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

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    Senior Member norman bates's Avatar
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    Default Do you consider Opera music to be classical music?

    Using some of the arguments used in the thread about film music it seems it's not.

    Even according to one of the most popular opera composers of today, Jake Heggie, is music that it's not meant to be just heard and it has to be experienced with the visual part of it, the scenery, costumes etc and rarely can be appreciated start to finish just listening to it.


    (4:43-5:12 in the video)

    And like film music it's also music that it doesn't exist alone, but many times it's more a background for the dialogues and the action.

    So if opera music and film music are so similar in their function, does it mean that operas should not be considered as classical works?
    Last edited by norman bates; May-22-2020 at 17:23.
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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    Again, it probably depends, at least somewhat, on the specific opera. Any opera using a traditional orchestra in more or less traditional ways would probably work. Once you start to get into Rock-Operas and Broadway shows, I think a line has been crossed. I was thinking more about the film music thread, and where the line would be there, to some extent. I think it has to do with the interrelatedness of the themes employed. Once you get to something like the old "Casino Royale" film (with David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles and Woody Allen), it just becomes a collection of songs that are related only by the film itself and the musical forces employed. (Burt Bacharach was a song writer.) I don't really consider the Broadway show "Les Miserables" to be opera, even though it has an orchestra and they reuse several of the very basic themes, although not really with any sense of development. (I have never seen the full show as a show. Is there spoken dialogue? That might be problematic for an opera.)
    Last edited by JAS; May-22-2020 at 17:41.

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    Senior Member Enthusiast's Avatar
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    It would take more than a few asides and one or two sketched arguments for me to change my usage of the term "classical music"! Opera is classical music - that's what the world believes.

    Operetta is probably classical music, as well. I don't think of musicals as classical music but am sure some will argue that they are. Operas started with Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi and Mozart (among others) - all clearly classical composers - and they used classical forms and instruments with singing in the style of the classical songs of their time. The arguments in the film music thread that operas are not classical music may have been required by those who wanted to elevate (as they saw it) film music. But their interest was possibly more about creating a body of modern classical music that did not involve the novelty, relevance or rigour of modern and contemporary classical music and thereby enabled them to sidetrack such unpleasantness and remain in a recognisably 19th century world . I am not sure that anyone was that serious about expelling opera (or even ballet) from classical music, were they?

    The music is of course absolutely central to the impact of opera. The words, the stories, the characterisations - all would be nearly totally absent without the music. The music is not merely for underlining or accompanying the action.
    Last edited by Enthusiast; May-22-2020 at 17:45.

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    Some of the most interesting work being done today in the classical arena is in opera. Every year there are newly written operas that are far more interesting that most of the commissions going on in the symphony hall. Like any other genre, some will last, most won't. One of the most entertaining, beautiful and emotional works I've heard in recent years was Riders of the Purple Sage by Craig Bohmler, based on the Zane Grey novel. Lorin Maazel's opera "1984" was also very good - and quite modern.

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    Senior Member Allegro Con Brio's Avatar
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    The best argument I could think of for why opera music (and music for oratorios, cantatas, song cycles, etc.) is classical and film scores are not (not that I totally agree with it, just a good reason) is that opera and all other instrumental music that accompanies a program is meant to be performed and experienced live while film music is pre-recorded and is never “performed” unless it is arranged for concert suites. That’s also why I don’t consider much electronic music classical, because it is pre-recorded oftentimes with dubbing, multi tracking, etc. and is not a live experience. Then I also completely agree with Enthusiast on this:

    The music is of course absolutely central to the impact of opera. The words, the stories, the characterisations - all would be nearly totally absent without the music. The music is not merely for underlining or accompanying the action.
    Last edited by Allegro Con Brio; May-22-2020 at 17:57.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enthusiast View Post
    The music is of course absolutely central to the impact of opera. The words, the stories, the characterisations - all would be nearly totally absent without the music. The music is not merely for underlining or accompanying the action.
    I do agree with this wholeheartedly. It's clear that film is primarily a visual art form while opera is primarily a musical one, and this is reflected in the fact that the primary creative figure in a film is the director, while in opera it is the composer.

