The heavy plots of Baroque opera fell out of favor during the late 1700s for the new style – comic opera. Plots moved away from plagues of gods and goddesses, such as Monteverdi’s Le...

The heavy plots of Baroque opera fell out of favor during the late 1700s for the new style – comic opera. Plots moved away from plagues of gods and goddesses, such as Monteverdi’s Le Orfeo, to the comedy of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The music also became lighter and more accessible for a wider variety of musicians to perform. The concept behind this major change was to “package” the art form for its newest audience – the general public.

QUESTION:  Did the art form lose its integrity when the shift was made to the general public from the educated aristocrats? Please explain.

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Your question asks whether Baroque Opera lost its validity and, like you state, integrity in the process of it changing from the private rooms of the monarchical sets to the public theaters and general public. The answer varies among historians, but you will find that, rather than losing its integrity, the Opera movement made a myriad of gains with this shift. This is what has made this genre survive and remain strong amidst changing times and generations.

In Donald Grout's book A Short History of the Opera (1947) the scenario that is described shows that the Opera was never a formalized musical movement per se. Instead, it was a constantly-changing "experiment". From its earliest formation as the product of Bardi, Galilei, and Caccini's Camerata group, what is now known as "Opera" is a combination of classical traditions put together by this well-funded group of highly artistic and well-educated men. This "experimental genre" intends to combine history, music, drama, and every other element of art in order to produce something magnanimous that shows the core elements of artistic talent.

The Camerata, however, was (like previously stated) a group of men experimenting the formation of a unique musical movement, more than anything. At the time the experiment was near-completed, it was mainly enjoyed in the privacy of the aristocratic homes precisely because it was they who brought it to life, and they were still studying it. However, social change drastically came about, making the experiment open to others to continue to work with it. According to Grout, the 1700's witnessed a huge increase in the bourgeoisie. The now-wealthy middle classes wanted to enjoy the same luxuries of the rich, which largely included music. The middle classes obviously liked what they heard, for it led to the foundation of the first public opera house in Vienna in 1637. The rapid extent to which society changed meant that now Opera had to be readily-available...but not changed.

Between 1637 and the end of the century, 388 operas were produced in Venice itself ... this city of 125,000 people supported six opera troupes continuously, the usual seasons filling from twelve to thirty weeks of the year.

Here we find evidence that supports the argument that Opera lost none of its splendor. If anything, this "experiment in progress", which was never made into a specific science, gained enough popularity to be well-funded enough to preserve the very tenets upon which it was created. It may have added on to its original dossier, but it lost none of its original intention.

Citizens were admitted on payment of about fifty cents, and wealthy families rented loges by the season. Within a short time the whole typical modern organization of opera, based on a combination of broad popular support and strong prestige appeal to the upper social classes, was in evidence....

This statement is very powerful. If the Opera had lost any of its class in the process of being "served" to the general public, the first people to oppose it would have been the more powerful aristocrats, who more than likely would have boycotted it. It shows that, had Opera lost none of its integrity, purpose, goal, or even charm. If it had, the upper classes would have flat-out refused to attend an Opera house and would, instead, create and preserve the tradition of the Camerata. Incredibly, what occurred was the opposite: the general public gave more power to the Opera as a musical movement and its constant funding formalized its elements as a genre. It preserved absolutely everything that it was meant to be and to represent.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Opera has always belonged, not just to the aristocrats, but to the people. In Italy, for instance, the peddlers, merchants, and shopkeepers have always sung it in the streets. In barbershops, automobiles, and on boats they sing Puccini's and Verdi's arias to this day. While these people did not attend the opera houses, they knew the opera and loved it, just the same. If Mozart's Don Giovanni is the greatest of operas, as many a musician has attested, The Marriage of Figaro is certainly one many musicians love the most. Moreover, it has the distinction of being the oldest opera in the permanent repertoire of almost every lyric stage in the Western world. Of Figaro, Henry Simon, author of The Victor Book of the Opera, writes, has won the affections of countless thousands who do not greatly admire the standard fare of FaustAida,La bohème but make an exception for Figaro. Who, indeed,could fail to love Cherubino and Susanna or to relish a Figaro so much more elegant though no whit less vital than Rossini's bumptious barber?

No, opera did not lose its integrity when appeals were made to the general public. It simply increased its audience. The overture of The Marriage of Figaro sets perfectly the mood with its quick, scampering masterpiece that breaks from the conventional Italian form of two fast sections around a middle slower one. Later, in Act IV of Figaro, there are the humorous incidents of mistaken identity, humorous scenarios not unfamiliar to such greats as Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors). So, if such comedy has been written by Shakespeare and enjoyed by the strata of Elizabethan society, how can it mar the opera to have such a genre?