Tag Archive | "Opera"

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The Innocent:

Posted on 27 April 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

One of the most obvious trends in the evolution of classical music (and perhaps the entire history of music in general) was the movement from the complex to the simple, from the courtly to the everyday. Perhaps nowhere was such progression more conspicuous than in opera. As a form of musical theatre, opera is like an intricate fabric woven from a countless myriad of elements, any and all of which serve as media in which change can take place. Opera is not only composed of instrumentals and vocals, but also features with no lesser importance delicate choreography and complex plotlines. In other words, it is a perfect fusion of the appropriate music with the appropriate subject matter. While this discussion focuses largely on the latter, one must be aware that subject matter cannot stand alone without music, and that both are intimately connected with the social atmosphere which gives rise to their birth.

Many see the Baroque period (1600-1750) as the dawn of opera. During this time, the subject matter of the genre consisted largely of the ancient classics, that is, mythology and classical history. Greek gods and Roman wars dominated the plots, and accompanying such formality of storyline was the formal ideal of a notoriously complicated musical texture. This kind of theatrical entertainment could only be understood and appreciated by well-educated people, and not so surprisingly, the audience that enjoyed these early operas was made up almost exclusively of kings, princes, and other members of nobility.

As this early phase in the history of classical music gave way to the Classical (1750-1825) and Romantic (1825-1900) periods, opera did away with themes centered upon classical literature. Serious plotlines yielded to foolish comedies and flirtatious affairs. However, the theatre retained some of that “royal atmosphere” as most of the stories took place in palaces and homes of the noble, or at least focused on noble members of society. Notable exceptions stand out. Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magical Flute) is like a fairy-tale, featuring an other-wordly set of characters such as birdcatchers and sorcerors. Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (Elixir of Love) tells of the desperate love of a common, poor country boy for a beautiful girl in his village, and how he gives up all his money to buy a potion that he hopes will fill her with a similar desire for him. Bizet’s renowned masterpiece Carmen revolves around the ill-fated love between a Spanish soldier and a seductive gypsy cigarière. Perhaps the most notable change that took place in opera during this time was the increase in freedom and intensity of musical expression (as in the case of musical genres other than opera), brought about by an expansion of techniques in composition. In terms of structure, there really was not much variation from work to work. For the most part, composers followed the strict format of a prelude followed by a series of musical numbers separated by blocks of libretto (that is, text sung quickly in order to move the plot forward).

Then, in the late 19th century, there spawned a stylistic movement in the world of opera. This new fashion was called verismo, which is Italian for “realism”. The idea was to shift attention from grand palaces and fancy ballrooms to the lives of common, everyday citizens. There existed hints toward such style throughout the Romantic period, as seen above, but it did not truly take root until the Romantic period approached its twilight. In verismo, not only did the subject matter change, but the orchestration similarly underwent dramatic innovations. No longer conspicuously demarcated into numbers and “filler material”, the musical score blended seamlessly into the action and became one with it. Thus, instead of simply accompanying the vocal passages, it now collaborated with the plotline to create a rich, unified tapestry of emotional expression.

There is debate as to which work kicked off the verismo revolution. Most scholars seem to agree that it was the one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), written by the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) in 1890 as actually a submission to a contest in composition. The story takes place in a Sicilian village, and tells of how a young man cheats on his fiancé so that he can be with his childhood lover who is now married to someone else. He is eventually discovered by the merciless husband, who upon knowing challenges him to a duel and kills him in hot fury. While the plotline is dark and tragic, it is simple and innocent in the sense that human nature, whether goodness or vice, is allowed to manifest freely without the confines of rank and politics. The music is incredibly beautiful and flows smoothly from one scene to the next, like a pictorial background setting the atmosphere for the stage. Cavalleria Rusticana was an instant success upon first performance, but even more significantly it signalled the modernization of the musical theatre. It would pave the way for the universally popular melodies of Puccini, the last great composer of classical opera, and whose works would eventually lead to an even more refined era of musical theatre that everyone knows and loves: Broadway.


Cavalleria Rusticana


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The Unexpected:

Posted on 14 January 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

I thought that it would be appropriate to start off the new year with an overture. But it will not be just any overture. You see, a year is a lot like a comic opera. Although we try to plan out precisely what we shall do, and what is going to happen (eg. through New Year’s resolutions), at the end we always find ourselves lost amidst a bustle of surprising twists and turns. Things never seem to turn out the way we expect them to…

And what better exemplifies the world of the unexpected than one of the best-known comic operas of all time: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) The Marriage of Figaro (1786)? Schemes, heartbreaks, and disappointments abound in the plot. The mere subject matter of the work runs against convention. It tells of how an aristocrat gets tricked by his own servants, an incredibly revolutionary idea at the time. In fact, the play on which it was based fell into governmental censorship and was banned, in light of the social and political disturbances which ultimately culminated in the French Revolution.

