English Opera

 
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In 1945 the Sadler's Wells Opera returned to Sadler's Wells and concentrated on producing opera in English. Their first great success was the world premiere of Peter Grimes which heralded the arrival of Benjamin Britten. Britten became the first English opera composer of international standing. Britain's only full-time repertory opera company, based at the London Coliseum near Covent Garden, ENO offers a variety of English-language opera. Find events, book tickets and discover opera at ENO.

  • The early history
    • The role of Florence
  • From the “reform” to grand opera
  • Grand opera and beyond
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  1. Jan 28, 2021 The English National Opera (ENO) is based in the Coliseum theater in London. Participants reported 'positive impacts for them both emotionally and physically,' said the press release.
  2. Artwork: English National Opera. Formidable women have been enlisted by English National Opera in its fightback again the adversities of Covid and Brexit. The ferocious Valkyrie, embodied in music by the composer Richard Wagner, will tear on to the stage of the Coliseum this autumn, as the curtain goes up on an ambitious return to live music.

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Herbert WeinstockSee All Contributors
Consulting Editor, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York City, 1963–71; Executive Editor, 1943–59. Author of The Opera; Music as an Art; and many biographies of composers.

Opera, a staged drama set to music in its entirety, made up of vocal pieces with instrumental accompaniment and usually with orchestralovertures and interludes. In some operas the music is continuous throughout an act; in others it is broken up into discrete pieces, or “numbers,” separated either by recitative (a dramatic type of singing that approaches speech) or by spoken dialogue. This article focuses on opera in the Western tradition. For an overview of opera and operalike traditions in Asia (particularly in China), see the appropriate sections of Chinese music, Japanese music, South Asian arts, and Southeast Asian arts; see also short entries on specific forms of Chinese opera, such as chuanqi, jingxi, kunqu, and nanxi.

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The English word opera is an abbreviation of the Italian phrase opera in musica (“work in music”). It denotes a theatrical work consisting of a dramatic text, or libretto (“booklet”), that has been set to music and staged with scenery, costumes, and movement. Aside from solo, ensemble, and choral singers onstage and a group of instrumentalists playing offstage, the performers of opera since its inception have often included dancers. A complex, often costly variety of musico-dramatic entertainment, opera has attracted both supporters and detractors throughout its history and has sometimes been the target of intense criticism. Its detractors have viewed it as an artificial and irrational art form that defies dramatic verisimilitude. Supporters have seen it as more than the sum of its parts, with the music supporting and intensifying the lyrics and action to create a genre of greater emotional impact than either music or drama could achieve on its own. In his 1986 autobiography, stage and film director Franco Zeffirelli warned against taking opera too literally:

Short men in armour and large ladies in chiffon singing about ancient Egypt don’t make much sense at one level [but] they can…reveal to us the confusions of emotion and loyalty, the nature of power and pity, that could not be so movingly expressed in any other way.

English Opera Songs

The preparation of an opera performance involves the work of many individuals whose total contributions sometimes spread across a century or more. The first, often unintentional, recruit is likely the writer of the original story. Then comes the librettist, who puts the story or play into a form—usually involving poetic verse—that is suitable for musical setting and singing. The composer then sets that libretto to music. Architects and acousticians will have designed an opera house suited or adaptable to performances that demand a sizable stage; a large backstage area to house the scenery; a “pit,” or space (often below the level of the stage) to accommodate an orchestra; and seating for a reasonably large audience. A producer (or director) has to specify the work of designers, scene painters, costumers, and lighting experts. The producer, conductor, and musical staff must work for long periods with the chorus, dancers, orchestra, and extras as well as the principal singers to prepare the performance—work that may last anywhere from a few days to many months. All of this activity, moreover, takes place in conjunction with the work not only of researchers and editors who painstakingly prepare the musical score, especially in the case of revivals of works long forgotten or published long ago, but also of the theatre’s administrative staff, which includes the impresario and others responsible for bookings, ticket sales, and other business matters.

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One of the most variable facets of opera during its long history has been the balance struck between music and poetry or text. The collaborators of the first operas (in the early 17th century) believed they were creating a new genre in which music and poetry, in order to serve the drama, were fused into an inseparable whole, a language that was in a class of its own—midway between speaking and singing. In the decades and centuries that followed, the balance between these elements repeatedly shifted to favour the music at the expense of the text and the integrity of the drama, only to be brought back into relative equilibrium by various “reforms.” More than one desirable balance between music, text, and drama is possible, however, and over time the aesthetic ideals of opera and its creators have successfully adapted to the changing tastes and attitudes of patrons and audiences, while also accommodating linguistic diversity and assorted national preferences. As a result, opera has endured in Western culture for more than 400 years.

