Week 1: Setting the Stage
What was happening in opera at the beginning of the century? What was the legacy of the 19thcentury? We consider three operas that were premiered between 1900 and 1906: Tosca (Puccini), Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy) and Salome (Richard Strauss). We unearth some surprising similarities and differences to lead us into the rest of the century.
Week 2: Modernism and the Death of Italian Opera
Puccini was arguably the last great composer of Italian opera. Though Puccini had many followers (Giordano, Zandonai, Cilea and even his friend Mascagni), no one achieved his level of popularity and acceptance. The next generation of Italian composers included Pizzetti, Berio and Dallapiccola, none of whose operas have claimed the international stage. So what happened? Why was the great Italian operatic tradition in decline?
Week 3: The Roaring Twenties
The period between the two wars (1918-1939) saw an unprecedented outpouring of creativity, with as many as 20 new operas being staged each year. We see that there is more to this decade than speakeasies and the Charleston. Taking a closer look, we observe how the spirit of the twenties manifested on the operatic stage and in the music that was composed for it, as jazz and atonality became hallmarks of the Expressionist era.
Week 4: Post World War Two
Once the world was again at peace, the opera houses were filling up, and audiences were eager to hear new work. Richard Strauss’s “conversation piece” opera Capriccio, written in 1942, asks whether words or music are more important in opera—an unanswered question that we consider. Gian Carlo Menotti brought opera in a popular vein to Broadway and television, as did George Gershwin, Virgil Thomson, and Marc Blitzstein. Composers like Kurt Weill and Aaron Copland sought to introduce folk elements into their operas, often blurring the line between opera and musical comedy. Benjamin Britten enlivened the operatic stage with searing drama and his own musical idiom. At the same, composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Bernd Alois Zimmerman, reacting to the horrors of war, moved into unknown and challenging territory. We see, too, how the escalating costs of opera presentation led to the creation of smaller-scale operas, calling for minimal staging and chamber-size orchestras.
Week 5: Highways and Byways
Now, we step back and take an unflinching look at the many musical styles and forms that emerged at various times throughout the century. Since opera is a unique art form with its own aesthetic problems, we look at various ways in which composers have dealt with the often perplexing challenge of uniting words, music, and drama. We take a look at the “isms”: expressionism, impressionism, symbolism, serialism, realism, minimalism, neoclassicism, neo-romanticism, and we consider the influences of jazz, the cinema and the American musical stage. This journey takes us all the way from Charpentier’s Louise (1900) to John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (1999).
Week 6: The Future of Opera
Opera took so many directions during the 20th century that we hardly know what to expect when presented with a new work. Will it relate to any of the operatic styles of the past or will it always be something unexpected and perhaps not even likable? Looking at dramatic and musical trends of the past few decades we ponder the future of opera in the 21st century. Will the ever-popular 19th century masterpieces endure or will they be replaced by newer, more relevant, less expensive and perhaps challenging operas? In fact, will opera survive?