A new opera commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera
STUDENT STUDY GUIDE 2018/19 SEASON
Esther Nelson Stanford Calderwood General & Artistic Director David Angus Music Director John Conklin Artistic Advisor
November 12, 2018
Dear Educator, Boston Lyric Opera is pleased to invite high school and college students to attend Final Dress Rehearsals throughout our Season. We specifically look forward to welcoming you and your students to the Emerson Paramount Center for the Final Dress Rehearsal leading to the opening of the World Premiere of Tod Machover's Schoenberg in Hollywood, a commission by Boston Lyric Opera. The experience of seeing and hearing live, professional opera is second to none. And we encourage you to explore the world of the opera in your classroom as well. We are proud to offer this Study Guide to support your discussions and preparations for Schoenberg in Hollywood. We’ve included special insights into this particular production as well as the opera’s history with connections to Social Studies and English Language Arts. Arnold Schoenberg’s remarkable life intersected with some of the most traumatic and violent human atrocities of the 20th century—born a Jew in Vienna, he converted to the Lutheran faith as a young adult, served in World War I, faced the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, and re-converted to Judaism just before he and his family fled to the United States as refugees. Schoenberg in Hollywood dramatizes many of these moments in his life, as the character of Schoenberg strives to find artistic meaning in the wake of brutality—an aspiration that all of us, as artists and audience members, share. Please be aware that this opera depicts unsettling and potentially disturbing images and themes, including: brief, graphic images of the Holocaust; Nazi references and imagery; suicide; irreligious imagery; and a recorded gunshot sound. Boston Lyric Opera’s mission is to build curiosity, enthusiasm, and support for opera. This Study Guide is one way in which we support the incredible work of educators like you, who are inspired by this beautiful art form and introduce it to your students. As we continue to develop additional Study Guides this Season, we want your feedback. Please tell us about how you use this guide and how it can best serve your needs by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re interested in additional opera education opportunities with Boston Lyric Opera, please visit blo.org/education to discover more about our programs. We look forward to seeing you at the theater!
Rebecca Ann S. Kirk Manager of Education Programs
TABLE OF CONTENTS SCHOENBERG IN HOLLYWOOD SYNOPSIS ................................................................................................................................................................................................... 4 SCHOENBERG IN VIENNA........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 6 TWELVE TONES............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 8 DARKNESS IN EUROPE .................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 10 AMERICAâ€™S MOST WIRED COMPOSER ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 11 THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD........................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 12 OPERA IS ALIVE AND WELL ............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 14 LISTEN UP! .................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 15 RESOURCES ............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 18 THE HISTORY OF OPERA ....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 20 THE SCIENCE AND ART OF OPERA ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 23 NOTES TO PREPARE FOR THE OPERA ......................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 27
SCHOENBERG IN HOLLYWOOD SYNOPSIS “We are America. We are the new world. Now you are safe.” So sing two young, hopeful, American music students to their teacher. It is 1935. Arnold Schoenberg has escaped the horror of Nazi Germany. The great innovator and self-proclaimed torch-bearer of German music now finds himself a refugee amongst the palm trees of California, playing tennis and teaching music composition at UCLA. “Once upon a time,” he muses, “the future was me. Now…it is annihilation.” How will the exiled artist move forward? Arnold has accepted an invitation to meet wunderkind MGM producer Irving Thalberg with a view to writing music for the burgeoning film industry. “Find new audiences; find new friends,” Thalberg counsels. This young Mephistopheles offers the modernist the mass audience he has been denied: “We can tell every man’s story,” says the glamorous, ambitious spokesman for the new, universal Art of cinema. Troubled and tempted all at once, Arnold returns to his students.
Schoenberg in Los Angeles. 1948. USC Archives. Photographer Florence Meyer
“I could play to a million people. And yet…who am I?” Before he can look forward he must look back. Unable to resist the thoughtexperiment, he engages with his own, innate musical playfulness : “What if?” he asks. What would the story of his life be, told in the new language of music and movies? “Play!” he tells his students. “We will do it together,” they sing. So, aided by his loyal students, he begins an imaginary odyssey through his past. Childhood is a silent movie, till music arrives with the monthly magazines from which Arnold teaches himself. There follows the soft focus of friendship and musical discovery with the young composer Zemlinsky; then the moonlit, silver screen fantasy of love and courtship of Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde. Marriage and infidelity follow; Arnold is plunged into the film noir of jealousy, a private-eye Bogart on the trail of his own misery. As he finds his musical individuality, so the critics savage him and his colleagues laud him; he defies them with the élan of the movie musical, dancing through the pain. Love suffers: “I have pared everything down to the essentials,” he says of his music. “You have pared me down to nothing,” sings the long-suffering Mathilde. As she dies, he pleads: “Don’t leave me alone with Arnold Schoenberg.” With her death, the world descends into the Great War. From the ruin of Europe, Arnold begins again, armed with a new discovery: “Twelve tones only related to each other.” But in Arnold’s fantasy a new, horrific farce is unleashed: through the distorted lens of the Marx Brothers and animated cartoons, the atrocities of Europe’s anti-Semitism take over. (continued on the next page) 4
Schoenberg 1927. Wikimedia Commons.