Moreover, since the late 20th century, new ways of delivering opera to the public—on video and DVD, in cinematography, or via high-definition simulcast in movie theatres—have increasingly made the genre more accessible to a larger audience, and such novelties will inevitably change public attitudes and appreciation of the art form. It remains to be seen, however, how these media might also change the way in which composers, librettists, impresarios, and performers approach opera, and whether the genre’s musical and theatrical values will consequently be altered in fundamental ways.

English Opera Lyric

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The early history

Music historians have continued to debate opera’s ancestry. The plays of the ancient Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides combined poetic drama and music. During the Middle Ages, biblical dramas that were chanted or interspersed with music were known under various labels, including liturgical dramas (ordines) and similar plays performed in church. These and related musico-dramatic forms may have become indirect ancestors of opera, but the earliest universally accepted direct ancestors of opera appeared in 16th-century Italy.

The role of Florence

The courts of northern Italy, especially that of the Medici family in Florence, were particularly important for the development of opera. Indeed, Florence became the birthplace of opera at the end of the century, as the result of the confluence of three cultural forces: an established theatrical tradition, a strong sense of civic humanism, and a distinctly Florentine view of music and music’s relation to the cosmos.

Intermedi in the Florentine musical theatre

Foremost among the factors that made 16th-century Florence ripe for the advent of opera was its long tradition of musical theatre, manifested principally in the musical productions known as intermedi (or interludes) that were staged between the acts of spoken plays. Intermedi served both to signal the divisions of the spoken drama, since there was no curtain to be dropped, and to suggest the passage of time by suspending the action between one act of the play and the next and, during the interval, by employing characters and themes unrelated to the main plot and only loosely connected from one interlude to another. The Florentine court offered lavish intermedi, planned and rehearsed months in advance and intended to impress invited guests with the wealth, generosity, and power of their Medici hosts. For the so-called 1589 intermedi, which climaxed a monthlong series of events to celebrate the marriage of Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici (Ferdinand I) of Tuscany to the French princess Christine of Lorraine, a huge team of artists, artisans, poets, musicians, architects, and technicians was assembled under the intellectual guidance of the prominent Florentine aristocrat Giovanni Bardi. As the moving spirit behind the program, Bardi worked closely with local poets and musicians—some of whom were involved in the first experimental opera productions a decade later. In fact, the 1589 intermedi had many of the same players and almost all the ingredients of opera—costumes, scenery, stage effects, enthralling solo singing, colourful instrumental music, large-scale numbers combining voices and orchestra, and dance. Yet to be created, however, were the unified action and the innovative style of dramatic singing that have remained among the hallmarks of opera.

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The Opera Tradition in England

In England, opera’s antecedent was the seventeenth-century jig. This was an afterpiece that came at the end of a play. It was frequently libellous and scandalous and consisted in the main of dialogue set to music arranged from popular tunes. In this respect, jigs anticipate the ballad operas of the eighteenth century. At the same time, the French masque was gaining a firm hold at the English Court, with even more lavish splendor and highly realistic scenery than had been seen before. Inigo Jones became the quintessential designer of these productions, and this style was to dominate the English stage for three centuries. These masques contained songs and dances. In Ben Jonson’s Lovers Made Men (1617), “the whole masque was sung after the Italian manner, stilo recitativo.” The approach of the English Commonwealth closed theatres and halted any developments that may have led to the establishment of English opera. However, in 1656, the dramatist Sir William Davenant produced The Siege of Rhodes. Since his theatre was not licensed to produce drama, he asked several of the leading composers (Lawes, Cooke, Locke, Coleman and Hudson) to set sections of it to music. This success was followed by The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658) and The History of Sir Francis Drake (1659). These pieces were encouraged by Oliver Cromwell because they were critical of Spain. With the English Restoration, foreign (especially French) musicians were welcomed back. In 1673, Thomas Shadwell’s Psyche, patterned on the 1671 “comédie-ballet” of the same name produced byMolière and Jean-Baptiste Lully. William Davenant produced The Tempest in the same year, which was the first musical adaption of a Shakespeare play (composed by Locke and Johnson). About 1683, John Blow composed Venus and Adonis, often thought of as the first true English-language opera.

