a 2-3 hour performance.