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Opera Is Not Dead

The rich history—and rich present—of a unique art form

Arunas Stankevicius

Western culture has produced nothing quite like opera among its privileged art forms. It uniquely combines theater, narrative, music, and the human voice in extravagant and paradoxical ways. Its plots are often absurd, and its texts often unintelligible when sung. Producing an opera can be cripplingly expensive. But for its devotees, opera provides an aesthetic and emotional experience unlike any other. It emerged from Baroque musical theater in the seventeenth century and grew in popularity in the eighteenth, when human capons, castrated as boys to preserve their angelic voices, became the pop stars of their time. Opera plots range across classical mythology and the historical past, both near and remote, as well as non-European cultures seen with European eyes. Stage machinery has been a major attraction from the beginning, with special effects that included erupting volcanoes (in Auber’s La Muette de Portici) and scenery that moved almost cinematically (during the transformation music of Bayreuth’s first Parsifal). This old tradition of thrilling invention continues today with the help of complex machines, computers, and digitalization. The controversial Ring cycle by Robert Lepage at the Metropolitan Opera is only the latest manifestation of this. The extravagance of opera is, at least for those who love it, magical, and the magic is arguably even more musical than scenic.

Yet the composers who have created this musical magic accomplish what they do by virtue of technical skills that they have acquired over a long period of apprenticeship. Even if an operatic text (the libretto) can survive on its literary merits, however absurd or banal the plot, there would be no opera without music, and music has to be learned, either quickly in the case of geniuses such as Mozart or Mendelssohn, or over time through study, experience, and experiment. Berlioz, whose instrument was the guitar, brilliantly re-invented himself as he became more sophisticated.

Writing music that complements and illuminates a previously prepared text takes its inspiration from the plot, however dreary or inept, and the conjunction of plot, text, and music must inevitably lie at the core of any history of opera. Roger Parker and Carolyn Abbate, who are by no means the first to have undertaken such a history, come to the task with formidable credentials. Parker is a recognized authority on the operas of Verdi and has contributed a magisterial article on his work to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. He is currently involved in new editions of the operas of Donizetti, in addition to a non-operatic project on music in nineteenth-century London. Carolyn Abbate is the author of Unsung Voices, one of the truly seminal books on opera in recent decades. Beginning with Edward Cone’s concept of the composer’s voice, this work attempted to distinguish the voices of singers from other voices of a more literary kind that emanate within an opera from the composer or the plot, much as we might speak of a poet’s voice. Abbate taught us to separate an operatic character into the character in the plot and the character who actually sings. She devised such terminology as the “plot-Brünnhilde” and the “voice-Brünnhilde,” and the recurrence of such terminology in this new history of opera is obviously indebted to Abbate but endorsed by Parker, whom she already thanked for his help in her book.

Parker and Abbate have written, as one would have expected of them, a highly idiosyncratic and personal history of opera. They claim to have collaborated so closely with one another as to construct a seamless whole for which both take responsibility. Although I imagine I can hear their separate “voices” from time to time, their book overall has a brio, insouciance, and even irreverence that are very much their own and distinguish it from all previous histories of the genre. The book is always lively and readable, full of opinionated but (except at the end) benevolent judgments, and equipped with three delightful gatherings of plates that display, along with a few movie stills and caricatures, some of the more memorable productions and artists of the past.

This is no solemn march through the centuries with dates, composers, librettists, premières, singers, and conductors put on show. The renunciation of conventional scholarly apparatus—and prose—in search of a broad audience has led the authors also to renounce musical examples. The complete absence of any musical illustrations is most unusual in a book that purports to be a history of a musical genre. The authors claim, perhaps a little defensively, that this was their idea, not the publisher’s. But a history of opera without musical examples is rather like a history of art without images. Even Kobbé’s guide to opera, on which generations of opera-lovers have depended, includes musical examples in the form of piano reductions, which could easily be picked out on a piano at home.1