The storyline revolves around a young couple, Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna, both servants at the estate of Count Almaviva. Figaro expects the wedding to proceed smoothly and without delay. However, it does not take long before obstacles begin to emerge. The Count apparently has an eye for Susanna, and along with his associate Don Basilio, plots every opportunity possible to flirt with her or sleep with her. Meanwhile, Figaro must contend with problems of his own. He owes the housekeeper Marcellina a considerable sum of money, and the old lady demands that he marry her if the debt is not paid. She is aided by her master Dr. Bartolo in her quest. All this time, Countess Almaviva is heartbroken at her husband’s infidelity, and the desperately lovesick teenager Cherubino seeks to have sex with every woman he sees. All parties scheme to obtain what they desire, whether through lies, disguises, or secret letters, leading to a deluge of mistaken identities, deception, and chaos. In the end, Cherubino joins the military, Bartolo and Marcellina discover themselves to be Figaro’s long-lost parents (!), and the Count is caught red-handed by his wife in the middle of an extra-marital affair.

The opening, or overture, to the opera portrays the storyline with unbelievable cleverness before the storyline even begins. It is introduced by a whispering, capricious melody which seems to wander about with no sense of direction whatsoever. All of a sudden, the orchestra reacts explosively in a commanding discharge of energy, then quietens down again. Mozart maintains such sense of playfulness throughout the piece with all sorts of colours and rhythms. He does not hesitate to tease us with the music, which at times sound resolute, and at other times utterly aimless. The essence of the entire opera is practically summed up in this little four-minute trinket. However, we must remember that the story does end happily. Figaro is wedded to Susanna, Bartolo and Marcellina joyfully reunite with their vanished son, and the Almavivas reconcile in a renewed embrace of love. Just as the overture initiates a musical plot of unpredictable events, it shall also set the stage for a year of baffling surprises. But similar to the opera, we hope that no matter what unexpectedness comes our way, this year will reach a happy conclusion.


The Marriage of Figaro: Overture


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Siete sempre nel mio cuore

Posted on 01 February 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

The first part of the title means “You are always in my heart” in Italian, and as the blissful season of Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us would hold these sweet words (in English, of course) dearly in our hearts. And perhaps there from our lips will escape so many classic love songs that we have grown up with and adored, such as “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic), or “If I Never Knew You” (Pocahontas). But for someone like me who grew up with classical music, every time I listen to these modern romantic tunes I really appreciate how much we (as a society) have taken the musical expression of love for granted. The honest truth is that people of the Western World, such as ourselves, have not always enjoyed this freedom. Throughout most of our history so far music had been a tightly regulated art form, and so the profession of romance through song had likewise needed to follow strict standards.

But we know that music evolves, a process described so concisely and eloquently by the Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff: “All great composers and performers have built upon the ruins of conventions that they themselves have destroyed.” This Valentine’s season we shall pay homage to a selection of these courageous individuals, who represent a classical genre that I have always deeply treasured. Indeed, no other genre fits this time of the year better than opera. Looking back in time, we shall explore how four great composers took the operatic love scene in an evolutionary process through four historical periods. And by doing so they carried the love song to its limits, granting us the freedom today to express our romantic passion with unrestrained intoxication.


George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): “No no, I’ll take no less” from Semele (1744)

Whoever said that violent relationships cannot be of true love? Just imagine the eroticism when Semele, a mortal woman, forces the father of gods Jupiter to make love to her not disguised as a man, but with his full power unveiled (resulting eventually in fatal consequences). Now that’s true love! In many ways, Semele is typical of countless other Baroque operas during Handel’s time. It is based on Greek mythology, features a few number of lines repeated over and over again, and is decorated by notoriously convoluted melismas (a single word sung to at least two dozen notes). If you thought that was bad, recognize that Handel also had to work with an extremely sparse orchestra—probably no more than twenty musicians. With the added obligation to follow draconian guidelines on regular phrasing and proper harmonies, the German master really did not possess many tools to express himself. But he insightfully used what he had to imbue this aria with a new level of life. Taking advantage of the turbulent rhythm conventional in Baroque music, Handel makes the aria spark with the fire of tension and frustration. As the listener, you can almost feel as if you were there in the scene. And you desperately wish that you are not Jupiter, berated by the commanding lash of Semele’s melismas, which are so terrifying that they make your hairs stand on one end.