CHARACTERS Arnold Schoenberg, baritone 20th-century Viennese composer Boy, tenor a variety of characters in Schoenberg’s past and present Girl, soprano a variety of characters in Schoenberg’s past and present
With the homemade-movie-happiness of a new wife, Gertrud, Arnold takes flight to Paris, and re-converts to Judaism, then, armed with a pair of Wild West revolvers – “a bullet for each tone” – Arnold-as-cowboy heads for Southern California and sanctuary. The Past finally catches up with the Present. Schoenberg in Hollywood. Schoenberg as superhero. Now he has looked back, how will he go forward, and how to answer Thalberg’s provocative offer? As all conventions eventually break down, so Arnold indeed finds himself “alone with Arnold Schoenberg,” but responds now with a Vision that unifies all the paradoxes of his life and work. He gives thanks, free, fearless, and ready for action. Synopsis by Simon Robson, librettist
Props for the world premiere of Schoenberg in Hollywood
A portrait of Arnold Schoenberg C. 1905 by Richard Gerstl. Wikimedia Commons.
SCHOENBERG IN VIENNA Born September 13, 1874, in Vienna, Austria, the capital of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, Arnold Schoenberg remains one of the most influential 20th-century composers. Schoenberg grew up in a predominately Jewish district of Vienna with his father, a shoe shopkeeper, and mother, a piano teacher. His father passed away when he was 16, so Arnold worked as a bank clerk through his teens to help with household expenses for his mother and brother. Schoenberg left the Jewish faith he had grown up in and converted to Protestantism in his early 20s, partly because he identified more deeply with Western culture and music, and partly due to the rising anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.
A portrait of Mathilde, Arnold Schoenberg’s first wife. Wikimedia Commons. Date unknown by Richard Gerstl.
A primarily self-taught musician, he began composing for strings at the age of 9. In his 20s, Schoenberg was already earning money orchestrating operettas, and it was only then he began formal music lessons with the established Austrian composer, Alexander Zemlinsky. Soon, Alexander became Schoenberg’s brother-in-law as he married his teacher’s sister, Mathilde in 1901. They had two children together before Schoenberg discovered an affair between his wife and painter, Richard Gerstl. They remained married even while Mathilde left to live with Gerstl for several months. This infidelity marked a change in Schoenberg’s compositions even after Mathilde returned and they remained married until her death in 1923. Schoenberg remarried less than a year after Mathilde’s death to Gertrud Kolisch, and together they had three children. Amidst this, Schoenberg and his family moved to Berlin in 1911, where they lived until 1915, when he was called into the Austrian Army during World War I. War left little time to finish compositions, yet it also influenced Schoenberg considerably—giving him time and inspiration to develop his new twelve-tone method—a completely different way of thinking of music theory and composition practice. In 1933, Arnold Schoenberg was at the height of his career, composing and teaching at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, when Adolf Hitler came to power. Though Schoenberg had converted to Christianity decades earlier, in Nazi ideology he was a Jew by birth, and moreover a composer of “degenerate” music. Hitler began to restrict Jewish public and private life in the country including banning Jews from all university positions. While vacationing in France, it became clear that returning to Germany would be dangerous. The Schoenbergs first tried to emigrate to Great Britain, but were denied access. Schoenberg converted back to Judaism in a Paris synagogue, pledging loyalty to the Jewish National cause, and moved to Boston with his family. The family lived in Coolidge Corner, Brookline, taught at the now-closed Malkin Conservatory, and often conducted for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was soon disillusioned by
Home of actor Clark Gable in Brentwood, the part of Hollywood where Schoenberg’s house was too. c. 1930-1945. Wikimedia Commons.
Did you know that Schoenberg had triskaidekaphobia, which meant he feared the number 13? Though he was born on September 13th, Schoenberg avoided the number, for example, labeling the measures of his music between 12 and 14 as 12a instead of 13. Perhaps that fear was apt, as Schoenberg died on the Friday July 13, shortly before midnight, at age 76 (7 + 6 = 13)! In fact, he was not the only composer with superstitions; Gustav Mahler feared the number 9. Many composers who preceded him died after completing their 9th symphony, and unfortunately he did die with his 10th symphony left unfinished. In the Middle Ages, using triads (three notes played together in harmony that are generally 2 steps apart) were avoided by composers as they were thought to conjure up evil spirits.
the conservatory’s poor resources. In addition, Schoenberg—an asthmatic—never quite took to Boston’s severe weather, and Boston never quite took to his music. So, after a year, the family moved to Los Angeles, California, where he took up positions at UCLA and USC. Schoenberg remained in Los Angeles and continued to master his twelve-tone method until his death on July 13th, 1951. DISCUSS: How did the places Schoenberg lived and the events that occurred throughout his lifetime contribute to his identity and how he expressed himself musically? What events, people, or places in your life have contributed to your identity?
A comic about triskaidekaphobia by Greg Williams 2007. Wikimedia Commons. Postcard from Schoenberg’s oldest son Georg to Arnold. 1940. Wikimedia Commons.