Although not every opera enthusiast can read music, many can do so, at least in a rudimentary way, and it is patronizing to assume that a few staves here and there would put readers off. But Parker and Abbate prefer, as they explain at the beginning, to concentrate on performances of opera, not so much over historical time but as they have themselves experienced and remembered them. “Scores,” they maintain, “encourage the idea of opera as a text rather than as an event. Memory, on the other hand, goes back to an event—something heard out loud, possibly also seen on stage. Hence the musical descriptions in this book were written almost entirely on the basis of memory, whether in response to a recording, or—far more often—from the repositories of our personal operatic experiences.” Yet, as they soon acknowledge, the operas of Meyerbeer deservedly loom prominently in this history, even though his most influential works “are now very rarely heard.” This is, of course, characteristic of the authors’ openness and flexibility, but it calls into question their anti-musicological bias. They condemn previous work on opera for introducing harmonic and melodic detail, but without a technical mastery of harmony and counterpoint none of the composers who interest them could have written any notes worth hearing.

It is perhaps not surprising that Parker and Abbate proclaim their indebtedness to Joseph Kerman’s classic work of over half a century ago, Opera as Drama. That book is best known today for its description of Tosca as a “shabby little shocker.” So bracing an assessment of a beloved repertory staple set a new standard in critical candor, but anyone who knows the brilliant and wide-ranging musicological studies of Kerman will recognize that this throwaway phrase did not betoken any embarrassment in the face of scores. If Kerman was outspokenly adding a critical dimension that comes with viewing opera as drama, he certainly did not shy away from its music. Nor did Abbate in her Unsung Voices, with a rich store of musical examples that serve to render the book’s audacious argument convincing. Similarly Roger Parker is an accomplished editor of Donizetti. One almost has the impression that these two scholars, whose profound knowledge of music is beyond question, fear that they will lose their readership if they flaunt what they actually know. Yet once in a while, they cannot contain themselves, and their observations on the notorious Tristan chord, with some sharp comments on the ambiguity of A natural and A flat, are well worth reading.

Even without musical illustrations Abbate and Parker repeatedly conjure up the musical and theatrical experience of opera listeners, and they manage to do this not merely by metaphorical descriptions of orchestral or vocal sounds (“thumping,” “rumbling”) but by reference to what is happening on the stage and to the libretto that is being sung. One of the great strengths of this history of opera is its constant attention to staging and text, both of which seem at times to serve as substitutes for musical examples. Rossini’s final operatic masterpiece, Guillaume Tell, is given its due in the creation of French grand opera by stressing what the authors call a “frozen moment,” when the action and sound all but stop. In Tell, this is the episode of shooting the apple, introduced by the words addressed to Tell’s son, “Sois immobile [Be still],” followed by something close to immobility in the score during the high drama on the stage: “There is almost no music when Tell lifts his bow for the shot, only a single pitch from the tremolo strings.” This astonishing invention on the part of Rossini led to his famous quip in old age, “So I made music of the future without knowing it.”

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Aida, Choregies d'Orange, 2011

The correlation of plot, staging, and sound in that frozen moment soon leads Abbate and Parker to an equally perceptive interpretation of the end of the opera, where again everything depends upon the ear hearing what the eye sees. As they rightly observe, the finale that brings Guillaume Tell to its close contains its greatest moment of pure visual splendor, the clearing of the skies to reveal a superb Alpine landscape. This revelation “is accompanied by music that aspires to translate the sublime scenic effect into sound, its grand musical gestures seeming to slow down the very passing of time as man contemplates nature.” This is beautifully expressed, but here, if anywhere, we need a musical example to show the ever growing swirl of orchestral sound as the opera reaches its immensely satisfying resolution, both on the stage and in the music.

We are told that many opera historians complain when a production becomes “easy on the eye.” Abbate and Parker will have none of this. They tell their readers that “whenever opera becomes more visually oriented, ... the chance to feed the eye is also a chance for the ear to relax. This can be tremendously important, and composers (both French and others) have rarely been blind to its advantages.” The authors are thinking particularly of Meyerbeer, but what they say might equally be said of Wagner and Verdi. Yet the ears of most opera lovers probably do not relax when the fire blazes up around Brünnhilde at the end of Die Walküre or during the Triumphal Scene in Aida. Visual effects do indeed matter, but to augment, not to relieve, what the music contributes. The creation of these effects through technology has always been part of opera production, from Baroque marvels on stage down to the creaky machine in the Met’s Ring cycle, which, for all its problems, can sometimes deliver a spine-tingling impact.

