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Thread: Do you consider Opera music to be classical music?

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    Senior Member annaw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SONNET CLV View Post
    Of course, I never want to be argumentative with a Tito Schipa fan, and Woodduck posts rank among those on this board that I most cherish for fine thought and fine expression. Still, I maintain I see an absurdity in the notion that music is the primary vehicle of expression in an opera. Certainly opera is a multi-art form, but the music remains just one component of the multi-arts involved. Without the music one doesn't have an opera. But one doesn't have an opera without the libretto, either, silly or complex as the story line may be. Musical extracts from the opera makes sense, but musical extracts from the opera are not opera.

    If most folks go to operas to experience the music, that does not change the dynamic that opera is comprised of certain components, none of which is truly primary, all of which are necessary to have "an opera".

    An opera performed by humming mimes seems somewhat on the verge of ballet. Ballet, it seems to me, depends upon the dance, whether that dance tells a story or is comprised of abstract movement. To take the dance away from a ballet leaves one with ballet music, not ballet. (Interestingly enough, I can actually conceive of a ballet without music, a ballet with only dancers working in silence. I find this an uncomfortable notion. Could this be a different form of art from ballet?)

    My only notion here is that, as you say, opera is a multi-art form, but in such forms there really is no primary art. I've never written an opera, but I suspect that if I did undertake such a project, I would begin with a story rather than with a musical concept. So in that sense, the "primary" or "first" art would be the story, the libretto. But that's stretching a definition. And that's also just my own idea of approaching an opera. Maybe in the end the music would be superior to the libretto, but I suspect that there are instances of great librettos set to lesser music. Still, I remain uncomfortable thinking in terms of music being the primary aspect of opera; it is one aspect, but to be an "opera" other aspects are just as critical or the very definition of the form melts away.

    Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's "choral opera" proves an interesting project.

    https://delosmusic.com/a-choral-opera-a-what/

    Here the idea of a type of musical presentation (chorus singing everything) overrides the approach of either story first or music first. Here it is performer first. Intriguing. (As a theatre person I find this fascinating; I'm all for the idea that acting is another necessary component of opera. Without the acting element, one may have an opera soundtrack, but not the opera as a true art form.)

    All the best ….
    I'm somewhat confused. The title of the thread is "Do you consider Opera music [not opera] to be classical music?" It is indeed far-fetched to say that acting in opera is somehow classical music but the music itself is certainly classical. I don't think anyone is saying that films are classical music, the question is whether film music as music is classical or not.

    (If Cage wrote the "music", then what you describe as "a ballet with only dancers working in silence" could be a legitimate ballet .)
    Last edited by annaw; May-23-2020 at 22:52.

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    Quote Originally Posted by annaw View Post
    (If Cage wrote the "music", then what you describe as "a ballet with only dancers working in silence" could be a legitimate ballet .)
    A very funny and clever joke that I have never heard before. Congrats!

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    Senior Member Barbebleu's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flamme View Post
    Daniel Bryan is the man!
    I’m playing 3D chess in my head while the rest of you are playing Hungry Hippos!

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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    So, is that a unqualified yes?
    Last edited by JAS; May-24-2020 at 00:17.

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    Great music. Thanks for sharing with us.

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    It's a very interesting question as to what classical music really is. It's not simply playing on instruments considered part of a full classical orchestra. I heard a large section of such instruments backing Oasis the other night on a Jools Holland replay thing...it was dreadful and nothing to do with classical music. But then again playing on a non-standard classical instrument (e.g. heavily amplified electric guitar) will get you disqualified from being classical music however virtuoso and full of affect your performance is.

    I would say what we understand to be classical music is the complex and expressive use of instruments recognised as being part of the full orchestra (including voice), singly or in combination, to faithfully mirror our conscious thoughts and emotions.

    Obviously we tend to think of successful attempts (the pieces we like) but of course there are many unsuccessful pieces.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SONNET CLV View Post
    Of course, I never want to be argumentative with a Tito Schipa fan, and Woodduck posts rank among those on this board that I most cherish for fine thought and fine expression. Still, I maintain I see an absurdity in the notion that music is the primary vehicle of expression in an opera.
    I thank you for the kind words.

    Mozart, Verdi and Wagner saw no absurdity in claiming for music pride of place among the arts which contribute to opera. I can't think of a successful opera composer who would claim otherwise (including probably Jake Heggie, though his success in historical terms - longevity - has yet to be proven).

    Wagner is a particularly interesting case. He began theorizing about operatic composition with his famous "Gesamtkunstwerk" concept, holding that music was just one of the several arts that collaborated to serve a dramatic idea on more or less equal terms. However, the experience of composing Tristan und isolde, in which his full powers of musical expression were released in a flood that shocked even him and brought home to him the need to allow music to assert its ability to transform and define the nature of an opera's dramatic material, cured him of this theory of the "equality of the arts" once and for all. He later referred to his works as "deeds of music made visible," in the conviction that music had such unique power to probe the mysteries of human feeling that the dramatic material of opera had to be molded so as to give that power free reign. He came to understand what all great opera (and choral, and song) composers have always known: that music has its own needs and laws, and that in a work of continuous music the drama - words and action - best serves its own interests by respecting them.