TWELVE TONES The Expressionist movement emerged in Germany, most potently in the visual art world, at the turn of the 20th century. Artists turned inward to subjectivity and the subconscious, creating distorted images with colors and brush strokes that represented emotions rather than realistic depictions of the world around them. The movement stemmed from widespread anxieties, as the turn of the century brought urbanization and World War I, disillusioning many. Art became deeply psychological, supported by the emergence of psychologist Sigmund Freud’s investigation into the mind. Expressionism spanned through all artistic media including literature, dance, theater, film (especially horror movies), and music, each expressing discomfort with the modern world. Like visual art, Expressionist music did not contain the traditional elements of sound and similarly expressed the composer’s subconscious feelings. Expressionist music was often marked by intense dissonance, extreme dynamics, and distorted melodies. It was a shift from the melodic, theme-based beauty hailing the natural world, and expansive orchestras of the Romantic Era. It’s also worth noting that Romantic Era music was written during a time of intense nationalism, while Expressionist music emerged and evolved through two World Wars that fractured nations entirely. Schoenberg’s first work to be publicly performed, String Quartet in D Major, premiered in 1897, and like his other early works such as Transfigured Night, it was rooted in the traditions of the Late Romantic Era of music, influenced by composers such as Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss, and was well-liked by Viennese audiences. The composer later noted in his writings, “All my compositions up to about my seventeenth year were nothing more than imitations of such music as I could become acquainted with.” His next major work, String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 7, in 1904, had a dense musical texture lasting 50 minutes straight. Audiences members had difficulty understanding the piece and critics condemned it.
Schoenberg noted, “Only when I had met three young men of about my own age and had obtained their friendship, my musical and literary education started.” What is now known as the Second Viennese School consisted of Schoenberg and his composition pupils in Vienna. This marked Schoenberg’s shift into transcending tonality, breaking away from the structures and ideas of the Romantic Era that he felt could no longer be expanded upon. It was also through this intellectual stimulation with the members of the school, including Alban Berg and Anton Webern, that Schoenberg published Theory of Harmony in 1911, which remains one of the most influential books on music theory. Schoenberg began to write music that was atonal, lacking any melodic or harmonic framework. In fact, Schoenberg did not like the term atonality; he preferred pantonality, meaning all tones or keys, instead of "without tone" or "lacking a key." However, critics and music historians still use the term atonal when describing works including some of Schoenberg’s. One of his most famous atonal pieces, Pierrot Luniare, used sprechstimme, a German word for speak-singing, where the goal is neither natural speech nor melodic singing, but an amalgamation of the two, in line with Expressionist sensibilities. This piece is one of Schoenberg’s most celebrated works today, but its premiere was met with tepid audience reviews. Searching for a clearer way to compose longer atonal pieces, Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone method, or dodecaphony, that he is known for today and that other composers would build upon. Twelve-tone music was composed using twelve notes which are related only with one another, each given equal importance, rather than having a tonic or “home” from which to draw relational melodic context. This "home" is also known as a key signature. In much of Western music, this sense of rootedness in a tonic creates a feeling of resolution upon the return to that dominant note or chord, creating a hierarchy among the notes. Twelve-tone music is referred to as atonal because it lacks this kind of recognizable resolution and treats each note as equal. A composition using Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method can be formed using a series of any of the twelve different chronological tones called a row. These tones can be played in their original
Schoenberg self-portrait, 1910. Wikimedia Commons.
Schoenberg the Painter? In addition to composing, Arnold Schoenberg was also a painter. Like his compositions, he painted in a Expressionist style. Most often, he created distorted self-portraits. Schoenberg was inspired by his good friend, Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, who also garnered inspiration from the composer’s music, as they both felt art was a place to express subjective perception and inner feelings.
order, inverted, backwards, or played backward and inverted. The twelve-tone method is rooted in assigning numbers to pitches and varying them, making for a mathematically based composition system that be visually explained creating a table (or matrix) providing all possible composition options. Sometimes this method is called serialism, as in music created from a series. Between 1921 and 1923,, Schoenberg composed his first twelvetone piece, Piano Suite, Op. 25. Schoenberg continued to compose in his twelve-tone method to varying degrees for the remainder of his life.
Twelve-tone composition framework from Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, 1966. Wikimedia Commons.
Schoenberg strongly defended his music throughout his lifetime, as he believed he was called to take German music to the next level following legends including Mozart and Bach. Some of Schoenberg’s contemporaries, including Mahler and Strauss, considered his later work incomprehensible; and Stravinsky, who experimented with the technique himself, cited Schoenberg as a “musical chemist” and not an artist. In general, the Viennese and the American public did not take to Schoenberg’s atonal
compositions either. Even as early as 1913, audiences rioted at a concert put on by The Second Viennese School and it had to be ended prematurely. The event resulted in a lawsuit. Schoenberg took this in stride, believing that since his method was new, it needed time to become more familiar to audiences. Yet even decades after his death, many audiences still have difficulty with Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions and the sound-world never quite took hold as he’d imagined. Schoenberg’s students, however, in both Europe and America, were ardent followers and worked to expand upon his technique in the following decades. Some of these celebrated 20th century composers who were greatly influenced by the work of Schoenberg included Anton Webern, John Cage, and later, Phillip Glass. Today, Arnold Schoenberg is regarded as perhaps one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, though he never became popular, even posthumously. Many artists are deeply influenced by the events of their own life, and Schoenberg saw two world wars, genocide, and was a refugee and immigrant. Perhaps his urge to create music without a “home” was a way of exploring and responding to the world around him, one that was ever-crumbling and being reconstructed. His twelve-tone method created order out of chaos: a new musical world that was completely different from the old. DISCUSS: Why do you think Schoenberg’s music never popularly received? Still confused? Watch this!
