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Talk Like An Opera Geek: Wading Into The 20th Century

Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.

Soprano Cheryl Barker (as Jenůfa) and tenor Peter Wedd (as Luca) sing in a production of Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa from Opera Australia. Patrick Riviere/Getty Images hide caption

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Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

Soprano Cheryl Barker (as Jenůfa) and tenor Peter Wedd (as Luca) sing in a production of Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa from Opera Australia.

Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

In this series of Opera Geek posts were tracking a some of opera's significant milestones, making our way from the art form's earliest days, through the Baroque, the age of Mozart, bel canto and big hitters like Verdi and Wagner.

Although Giacomo Puccini reached his peak in the opening decades of the 20th century, his music mostly looks back to the romance of the 19th. But while he was prospering in the popularity of tuneful operas like Madama Butterfly, Richard Strauss was shaking things up in Germany with Salome. This outrageous — for 1905 — opera helped usher in the age of modernism with its jagged dissonances and shocking plot.

Alex Ross begins his book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century with Salome. He sets the scene of the opera's first hearing in the Austrian city of Graz, where music luminaries including Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler gathered to hear what all the fuss was about.

"The Austrian premiere of Salome," Ross writes, "was just one event in a busy season, but, like a flash of lightning, it illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change. Past and future were colliding; centuries were passing in the night. Mahler would die in 1911, seeming to take the Romantic era with him. Puccini's Turandot, unfinished at his death in 1924, would more or less end a glorious Italian operatic history that began in Florence at the end of the 16th century."

Debussy's Floating Harmonies

Even before Strauss' operatic eruptions, France felt a mild musical earthquake with the 1902 premiere of Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy changed the face of opera not so much by piling on new innovations, but by shedding traditional trappings. He didn't need arias, set pieces or forceful declamatory singing.

Before he began composing Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy already had radical theories for what an ideal opera could be. He advocated using silence as a means of expression, and felt music and singing had become too predominant and musical settings too cumbersome.

Pelléas is a quiet, dimly lit work, heavy on atmosphere, where harmonies float untethered and melodies waft in and out of a sonic mist. It's a perfect match for the dreamy, insular world of the opera's libretto, a story of illicit love and its consequences.

The most celebrated feature of the opera, according to critic Stephen Walsh, is the seamless relationship between music and language. He notes that "its unique vocal declamation carries the text on a continuous, fluid cantilena, somewhere between chant and recitative, a note to a syllable." Pelléas, Walsh writes, is a key work for the 20th century in that it provided "a new approach to form, harmony and texture which profoundly influenced composers as various as Stravinsky, Messiaen and Puccini."

A Late-Blooming Leoš Janáček

While Debussy was merging music and language in new ways in France, a scrappy composer named Leoš Janáček was developing his style of setting his native Czech. It took Janáček a long time to gain a foothold on the operatic stage, but he finally broke through, at age 61, with the 1904 premiere of Jenůfa, his sixth attempt at opera. Little did he envision while struggling for recognition that one day he would be hailed as a giant among 20th century opera composers.

The genius of Janáček comes in two forms: his unique integration of Czech and Moravian speech patterns into his music (undoubtedly influenced by his collecting of folk song) and his keen instinct for tightly woven drama with unorthodox subjects. His Cunning Little Vixen was based on a series of comics featuring animals. The Makropoulos Case features a 337-year-old opera singer as its title character. And in a nod to science fiction, the title character of The Excursions of Mr. Broucek travels back in time to the 15th century and winds up on the moon. There's a certain rough-hewn, even prickly quality about Janáček's music. It can be quirky one moment then pivot instantly to yearning, passionate melody.

A Schoenberg Student Shines

At the time he attended Strauss' Salome, Schoenberg hadn't yet developed his 12-tone technique of writing music, but he was pushing toward an atonal style and attracting students. One of those was fellow Vienna native Alban Berg, who saw Schoenberg as a teacher, mentor and father figure. Although Berg was a disciple, his music seemed to fall easier on the ear than Schoenberg's, blending the newly acquired atonalism with the post-Romantic sensibilities of Strauss and Mahler. Berg's opera Wozzeck, which premiered in 1925, would surpass in popularity anything his teacher wrote for the opera stage.

Go Gershwin

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, George Gershwin, a son of poor Russian immigrants, was crafting tuneful stage works like Lady, Be Good! and Oh, Kay! Before his string of hit musicals, the 16-year-old Gershwin got his start as a song-plugger for a Tin Pan Alley publisher, quickly moving on to writing songs of his own and eventually collaborating with his older brother Ira, a lyricist. He would blend those hummable songs with jazz and classical music to create what some have called the great American opera, Porgy and Bess.

