When one says the word opera, the first thing that comes to mind to most people is a vision of a hefty, buxom, blond Viking woman complete with metal breastplates and a horned helmet while orchestra music dramatically crashes as her voice soars to the high heavens.
That image is from “Ride of the Valkyries” of The Ring of the Nibelung, one of the more popular operas written by famous German composer Richard Wagner. Opera is one of the great musical contributions of the Western classical tradition and is often associated with drama, incorporates many of the elements of theater, and is typically accompanied by a live orchestra.
Italian in origin, it has been around since the sixteenth century and soon took Europe by storm with different countries establishing different operatic traditions. Famous classical composers such as Handel and Mozart have had a hand in contributing to this glorious art. However, it was around the middle of the nineteenth century when opera experienced its golden age with Giuseppe Verdi leading the Italians and Wagner for the Germans. Opera continued to be popular all the way through the early twentieth century, but as new mediums of entertainment and art were developed, opera—being somewhat expensive and difficult to produce—became less popular.
This did not spell the end for operas but instead paved a way for more contemporary historical ones that told tales of fictional stories or plays on myth or legend instead of the traditional use of distant history. Interestingly enough, according to reports from the US Metropolitan Opera, the average age of the avid operagoer is sixty. This does not mean that opera as an art form is gray and dying—there are several efforts to attract a younger audience. Opera houses are now giving student discounts and broadcasting live performances in movie theaters.
The influence of opera can be seen in many contemporary musicals in the 1930s, beginning with the jazzy Porgy and Bess, in the incorporation of an operatic structure and was well received in Broadway. Following this trend, other popular musicals, like Evita and West Side Story, debuted with dramatic stories and complex music and are also shown in opera houses, reviving the art and bringing a fresh take on this classical art.
Another thing many people associate with opera is the performing cast. Classically trained for years, these singers, with their amazing voices, bring to life the characters. Sopranos, altos, tenors, and baritones are only some of the different operatic voices that can be heard singing about love and passion on any given show.
As opera is originally Italian, so is the diva. These are women who are of outstanding talent and are celebrated artists. Notably, the first operatic diva was an Italian soprano named Anna Renzi, who was not only a reportedly high-caliber singer but was also an accomplished actress. This prima donna mesmerized people with her stage presence, setting the bar for many songstresses to come.
Interestingly enough, the image of the diva has been somewhat corrupted by grand offstage personalities and were seen as demanding and petty, often behaving in a temperamental attitude with an inflated ego that has been wonderfully captured in the character of La Carlotta in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fantastical Phantom of the Opera.
Despite issues in funding, opera thrives mainly from being shown on television and cinema houses. Not surprisingly though is the role of the Internet in reviving the interest of opera and spreading the art form to places that have yet to view this wonderful experience. Thus, we are certain that despite its grand age, opera will remain and tradition will, as always, live on.