In Defense of the Opera Aria


by Webster Young

New operas lack great songs and arias — and this is tolerated as part of the style of new operas. This writer has had conversations with key people in a few top companies in the United States about having true arias in new operas. There was expressed in more than one case the opinion that the aria is no longer part of the aesthetic of new opera. Yet this is not a very new idea; it is rather old. Ever since the musical and operatic innovations of Richard Wagner, there has been a school of philosophy that has contended that opera form does not now need the aria.

In a recently published a piece about the state of opera, a critic, writing for Opera in London, identified some serious problems in new operas. She pointed out that inaccessible music and poor drama result from opera producers’ attitudes in tolerating bad work – which results from the lack of experience of composers, inefficiency in composers’  fulfillment of commissions,  and dramatic problems in new libretti.

One point of great importance was missing in that article, however — the lack of good new arias in new operas.

The recent resurrection by the Metropolitan Opera of Franco Alfano’s long neglected opera “Cyrano” — directed and sung by Placido Domingo, serves as a historical illustration. Here is a mid-twentieth century opera that follows the philosophy of realistic naturalism and has no substantial arias. (It has plenty of arioso.) Every time Alfano’s excellent musical ideas and sense of harmony are about to coalesce into an aria, he avoids that direction. The music becomes a long unmemorable sequence instead.

Alfano’s music, in the end, was the only failure of Domingo’s revival. The libretto is great one, and as a result the staging and its setting are wonderful to behold. (Domingo and all the singers in the cast were at the highest level.) In short, it was a perfect revival in every way. However, without great arias, it was to no avail. It was almost a matter of wonderment — to this patron — that it all could go so well, and yet not leave behind in memory one really beautiful melody.

Perhaps the ultimate value of the revival will be that it demonstrates the great desirability of Cyrano as a subject for opera. Someone new would be able write a great opera on the subject.

The movement in realism that produced Cyrano has intensified into the present day and now has many variants: psychological realism, surrealistic realism, and even expressionist realism. These terms would not make sense in the non-operatic theater, but in opera they apply, because  opera may become expressionist, surreal, or abstract  — while the music and its relation to the drama has continued in the vein begun by realism without the aria. The philosophy that avoided the aria is relatively old, but persists into the present.  Surely, after 100 years of this “new” philosophy, it is time to change.

Those concerned about the future should come to the defense of the opera aria. The idea that the aria is “not part of the esthetic of new opera” is stated by a number of people who have the reins of opera companies, but in the next breath, the same people have wondered aloud,  ” maybe the medium of opera is dying.”  They wonder if opera is dying as a creative form. That they might speculate on this is understandable. If the aria is central to opera – and I will seek to demonstrate this here – and it is abandoned, there must follow the decline of opera. The “no aria” philosophy thus threatens the future of opera.

To make a list of all possible reasons as to why songs and  arias are essential to opera — I come up with the following:

1. Song form is the only musical form that can both reach the highest pitch of emotion and  transport the listener for any extended length of time.

2. Song is the musical form in which poetry and music come together  most completely.

3. It is the most human of musical forms (as I have shown in another essay) and is the most representative of the human person or human character in music.

4. Song existed before opera, and opera was originally built around it, as the gold in a ring is the setting or the background for its jewel.

5. Song is the most comprehensible and therefore most memorable musical form — and when it is juxtaposed with other music, it stands out in memory.

All of these are powerful observations  — but as to why they demonstrate that aria or song is essential to opera — clarification is required. As first step, we might change the five statements given above into questions:

1. Why does opera need the only musical form (the aria) that can reach the very heights of emotion and transport the listener?

2. Why does opera need a musical form in which music and poetry come together most completely?

3. Why does opera need the musical form that most completely represents the human person or human character?

4. Why does opera need the musical form around which it was originally built?

5. Why does opera need the most memorable musical form, which stands out in memory from the rest of the music?

The answer to all these questions is, very simply, that opera is a marriage of music and drama. Drama by nature has emotional high points. So if drama is to be married to music, music needs its emotional high points also — and that is song. Drama by nature presents characters and involves people. If drama is to be married to music it needs the musical form that most represents the human person.

Song form is the equivalent of the human person in music. This point takes an essay in itself to prove, and that has been done. An outline of the argument is as follows: The most common form of song — the “double period” with its four phrase structure — is a reflection of human consciousness itself. That part of music (song form) that most reflects human consciousness is by nature the form most representative of the human person in music.