Something of a cross between opera and musical theater, Porgy premiered in 1935 and was based on a novel by Dubose Heyward set in the fictional black enclave of Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C. Gerswhin called Porgy his "folk opera," and in that way he was not far from Janacek, creating a unique mix of highbrow and lowbrow music with vernacular speech. Gershwin's lone operatic work spawned a handful of irresistible songs — including "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" — that quickly became standards and have been covered by countless jazz and pop musicians.

Opera in the 20th century would continue to adapt and transform itself in the face of new musical trends, social revolutions and world turmoil. But that's a story for next week.

Talk Like An Opera Geek: Wading Into The 20th Century

  • Claude Debussy: "Pelléas et Mélisande" (1902)

    No Alternative Text

    "Pelléas et Mélisande, opera in 5 acts, L. 88 [Act 2. Scene 3. Oui, c'est ici, nous y sommes]"

    From 'Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande'

    By Roger Desormiere

    Although Debussy completed only one opera, the game-changing Pelléas et Mélisande, he made up in quality what he lacked in quantity. With its hazy harmonies and quiet disposition, the scenes of the opera float in like a dream, one with secrets undisclosed. In this historic recording from Paris in 1941 (with World War II raging uncomfortably close) we hear an authentic French sound. In this scene, Pelléas (beautifully sung by Jacques Jansen) and Melisande (Irène Joachim) sneak away at night and stumble across old men sleeping in a moonlit, seaside cave. You get a real sense for how the language and music are smoothly blended and strong a dose of Debussy's atmospheric orchestration.

  • Leoš Janáček: "Jenůfa" (1904)

    No Alternative Text

    "Jenufa, opera, JW 1/4 [Act 2. Mamicko, mám tezkou hlavu]"

    From 'Janácek: Jenufa'

    By Charles Mackerras

    Janáček's idiosyncratic music (just a few notes are enough to identify his style) was so misunderstood that even years after his death in 1928, conductors often touched up his scores to smooth out the music. It moves in short, tight, rhythmically charged cells that quickly spin into opposing moods and tone colors. That's not to say that Janáček couldn't write a fairly straightforward aria, as in this terrific example, in which Jenůfa (Elisabeth Söderström) finds herself alone in her stepmother's home. The watery figures in the strings hint at the fate of her newborn child.

  • Strauss: "Salome" (1905)

    No Alternative Text

    "Salome, opera, Op. 54 (TrV 215) [Es ist kalt hier]"

    From 'Richard Strauss: Salome [Remastered]'

    By Georg Solti

    Some Salome audiences were initially offended — the opera was briefly banned in New York for its eroticism. And Strauss' raucous, angular music prowls and pounces like a feral beast. But listeners soon came to love it. A production is a major workout best tackled by a virtuoso orchestra and a top-grade soprano in the title role. Both are evident in this excerpt, in which Salome (Birgit Nilsson) is about to accept the severed head of John the Baptist. Here's how Alex Ross describes it: "At this point the bottom drops out of the music. A toneless bass drum rumble and strangulated cries in the double basses give way to a huge smear of tone in the full orchestra." Georg Solti leads the Vienna Philharmonic.

  • Alban Berg: "Wozzeck" (1925)

    No Alternative Text

    "Wozzeck, opera, Op. 7 [Act 1 Scene 2. Du, der Platz ist verflucht!]"

    From 'Alban Berg: Wozzeck'

    By Claudio Abbado

    Thanks to World War I, it took Alban Berg eight years to write his first opera, Wozzeck. He served in the war as a cadet officer for more than three years. The experience no doubt enhanced Berg's writing, as the composer admitted to identifying with his title character, a hard luck soldier victimized by the "social order." Writing to Anton Webern in 1918, Berg said, "It is not only the fate of this poor man, exploited and tormented by all the world, that touches me so closely, but also the unheard-of intensity of mood of the individual scenes." Almost everything is intense in this opera and Berg's lyrical atonalism adds to the feeling of doom and paranoia. In this scene at the outset, Berg writes something of an aria for Wozzeck, who is shaving an army captain and lamenting that he is only a poor fellow. He sings that people like him "are always unfortunate in this world and the next."

  • George Gershwin: "Porgy and Bess" (1935)

    No Alternative Text

    "Porgy and Bess, opera [Act 2. Scene 1. Oh, I got plenty o' nuttin']"

    From 'Gershwin: Porgy and Bess [Original 1935 Production Version]'

    By John Mauceri

    George Gershwin's 1924 Rhapsody in Blue, advertised as an "experiment in modern music," was the first artistically and commercially successful mashup of classical music and popular American styles including jazz, ragtime and blues. Gershwin pushed that concept even further 10 years later in his opera Porgy and Bess, when he added black vernacular and even hints of Jewish liturgical sounds to his musical melting pot. It's possible that no one has topped it. Among the many tunes that have gone on to become jazz and pop standards is Porgy's "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'." This performance is from a recent recording of the opera featuring baritone Alvy Powell.