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May 2019
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2003-03-11 The day an opera tenor was arrested during a show

Beethoven only composed one opera, but that opera Fidelio is very much part of the repertory. On the other hand, Schubert composer of more than 600 songs/lieder  tried his hand at opera on several occasions and those works rarely get an airing today.


The Italians Rossini and Donizetti had a real gift for melody, a natural theatrical instinct and, more often than not, great wit.

Their ensembles simply sparkle and Rossini introduced what was to become the Rossini crescendo, a building up and up by means of repetition at the end of an aria or ensemble.

Rossini composed all his works for the stage early in his career and spent the last 30 or 40 years of his life living off his earnings in Paris and writing some music for the Church and other small-scale works.

The Barber of Seville and Cenerentola are fine examples of Rossinis comic genius. Donizetti has left us such gems as LElisir damore and Don Pasquale and the more dramatic works such as Lucia di Lammermoor.

His orchestral score is often fairly straight-forward and for that reason Wagner cruelly referred to the Donizetti orchestra as the big guitar. Donizettis demise was more tragic and like so many others he died from syphilis.

Other notable masters of 19th century bel-canto and grand opera are Bellini, Meyerbeer, Weber, Gounod and Massenet. Bizet is mainly remembered for the Pearl-Fishers duet and of course Carmen.

Opera was now no longer dealing solely with themes such as nobility, but with Carmen the title role was a cigarette girl and the tenor was a killer who deserted from the army. In a by now famous performance of the opera in Mexico, Don Jose, the tenor, was having a cigarette outside the stage-door at the interval in his army costume. He was arrested and thrown into a cell, and the next act had to be held while the police were being convinced of his innocence.

The next big shake-up came with the arrival of Wagner. He pushed classical tonality as far as he could and was a great believer in the oneness of music and drama. His theory of Gesamtkunstwerk meant that he strived for a total artwork. Wagner developed the leitmotif which was a little musical theme or idea linked to each of the main characters or ideas on the stage.

His themes were often from Norse mythology and were very nationalistic, though Isolde from Tristan and Isolde was of course Irish, hence Chapelizod in Dublin.

Many of Wagners ideologies preceded those of the Third Reich and Hitler was a big fan of the composer. Rossini, on the other hand, said that Wagner had lovely moments, but terrible quarters of an hour.

At the same time in Italy, another opera giant was gaining enormous patriotic appeal, so much so that Viva Verdi became a political slogan at the time. Long Live the King was Viva Vittorio Emaniele Re dItalia (Verdi). The Chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco became a sort of alternative national anthem. Verdis dramas were often violent and bloody, from Otello  the consummation of tragic opera  to his only comic opera Falstaff which is perfection of the genre. And I cant omit Traviata, Rigoletto and Don Carlos!

In Russia at this time Tchaikovsky was composing such glorious masterpieces such as Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades and Mussorgskys magnum opus has to be Boris Godunov.

Moving into the 20th century, Mascagni and Leoncavallo with Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were preaching the merits of verismo opera (truthism).

Puccini took this even further and his heroes and heroines were little seamstresses dying of consumption, geisha girls being dumped by horridly racist American naval officers, and even cowboys and cowgirls!

Richard Strauss, Berg, Dvorak, Janacek, Stravinsky, Britten and many others pushed opera even further into the 20th century, and some pushed it too far  no names mentioned.

Despite a serious lack of funding, especially in this country, and sadly often elitism, opera has survived for centuries now. Opera only acquired the snob element in the last century or so, and before that was the pop music of its day, so lets get rid of the elitism. Those of you who may never have been to one, try a Boheme, Carmen, Butterfly or an equally accessible piece - you may surprise yourselves!