No one knows this better than John Adams, an opera composer whose sure musical instincts have combined with creative innovation in a series of outstanding works (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic). In The New York Times Book Review, he recently addressed this issue. “There is nothing shockingly modern,” he wrote, “about the dynamic between artistic creation and technological innovation, be it an intellectual discovery like perspective or a new piece of hardware like the movie camera or the electric guitar. Art and technology have always moved hand in hand.” What matters is not the technology itself, but what it can express beyond entertainment and spectacle. That, for Adams, reaching back into ancient aesthetic language, is “the sublime.” An aperçu of such simplicity and clarity, coming from an accomplished practitioner of the art of opera, makes one recognize that Abbate and Parker were closer to the mark in their account of the finale of Guillaume Tell, where they actually use the word “sublime,” than in their suggestion that the ear relaxes when the eye is nourished.

Abbate and Parker return explicitly to the connection between libretto and music when they reach the early twentieth century. They make a persuasive case that both Debussy and Richard Strauss altered their musical styles because of a deliberate choice to make operas out of highly adventurous, not to say controversial, texts. Debussy, who was struggling to liberate himself from the intoxicating and almost irresistible influence of Wagner at a time when French wagnérisme was at its height, encountered the dream-like drama of a Belgian symbolist, Maurice Maeterlinck, and he chose this text—not simply its plot—to inspire an opera in a new style. He deliberately did not hire a librettist to re-work the plot for a musical setting, as had been done traditionally in the past. Instead he lifted Maeterlinck’s words more or less as they stood. The result, Pelléas et Mélisande, was something utterly new. Even if Debussy failed to free himself completely from Wagner’s magical spell, about which he had written eloquently in an essay on Parsifal, Pelléas was a radical break with the operatic past, not only in France but everywhere else.

Pairing this innovation with Richard Strauss’s Salome was a brilliant idea. Abbate and Parker are able to demonstrate that Strauss, who had been far more in thrall to the Wagnerian legacy than Debussy, succeeded in breaking out into a wholly new kind of music drama by taking over the text of Oscar Wilde’s hothouse play, which, though originally written, with Wildean preciosity, in French, had reached Strauss in a German translation. (In its English version, the play was kept off the British stage for decades.) To suggest that Wilde did for Strauss what Maeterlinck had done for Debussy makes perfect sense. Of course the liberation of both composers led to very different musical idioms, neither of which fully shook off the Wagnerian influence. In a way, Strauss’s opera, with its gritty harmonies and orchestration, mirrored Wilde’s decadent eroticism just as successfully as Debussy’s slippery notes and dreamy levels of sound mirrored Maeterlinck’s evanescent prose.

It is odd that such a large and ebullient history of opera should end with a whimper, but so it does. Gloom spreads across the operatic landscape from the 1930s, when the authors see widespread enthusiasm for revivals of traditional repertoire gradually embalming classic works and imposing unattainable goals on composers of new works. The size of opera houses, together with audience expectations that what might appear on the stage will be at least as exciting as the tried and true, allegedly demonstrates that opera has settled into a mortuary, “a wonderful mortuary full of spectacular performances, but a mortuary for all that.” The reader, whose traversal of this history of opera is rather like an exhilarating roller-coaster ride, may be excused at the end for crying out, “Enough already!” The claims of tradition and a familiar repertory have tugged at operatic innovation from the beginning, and the traditional interpolation of a high note for a bravura singer, as famously in Trovatore, has had a long history without suggesting that death was at hand.

