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Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Making of the Modern Opera World (Part 1)

Karen Henson. Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

For most of this its history, from the beginning of the 17th century up through the end of the bel canto era, opera was singer-based. Impresarios ruled supreme, of course, but an opera was a performance event to showcase the glory of the great singers of the era (and in the case of opera seria the glory of the monarchy). Audiences entered the theater already knowing the stories based almost exclusively on Greek and Roman mythology and history. In some cases, they had already attended multiple operas using the same libretto. What they expected to experience as new was the singers with their glorious voices and expressive abilities. Expression of course meaning ornamentation and musical expression. But by the mid-19th century composers had begun to insert a dominance over what happened on the opera stage. The practice of inserting arias by other composers (and perhaps even with unrelated texts) into the performance was disappearing as was the expectation that singers would add ornaments or even rewrite or transpose passages to better suit their own voices. Opera Acts explores the era after singers had moved from “freedom to subservience, creativity to interpretation.” Singers were increasingly expected to sing exactly what was on the page and had to find new creative outlets for their artistry. Variations on the word interpret (interpreter, interpretation, etc.) begin showing up in discussions of performances by singers in the 1870s to 1890s replacing words like artist and “chanteur.” Singers began exploring acting, costuming, public image, staging (in what is the beginning of the concept of a stage director) and other aspects of performing in which to express the creativity they had once channeled into how they sang.

Henson quotes a letter from Verdi in which he states that “singers should not sing in their way, but in mine…only one will should dominate: my own.” This is an enormous change from a generation or two earlier in which singers were often basically co-creators of a role along with the composer. Not only was music composed for their specific talents, but they ornamented as they pleased and even inserted music by other composers that better suited their voices. This was no longer tolerated. (At least in most cases. A few transpositions and interpolations survived at least halfway through the 20th century, but they are the exception.) In fact, Verdi’s final two operas were written purely for his own pleasure with no specific performance in mind and only one singer (Tamagno in the title role of Otello) in mind.

In discussing this era of singing, Henson highlights several singers. While I object to some of her framing, in particular the concept of “not singing,” the details presented about singing in the late 19th century are enlightening, and most significantly (at least to me) is the ways in which the then-new presentation of singers as interpreters has continued into our own time. She also explores some then famous singers who either originated or who helped make famous many operas still often performed today.

The first of these singers is the baritone Victor Maurel (1848-1923). Maurel was Verdi’s first Iago, and the first Falstaff, and the first interpreter of Verdi’s revised Simon Boccanegra. He was also the first Tonio in Pagliacci. In addition to singing and teaching, he wrote and published essays including one on the importance of physical exercise for singers, a staging manual for Don Giovanni, and late in life a book Un problème d’Art. Of particular interest is the discussion of Maurel’s study of acting, borrowing from the current great English Shakespearian actors and incorporating those techniques into opera. At the time English actors were beginning to incorporate more realism into their performances, and Maurel was a proponent of bringing that kind of realism into opera as well.

Next the author focuses on mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié, known for her realistic portrayal of Carmen. Noteworthy here is Galli-Marié’s participation in the composition of the role. This would have been typical a generation or two earlier, but by the 1870s it was practically taboo for a singer to suggest changes to the score of a new opera. She especially influenced Bizet in the composition of the famous Habanera. Bizet had originally composed a chanson in 6/8 which had been learned and rehearsed but which did not meet the mezzo’s approval. She wanted Carmen’s entrance to have a stronger character and be rooted in a folk music tradition. A number of Bizet scholars have been highly critical of the singer for making such “tyrannical” demands, but the result speaks for itself. What opera character makes a stronger and more indelible entrance than Carmen? 

This criticism brings up the problem that still plagues opera…the disempowerment of the singer. If we think of this as a post-modern phenomenon, then we are missing examples of the diminishing power of the opera singer beginning in the mid-19th century. Galli-Marié’s other roles are also explored as part of her quest for a more realistic style of operatic acting, including her creation of the title role in Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon in which she attempted to match recreate the movements of the actors who had played the role in the theater. (There is also a discussion of her performances in a number of less-well-known French pants roles from the mid-late 19th century. It is a bit off topic for BCBC, but anyone researching the cross-gender casting of opera characters will want to consult this source as it includes examples not often mentioned elsewhere.) 

Massenet was something of an anachronism. In an era in which composers were proudly writing the music they wanted and then challenging the singers to rise to the technical difficulties, Massenet was continuing the older practice of seeking out singers and then tailoring the music for a role around their abilities and even changing the score to accommodate a new singing taking on a role. He even goes as far as to notate in his autograph scores the contributions of the singers, one in particular, Sibyl Sanderson. Henson frames the relationship between Massenet and Sanderson in the context of the emerging celebrity culture (with which 21st century readers are so familiar). In addition to being of artistic value, the relationship served to promote both the composer and singer in the press. 

We see Massenet’s willingness to accommodate singers in his many revisions to his first successful opera Manon. The many Manons from the first few decades of the opera’s history cover a range of voice types and acting styles. Some lyric, some coloratura, some operetta specialists. Rather than expect each singer to shoe-horn her own voice into the role and manage as best they can (which is what we expect today) the composer provided new entrance arias, added coloratura, or sometimes lowered the pitch depending on the singer currently assigned the role. This would have been standard in the bel canto era or earlier but by the 1880s, few if any composers were still so accommodating. 

Another intriguing aspect of Sanderson’s career is that as photography becomes a standard in print media, her particularly photogenic looks and skill at posing for the camera boosted her career significantly. (So it would seem that this aspect of an opera career is hardly new.) The combination of her photogenic image and having what for that era was the idea feminine body type helped her career immensely. The remaining portion of this chapter is devoted to the then-new focus on the visual in opera, including Massenet’s many characters who unveil during the opera in which the body is “blatantly exhibited and eroticized.…”

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