Opera, or Melodrama, is the most important form of music of the nineteenth century and is totally different from the previous ones for variety of expressions and contents.
It is a “drama in music”, that is, a story represented in the theater in which the characters express themselves mainly by singing, while the orchestra accompanies them and comments on what happens on stage. The set of dialogues and actions is usually taken from a novel or a legend; the dialogues are adapted and transcribed in verse by a man of letters or a poet who is the librettist.
These verses are then set to music by the composer, and constitute the opera libretto, that is the small book printed in many copies that is made available to viewers to better follow the story by understanding the individual words, which sometimes get confused in song.
Other figures that revolve around the realization of an opera are:
- The impresario. He finances all the work by paying singers, musicians, set designers, etc.. All the box office receipts go to him and his figure corresponds roughly to that of a current film producer;
- The director: he directs singers and musicians, coordinates all the work and chooses those who will contribute to the realization of the Opera (set designers, costume designers, extras etc.);
- The conductor: he directs the orchestra in the “mystic gulf”, i.e. in the space reserved for musicians in front of the stage but further down, in a special “hole”. Initially the conductor was the composer of the opera himself;
- The set designer and the costume designer: they designed the scenes by reconstructing environments and landscapes and designing the costumes of the characters.
THE FORMS OF THE OPERA
Opera, from a formal point of view, i.e. constructive, is composed of instrumental parts for the orchestra and vocal parts for singers.
The instrumental parts are:
- The Ouverture, also known as the Opera Symphony: it is the orchestral piece that is performed at closed curtain before the beginning of the performance itself; it often announces the main themes that will appear during the dramatic action,
- The Preludes: short instrumental compositions that very frequently precede the beginning of an act (the acts of an Opera are usually from two to four);
- The Ballets: music intended for any ballets or dances included in an opera;
- The Intermezzi: initially autonomous compositions performed between one act and another and then become instrumental pieces placed in the middle of a dramatic scene.
The vocal parts are instead:
- The Recitative (or Melodic Speech): it illustrates the situations of the story, intoning the words clearly, one note for each syllable, and following the natural inflections of the pronunciation of the sentence; in it the music is closely linked to the words of the dialogue;
- L’Aria: is a completely sung piece, where music prevails over words, which follows a very varied and agile melodic line and therefore allows the singer to show his skill.
- La Cavatina: is the piece with which a character presents himself to the public and normally has the characteristic of showing off his skill;
- The Duets, and the Terzetti, the Quartets and the Concertati: pieces for several voices and orchestra, in which the singers often sing simultaneously, overlapping;
- Choirs: parts sung by a group of people and that express the feelings of the people, the people.
CLASSIFICATION OF VOICES
Singing voices are distinguished primarily in female and male voices. To these must be added those of children, called children’s voices.
Depending on pitch, timbre and the number of sounds they can perform (extension), they are further divided, from the highest to the lowest, as follows.
When we witness the performance of an opera or melodrama, the story is told to us by characters who sing with the musical support of the orchestra, amidst rich sets and complicated plays of light.
At the center of attention are almost always them, the characters, to whom the various singers must lend their voices, making them credible even in the most absurd situations. After all, we must never forget that this is theater.
When creating an opera, the composer assigns to each of the protagonists of the narrated story a suitable type of voice. In the nineteenth century, the golden century of melodrama, some roles standardized.
The most acute voice of all is that of soprano and is the most suitable to play a girl in love: its characteristics of agility and effervescence can in fact portray the character’s typical impulses, shyness and abandonment.
The voices of mezzo-soprano and alto are the most severe registers of the female voice and lend themselves well to impersonate strong and determined characters.
The tenor voice, the most acute of male voices, lends itself well to passionate declarations of love as well as vibrant statements of heroism. It is in fact the voice chosen for the role of young lover, perhaps brave or even heroic.
And the wicked, the villains on duty to whom to entrust them? It is easy that the choice falls on the baritone voice, which, being a middle voice, has ambiguous, sometimes even disturbing characteristics; but beware: the baritone voice fits perfectly even a caring father, as well as a rival in love.
The most serious voice of all is the bass voice and is ideal for bringing on the scene old people, priests, hermits, old wise men or kings, who from that depth can draw authority and credibility or, by contrast, can play a grotesque and therefore comic character.
HOW THE WORK IS MADE
The opera is generally articulated in different moments: recitatives, arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc.. Each of these moments has different functions and characteristics.
In the recitatives, through their dialogues, the characters make us understand how the story is progressing. The task of the recitative is in fact to explain the development of the story and it is therefore important that the words are understandable: the singing proceeds without excessive ornamentation and the rhythm follows that of the spoken language.
In the arias, on the other hand, the story is interrupted to leave room for reflection and emotions of the characters. Here the music takes on a leading role and the singing is enriched with blooms and vocals that make it more difficult to understand the words.
In the final act you can finally find the concertati, rather extensive and elaborate pieces in which different characters participate and sometimes even the choir.