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NA417612 - FAWKES, R.: History of Opera (The) (Unabridged)

Richard Fawkes

Richard Fawkes


Read by Robert Powell


Opera, said Dr. Johnson, is an exotic and irrational entertainment. As

always, the good doctor was right. It is odd for people to spend an evening singing to each other; often in a language many of the audience cannot understand. But the combination of music, drama, lights and costumes, when it works, has the power to move the human heart in a way no other art form can.


People come to opera in different ways. Some, like the tenor José Carreras, first saw Mario Lanza on the screen in The Great Caruso and were hooked. Others have discovered it through Nessun Dorma. But hearing an aria and liking it does not always make it easy to move on and discover other operas.


There are, literally, thousands written by thousands of composers. It is for those people who want to know something of the background to opera and how everything fits together, that this history, tracing the major developments over the past four hundred years, has been written.


Opera began at the close of the 16th century in Italy as an experiment by a group of intellectuals to recreate how they thought the Ancient Greeks must have set words to music. It soon caught on, spreading throughout Italy and northern Europe, and although Italian opera remained the most popular, other schools started, in France in particular. Opera singers, especially the castrati, became big stars. It took the reforms of Gluck to put the drama back into opera and pave the way for Mozart and Beethoven.


During the early part of the 19th century opera fell into two distinct

categories: Italian or German. Italian opera was dominated by the bel canto composers, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini; German opera by the Romantics, beginning with Weber.


In France, elements of both were taken to form grand opera, while a light, lyric opera epitomized by Gounod also began to emerge. The culmination of both Italian and German opera in the 19th century came with Verdi and Wagner.


Rising nationalism throughout Europe at the end of the 19th century caused many composers to turn to their folk history and folk music for inspiration.


And then, as Europe disintegrated and music fragmented, the operas written during the first part of the 20th century reflected the changes in a world, which no longer had any certain values. All the confusing-isms of art were found in opera, from impressionism to atonalism, from electronic music to minimalism. What the end of the 20th century has shown us is that an art form frequently derided for being elitist, irrelevant and on its last legs, is not only alive but also thriving. Today’s composers are just as eager to write opera, as their predecessors were two hundred years earlier.


In the early part of the 19th century a form of light opera emerged in

France, a mixture of comic opera and vaudeville (which incorporated popular songs and dialogue). This became known as operetta. From France operetta spread to England, where its main exponents became Gilbert and Sullivan, to Vienna and to the United States, paving the way for what we now call the musical.


Richard Fawkes is a freelance writer and film director. He wrote the

award-winning The History of Classical Music for Naxos Audio Books and is a regular contributor to Opera Now, BBC Music Magazine and Classical Music. He has written books on opera, his latest, to be published in 1999, being a history of opera on film. He has also written the librettos for two operas one of which, Survival Song, was nominated for an Olivier Award. His credits as a film director include The Original Three Tenors, a documentary about Caruso, Gigli and Bjorling.




ROBERT POWELL’s portrayal of Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth won him four major international awards and a BAFTA nomination. His other film credits include the vivid characterization of Mahler in Ken Russell’s film of the composer, Harlequin, Imperative, Tommy, and The Thirty Nine Steps. His television credits include the comedy series The Detectives and his extensive theater credits include Hamlet, Travesties and Sherlock Holmes - The Musical.

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