(What’s Opera Doc? Warner Brothers Looney Tunes Cartoon)
Opera came about during the Renaissance (or Rebirth) in late medieval Italy.
Which begs the question: What’s the Renaissance Doc?
Well, in a few words… The Roman Empire collapsed in Europe. Then came the Dark Ages: Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Goths, Vikings and as everything settled down, the Normans.
Welcome to the 1st Millennium.
The Pope said, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if Jerusalem was in Christian hands.’
Welcome to the Crusades.
The Normans loved Christianity. They just had a problem with the commandments, particularly: Thou shalt not kill. But they weren’t only about meeting new and exotic peoples (and killing them) they also introduced luxury goods: cinnamon, almonds, ginger, and the Greek and Roman Classics; the very books their Viking ancestors burned not 300 years before.
Welcome to the Renaissance.
On the back of Arabic translations of the Greek and Roman Classics the Renaissance (or the rebirth of learning) flourished in City States like Florence, Venice and Rome. Hey, the Italians had a big heritage to live up to. Plus it was a good way of undermining the Pope’s authority. For a couple of hundred years they went Greek and Roman mad, especially when they discovered Greek drama which gives us the words Chorus and Orchestra.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
While they had plays with songs, Greek drama was entirely sung and seemed much cooler. Not sung as in the good bits of ‘Les Mis’, more as in the boring bits; singing instead of dialogue: in the sort of voice we use for nursery rhymes.
‘Wouldn’t it be lovely’ they thought, ‘if WE could have entire plays sung like that?’
Wouldn’t that be class! Blimey it would be the Works!
Opera – Greek (what else) for… ‘the works’
They soon found out sitting through sung declamation (or recitative) for hours on end, while someone scraped away on a bass fiddle, might have thrilled the Ancient Greeks, but…
Time to spice things up methinks!
Welcome to the Baroque.
By 1700, sing-song declamation only moved the action along. The bass fiddle was now accompanied by harpsichord and lute. Songs or arias expressing states of mind were added, growing increasingly lengthy (some 13 minutes long) and ornate. Each opera ended with a chorus where the cast sung in unison, and you might have a duet or two between the superstars.
All this was about to change.
Never ones to be left behind, the French developed their own dynamic version of opera, bejewelled with choruses and ensembles: where the cast sang different things at the same time.
Is this madness?
No, it’s opera! For only opera can have half a dozen people speaking over each other and produce such divine harmony.
The extended scenes and finales of orchestrated impassioned recitative punctuated by short bursts of aria, duet, trio, quartet and chorus wound listeners to fever pitch. The audience went bonkers! It wasn’t long before Italians and Germans followed suit. ‘A la Francese’ was ‘a la mode’!
With revolution in the air, the common man was the hero; not stiff old gods. Comedy not tragedy was king. Mozart wrote his revolutionary comedy ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ based on a seditious play banned by the Emperor.
Along came Rossini, whose long career saw the last of the old ditched in favour of the entirely new. By now long arias and dry recitative were virtually extinct. Opera was French school not Italian: flowing and lyric. Rossini was followed by Verdi (Aida), Puccini (Turandot; Madam Butterfly) and Wagner who gave his characters individual signature tunes (motifs) and songs (refrains) repeated through the opera.
If you are timid, but curious, try ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Sweeny Todd’. They are not so different.
So that’s the music, what about the singers?
(From the French movie Farinelli: Il Castrato)
Opera stars were gods and rightly so, for they were no ordinary beings. Not divas or romantic tenors but castrated male sopranos.
Originally women were not allowed on stage. Boys played girls before their voices broke. Men played older women, often speaking falsetto (think Tiny Tim). The word ‘drag’ is Shakespeare’s acronym for Dressed Representing A Girl.
There was a long tradition of men singing high parts in church music because St Paul said women should not raise a voice in church. Just before the advent of opera, the Pope imported a troop of Spanish falsettos to sing in the Vatican choir. They had pure high voices, much better than the squeaky local product. What they were is shrouded in mystery, but it is suspected they were castratos. Eunuchs were used as slaves throughout the Arab World and Spain had not long been liberated from the Moors.