Abbate and Parker nostalgically evoke Britten’s Peter Grimes as the last of the great operas before the mortuary filled up. It is characterized as a “breakthrough” and “an important moment in the tortured later-twentieth-century history of the genre.” Its international success is acclaimed and cited as the reason that Britten went on to write other operas. He is admiringly compared with such modern slouches as Messiaen and Ligeti, and, more recently, John Adams and Thomas Adès. Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach shows up as an influence on Adams’s first opera, and this leads to an astute observation about the resemblance between such music and film music, in which Glass has conspicuously excelled. But the penultimate section of the last chapter is called, unflatteringly and indefensibly, “Revenants.” It seems almost as if Abbate and Parker had themselves succumbed to the indiscriminate obsession with the past that they castigate in modern audiences and impresarios.

Although only a few lines are devoted to Adès, he has enjoyed an international success with his opera The Tempest, which might have elicited more thought and analysis than it receives. Adès himself is not only a superb performer but also a perceptive and outspoken commentator on music, as any reader of his recently published conversations with Tom Service, under the title Full of Noises, will discover. He doesn’t think much of Peter Grimes, and he has some basis for an opinion since he directed the Aldeburgh Festival for ten years. Britten had not wanted the piece performed there, and Adès thinks he knows why: “It’s so mean about the people of Aldeburgh. They’re all madams or paedophiles or small-minded maniacs, and meanwhile the real people of Aldeburgh were all sitting there around me, and they didn’t look like that at all.... I just can’t believe in all these people dressed up as fishermen and that woman singing about her knitting. I mean, who cares?”

Adès goes on to identify the principal problem with Britten, which is, in his view, singing in English. The sung text is clearly a topic of interest to Abbate and Parker, and they might reasonably have weighed in on this subject in the case of Britten. Adès’s opinion that there is something unnatural in the relationship between the music of his operas and the English words that are sung is by no means foolish, and it should be remembered that Britten was not writing the title role to be sung in English by just anyone, but precisely by Peter Pears. When Jon Vickers took over the role in later years, Peter Grimes was an altogether different opera. Britten and Pears were in a box together for Vickers’s first performance as Grimes, and I have often wondered what they thought.

It is always instructive to hear composers talk about their craft. They do not do it all that often, and opera composers have rarely shared their views, with a few signal exceptions (Berlioz, Debussy, and Virgil Thomson in the forefront). Wagner’s logorrhea was highly unusual, and he would have done posterity a great favor by curbing it. But what the writings of opera composers invariably show is that they were carefully watching the work of their contemporaries, as Wagner’s handwritten dedication of his newly published Tristan score, five years before the first performance, poignantly shows. He inscribed the score to Berlioz in homage to the composer of Roméo et Juliette, and Berlioz read it carefully and annotated it. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were plenty of revenants in opera houses, but this did not discourage innovation. A few decades later, Wagner himself became a revenant, as Debussy was acutely aware, and so in opera we had then, and arguably still have today, a truly Heraclitean flux, not a mortuary.

It is regrettable that this warm-hearted and sprawling new history of opera should end with such dyspepsia. One could easily imagine that the sheer exertion of trawling through some four centuries of operatic creativity without offering a single musical example simply exhausted the two authors. After all, they are musicologists, not cultural historians, and writing about music while, in effect, having one hand tied behind the back, compels them to work at a considerable disadvantage. This may enliven their prose, but it certainly diminishes their authority. The history of music, insofar as it involves audiences and taste, both popular and elite, is an integral part of cultural history, and the biographies of composers, from the greatest to the least of them, all contribute to our understanding of historical epochs. But to understand their music, we cannot avoid looking at their music.

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Elektra, Salzburg Festival, 2010

And so this exciting and wide-ranging book abruptly comes to an undeservedly conservative, grumpy, and eccentric conclusion. Yet even in the decades that lead up to the alleged mortuary, there were extraordinary operas, many of which were suppressed in the Nazi period but have been gradually unearthed and revived among other works of Nazi entartete Kunst, or “degenerate art.” If Alban Berg receives proper attention for Wozzeck and Lulu, Franz Schreker does not, despite the rediscovery and modern performances of Der ferne Klang (“The Distant Sound”) and Die Gezeichneten (“The Branded”), to say nothing of equally exotic contemporary operas such as Eine florentinische Tragödie (“A Florentine Tragedy”) by Alexander von Zemlinksy. Hans Pfitzner’s monumental opera Palestrina bridges many centuries in linking modern idioms with the Renaissance. Greater by far was Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, inspired by the Isenheim Altarpiece with its paintings by Matthias Grünewald. All these pieces, which have been staged and performed in recent years, go unnoticed in this history of opera.