Composer Anton Webern, a member of The Second Viennese School, 1912. Wikimedia Commons.
The Viennese School As Austria was the often epicenter of developments in Western music, the term The Viennese School is used by scholars to describe a group of musicians at the forefront of the field. The First School contained Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, who led the transition from the Baroque to Classical era. The Second Viennese School, with Schoenberg being the most memorable composer to date, had a similar commonality of purpose, moving from Romantic tradition into new forms of composition.
DARKNESS IN EUROPE World War I, often referred to as the Great War, brought never-before-seen destruction and death, dissolved empires, and catapulted Europe into economic disaster. The Treaty of Versailles brought the fighting to an end in 1918, but had severe consequences for Germany including complete demilitarization, return of any land claimed during the war, and more consequently, massive economic responsibility on the already in-debt Germany to pay for the war’s cost. Schoenberg was living in Berlin at this time and was forced to pause his career and serve in the Austrian army; thus he was front and center to the destruction and devastation both on the Front and back home after the war. The instability and economic downturn led to a desperate population in Germany and thus the rise of Adolf Hitler, whose political views were anti-Semitic and racially charged at their core, and put the responsibility for Germany’s fall on the Jewish population in Europe. The Nazi Party came to power in 1933, and ignited World War II in 1939 by invading Poland. From the party’s rise through the Holocaust—a genocide in which 6 million Jews were murdered in the name of the German state—Jews were targeted as threats to the Aryan nation Hitler desired. Laws were passed and acts of violence became increasingly more sinister, not just in Germany, but also in countries that Germany began to occupy. All Jewish peoples, as well as other minorities including people with disabilities, gypsies or the Roma peoples, black and other darkskinned people, and people with sexual or gender identities that were not heteronormative were required to identify themselves as such by wearing a yellow Star of David and were eventually forcefully placed into ghettos. Jews in positions of power were removed from the frameworks of German society. Jewish music was no exception. Schoenberg, though a converted Christian, was still ethnically Jewish in the eyes of the Nazi Party. Hitler regarded Schoenberg’s music as “degenerate.” Though he did not wish to
Schoenberg was drafted and served in Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI. 1914. Wikimedia Commons.
leave, Schoenberg’s German home was no longer safe and he and his family were forced to join the ranks of other Jewish artists that fled Nazi persecution, such as playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Béla Bartók. Schoenberg’s conversion back to Judaism before his move to America was a formative moment in his life. Though he believed his twelve-tone method would revolutionize German music, his Jewish identity would later inspire compositions with overtly Jewish themes such as Kol Nidre, Moses und Aron, and A Survivor from Warsaw, as well as his active support of the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. DISCUSS: How did Schoenberg’s experience of religious persecution and immigration influence his music? Think of other artists who have had similar experiences and compare them to Schoenberg’s.
Chart explaining what qualifies a person a “Jew,” would eventually lead to Schoenberg being removed from his teaching post. 1935. Wikimedia Commons.
"AMERICA’S MOST WIRED COMPOSER" Tod Machover was born November 24, 1953, in Mount Vernon, New York to a mother who was a pianist and a father who was a computer scientist. He received a Bachelors and Masters of Music from the Juilliard School, where he studied with composers Milton Babbit and Roger Sessions, two students of Arnold Schoenberg who built upon his twelve-tone composition method. Machover began his doctorate at Juilliard, but left to attend the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in France as a composer-in-residence and became the Director of Musical Research in 1980. Tod Machover has been the Director of the Experimental Media Facility of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab since its opening in 1985, he is currently the chair of the Opera of the Future group.
with the residents of a city, along with its symphony orchestras and choirs, create a “sonic portrait” of their city by listening to their urban environment to determine its defining aural experiences and translating that into a musical score. This project has been conducted in cities including Toronto, Detroit, Perth, and most recently, Philadelphia, which, for example, used the sounds of sizzling cheesesteak sandwiches in the final composition.
Named the 2016 Composer of the Year by Musical America, Tod Machover was considered by the Los Angeles Times “America’s Most Wired Composer.” Tod has composed six full-length operas (Schoenberg in Hollywood making it seven!), many with sci-fi plots and cutting-edge music technology. In Death and the Powers (2010), which earned him a finalist position for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music, his work featured robots—operabots, to be exact—and it took forty computers to run the production and over 140 speakers to broadcast the sound. Death and the Powers also featured Hyperinstruments, conceived by Machover and invented at the MIT Media Lab. Hyperinstruments are founded in computer algorithms that measure and interpret human expression and feeling and then use that data to augment traditional musical instruments to create a broader range of sounds. Machover also created a new software, called Hyperscore, that allows children and adults to create entire compositions based off of free-hand drawings and the selection of musical materials. Hyperscore is part of his Toy Symphony project, using smart toys that make complex musical ideas and composition accessible to anyone. These inventions have also been used for music therapy.