The Baroque loved artifice and ambiguity. Publically castratos were worshipped like movie stars, yet privately considered jokes: half men; a third sex. The church even forbade castratos to marry, as the purpose of marriage was to enable procreation without sin by containing fornication within a holy sacrament.
Poor families of children with promising voices had them doctored around 8 years old. Though it seems cruel, they thought it ensured their financial future. Unfortunately the castrato stars rarely saw it that way. If you wonder why a youngster would be castrated to retain his voice, then listen to Radu Marian, aged 7, sing Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. He grew up to be a male soprano.
Boys castrated before puberty keep their choirboy voice, but with the power of a man-sized larynx. Castration prevents the bones sealing so they also have a huge elastic ribcage to act as bellows. Opera superstar Farinelli could hold a note for over a 1 minute without taking breath. Contemporary reports say male castratos sounded an octave higher than women singing the same note. Their voices had an eerie ethereal quality like angels.
Here Alexis Vassiliev, an endocrinological soprano (who skipped puberty and looks like castrati are described) sings ‘Generoso risuegliati, o core’ from J A Hasse’s opera Cleofide.
By the 1700s women were appearing on stage. In the Papal States where the ban continued until 1800, castratos continued to take male and female roles: the female role often showcasing an up-and-coming young star. Elsewhere female opera singers became superstars in their own right, often taking males roles instead of castratos.
Everything changed in 1806 when the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, although a huge fan of castratos, banned castration as barbaric. Edits reinforcing the ban followed in 1814, and again in 1861 after the Italian war of Independence.
The last castrato on the opera stage was Velutti. In 1825, after a gap of 50 years, he was the first castrato to perform in London, and was considered a freak. People went to see him for the novelty. Newspaper cartoons mocked him.
By 1830 when Rossini no longer had castratos at his disposal, he kept the idea of male sopranos alive by writing his heroes for women in ‘trouser roles.’ Here Marilyn Horne sings the knight Tancredi – one of Rossini’s male parts written for a woman. (The catchy cabaletta starts 4 minute in – this is the bit the Pope banned altar boys from whistling.)
Over the following decade, boys were still castrated, and continued to sing in Church. The last castrato in the Vatican Choir was Alessandro Moreschi who died in 1922 aged 64. He was recorded on wax cylinder in 1902. The recording isn’t great as Moreschi sang into a giant hearing trumpet- somewhat like singing into an old telephone all the enriching harmonics are lost.
When listening we must remember singing styles have changed. When Moreschi sounds like he is hitting bum notes or struggling to hold one, he is demonstrating extremely difficult bel canto techniques only the most highly trained could execute. Here the 40 year old Morsechi sings Ave Maria.
Despite the bans, the castratos’ true death knell was fashion. With the birth of ‘Romantic Music’ (Beethoven) opera had no use for old fashioned castratos, but preferred tenors instead.
The past half century has seen a resurgence of Baroque Opera. New male soprano stars have emerged, some with medical conditions that prevent their voice from breaking, others acquire a high voice through years of training. Listening to them we can begin to understand the strange fascination that dominated opera for 300 years and was once deemed forever lost.
Time to say goodbye, but before I do, an extra treat.
* What’s opera Doc? Is a Bugs Bunny cartoon exploring Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and let me tell you, you never really appreciate Wagner (old Aryan Supremacist that he was) until you see Bugs Bunny as Brunhilde, or Elmer Fudd as Siegfried singing ‘Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!’
Unfortunately the full cartoon isn’t available on You-tube, but this is a bloody brilliant substitute. A live action shot by shot recreation that’s as mad as a March Hare (Gettit!) and camp as a row of tents! The fact both lads claim to be tone deaf only adds to the outrage. Enjoy!
©Paul Andruss 2017
My thanks to Paul for another wonderfully researched and written post.. I am very honoured to have him here as a regular contributor.
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul Andruss is the author of 2 contrasting fantasy novels
Thomas the Rhymer – a magical fantasy for ages 11 to adult about a boy attempting to save fairy Thomas the Rhymer, while trying to rescue his brother from a selfish fairy queen.
Finn Mac Cool – rude, crude and funny, explicitly sexual and disturbingly violent, Finn Mac Cool is strictly for adults only.
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