Do we still need opera? | Music | DW

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With 83 opera houses, Germany has the highest density of opera houses in the world.

Among the most important is the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, built by Richard Wagner. Wagner operas have been performed here as part of a festival since 1876. The annual Bayreuth Festival is a major social event that attracts 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 mainly to entertain and represent the rich and powerful. The composers Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini set Ottavio Rinuccini’s “La Dafne” and “L’Euridice” to music and thus invented the opera. The two Italians are also responsible for the recitative, the spoken song so typical of operas.

Light, costumes, music: operas form a total work of art

Representation of the sovereign with music and dance

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

The best composers, singers and decorators worked at the court of Vienna in the 17th and 18th centuries. Habsburg Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740) even wielded the staff himself.

Reproduction of a model for a stage set for the opera Il pomo d'oro shows a long flight and rows of baroque columns, with some figures in between

Reconstruction of a Baroque scenography model from 1668 for the opera ‘Il pomo d’oro’

Operas pay off

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

The painting depicts a seated youth dressed in baroque twine, with putti and a scantily clad lady beside him, and a choir of angels above him.

Farinelli’s real name was Carlo Broschi and he was one of the superstars of his time

The public were treated to a grand spectacle, and the clever patricians had tapped into a new source of money. “The aim was to engage people and inspire them,” says art historian Katharina Chrubasik, who together with playwright Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach curated the exhibition.Opera is dead — Long live opera!which takes place at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn until February 5, 2023.

View of the stage hall of the Venice Opera.

View of the Venetian Opera House, Teatro La Fenice

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 remained stable for a long time. It took until the pandemic for them to collapse. Was this the death knell of opera?

“Opera has been declared dead time and time again, and yet it has reinvented itself, reorganized itself, after every crisis, be it wars or social upheaval,” 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), explains Eva Kraus, artistic director of the Bundeskunsthalle. For her, opera is “one of the most alluring art forms of all”.

Curator Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach sums up the opera’s merits somewhat more dramatically: “To deeply shake the human soul is the claim of opera.” Although everything the public sees is an illusion, he says, it still has an effect on people. “This effect is real and true.”

Portrait of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler demanded complete concentration on what was happening on the opera stage

The composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, who conducted the new Vienna Court Opera from 1897, also aimed for 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 had to concentrate fully on the events on stage, planned down to the smallest detail.

A status symbol for New York’s new rich

Throughout its history, the opera has oscillated between various claims: it has been used as a status symbol, built as a commercial enterprise and understood as a haven for high art.

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

The Milanese publishing house Ricordi secured the rights to the operas and handled worldwide distribution.

Towards the end of the 19th century, 22 New Yorkers, including the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Roosevelt families, who were not accepted by the wealthy established 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 her early days, she performed all her operas, regardless of their original language, in Italian.

Print shows a meeting between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera with opera singers, conductors and orchestral musicians

‘The Operatic War’: this 1883 engraving depicts the clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera

Too elitist for the mainstream?

Even today, opera has something elitist about it. It’s time to change that, says Katharina Chrubasik. She hopes the exhibition will contribute to this and whet visitors’ appetite for opera. “Of course, opera has always been very elitist. It is after all a courtly form which developed later. But in the 19th century it was also a bourgeois art form. The bourgeoisie created new great 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, heroes and traitors, intrigues, fulfilled and unrequited love, power, passion and human abysses, life and inevitable death.

Metropolitan Opera dancers raise their hands in the air

Operas can tell stories in a very special way

“Opera is surreal, opera brings together things that don’t exist. Films are like a continuation of opera, so to speak.” Maybe the elitist part is just 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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