The inspiration for Schoenberg in Hollywood has been simmering in Machover’s mind for over two decades. He and his close collaborator, Braham Murray, developed the concept and the scenario. They then invited Simon Robson to write the libretto. Though the score is entirely Machover’s own, Schoenberg’s compositions are referenced in many parts of the production as Machover builds a biographical sound world to explore the interworkings and interpersonal drama of this revolutionary composer. Schoenberg in Hollywood is in some ways more of an “acoustic” composition than some of Machover’s earlier operas, however he will combine live acoustic classical orchestral instruments with electronic instrumentation to enter into Schoenberg’s meditation on his own life and what it means to be a responsible human. Just as Schoenberg pushed the boundaries of 20th century music, so too does Tod Machover push musical convention and innovation into the 21th century. While opera is rooted many centuries into the past, as a medium to explore profound stories through music and theater, it continues to be a vibrant and compelling art form to describe the complex emotions of present day and into the future. Learn more about Tod Machover’s latest projects at www.todmachover.com
Machover’s music and musical inventions cross traditional artistic boundaries, blurring the line of what an instrument can be. Machover also created the City Symphony Project, in which he,
DISCUSS: What ways does technology help or hinder storytelling in opera? What do you think the opera of the future will sound like and look like?
Photo of Machover with Hyper-glove, one of his hyperinstrument inventions. 1990 Wikimedia Commons.
Did you know? The initial technological concepts for the popular video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band grew out of Tod Machover's collaboration and mentorship with MIT students who worked in the Media Lab. 11
THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD Schoenberg participated in some of the more glamorous aspects of living in Los Angeles, such as living in the affluent Brentwood community across the street from child star Shirley Temple, playing tennis with composer George Gershwin, or laughing with actorcomedian Arthur “Harpo” Marx. Schoenberg took up teaching posts at UCLA and USC, both of which later named buildings after him. Despite his assimilation into the community, Schoenberg never considered himself an American composer and often took comfort in the large European community that had also moved to L.A. Expat Rivals Both Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky found themselves living in Hollywood following the Second World War and rebuilding their lives as composers and professors. One might expect that they were fast friends, however artistic differences led to a mutual dislike instead. They both made it clear to friends and colleagues that each was ignoring the other, and it was only after Schoenberg passed away that Stravinsky decided to experiment and expand upon the twelve-tone method Schoenberg invented. Many composers who lived or relocated to Los Angeles during this time including Gershwin, Stravinsky, and Max Steiner, were finding work composing for film or selling their compositions to be used in film in Hollywood. In 1935, Schoenberg was introduced by his friend Harpo Marx, to MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) producer Irving Thalberg, to explore the possibility of working together. Due to Thalberg’s leadership, MGM was the only production company to make a profit during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, MGM released classic pictures such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain. All big-budget films, they were also risky endeavors with new technology such as Technicolor. Thalberg commented that he enjoyed Schoenberg’s music, calling it “lovely” (to which Schoenberg promptly responded, “I don’t make lovely music.”) and proposed that Schoenberg score a film for his studio. Schoenberg however, disliked the populist nature of film music,
MGM logo. 1916. Wikimedia Commons.
and wanted to use the sprechstimme method, like in his melodramatic setting of poems Pierrot Lunaire (1912),an idea that Thalberg ultimately rejected.
Irving Thalberg, MGM Producer, 1929. Wikimedia Commons.
MGM’s success was part of a larger trend in film history. Movies offered escape from the realities of war and economic depression, and the American public was estimated to be attending films at least once a week. Technological advancements, such as sound, color, and animation, as well as the rise of movie stars and the studio system, made Hollywood the home of American movies. Now known as The Golden Age of Hollywood, defined loosely between the 1915 and 1960, this era introduced genres including Westerns, Gangster films, the Movie-Musical, Animated films, and Film Noir, as silent films faded out. Here are some distinct genres that emerged in the first half of the 20th Century: Silent: The genre of film, or moving pictures, began without synchronized sound and dates back to as early as 1891. Often silent films were shown accompanied by live music. The era technically ended with The Jazz Singer (1927), the first major movie with synchronized sound, but actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin created silent films through the '30s. Though termed silent films, these films were often accompanied by a pre-recorded musical score and subtitled. The most famous movies of this era are Birth of a Nation (1915) and City Lights (1931). Genres ranged from epic stories, to romantic, to slapstick comedies. Western: One of the most enduring American genres developed and capitalized upon between the '30s and the '60s is the Western. Westerns normally take place on the American Frontier—the area west of the Rocky Mountain range, with common settings in a rural mountain or desert town featuring scenes in saloons, jails, and small main streets. The format often follows a protagonist sheriff, cowboy or maverick and emphasizes the rugged, dangerous wilderness. Westerns feature a specific soundscape with defining characteristics of a musical score that includes influences from American Folk music and music from Mexican and Native American traditions. Schoenberg was known
The Silver Screen In the early days of film, images were projected on to a smooth screen primed with shiny reflective paint for optimal resolution and contrast. Even as the technology evolved, the term quickly caught and was used to refer to moving pictures in general, referred to as “the pictures,” and today “the movies.”
