English-Language Opera Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The history of opera written to an English libretto or book (either sung throughout or with spoken dialogue interspersed between the musical numbers) is one of long, deep valleys separated by but a few noteworthy crests. Following the invention of opera as a recognizable form by the Florentine camerata (a Humanistic discussion group that met in the late 1570’s and early 1580’s in the Florentine palace of Giovanni Bardi, Count of Vernio) just before the start of the seventeenth century, first France and then Germany joined Italy in developing a distinctly national form both in content and sound. This was not to be the case in Great Britain and, collaterally, the United States until the early twentieth century. Pure chance and ill fortune, combined with less definable causes such as public taste, account for the absence of an ongoing tradition. Equally curious, however, is the development of a sturdy form of English opera since the 1930’s and its dominance in international theater, so that without benefit of indigenous prototypes, a powerful force in the lyric theater has been produced out of the thinnest of rarefied air.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, after the accession of James I to the English throne, the masque , a court pastime combining an allegorical story, dialogue, and vocal and dance music with scenic and costume spectacle, became dominant as royal entertainment. Although none of the great Elizabethan composers contributed music, masques incorporated lyrics, accompanied recitative, and involved scenic and costume design that later would appear in the first acknowledged English operas. The mighty forces behind the masque were the scenarios and words of British playwright Ben Jonson and the scenery and costumes of designer-architect Inigo Jones, whose knowledge of Italian practices introduced the British to the stage picture and craft of Italian scene painters and machinists.

In 1617, Nicholas Lanier composed for Jonson’s masque, Lovers Made Men (pr. 1617), what was most likely the first English recitative, a type of vocal composition patterned on the natural rhythms of speech, in the Italian style of Claudio Monteverdi. Although the music is lost, it is doubtful that it would have exerted much influence on an English public that had come to prefer the traditional structure of the masque, with its fast-moving dialogue separating the songs known as “ayres.”

Even before the execution of Charles I, the Commonwealth government suppressed theater, but the ruling Puritans did not as vigorously oppose secular music. This situation led to the curious attempt by practitioners of theater to circumvent the harsh laws by presenting stage spectacles under the guise of musical concerts. It was in this context that, at Rutland House in 1656, William Davenant ’s The Siege of Rhodes (pr. 1656-1659) was given a private performance. Davenant’s work was subtitled A Representation by the Art of Prospective in Scenes and the Story Sung in Recitative Musick in Five Acts; the music (now lost) was contributed by a number of composers, including Matthew Locke and Henry Lawes. The changeable scenery in the Italian style was designed by John Webb, a student of then recently deceased Inigo Jones.

The first irony in the development of English opera came with the restoration of Charles II four years later, when the ban on spoken drama was lifted. The English, including Davenant, who was given one of the two monopolies to present plays in London, returned to their love of words and virtually abandoned their earlier attempts at opera. Incidental music for the theater and interpolated songs persisted, as did remnants of masques, now heavily influenced by the court of Louis XIV of France, where the new English king and much of his court had found refuge during the interregnum of the Puritan Parliament. Chief among these influences was Jean-Baptiste Lully, the Italian-born composer who had become the titan of French music.

Indeed, that a native English music survived to the end of the seventeenth century was somewhat miraculous, considering the English tendency to look to the Continent for what they thought was true genius. The slim promise of an English school of opera in the closing years of the seventeenth century rested with three composers: the previously mentioned Locke, with his setting of Thomas Shadwell’s adaptation of Lully’s tragédie lyrique titled Psyche (pr. 1675); John Blow, with his one complete work for the musical stage, Venus and Adonis (pr. c. 1684); and, most important, Henry Purcell . Purcell’s one complete work for the stage, Dido and Aeneas (pr. c. 1689) with a superb libretto by Nahum Tate, is the earliest English opera to achieve a place in the international standard repertory. Despite his short lifetime, with Dido and Aeneas and his incidental music for spoken drama, Purcell seemed to light the way for future generations of theater composers.