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    Senior Member norman bates's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enthusiast View Post
    The music is of course absolutely central to the impact of opera. The words, the stories, the characterisations - all would be nearly totally absent without the music. The music is not merely for underlining or accompanying the action.
    I disagree. Sure there are arias the can be listened as pure music (but that's true also for songs in film music), there are preludes, but a lot of music in a opera listened by itself does not work by itself. It's a background to the dialogues. There are large portions of a opera that are just that, melodic fragments under what the singer are saying more than anything else.

    By the way I obviously I don't think that opera isn't classical music just because of this, I'm saying that using those arguments used to say that film music can't be considered classical, even opera should not be considered classical.
    Last edited by norman bates; May-22-2020 at 18:01.
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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Allegro Con Brio View Post
    The best argument I could think of for why opera is classical and film scores are not (not that I totally agree with it, just a good reason) is that opera is meant to be performed and experienced live while film music is pre-recorded and is never “performed” unless it is arranged for concert suites.
    In the silent music era, the score was often played by live musicians in theaters where that could be afforded. Travelling films often had to make do in smaller venues with just an organ or piano. (The recording of the score mostly solved a problem of varying venues, and it allowed the music to be even more closely tracked to a scene.) Does an opera cease to be classical music if it is recorded for DVD? If that is the case, then I have a non-opera version of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

    And there are certainly films that have been mostly carried by the score, with the score directing us to more than what we see on the screen, including thoughts of the actors. A score can set the tone as humorous or ominous, and the movie will play very differently based on those scores. This is hardly a great example, but in Lord of the Rings films, there is a point where our "heroes" are walking a great distance to the next leg of the adventure, and Frodo turns to look behind him, and the music plays the motif for Hobbittown. That makes it clear that he is not just looking to see if anyone is following, but he is thinking of home.

    Edit: I would actually argue that film scores are more akin to classical music when they do not have words.
    Last edited by JAS; May-22-2020 at 18:04.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Allegro Con Brio View Post
    The best argument I could think of for why opera music (and music for oratorios, cantatas, song cycles, etc.) is classical and film scores are not (not that I totally agree with it, just a good reason) is that opera and all other instrumental music that accompanies a program is meant to be performed and experienced live while film music is pre-recorded and is never “performed” unless it is arranged for concert suites. That’s also why I don’t consider much electronic music classical, because it is pre-recorded oftentimes with dubbing, multi tracking, etc. and is not a live experience. Then I also completely agree with Enthusiast on this:
    then classical music on cd isn't classical music?
    I mean, like a movie was "live" in the moment it was recorded, even a symphony was "live" before it was recorded and mixed in a cd.
    Last edited by norman bates; May-22-2020 at 18:03.
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    Senior Member Allegro Con Brio's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by norman bates View Post
    then classical music on cd isn't classical music?
    I mean, like a movie was "live" in the moment it was recorded, even a symphony was "live" before it was recorded and mixed in a cd.
    But the movie wasn’t originally meant for live performance, was it? Like I said, I don’t entirely agree with my own reasoning, it was just a potential argument. I really don’t have too many strong opinions on this subject and don’t care whether film music is classified as classical or not.
    "If we understood the world, we would realize that there is a logic of harmony underlying its manifold apparent dissonances." - Jean Sibelius

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    Quote Originally Posted by norman bates View Post
    Using some of the arguments used in the thread about film music it seems it's not.

    Even according to one of the most popular opera composers of today, Jake Heggie, is music that it's not meant to be just heard and it has to be experienced with the visual part of it, the scenery, costumes etc and rarely can be appreciated start to finish just listening to it.

    And like film music it's also music that it doesn't exist alone, but many times it's more a background for the dialogues and the action.

