The Past, Present, and Future of Opera

Opera – the undisputable queen of the classical music genres! We associate it with rich, opulent stage sets, intensely emotional arias and duets, over-the-top acting, and orchestral interludes that take us on the most marvellous musical journeys. Fantastic ensemble events like the ‘Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago’ or ‘Puccini e la sua Lucca’ showcase collections of masterpieces back-to-back and amplify the genre’s grandeur. But was opera always so extensively produced, so colourful and overwhelming for all the senses? And what does the opera of tomorrow look like?

You might have a similar view of opera, and you probably believe it has its origins in post-Renaissance Italy. If so, you are only partially correct. Even though that time and place played a pivotal role in the genre’s rise to international fame, opera itself is considerably older, and its rich and varied history may hold the key to how it will develop in the coming decades. Let us take a trip through the centuries in our quest towards the future of opera!

From Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

Music historians trace the origins of opera as far back as Ancient Greece. The famous tragedies of Euripides, Aeschylus, Ovid and Sophocles were combinations of poetry, music, and drama fused together in one transporting stage performance. Even in those old times, the production was quite advanced: elaborate costumes, realistic stage sets, and inventive mechanical devices to represent ‘deus ex machina’, the divine intervention that resolves the central problem in one fell swoop. Dragon-drawn chariots, fiery towers and actors flying on strings, therefore, set the opera production values high already in ancient times.

Later on, the spread of Christianity also nurtured a tradition of musical dramas, in which sacred texts were performed as part of liturgy. Then came the Renaissance. Its renewed interest in the art and times of Ancient Greece and Rome revived the musical theatre of the old dramatists. Before long, contemporary composers began emulating the ancient genre, reinventing and modernising it along the way. With the generous support of the Florentine Medici aristocratic family, Jacopo Peri’s Dafne was staged in Florence in 1598. Though the score did not survive to present day, its impact certainly did.

Opera Takes Europe by Storm

Following in the footsteps of Peri, composers across Western Europe quickly picked up the new genre of musical drama. Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Henry Purcell all made a mark in their national contexts and helped popularise the new stage form. The Italian dominance continued in the coming centuries, and even non-Italians like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Christoph Gluck made immense contributions to the genre.

Alongside Italian Maestros like Gaetano Donizetti, Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, we count Carl Maria von Weber, Richard Wagner, Georges Bizet and Richard Strauss who helped develop new movements within the rich operatic tradition. Through wars and attempts at nation-building, the whole of Europe was equally abuzz with singing and dancing.

The 20th Century and the Great Beyond

With the dawn of the 20th century, music as a whole became increasingly experimental. The first atonal operas by Arnold Schönberg and Paul Hindemith raised eyebrows. The minimalist, repetitive scores of Philip Glass and John Adams demonstrated that opera does not always need to be florid and colourful. This musical austerity soon spread to the stage production, too. Complex masterpieces like Verdi’s La Traviata or Puccini’s Tosca could now be performed against a monochrome background, with a single spotlight and a bottle as the only prop. Opera’s ‘holy grounds’, such as Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, are no longer reserved for classical music alone. On La Scala’s lavish opening night concert, the splendid outfits by Giorgio Armani garnered as much attention as the performers who wore them.

All this history begs the question: What will the future of opera be? We know for sure that, throughout the centuries, opera has been intimately connected to real life. Many of humanity’s greatest minds have worked in the genre in an attempt to reflect on society and on the human condition. As such, opera is one of the most inclusive art forms. Its heroes are aristocrats and royals but also paupers, prostitutes and criminals.

Because of this, opera will retain its place in our lives, and it will embrace the trends and technologies of the day as it always has. Perhaps in the near future we will enjoy it on our virtual reality headsets; perhaps we will even take part in the onstage action. Maybe holograms of great artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas and Boris Christoff will share the stage with live actors and thus reprise their landmark roles. However opera performance develops in the future, one thing is certain: It will continue telling the stories that make us laugh and cry, and we will keep listening keenly.