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791): “Papageno, Papagena” from Die Zauberflöte (1791)

One of Mozart’s greatest ambitions was to depart from the traditional subject matters of opera, based largely on Greek mythology and classic history, and focus on down-to-earth topics that ordinary people could relate to. This is clearly exemplified in some of his best-known works, such as Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which tells of how a Spanish nobleman set out to rescue his wife who had been kidnapped by Turkish pirates, and Le nozze di Figaro, which recounts the love story of a soon-to-be servant couple and how it was almost ruined by the lustful eyes of the fiancée’s master (major breach of professionalism…). Similarly in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Mozart’s final opera, gone are the Olympian gods and Roman warriors of antiquity, replaced instead by a world of princes and magicians and bird-catchers. In “Papageno, Papagena”, the bird-catcher Papageno and his lover Papagena utter their inexpressible astonishment and joy upon reuniting, for they really had not expected to see each other again. One must appreciate how natural their conversation sounds compared to the overly poetic lines of Semele. And even more, Mozart takes the liberty of adding a tinge of playfulness to the dialogue. At the beginning of the duet, so caught by surprise is the couple that they stutter for two phrases (“Pa-pa-pa…”) before finally pronouncing each other’s names. And near the end, they joyfully proclaim a bright future with lots of children, a bunch of little Papagenos and Papagenas. The genius of Mozart lies in his ability to achieve all this in the context of a strict musical structure with regular phrases. But he was not able to do it perfectly, for some parts of the exchange indeed sounds rigid (you would probably not want to talk like this to your Valentine). During this period of operatic history, the text still needed to serve the music to a large degree.



Georges Bizet (1838-1875): “Parle-moi de ma mère” from Carmen (1875)

The significance of this duet is that it is the final glimpse of innocence we see before the storyline plunges into its tragic course of destruction; it is truly the rose before the fire. Here, the Spanish soldier Don José and his beautiful fiancée Micaëla longingly dream about their home in the village, and while the subject matter concerns almost entirely José’s mother, such topic creates a perfect setting, pastoral and romantic, for the expression of their unspoken love. In this Romantic Period of opera, compared to Mozart’s time, there is a shift of emphasis to the outpouring of emotions, characterized by major advances such as looser phrase structures, greater diversity of harmonies, and a larger orchestra (the orchestra in Carmen featured at least forty musicians). Indeed, we hear a wonderful marriage of poetry and poignancy with a sensible flow and simplicity in “Parle-moi de ma mère”, a passionate duet decorated by lush figures in the strings. However, despite such revolutionary employment of the orchestra by Bizet in his final opera, it serves for the most part as merely an accompaniment, a supporting background. As we shall see in the next section, our psychological concept of the “freedom of romantic expression” cannot be complete without a complete lack of musical restraint, which entails releasing the orchestra itself from its cage, in which it arduously struggles to be set free.



Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Love Duet from Madama Butterfly (1904)

The great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini actually began his compositional career producing music for the church, but not long after turned to opera. Puccini probably realized early on that he could never fulfill the modest and reserved conventions of church music. We see this all too clearly in Madama Butterfly, an opera telling of the ill-fated love between an American captain and an innocent little Japanese girl. Indeed, the Love Duet which powerfully concludes Act I exhibits a complete absence of emotional control; here everything is unleashed. As the music enters our ears it splits open our mind and releases our subconscious, which tortures us with divine flames of catharsis. Oh how we cry and tremble! Within our heart an indescribable fear is realized, and yet we cannot tear ourselves away from the music, until it gradually consumes our soul. Aside from the chest-splitting vocal passages which Puccini is so well-known for, another major factor which gives Puccinian operas their unique feel is the extraordinary role that is performed by the orchestra. It is almost as if the orchestra itself is a narrator, recounting the story as the characters play it out in real time. At times it reinforces the plot, and at other times brings out subtle nuances and ominous foreshadows that the characters themselves do not even show. Finally, Puccini abandons the concept of absolute phrase structure with resolution. Every note, harmony, texture, timbre, every sound, exists to serve but one purpose: to portray the lovers’ fiery, single-minded passion for one another.



Here ends our journey, for now… On this tour through the history of the operatic love song we explored from the fiery turbulence of Handel, to the playful glee of Mozart, to the idyllic tenderness of Bizet, and finally to the passionate sensualism of Puccini. By their contributions the love song will never be the same. I sometimes wonder what romantic music would be like today had it not evolved from the Baroque times. Would we still be singing something like: “Oh my love, thou art like Venus (in other words, “sexy”). And I watch you, upon the heights of Mount Olympus (in other words, “from my balcony”)”? So this Valentine’s season, however you decide to express your passion musically for your significant other, whether through a soft, slow jazz CD or a guitar ballad that you wrote yourself, appreciate how much sweat and blood it cost those before you to buy you such privilege of free, uncensored expression. Remember the noble works of the great masters of opera.

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