From Mozart to Marsalis –
From Baroque to Bebop –
Mini-Music 2006





Mini-Music  Q & A

The Soundscape of Opera
Prof. Steven Huebner

1 - What usually comes first, the libretto or the score?

The libretto almost always comes first. For the last two hundred years libretti have been typically written in consultation with the composer. A typical way librettists and composers have worked is first to agree upon a “scenario,” a basic outline of the plot. At that point, the composer and librettist (but mainly the former) would decide about where the best spots for musical “arias” (set pieces, numbers, ensembles) might be, that is, dramatic situations that would seem to call for effective musical projection (say, an beautiful aria or ensemble piece). Composers and librettists also liked to aim for variety of musical moods and effective entrances and departures of characters. They also liked “special effects” (as in the Verdi scene last night where there was a single singer on stage but you heard lots of off-stage music). Once the location for the musical numbers was determined, the librettist would go to “fill in” the necessary poetry for them. S/he would also write the verse for recitative at that point. If a composer was unhappy with the verse that the librettist provided for an aria, s/he could send the collaborator back to the drawing table.

Now, sometimes librettists would approach composers with ready-made libretti.. Such ready-made libretti were rarely set unchanged! Most often composers intervened substantially. In other situations, composers (such as Wagner) wrote their own libretti, feeling that they could control all aspects of the work more successfully in this way. In such cases, composers have had good language skills (not always the case with others: remember libretti are most frequently written in verse). In some rare cases, such as Richard Strauss or Claude Debussy, composers have actually set plays (and it is important to remember that plays are not the same as libretti) to music. But even in these instances the plays were often somewhat modified to suit the requirements of music theatre.

2 - What are the basic differences between Italian Romantic opera and German Romantic opera?

There are many differences between the two operatic traditions. Opera is essentially an Italian invention/development, and for many years in the late 18th century and early nineteenth, composers in Germany sought to escape Italianate influence and produce opera that reflected national temperament. It is important to remember that many of these debates took place at a time when discussions about “national character”  assumed a huge place in public discourse. German composers such Weber and then Wagner felt that they could leave their mark by making the orchestra much more important in their operas. Their great musical ancestors were Mozart and Beethoven, and Weber and Wagner aimed explicitly to continue the legacy of these figures on the opera stage—that legacy meant much more to them, certainly, than to Italian composers. Wagner also felt that he wanted to produce an “opera of ideas” and that Italian composers fell short in this area. Of course, just what an “opera of ideas” actually is, cannot be subject to empirically verifiable criteria. Today, many people would agree that there are certainly lots of “ideas” projected in operas by Donizetti or Verdi. But for Wagner, the Italians were too concerned with theatrical effect and vocal virtuosity for their own sake, at the expense of more profound statements about the human condition.

3 - What is the required training of a professional music critic?

Many professional music critics consider themselves to be journalists. So, the training often takes the form of a music degree and then subsequent study at a school of journalism. Professional music critics often have a natural writing ability, especially for the kind of direct and entertaining prose that we usually look for in newspapers. Some professional music critics are also scholars/researchers/academic critics. People in the latter composite category attempt to advance knowledge in some way: uncover new documents related to figures of the past, provide insight into the ideological and social context for works of art, and develop new and interesting ways to approach, and think about, the past. Works of art, such as operas, are not static products, but trigger the imaginations of subsequent generations in their response to them. Academic critics, therefore, often seek to broaden the horizons around a work. Frequently, however, this involves the use of a specialized vocabulary, in part because the grammar and syntax of music are complicated but also for the sake of nuance. The direct audience for such writing is often small, but ideas do frequently get taken up by others who bring them to a wider audience: for example, journalist music critics, writers of program notes, compilers of encyclopedias.

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