The DIY University: Opera; Week 4 Day 3

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Opera is primarily an experience of the heart, not the head. Thus a first rule to understanding this seductive, 400-year-old Italian invention is to accept that you will always love more than you know. Even advanced scholars often have a shockingly vague grasp of their subject when it comes to explaining the plot or remembering who sang the title role. For in combining music, words and drama, opera (lit. Italian "work", deriving from Latin opus) has more terms of cultural reference than any other art form. Wagner, the 19th-century German Titan among opera composers, called it a Gesamtkunstwerk (unified work of art), of which his four part Ring of the Nibelung is a supreme example.

All this matters not a fig if your prime desire is to delight in the human voice at its most thrilling and expressive. If, however, you are serious about learning, you must sacrifice every hour and penny to performances, CDs, scores, texts, books on stagecraft, set design, architecture, history, religion and politics. You should also brush up your Italian, German, Russian, Czech, French. English counts for little, except in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689) or Britten's Peter Grimes (1945), as most operas are now performed in their original language. Whichever the case, you'll probably only catch the odd syllable anyway, as sung words are notoriously hard to hear. This may be why so few great writers have written librettos (lit. little books), though many composers established important partnerships with their librettists. Mozart and Da Ponte are the finest example.

For most, an encounter with opera usually starts with music by one of the great 19th-century Italian composers, notably Verdi or Puccini. Yet the father of the form was working nearly three centuries earlier. Until his death in 1643, Claudio Monteverdi experimented with opera as far as his job running the music at St Mark's, Venice, allowed. His La favola d'Orfeo, which movingly retells the story of Orpheus and Euridice, is the earliest opera still regularly performed today. 1607, the date of Orfeo's first performance at the Gonzagas Court in Mantua, is the only important date in operatic history.

Compared with what was to follow, opera in renaissance Italy was an intimate and formal court entertainment, sung by light-voiced singers with a mere handful of players to accompany them. The great crowd-pulling masterpieces, all blood-red emotion and grand spectacle, only came about later, in purpose- built opera houses. There, public of all classes came and promenaded, ate, talked, read their librettos and formed illicit liaisons, while still managing to respond to the key dramatic moments as the composer intended. Under the guise of greater audience seriousness, opera-going is much the same today.

After Monteverdi, opera spread rapidly throughout Europe, each new composer pushing for greater dramatic expression. Essential names are Lully, Rameau, Handel and Gluck, culminating in Mozart at the end of the 18th century. For many, Mozart remains the ideal opera composer, with music and emotion held in perfect balance before it all went over the top.

After Mozart, the taste was for more brilliant vocal writing, bigger orchestras and grand crowd scenes: in Italy Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini; Bizet and Meyerbeer in France, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky in Russia, Wagner and Richard Strauss in Germany. Berg, Stravinsky and Britten bring us, for current purposes, more or less up to the present day.

Singers, despite their intrinsic importance to opera, can only be touched on here. From high to low, each singer is categorised according to vocal range: soprano, contralto, tenor or bass. You will also hear of mezzo- sopranos, Heldentenor (Ger. heroic tenor), baritone, counter-tenor, Coloratura. Those students classified as opera buffs usually make the voice their special subject. Do not embark on this course unless you have a collector's mentality, a memory for names, faces and voice colours, and a taste for the temporal. Concentrate instead on stengthening your knowledge of the works themselves.

With contemporary production, a whole new set of arguments apply. Here you plunge headlong into a melee of hot conviction and cold confusion. You will hear the phrase "producer's [sometimes called director's] opera" tossed about. This refers to the trend dominant in the past 15 years, for an opera performance to be judged first and foremost on its production standards and ingenuity. Hence Zeffirelli's Tosca, Richard Jones's Ring. As with singers, never forget that it was the composer who wrote the work.

The old-fashioned view remains that of putting the music above all else. On this firm structure can all knowledge of opera be built. Unlike singers, conductors or producers, the music never dies.

Tomorrow: Ballet