In the 21st century when the effects of cultural globalization have fully emerged, you are probably living in a cave tucked behind the hills if you have never heard of terms like K-pop, J-pop or rock music. No matter you are a college student working tirelessly on your term papers or a white-collar employee sitting 24/7 in front of a desktop, you must have heard of these contemporary, popular music genres. You may even be able to name your favourite artists from bands or sing along with their songs and choruses in a foreign language. I’ve even seen hard-core fans fly from Hong Kong across the globe to see their favourite bands’ live performances.
But what about operas? When was the last time you looked up programmes for opera shows, or visited the opera house to watch a live performance? Can you recall the titles of at least three well-known operas? Do you know any opera composers? If you think you are a music lover but have negative answers to these questions, you are definitely missing a big fun part of the music entertainment industry. Read more to discover what you don’t know about operas!
Quick facts about operas
A typical opera is a staged drama set to music. In an opera, you will find stage performers who serve as both vocalists and actors, or sometimes dancers to tell stories in their euphonic voices and fluid dance moves. These performers are usually accompanied by an orchestra which provides music to the opera. An opera is a live performance where a drama is sung instead of spoken. In more figurative terms, it is a story coming to life in the theatre.
Historical development of operas
The origins of operas can be traced back to the Renaissance period dated 400 years ago. Against the backdrop of the cultural movement of reinvigorating literature and arts in Europe, the first opera, Dafne, was performed in Italy in the late 1500s in the hope to revive classical Greek dramas.
Operas quickly took off in Europe. The early operas were not performed in opera houses, but in Italian courts as live performances to entertain guests. During the Baroque period (1600 – 1750), operas were mainly of the opera seria style, which meant serious opera with a mythological or classical theme. Operas continued to thrive in the following classical period (1750 – 1800). This period saw the rise of a new opera style, opera buffa. Echoing the contemporaneous Age of Enlightenment, operas of this type tended to question aristocracy and authority. The quintessential example of opera enshrining Enlightenment beliefs was La serva padrona, in which a maid outwitted and tricked her master into marrying her, making her way up the social ladder in a disturbingly unscrupulous manner. The storyline of La serva padrona was then adapted in operas composed later in the same period as well as the Romantic period (1800 – 1890), many of which depicted exceptionally intimate relationships and promiscuity between masters and servants.
The wild imagination and creativity of gifted composers have given birth to hundreds of thousands of masterpieces. As time passes, some of these operas have been obliterated. Yet many remain popular and are regularly performed in opera houses even today. Here are three must-know, world-famous operas and their synopsis:
1. Carmen (1875) by Georges Bizet
Carmen, the female protagonist of the opera, was a gypsy lady who captivated the hearts of all men in town — Don José the soldier was no exception. When Don José was commanded to arrest Carmen for initiating a fight, Carmen flirted with the young man, who then set her free in breach of his duty as a soldier. Poor Don José fell head over heels for Carmen, but she already had her eye on Escamillo, a charismatic bullfighter. What entailed was an intricate love triangle fraught with passion and jealousy…
Despite the wild success of Carmen as an opera, it actually started off amongst criticism from opera singers, directors and the audience. The opera did not acquire the popularity it now has (its overture and chorus are widely used around the world today) until the death of Georges Bizet, see the full story here: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/bizet/guides/story-georges-bizets-carmen/
2. Don Giovanni (1787) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The story was about Don Giovanni, a libertine nobleman who never ceased to surprise others with his undisciplined pleasure-seeking behaviour. Many had sworn vengeance against Don Giovanni — for trespassing on their property, killing the Commendatore in a duel, seducing a bride on her wedding day and the list went on. When this daring man heard a warning from the graves, he unflinchingly invited the ghost to join him for dinner. Curious what would happen next? This opera will be performed in Hong Kong very soon. Check out programme details to grab your ticket to the theatre!
For Don Giovanni’s programme details and more live performances in Hong Kong, see: http://operahongkong.org/performances/upcoming-performances/
3. La Traviata (1853) by Giuseppi Verdi
On the face, Violetta was a famed, beautiful courtesan. Behind all the glamour and luxury, illness was slowly nibbling away her life. When Violetta fell in love a bourgeois named Alfredo, her father demanded that she part with her lover to preserve their family’s reputation. In a dilemma between fidelity to her father and lover, Violetta left Alfredo without explanation, leaving behind nothing but a farewell note. Stricken with grief and outraged, Alfredo decided to confront and denounce the sick lady at her party. Could the broken relationship be reconciled? Would Alfredo ever unveil Violetta’s true love for him?
This romantically tragic opera was performed by More Than Musical in Hong Kong back in late 2017. Missed our performance? Check out our other programmes online to see if anything interests you!