to be a fan of the Hopalong Cassidy movies which hit the big screen in 1935—with 65 more films—and continued over a decade with the same cowboy-hero portrayed by actor William Boyd. There are many subgenres of the Western, including Comedic Western and Spaghetti Western, and they continue to be made today such as True Grit (2010). Film Noir: Film Noir is a term coined by French film critics upon observation of the stylistic darkness of American and crime and detective films mainly produced after World War II. Similar to Expressionist movies in Germany, these movies reflected moral conflict and represented society’s evils and suspicions. Although full-length color features became mainstream in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz, Film Noir continued to use black and white film as an important element of the story-telling medium. Typically, movies set in Film Noir style revolved around a disillusioned male and a seductive female, almost always ending with betrayal. Humphrey Bogart is one of the most famous Film Noir-style actors, with one of his most memorable performances being in Casablanca (1942), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
DISCUSS: How has The Golden Age of Hollywood defined the genre of film today? How has it influenced other more contemporary performing and visual arts?
That’s all folks! Looney Tunes sign off.
Animated: Early animated movies were hand-drawn and photographed frame-by-frame. In the early 1930s, shorts such as Krazy Kat, and Looney Tunes emerged proceeding feature films. Looney Tunes coined the famous, “That’s All Folks!” The first full-length animated feature film was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Though mostly comedic, early animated films often had political undertones. Additionally, these animated films prominently featured musical scores recorded with full chorus and orchestra. Movie-Musical: As the film industry boomed, the development of synchronized sound with the pictures allowed for the Movie-Musical to emerge, where singing, acting, and dancing could be presented screen as part of the narrative. Dance and singing sequences emerged in the '20s and '30s, and some of the most popular stars of the movie musical were Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, a comedic, tap-dancing duo. Perhaps the most notable movie musical is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), produced by MGM starring triple-threats Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.
The Marx Brothers: A family comedy group of five brothers with the stage names Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo, The Marx Brothers are considered to be one of the greatest comedic influences of the 20th century. Paramount and MGM produced their films after the brothers got their start on the stage, and they were often rife with political satire and slapstick comedy.
Marx Brothers. 1931. Wikimedia Commons.
OPERA IS ALIVE AND WELL There are new operas being commissioned, composed, and performed each year in the United States and around the world. The art form of opera continues to thrive and evolve, telling important stories of our time through the performing and visual arts, and featuring the evocative emotional power of the human voice. Schoenberg in Hollywood marks a milestone for Boston Lyric Opera as our first full-length solo commissioned opera, a process that has been several years in the works. Although BLO does not currently have a home theater, the World Premiere will
take place at the Emerson Paramount Center—a venue that was originally built in the Art Deco style and opened in 1932 as a move house—just a year before Schoenberg immigrated to Boston. It remains to be seen whether this opera will stand the test of time and be performed in years to come; after all, many of the most famous operas we know today did not achieve instant fame. however it is exciting none the less to be a part of something new—the first audiences of a brand new work of art, the telling of a compelling story.
DISCUSS: What are you most curious about in anticipation of seeing a brand new opera?
Technology’s Leading Role In addition to some electronic music contributions, Schoenberg in Hollywood will feature film projection as a prominent aspect of the set design and the storytelling. Using film and projection is increasingly common in theater and opera to create certain effects directly related to the setting or other aspects to the story. Schoenberg in Hollywood has a creative team that includes a Media and Projection Designer and a Sound Designer in addition to a Composer, Librettist, Costume Designer, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Choreographer and Director.
A set model for Schoenberg in Hollywood by scenic designer Simon Higlett. 14
LISTEN UP! Schoenberg’s Beginnings Schoenberg began his career by imitating other composers he liked. He grew up listening to composers including Brahms, and at age 23 composed a string quartet of his own. Listen to Brahms’ and Schoenberg’s. Can you hear the similarities? What do you notice might be Schoenberg’s distinct style beginning to emerge? String Quartet in D Major Arnold Schoenberg (1897)
String Quartet Op. 51 No. 2 in A Minor Johannes Brahms (1873)
Schoenberg and Opera While Schoenberg did write some operas, they are not well-known or often produced. In this piece, which is not an opera, but a melodrama written for voice, he specifies a particular kind of singing that is neither speaking nor giving full resonance to the voice, and not even as a singer would sing recitative in Romantic Era opera. Schoenberg was exploring musical ideas in what we now define as the Expressionist period in art, and used a particular speak-singing style: Sprechstimme. How is this piece similar and different from his earlier work?
Pierrot Luniare - Arnold Schoenberg (1912)
A New Sound A decade later, after World War I, Schoenberg composed his first piece using his newly conceived twelve-tone method. Listen to how it sounds different from his earlier work. Do you notice any similarities?
Piano Suite Op. 25 - Arnold Schoenberg (1923)
Music and the Silver Screen A crucial element to the medium of film is the music, or filmscoring. The score gives a throughline to the emotion behind what is happening in the plot. A great example is the first full-length animated feature by Walt Disney in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It won an Academy Award for best film score. Listen to the Queen’s Theme here:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Animation Early animation, played before the feature film in the theater, was often comedic and frequently politically satiric. Watch this 1942 animation by Looney Tunes and see if you can pick out a familiar musical quote in the film score (hint: it’s about 2 min and 20 sec in). Why do you think they chose to use that piece of familiar music in this context? What parts of Schoenberg’s music might Tod Machover quote in a similar manner?