Such, however, was not to be the course followed by theatrical history. Between the time of Purcell’s death and the arrival of George Frederick Handel and his Rinaldo in 1711, operatic as well as theatrical tastes changed radically in London. In the theater, the forty-year reign of the rather prurient comedy of manners came under successful attack and was replaced by a more sentimental comedy meant to inspire a higher moral tone. Even the continued revivals of William Shakespeare’s plays were marked by adaptations to the prevailing sentimental tone found in the new comedy. Purcell’s prototype of what might have been a truly national form of opera virtually disappeared, overwhelmed by the change in popular taste that saw French and French-inspired English music fall out of...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)

The Nineteenth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, ballad opera developed into a more Italianate form that came to be called burletta . Generally speaking its satirical elements more closely resembled farce and were gentler, broader, and less identifiably English than in the ballad operas. Frederick of Prussia: Or, The Monarch and the Mimic (pr. 1837), a one-act burletta by Charles Selby, is a good example of the form. Produced at the Queen’s Theatre, it was a play of lovers and mistaken identity involving Frederick the Great and freely incorporating incidental music and recitatives as the production warranted. The musical passages in burlettas need not advance or even have anything directly to do with plot; but could simply be diversions to lighten an already light drama.

The transition between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was tumultuous both politically and culturally. The shock waves of the French Revolution, followed as it was by Napoleon Bonaparte’s initially republican-inspired conquests, found artistic expression in so-called rescue operas, of which Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio (pr. 1805) is a major example. In prose, poetry, and dramatic literature, revolution found its expression in the Romantics’ assault on the bastilles of neoclassical drama and the worn out opera seria.

Although England was one of the dominant forces in the new movement with the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the poetry of William Wordsworth, and the scenic designs for antiquarian, medieval productions of the now faithfully restored plays of Shakespeare, it was left to the Italians and the French to set these works in operatic form. Although the Germans were developing opera rooted in their own mythology and medieval history, what little that passed for English opera retained the form of comic opera with musical selections separated by spoken dialogue and introduced the style of semiserious opera emphasizing sentimentality over history and tragedy. During the first seventy years of the nineteenth century, England produced only a handful of successful or important musical works for the stage, and these were products of non-English composers and found little audience outside England.

The first of these works was by the influential founder of the German Romantic school of opera, Carl Maria von Weber, whose Der Freischütz (pr. 1821) was to set a standard for subsequent developments by Richard Wagner. In 1826, shortly before his death in London, Weber opened Oberon: Or, The Elf-King’s Oath (pr. 1826), an opera in English to a libretto by James Robinson Planché. Its overture remains a concert favorite, and its fairy music became the model for popular future incarnations such as those found in W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Iolanthe: Or,...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

The Twentieth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The popular tradition in opera continued in the long overlooked ragtime compositions of Scott Joplin in the early twentieth century. His first opera A Guest of Honor (c. 1903), was never performed and subsequently lost. Though he never saw a staged version of his opera Treemonisha, a work he composed around 1907, the work has achieved wide audience popularity since its full professional staging by the Huston Grand Opera in 1975. The Joplin operatic phenomenon was three quarters of a century before its time.

The first thirty years of the twentieth century saw opera in both the United States and England dominated by neo-Wagnerian principles in structure and sound, although modified by the...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Altieri, Joanne. The Theatre of Praise: The Panegyric Tradition in Seventeenth Century English Drama. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986. A comprehensive study that discusses the relationship of art to propaganda in the context of the theater and its operatic derivative. There is a full chapter on opera’s relationship to politics, history, and the theater.

Dircks, Phyllis. Eighteenth Century Burletta. ELS Monograph Series 78. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, 1999. Traces the relationship of ballad opera and the more Italianate form known as the burletta and considers the composers and primary works written in this form in the eighteenth century, emphasizing English composers of the period.

Fiske, Roger. English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. This is the standard reference work on eighteenth century theater music; it provides a history of the English musical theater following the Restoration era.

Gagey, Edmund McAdoo. Ballad Opera. Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937. Reprint. New York: B. Blom, 1965. The availability of this work makes it worthwhile to consult on the history of the ballad opera form. Gagey surveys composers and representative works popular in England and as imported to the United States.

Gilman, Lawrence. Nature in Music and Other Studies in the Tone-Poetry of Today. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1966. Reprint. Temecula, Calif.: Best Books, 2001. This classic study compares the development of program music and opera and features sections on the place of opera in English.

Warrack, John, and Ewan West, eds. The Concise Dictionary of Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. This convenient reference work has the advantages of entries complete enough for the generalist and ready availability. The revised edition has completely new articles on English and ballad opera.

White, Eric Walter. The Rise of English Opera. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951. Reprint. New York: DaCapo Press, 1972. This history of opera in English focuses on the eighteenth century. It is particularly strong on ballad and folk opera, though it also traces the development of English opera through the years immediately following World War II.