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Blow’s immediate successor was the better known Henry Purcell. Despite the success of his masterwork Dido and Aeneas (1689), in which the action is furthered by the use of Italian-style recitative, much of Purcell’s best work was not involved in the composing of typical opera, but instead he usually worked within the constraints of the semi-opera format, where isolated scenes and masques are contained within the structure of a spoken play, such as Shakespeare in Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen (1692) and Beaumont and Fletcher in The Prophetess (1690) and Bonduca (1696). The main characters of the play tend not to be involved in the musical scenes, which means that Purcell was rarely able to develop his characters through song. Despite these hindrances, his aim (and that of his collaborator John Dryden) was to establish serious opera in England, but these hopes ended with Purcell’s early death at the age of thirty-six.

Following Purcell, the popularity of opera in England dwindled for several decades. A revived interest in opera occurred in the 1730s which is largely attributed to Thomas Arne, both for his own compositions and for alerting Handel to the commercial possibilities of large-scale works in English. Arne was the first English composer to experiment with Italian-style all-sung comic opera, with his greatest success being Thomas and Sally in 1760. His opera Artaxerxes (1762) was the first attempt to set a full-blown opera seria in English and was a huge success, holding the stage until the 1830s. Although Arne imitated many elements of Italian opera, he was perhaps the only English composer at that time who was able to move beyond the Italian influences and create his own unique and distinctly English voice. His modernized ballad opera, Love in a Village (1762), began a vogue for pastiche opera that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Charles Burney wrote that Arne introduced “a light, airy, original, and pleasing melody, wholly different from that of Purcell or Handel, whom all English composers had either pillaged or imitated.”
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Besides Arne, the other dominating force in English opera at this time was George Frideric Handel, whose opera serias filled the London operatic stages for decades, and influenced most home-grown composers, like John Frederick Lampe, who wrote using Italian models. This situation continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including in the work of Michael William Balfe, and the operas of the great Italian composers, as well as those of Mozart, Beethoven and Meyerbeer, continued to dominate the musical stage in England.

The only exceptions were ballad operas (see below), such as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), musical burlesques, European operettas, and late Victorian era light operas, notably the Savoy Operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, all of which types of musical entertainments frequently spoofed operatic conventions. Sullivan wrote only one grand opera, Ivanhoe (following the efforts of a number of young English composers beginning about 1876), but he claimed that even his light operas constituted part of a school of “English” opera, intended to supplant the French operettas (usually performed in bad translations) that had dominated the London stage from the mid-nineteenth century into the 1870s. London’s Daily Telegraph agreed, describing The Yeomen of the Guard as “a genuine English opera, forerunner of many others, let us hope, and possibly significant of an advance towards a national lyric stage.”

In the twentieth century, English opera began to assert more independence, with works of Ralph Vaughan Williams and in particular Benjamin Britten, who in a series of works that remain in standard repertory today, revealed an excellent flair for the dramatic and superb musicality. Today composers such as Thomas Adès continue to export English opera abroad. More recently Sir Harrison Birtwistle has emerged as one of Britain’s most significant contemporary composers from his first opera Punch and Judy to his most recent critical success in The Minotaur. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the librettist of an early Birtwistle opera, Michael Nyman, has been focusing on composing operas, including Facing Goya, Man and Boy: Dada, and Love Counts.

Also in the twentieth century, American composers like Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Gian Carlo Menotti, Douglas Moore, and Carlisle Floyd began to contribute English-language operas infused with touches of popular musical styles. They were followed by composers such as Philip Glass, Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Robert Moran, John Coolidge Adams, André Previn and Jake Heggie.

English Opera Composers

Ballad Opera

Painting based on The Beggar’s Opera, act 3, scene 2, William Hogarth, c. 1728

The eighteenth century saw the development of the ballad opera, which has been called an “eighteenth-century protest against the Italian conquest of the London operatic scene.” It consists of racy and often satirical spoken (English) dialogue, interspersed with songs that are deliberately kept very short (mostly a single short stanza and refrain) to minimize disruptions to the flow of the story, which involves lower class, often criminal, characters, and typically shows a suspension (or inversion) of the high moral values of the Italian opera of the period.