An opera without great arias is like a grand mural without human figures. If Michelangelo had painted the Sistine Chapel without the human figure — depicting only lakes and streams, columns and clouds, fogs and trees — would it say what it says now? Without the human figure it would be incapable of communicating Michelangelo’s greatest message; it would be a grandiose landscape — and probably would be repetitive and boring. This is also what an opera becomes without great arias — a grandiose piece of music without memorable high points.

It should be self-evident that opera needs the musical form around which it was originally built — because if it abandons that original form, it may no longer be called opera. Opera also needs the musical form that will stand out in memory from other music — because most dramas are much longer than pieces of music. In marrying music to drama, there is the danger that nothing will stand out musically while the drama proceeds through its high and low points.

As to why opera needs a musical form in which music and poetry come together most completely–  that is a bit more complex, because the answer may depend upon one’s philosophy of style in opera, and upon one’s idea of drama itself. Non-operatic drama abandoned poetry several epochs ago. Many  theorists of the drama decry this development and long for the return of poetry to the theater.

Opera, as drama, by nature begins from the poetic side and not the realist side, because it is sung. In other words, singing a drama is by nature not realism. This fact could lead to a separate essay on why opera is the only dramatic medium today which keeps the poetic side of drama alive and well.

When poetry occurs in any non-musical drama, it brings a form of music into the theaterbecause poetry has music within it. For example: when Shakespeare ends a scene with a rhyming couplet, the mind is transported at just the right moment and raised to another level of reality (or unreality). The music of poetry on stage brings the height of emotion and the transport I spoke of above in relation to song.

Now there is no doubt that the theater (and the human spirit) is impoverished by the absence of poetry on the non-operatic stage. Some theorists of drama have proposed that the ideal form of theater should contain a well-maintained balance between poetry and realism. If this is true, then the ideal form of opera must include song.

With this last point we have made a case that song and aria are essential to opera. We may say that the arias in an  opera are like the central jewels set in a regal golden crown and we must conclude that an opera with arias is superior in form to one that does not have them.

It is possible to have inferior and superior forms of a thing — and opera is no exception.   Music history has already seen an evolution from inferior to superior form in opera. In the epochs of opera’s beginnings there was the masque in England, the opera-ballet in France. There were pastiches, and later singspiels  — each being either a throwback to an inferior form of opera, or constituting the first gropings towards the mature form of opera.  There were plays with incidental music. None of these forms, however, constituted  mature opera as we have known it from Gluck to Puccini and beyond.

The kind of opera that leaves out arias might be called  “instrumental opera” — the musical equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel without the human figures. But this would be an inferior type to the superior — the superior being that which most fully fulfills the true marriage of music and poetry. The “play sung in front of a symphony”  is an apt description of what many new operas are today and was identified years  ago by more than one writer on the subject.

What is happening now, in the post-modern era of opera, is that, in the name of “pushing the envelope” of operatic form and leaving the creation of great arias behind — opera is regressing to the masque, incidental music, the pastorale, the pastiche, the opera-ballet — and new inferior forms, like the sung play, or the play sung in front of a symphony.

Today, most opera composers are not writing great arias. Some don’t try because they are not asked, and others aren’t capable, either through lack of experience or through not having developed the musical language required. Even a decent aria of today, such as that which occurs in William Bolcom’s From the Bridge, is greatly inferior to what is in the literature of past opera.

I recently served as a finals judge in a US vocal competition administered by the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York where one laudable concept is the encouragement of young singers to use new arias and art songs in their auditions. As a judge, I heard a good deal of what young singers consider worthy new arias.

The good mission and achievements of this competition is unquestioned here — but a judge quickly discovers that the repertoire of arias available to singers from composers of new opera is best described as insipid. The voice is not given full exercise by the composers of these new pieces. Poetic themes and emotions are trivial. The glorious possibilities of lyric poetry have little play. In comparison to the great arias of past opera, the achievement the new arias is surely paltry. One does not even bother to remember them.

If new operas once again produced great songs and arias, the popular status of new opera would surely change. Among the musicians and singers I know personally  — and that includes members of two of the world’s top orchestras and a large number of up and coming singers in New York — the percentage of those who dislike new opera is around 90%. To the supporter of new opera, this figure will sound exaggerated — but I have heard complaints about new opera from almost everyone who hears it. In my circle of acquaintances, the percentage of dislike is even higher. If an official poll were taken on the subject of new opera, among both audiences and musicians involved in all classical music disciplines (not just opera), I would be surprised if it did not discover a percentage like this.

What is needed is a return to the philosophy of the old and wise Italian opera producers of previous eras: “create great arias and build an opera around them”. The age of post Wagnerian realism has played itself out. Opera cannot survive without its heart: the aria.

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