    Certainly opera is a multi-art form, but the music remains just one component of the multi-arts involved. Without the music one doesn't have an opera. But one doesn't have an opera without the libretto, either, silly or complex as the story line may be. Musical extracts from the opera makes sense, but musical extracts from the opera are not opera.
    All of this is true, but it doesn't address the questions of whether music is the art that most defines an opera, that most determines the form the composer gives that opera, and that most attracts audiences to it. I assert that music is, in most instances, the art which does all three.

    My only notion here is that, as you say, opera is a multi-art form, but in such forms there really is no primary art.
    Why not? Might it not be that the arts have different functions when combined, different effects on each other and on the listener or spectator, depending on how they're used? Can one art in a combination dominate another? Might one art have to be shaped, or reshaped, to accommodate the requirements of another? Might there not be better and worse choices in libretti for reasons of musical effectiveness rather than literary excellence? Might a composer choose words which are particularly suitable for musical setting, and which are especially likely to make an effect when hurled by a soprano into the far reaches of the opera house? Might he, in considering a play for musical setting, eliminate dialogue which illuminates a character but would be musically tedious, in favor of a few terse words (or none at all) which would give him, the composer, the chance to portray that character musically?

    Such decisions are made routinely, and a good opera composer typically chooses in favor of giving the burden of expression to music.

    I've never written an opera, but I suspect that if I did undertake such a project, I would begin with a story rather than with a musical concept. So in that sense, the "primary" or "first" art would be the story, the libretto. But that's stretching a definition. And that's also just my own idea of approaching an opera.
    The process of composing an opera normally begins with a story concept. Calling the story therefore the "primary art" is worse than stretching a definition. It's more like obliterating one. The starting point for the project is irrelevant.

    Maybe in the end the music would be superior to the libretto, but I suspect that there are instances of great librettos set to lesser music.
    I can't think offhand of any opera in which the libretto is considered superior to the music, though there are probably many obscure, musically mediocre operas set to excellent libretti. But that's the point: the operas are obscure because their music didn't succeed in giving them the distinction a work of art needs to hold audiences. The fact is that operas, in general, don't survive by virtue of their libretti. Fine words play a minor role in making an opera what it is and in making it successful, and few people care about literary quality when great voices are driving their souls into ecstasy. A good composer wants precisely the words which will allow him to give those singers the music which will accomplish that end.

    Still, I remain uncomfortable thinking in terms of music being the primary aspect of opera; it is one aspect, but to be an "opera" other aspects are just as critical or the very definition of the form melts away.
    That's a tricky locution. The "other aspects" of opera are (more or less) necessary, but not "just as critical." We don't even need to appeal to a definition of the form. The most concise (if imperfect) definition of opera might be "a form of drama in which all or most of the dialogue is sung." The singing - and by extension the music which accompanies the singing and action - is what distinguishes opera. That fact establishes, at least, the central role of music in opera, but in order to understand just how central it is we need to know how music interacts with and affects the literary and theatrical arts when it's combined with them. The most direct way of doing this is probably to look at operas and see what composers have done, to see what approaches to the mixing of music and the other arts have resulted in the most effective products. I think it would be fairly easy to show that the most successful operas are generally those in which music is allowed to assert its fullest power to determine the shape and meaning of the work - in which, in short, music is recognized as the primary (first in importance) vehicle of meaning.

    Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's "choral opera" proves an interesting project.

    https://delosmusic.com/a-choral-opera-a-what/

    Here the idea of a type of musical presentation (chorus singing everything) overrides the approach of either story first or music first. Here it is performer first. Intriguing. (As a theatre person I find this fascinating; I'm all for the idea that acting is another necessary component of opera. Without the acting element, one may have an opera soundtrack, but not the opera as a true art form.)
    What does "performer first" mean? Heggie writes about his choral opera:

    "That’s when Gene found our central character, Nora, to be played by a silent actress. The choir would be her inner voice as well as the sounds she 'channels.' With the choir split in two at the beginning, we could hear Nora’s inner voice as well as the sounds she chooses to hear. Recalling Ravel’s magical L’enfant et les sortilèges, the choir could become objects in Nora’s apartment, too. And the transformative journey would be actually to enter the sound waves, to open a portal into the radio, to make the choice to connect and become joyful, youthful and energized again.

    This concept also allowed us to explore a wonderful variety of textures, colors and sounds: traffic noise, swing tunes, radio ads, a quasi-rap song, big band, a touch of 12-tone music, and finally a full, celebratory flowering of grand choral singing. It was an immensely challenging world to enter, and all of us experienced many 'Nora days' along the way. But always, the magic of the choir, of connection, of community through singing, took us to the hopeful place on the other side of a door marked 'possibility.'"