The Ducktators (1942)
Hollywood Influences Schoenberg moved to Los Angeles in 1934. Although he never did compose a film score, he was steeped in the world of film. Listen to this piece, which he composed only a few years before he died, after he was living in Hollywood for over a decade. Does it remind you of early film scores? Any particular ones come to mind?
A Survivor from Warsaw op. 46 (1947)
Tod Machover’s Sound Worlds What will Schoenberg in Hollywood sound like? It’s a World Premiere, so audiences have never heard it before. But as this is Machover’s seventh opera, listen to what some of his other compositions including symphonies, sound like. How would your describe his music? How do you think his work was influenced by Schoenberg? Tod Machover’s Operas (1987-2014)
Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea: A Symphony for Perth (2014) Part of the City Symphony Project
GENERAL QUESTIONS TO GUIDE YOUR LISTENING • What instruments are playing? • How fast is the music? Are there sudden changes in speed? Is the rhythm steady or unsteady? • Key/Mode: Is it major or minor? (Does it sound bright, happy, sad, urgent, dangerous?) • Dynamics/Volume: Is the music loud or soft? Are there sudden changes in volume (either in the voice or orchestra)? • What is the shape of the melodic line? Does the voice move smoothly or does it make frequent or erratic jumps? Do the vocal lines move noticeably downward or upward? • Does the type of voice singing (baritone, soprano, tenor, mezzo, etc.) have an effect on you as a listener? • Do the melodies end as you would expect or do they surprise you? • How does the music make you feel? What effect do the above factors have on you as a listener? • What is the orchestra doing in contrast to the voice? How do they interact? • What kinds of images, settings, or emotions come to mind? Does it remind you of anything you have experienced in your own life? • Do particularly emphatic notes (low, high, held, etc.) correspond to dramatic moments? • What type of character fits this music? Romantic? Comic? Serious? Etc.
WEBSITES Alchin, L. (2018, January 9). Golden Age of Hollywood. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://www.american-historama.org/1929-1945-depression-ww2-era/golden-age-of-hollywood.ht Arnold Schoenberg Center. (2018, June 26). Arnold Schรถnberg - Biographie. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.schoenberg.at/index.php/en/schoenberg-2/biographie BBC Bitesize. (2014). Expressionism. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/music/music_20th_century/schoenberg1.shtml Dirks, T. (n.d.). Main Film Genres (AMC Filmsite, Ed.). Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://www.filmsite.org/genres.html Encylopedia Brittanica (Ed.). (2000, June 29). 12-tone music. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/art/12-tone-music Guion, D. (2010, October 4). Schoenberg vs Stravinsky. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://music.allpurposeguru.com/2010/10/schoenberg-vs-stravinsky/ Kuiper, K., & Newlin, D. (2002, May 29). Arnold Schoenberg. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Arnold-Schoenberg MIT Media Lab Opera of the Future Project. (n.d.). City Symphonies. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://opera.media.mit.edu/projects/city_symphonies/ MIT Media Lab. (n.d.). Tod Machover. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://web.media.mit.edu/~tod/bio.html MIT Media Lab Opera of the Future Project. (n.d.). Hyperinstruments. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/hyperinstruments/overview/ Music and the Holocaust. (n.d.). Arnold Schonberg. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/resistance-and-exile/schoenberg-arnold/ Predota, G. (2014, May 9). Friday the 13th Arnold Schoenberg and Triskaidekaphobia. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://www.interlude.hk/front/friday-the-13tharnold-schoenberg-and-triskaidekaphobia/ Swed, M. (2016). Tod Machover Composer of the Year. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.musicalamerica.com/features/index.cfm?fid=209&fyear=2016 Wolf, J. (2018). Expressionism Movement Overview and Analysis (The Art Story, Ed.). Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.google.com/search?q=theartstory+expressionsim&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8
ARTICLES Eichler, J. (2009, November 1). Recalling Schoenbergâ€™s Time in Boston. Boston Globe. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://archive.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2009/11/01/recalling_schoenbergs_time_in_boston/ Eichler, J. (2018, September 5). Schoenberg at the Movies. Boston Globe. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/specials/fall-arts/2018/09/05/schoenberg-movies/XFRkuE1yfsZnIHKkmHkuAN/story.html Tommasini, A. (2007, October 14). Unraveling the Knots of the 12 Tones. New York Times. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/14/arts/music/14tomm.html Winiarz, J. (2000, April 1). Pierrot Lunaire: An Atonal Landmark. La Scene Musicale. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from http://www.scena.org/lsm/sm5-7/schoenberg-en.htm WQXR Staff. (2016, May 13). Fear of 13 and Other Superstitions Embedded in Compositions. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.wqxr.org/story/fear-13-other-superstitions-embedded-compositions/
MAGAZINES Boston Lyric Opera Coda Magazine. (2019). https://issuu.com/bostonlyricopera/docs/blo_codafall18_web
BOOKS Flamini, R. (1994). Thalberg: The Last Tycoon and the World of M-G-M. New York: Crown. MacDonald, M. (2008). Schoenberg (2nd ed., The Master Musicians Series). Oxford: Oxford. Schoenberg, A. (1975). Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg (L. Stein, Ed.; L. Black, Trans.). New York: St. Martinâ€™s Press.