It is generally accepted that the first ballad opera, and the one that was to prove the most successful, was The Beggar’s Opera of 1728.It had a libretto by John Gay and music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch, both of whom probably experienced vaudeville theatre in Paris, and may have been motivated to reproduce it in an English form. They were also probably influenced by the burlesques and musical plays of Thomas D’Urfey (1653–1723), who had a reputation for fitting new words to existing songs; a popular anthology of these settings was published in 1700 and frequently reissued. A number of the tunes from this anthology were recycled in The Beggar’s Opera.

Gay produced further works in this style, including a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera, Polly. Henry Fielding, Colley Cibber, Arne, Dibdin, Arnold, Shield, Jackson of Exeter, Hook and many others produced ballad operas that enjoyed great popularity. By the middle of the century, however, the genre was already in decline.

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Although they featured the lower reaches of society, the audiences for these works were typically the London bourgeois. As a reaction to serious opera (at this time almost invariably sung in Italian), the music, for these audiences, was as satirical in its way as the words of the play. The plays themselves contained references to contemporary politics—in The Beggar’s Opera the character Peachum was a lampoon of Sir Robert Walpole. This satirical element meant that many of them risked censorship and banning—as was the case with Gay’s successor to The Beggar’s Opera, Polly.

The tunes of the original ballad operas were almost all pre-existing (somewhat in the manner of a modern “jukebox musical”): however they were taken from a wide variety of contemporary sources, including folk melodies, popular airs by classical composers (such as Purcell) and even children’s nursery rhymes. A significant source from which the music was drawn was the fund of popular airs to which eighteenth-century London broadside ballads are set. It is from this connection that the term “ballad opera” is drawn. This ragbag of “pre-loved” music is a good test for distinguishing between the original type of ballad opera and its later forms.

In 1736 the Prussian ambassador in England commissioned an arrangement in German of a popular ballad opera, The Devil to Pay, by Charles Coffey. This was successfully performed in Hamburg, Leipzig and elsewhere in Germany in the 1740s. A new version was produced by C. F. Weisse and Johann Adam Hiller in 1766. The success of this version was the first of many by these collaborators, who have been called (according to Grove) “the fathers of the German Singspiel.” (The storyline of The Devil to Pay was also adapted for Gluck for his 1759 French opera Le diable à quatre).

A later development, also often referred to as ballad opera, was a more “pastoral” form. In subject matter, especially, these “ballad operas” were antithetical to the more satirical variety. In place of the rag-bag of pre-existing music found in (for example) The Beggar’s Opera, the scores of these works consisted mainly of original music, although they not infrequently quoted folk melodies or imitated them. Isaac Bickerstaffe’s Love in a Village (1763) and Shield’s Rosina (1781) are typical examples. Interestingly, many of these works were introduced as after-pieces to performances of Italian operas.

Later in the century broader comedies such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna and the innumerable works of Charles Dibdin moved the balance back towards the original style, but there was little remaining of the impetus of the satirical ballad opera.

English nineteenth-century opera is very heavily drawn from the “pastoral” form of the ballad opera, and traces even of the satiric kind can be found in the work of “serious” practitioners such as John Barnett. Much of the satiric spirit (albeit in a greatly refined form) of the original ballad opera can be found in Gilbert’s contribution to the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the more pastoral form of ballad opera is imitated, or at least emulated, in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s early works, The Sorcerer (1877).Balfe’s opera The Bohemian Girl (1843) is one of the few British Ballad operas of the 20th century to gain international recognition.

English Opera Arias

The Threepenny Opera of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (1928) is a reworking of The Beggar’s Opera, setting a similar story with the same characters, and containing much of the same satirical bite. On the other hand, it uses just one tune from the original—all the other music being specially composed, and thus omits one of the most distinctive features of the original ballad opera.

In a completely different vein, Hugh the Drover, an opera in two acts by Ralph Vaughan Williams first staged in 1924, is also sometimes referred to as a “ballad opera.” It is plainly much closer to Shield’s Rosina than to The Beggar’s Opera.

In the twentieth century folk singers have produced musical plays with folk or folk-like songs called “ballad operas.” Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and others recorded The Martins and the Coys in 1944, and Peter Bellamyand others recorded The Transports in 1977. The first of these is in some ways connected to the “pastoral” form of the ballad opera, and the latter to the satiric Beggar’s Opera type, but in all they represent yet further reinterpretations of the term.

English Opera Browser

Ironically, it is in the musicals of Kander and Ebb—especially Chicago and Cabaret—that the kind of satire embodied in The Beggar’s Opera and its immediate successors is probably best preserved, although here, as in Weill’s version, the music is specially composed, unlike the first ballad operas of the eighteenth century.