    So if opera music and film music are so similar in their function, does it mean that operas should not be considered as classical works?
    Opera and film music are not similar in function. The mere fact that both opera and film combine music with other arts isn't evidence of similarity. Music is normally - most of the time, in most operas, in most periods, in the work of most composers and in the expectations of most audiences - the primary medium of expression in opera. In every successful opera, and every good production, music creates the emotional substance and pacing which are the blood, flesh and muscle that bring the bare bones of the plot to life. Good opera composers know that the dramatic structure and language of an opera libretto must be dictated largely by what works musically; good opera singers know that expression through music is their primary function and that the possible range of acting choices, often their very gestures, are dictated by the structure and emotion of their music (Maria Callas, one of the greatest actors in opera, used to say that if you want to know how to act in an opera, listen to the music). If the music of an opera is weak it rarely survives in the repertoire even if it's based on literary material of great merit, and if its singers and conductor are inadequate, clever staging won't rescue it.

    Music is useful to varying extent in film, even in many cases important in establishing an apt mood or atmosphere, but almost never central, which is why film composers are apt to find their scores mercilessly cut and pasted by directors.
    Last edited by Woodduck; May-22-2020 at 18:15.

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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    These discussions are a little like trying to differentiate the characteristics that make an animal a dog rather than a cat. There are lots of different kinds of dogs (big ones, small ones, different shapes and colors, etc.). What makes them all dogs is that they share significant genetic material. Traditional orchestral film scores share the same generic material as so much music that is clearly accepted as classical music. I think that is why such music qualifies, and things like 4'33" do not.

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    Senior Member norman bates's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Opera and film music are not similar in function. The mere fact that both opera and film combine music with other arts isn't evidence of similarity. Music is normally - most of the time, in most operas, in most periods, in the work of most composers and in the expectations of most audiences - the primary medium of expression in opera. In every successful opera, and every good production, music creates the emotional substance and pacing which are the blood, flesh and muscle that bring the bare bones of the plot to life. Good opera composers know that the dramatic structure and language of an opera libretto must be dictated largely by what works musically; good opera singers know that expression through music is their primary function and that the possible range of acting choices, often their very gestures, are dictated by the structure and emotion of their music (Maria Callas, one of the greatest actors in opera, used to say that if you want to know how to act in an opera, listen to the music). If the music of an opera is weak it rarely survives in the repertoire even if it's based on literary material of great merit, and if its singers and conductor are inadequate, clever staging won't rescue it.
    as said above, I tend to agree much more with Jake Heggie. The reason I don't listen too much to operas is that without reading the libretto and the story, and watching it staged it's not a fully satisfying experience like a symphony for me. Because those things are vital (and the blood, flesh and muscles to use your words) for the work as the music. Certain parts of operas are wonderful even alone, but the whole opera relies on those other aspects. I can enjoy a aria even without knowing the words of it. If I'm listening to a opera without staging or without even knowing the lyrics part of the experience is missing, I'm lost at sea if I can put it this way. And to me it's exactly because of the importance of the other aspects of the work.
    Last edited by norman bates; May-22-2020 at 18:32.
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    Senior Member apricissimus's Avatar
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    I think it's a mistake to try to look too hard for musical reasons why this or that should be considered classical music. The stuff we call classical music may (or may not) have some musical elements in common, but there are always things on the margins, and I don't think you can ever settle once and for all what classical music is in strictly musical terms. So I think it's pointless to try.

    I think it's better to think of it in cultural terms, or even lexicographical terms. There's a tradition of classical music in which some kinds of music have been lumped together, for one reason or another. And opera pretty squarely fits in that tradition. So yes, I think it counts as classical music.
    Last edited by apricissimus; May-22-2020 at 19:12.

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    Of course opera is classical music . What other category could we assign to it ? Opera is one of the various genres of classical music, such as orchestral music, camber music, et al .
    It's a very important part of classical music , combining singers, orchestra , chorus , sets, costumes ,acting etc

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