    A choral opera is an interesting, original concept. But it's primarily a musical concept. Note that Heggie writes about the sound of the work in almost every sentence. Like every other opera throughout the history of the art, Heggie's work will stand or fall by its musical content, not by the novel idea of a silent actor with choral commentary.
    Last edited by Woodduck; May-24-2020 at 03:42.

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    Senior Member consuono's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    ...
    This concept also allowed us to explore a wonderful variety of textures, colors and sounds: traffic noise, swing tunes, radio ads, a quasi-rap song, big band, a touch of 12-tone music, and finally a full, celebratory flowering of grand choral singing. It was an immensely challenging world to enter, and all of us experienced many 'Nora days' along the way. But always, the magic of the choir, of connection, of community through singing, took us to the hopeful place on the other side of a door marked 'possibility.'"

    A choral opera is an interesting, original concept. But it's primarily a musical concept. Note that Heggie writes about the sound of the work in almost every sentence. Like every other opera throughout the history of the art, Heggie's work will stand or fall by its musical content, not by the novel idea of a silent actor with choral commentary.
    I don't know if it's original or not. It sounds like an oratorio to me, with the added "modern" impulse to throw in a bunch of far-flung cultural references to show how cosmopolitan and broad-minded the creator is. It sounds...pretentious.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by consuono View Post
    I don't know if it's original or not. It sounds like an oratorio to me, with the added "modern" impulse to throw in a bunch of far-flung cultural references to show how cosmopolitan and broad-minded the creator is. It sounds...pretentious.
    Good point. I'll be generous for now and call it a genre-bender. The boundaries have never been sharp. What do we call Berlioz's Damnation de Faust?

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    Senior Member consuono's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Good point. I'll be generous for now and call it a genre-bender. The boundaries have never been sharp. What do we call Berlioz's Damnation de Faust?
    I'm not sure, but it points out another one of those difficult dividing lines... oratorio/opera, at least in terms of music. Some oratorios have been staged after all, like Handel's Theodora (but let's not talk about what Peter Sellars did to it )

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Music is not, literally, about any particular "narrative." This doesn't mean it has no other meaning, such as evoking strong "emotional states," as in Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, Five Pieces and Mahler's symphonies.

    Instrumental music, "musical sound", when divorced from "literal action" and drama, lost its connection to explicit meaning, and was revealed for what it is: a non-representational medium, the abstract evocation of "inner" states of being, which, coincidentally, is exactly what "abstract art" does: it reveals the artist's, and by empathy, the viewer's inner emotional state of being.

    Music as it evolved from the Greeks, gradually divorced itself from drama over several centuries. Look at the rise of instrumental forms: the symphony, the concerto, tone poems, etc.

    I think Wagner's opera reflect this increasing tendency towards music itself having gestural power.

    In instrumental Romanticism, although it was music divorced from drama, had plenty of drama, expressed as "dramatic gestures."

    This "splitting" of narrative drama from music opened-up a new can of worms, giving us the whole range of the non-specific "feelings" evoked by music, which are by their very "non-narrative nature" fleeting, transitory, and ephemeral, unclear, evocative, vague, and indefinable (meaning non-narrative).

    When we get into more modern music, I think "emotion" as a descriptive term begins to fail us. The "emotional gestures" expressed are so complex that we begin to experience them as "states of being," like anxiety, foreboding, fear, tension, awe, etc., creating in our minds, empathetically, a reflection of our own, and the artist's, "inner state of being."

    So, in a sense, this is an "internal narrative" we share with the composer, but indefinable in literal narrative terms, because these are transitory, fleeting states by nature; simply "gestures of meanings."

    A useful distinction, I think; instrumental non-narrative music (containing "dramatic gesture") is more like poetry, whereas the explicit meaning and narrative (story) of opera is like a novel.

    The minimalists are bringing back "music" to opera. Glass' Akhnaten and Satyagraha are like oratorios, which are based on "ideas" more than narrative plots; they record events. The same with Adams' Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic.

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    Senior Member SONNET CLV's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Music is not, literally, about any particular "narrative." ...
    What about something like Berlioz's Fantastique? It's hard to listen to that piece the first time and think there is no story behind the goings on. And when one discovers the story, it becomes impossible to hear it abstractly or with much of a different/changed story line.

    I suspect there is genuine, absolute type of "abstract music", things like Bach's Inventions, or most Etudes, and a lot of other music in forms of sonatas and symphonies and string quartets ….

    Even "abstract music" or "absolute music" (whatever we call the non-programmatic stuff) can be fitted to a story. Say, danced to. Which in some sense seems to alter its original force as "pure music".

    Can any music actually be "pure", though? Don't we as listeners always carry our own baggage into it, thus ruining the purity somehow? I wonder what it would be like to hear music without having baggage to impose upon it ….

    Just a thought. Something I have too few of anymore.

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    As I mentioned in the thread on film music, I think people should consider genre to just be a "family resemblance" that makes communication easier. And so every style is connected to every other style but sometimes it helps communication to use labels like "Classical music." If you say "I love Classical music" and you mean Musical Theater, that may not be helpful. Whether that's "correct" or not.

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