Do we still need opera?

Published on Oct 07, 2022 05:54 PM IST

Operas tell stories in a special yet not always accessible way. They also often come off as elitist. Has opera had its day? An exhibition looks into the art form's constant reinvention.

Splendid neo-baroque: Paris' Opera Garnier opened in 1875(Günter Gräfenhain/ImageBroker/picture alliance)
Splendid neo-baroque: Paris' Opera Garnier opened in 1875(Günter Gräfenhain/ImageBroker/picture alliance)

With 83 opera houses, Germany has the highest density of opera houses in the world. Among the most prominent is the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, built by Richard Wagner. Wagner operas have been performed there as part of a festival since 1876. The annual Bayreuth Festival is a major social event that draws many celebrities.

This was also the case in the early days of opera in Italy, where it was originally invented.

The first opera performances took place at the Medici court in Florence around 1600. They served primarily to entertain the rich and powerful and to represent them. The composers Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini set the plays "La Dafne" and "L'Euridice" by Ottavio Rinuccini to music and thus invented opera. The two Italians are also responsible for the recitative, the spoken song so typical of operas.

Ruler representation with music and dance

Since the new art form was so well received by the public and was perfectly suited for the European nobility to show off their wealth, power and superiority, it spread rapidly.

The best composers, singers and stage designers worked at the Viennese court in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Habsburg Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740) even wielded the baton himself.

Operas pay off

Starting in the 1630s, the wealthy patrician families in Venice founded their first opera houses. They were less concerned with ostentation and pageantry than with making money. To maximize profits, performances were shortened and the chorus and orchestra were reduced in size. To make up for this, stars were bought in, such as the then highly revered and famous castrato Farinelli, and spectacular stage sets were created.

The audience was treated to a great show, and the clever patricians had tapped into a new source of money. "The point was to carry people along and inspire them," explains art historian Katharina Chrubasik, who, together with playwright Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, has curated the exhibition "Opera is Dead — Long Live Opera!" which runs at Bonn's Bundeskunsthalle through February 5, 2023.

Germany: Land of operas

Until the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, around 3.8 million people a year attended an opera in Germany. The numbers held steady for a long time. It wasn't until the pandemic that they plummeted. Was that the death knell for opera?

"Opera has been pronounced dead time and again, and yet it has reinvented itself, reorganized itself, after all crises, be they wars or social upheavals," says Chrubasik.

Spectacular synthesis of the arts

Opera appeals to our senses like no other genre, combining music, song, poetry, visual arts, theater and dance to create a spectacular Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art), says Eva Kraus, artistic director of the Bundeskunsthalle. For her, opera is "one of the most beguiling art forms of all."

Curator Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach sums up opera's merits somewhat more dramatically: "To deeply shake the human soul is opera's claim." While everything the audience gets to see is illusion, he says, it still has an effect on people. "That effect is real and true."

The composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, who directed the newly founded Vienna Court Opera from 1897, also aimed at this unique effect on the audience. He conducted himself, took over the direction and introduced an innovation that still exists today: He had the auditorium darkened and the doors locked once the performance began. Everyone was to concentrate fully on the events on stage, which were planned down to the last detail.

A status symbol for New York's new rich

During its history, opera oscillated between various claims: It was used as a status symbol, built up as a business enterprise and understood as a haven of high art.

In the 19th century, Milan's La Scala was the top address among opera houses. It was directed by Domenico Barbaja, a former waiter and card player who integrated a casino into the opera house and was well connected with the composers Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. He was able to convince them to write commissioned works for him.

The Milan publishing house Ricordi secured the rights to the operas and took care of worldwide distribution.

Towards the end of the 19th century, 22 New York nouveau riche, including the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Roosevelt families, who were not accepted by the established moneyed aristocracy, founded their own opera house: the Metropolitan Opera. After 40 years at most, it was on par with the Vienna State Opera and La Scala in Milan. In its early days, it performed all its operas — regardless of their original language — in Italian.

Too elitist for the mainstream?

To this day, opera has something elitist about it. High time to change that, says Katharina Chrubasik. She hopes that the exhibition will contribute to this and whet visitors' appetites for opera. "Of course, opera has always been very elitist. It is, after all, a courtly form that then developed. But in the 19th century, it was also an art form of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie created new, grand houses and took over the role previously held by the nobility."

In principle, opera is like cinema, she says. It is a place where stories are told. Stories of dragon slayers, of heroes and traitors, of intrigue, of fulfilled and unrequited love, of power, of passion and human abysses, of life and inevitable death.

"Opera is surreal, opera brings things together that don't exist. Movies are like a continuation of opera, so to speak." Perhaps the elitist part of it is only in our heads, says Katharina Chrubasik. Therefore, everyone should give opera a chance. "Opera can inspire us; it can trigger feelings in us like no other genre."

This article was originally written in German.

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