Walter Braunfels wrote a brilliant opera on Aristophanes’s The Birds at the end of World War I, and a very young Leonard Bernstein set the same text to music at Harvard in the late 1930s.2 Why was that? Probably for the same reason that Aristophanes created his escapist fable in the first place during the dreadful days of the Peloponnesian War. Yet their musical styles could not have been more different. As Adès observed in talking about his setting of The Tempest, “I know what happens to the characters on stage in the story, but I don’t know how that functions in the music until it’s composed.” But once the music has been composed, it is the job of a serious critic to see precisely how what happens to the characters actually functions in the music. This responsibility is no less important and fruitful in considering Messiaen, Ligeti, Adams, or Adès than it is in considering Berg or Strauss—or Schreker.

Abbate and Parker have shortchanged the twentieth century and offered an unjustifiably pessimistic prognostication for the twenty-first. In addition to condemning “our desire to cling to the operatic past,” they go after commissions of new operas by major opera houses both here and abroad. This provokes them to an embarrassing effusion of ridicule. After observing that La Scala in Milan had commissioned Bellini’s Norma, they note that the same theater commissioned Luciano Berio’s La vera storia in 1982. “What continuity!” they cry, “What noble lineage!” Have they forgotten that the première of Norma in 1831 was a disaster? Both then and now, commissioned operas undergo extensive tinkering and revision before they disappear or are metamorphosed into the pieces that we know and admire today. It is hard to accept that modern commissions “cannot carry the same weight as they did a century and a half ago.”

Fortunately, opera itself is charging forward. Christopher Keene, the farsighted leader of the New York City Opera, brought to his New York stage Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, and, long before the Met, Schönberg’s Moses und Aron. Shortly before his death, he told me that he read, on average, a dozen new opera scores each month in search of new material. Anyone who is equally enlightened today would probably be reading considerably more scores than that. Composers find opera an increasingly attractive genre, and works such as Paul Moravec’s The Letter and Kevin Puts’s Silent Night have been produced to considerable acclaim in the last few years. We will soon have at the Met Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which gives the Internet a major role in the plot. We are likely to witness a growth in the experimental use of electronic sound and, above all, images that are inspired by Bill Viola’s video art. Many have admired his work with Peter Sellars on Tristan und Isolde.

Rufus Wainwright has already shown that pop stars see opera as a new frontier for their art, and Stephen Sondheim has long since demonstrated that great musical theater is almost indistinguishable from great opera. The Met’s HD transmission of selected performances to theaters around the world has been a triumph that has been imitated by other houses. Opera is vigorous in ways it never was before. Its future will certainly be unlike its past, but no less resplendent. That has been the nature of opera throughout its long history. The Sellars-Viola Tristan is proof that the old repertory will not be lost, only transformed. The new repertory will involve both audio and visual technology in ways not yet imagined. A few cobwebs may have to be swept away, but the greatest contributions of the past will survive. William Christie has demonstrated, through his revivals of forgotten baroque masterpieces, that music and plots that are hundreds of years old can be exciting to audiences who not only appreciate Bellini and Wagner but Sondheim and Viola. After all, opera is music drama, and on the stage, this means musical theater. 

G. W. Bowersock is professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and is the author, most recently, of The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford University Press).

  1. A recent forward-looking work, The Oxford Handbook of the New Cultural History of Music (2011), edited by Jane Fulcher, with chapters on gender, pain, violence, and national identity, did not shrink from abundant musical examples, in addition to a rich visual documentation. 

  2. The play was performed in the original Greek in April 1939. A goddess appeared on roller skates and the chorus sang the blues. Bernstein himself conducted. He recycled some of this music for his ballet Fancy Free.