INTERVIEWS Machover, T. (2010, August). Tod Machover on Composing Music by Computer [Interview by E. R. Hendry]. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/tod-machover-on-composing-music-by-computer-950905/.
THE HISTORY OF OPERA Toccata from L’Orfeo. Claudio Monteverdi Favola in musica. Reprint of the First Edition of the Score, Venice 1609, via Wikimedia Commons
People have been telling stories through music for millennia throughout the world. Opera is an art form with roots in Western Europe dating back hundreds of years. Here is a brief timeline of its lineage.
RENAISSANCE 1573 The Florentine Camerata was founded in Italy, devoted to reviving ancient Greek musical traditions, including sung drama. 1598 Jacopo Peri, a member of the Camerata, composed the world’s first opera – Dafne, reviving the classic myth. 1607 Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) wrote the first opera to become popular, Orfeo, making him the premier opera composer of his day and bridging the gap between Renaissance and Baroque music. His works are still performed today. BAROQUE
1637 The first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano, was built in Venice, Italy. 1673 Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), an Italian-born composer, brought opera to the French court, creating a unique style, tragédie en musique, that better suited the French language. Blurring the lines between recitative and aria, he created fast-paced dramas to suit the tastes of French aristocrats. 1689 Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) simple and elegant chamber opera, Dido and Aeneas, premiered at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls in London. 1712 George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), a German-born composer, moved to London, where he found immense success writing intricate and highly ornamented Italian opera seria (serious opera). Ornamentation refers to stylized, fast-moving notes, usually improvised by the singer to make a musical line more interesting and to showcase their vocal talent.
Dido and Aeneas, 1747, Pompeo Batoni, via Wikimedia Commons
1750s A reform movement, led by composer Christoph Gluck (1714-1787), rejected the flashy ornamented style of the Baroque in favor of simplicity refined to enhance the drama. 1767 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his first opera at age 11, beginning his 25-year opera career. Mozart mastered, then innovated in several operatic forms. He wrote operas serias, including La Clemenza di Tito, and operas buffas (comedic operas) like Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). He then combined the two genres in Don Giovanni, calling it dramma giocoso. Mozart also innovated on the form of Singspiel (German sung play), featuring spoken dialogue, as in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
1805 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) although a prolific composer, wrote only one opera, Fidelio. The extremes of musical expression in Beethoven’s music pushed the boundaries in the late Classical period and inspired generations of Romantic composers.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
ROMANTIC — THE GOLDEN AGE OF OPERA 1816 Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) composed Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), becoming the most prodigious opera composer in Italy by age 24. He wrote 39 operas in 20 years. A new style created by Rossini and his contemporaries, including Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, would, a century later, be referred to as bel canto (beautiful singing). Bel canto compositions were inspired by the nuanced vocal capabilities of the human voice and its expressive potential. Composers employed a strategic use of register, the push and pull of tempo (rubato), extremely smooth and connected phrases (legato), and vocal glides (portamento). 1842 Inspired by the risqué popular entertainment of French vaudeville, Hervé created the first operetta, a short comedic musical drama with spoken dialogue. Responding to popular trends, this new form stood in contrast to the increasingly serious and dramatic works at the grand Parisian opera house. Opéra comique as a genre was often not comic, rather realistic or humanistic. Grand Opera, on the contrary, was exaggerated and melodramatic. 1853 Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) completed La Traviata, a story of love, loss, and the struggle of average people, in the increasingly popular realistic style of verismo. Verdi enjoyed immense acclaim during his lifetime, while expanding opera to include larger orchestras, extravagant sets and costumes, and more highly trained voices.
A scene from a 19th-century version of the play The Barber of Seville by Pierre Beaumarchais. Its origins in the commedia dell’arte are shown in this picture which portrays Figaro dressed in the costume and mask of Harlequin. 1884, via Wikimedia Commons
1865 Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Tristan und Isolde was the beginning of musical Modernism, pushing the use of traditional harmony to its extreme. His massively ambitious, lengthy operas, often based in German folklore, sought to synthesize music, theater, poetry, and visuals in what he called a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). The most famous of these was an epic four-opera drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which took him 26 years to write and was completed in 1874. 1871 Influenced by French operetta, English librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) began their 25-year partnership, which produced 14 comic operettas including The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Their works helped inspire the genre of American musical theater. 1874 Johann Strauss II, influenced largely by his father, with whom he shared a name and talent, composed Die Fledermaus, popularizing Viennese musical traditions, namely the waltz, and shaping operetta. 1896 Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) La Bohème captivated audiences with its intensely beautiful music, realism, and raw emotion. Puccini enjoyed huge acclaim during his lifetime for his works.
Mikado theatre poster, Edinburgh, 1885, via Wikimedia Commons
Hammerstein and Kern
20TH CENTURY 1911 Scott Joplin, “The King of Ragtime,” wrote his only opera, Treemonisha, which was not performed until 1972. The work combined the European late-Romantic operatic style with African American folk songs, spirituals, and dances. The libretto, also by Joplin, was written at a time when literacy among African Americans in the southern United States was rare.
1922 Alban Berg (1885-1935) composed the first completely atonal opera, Wozzeck, dealing with uncomfortable themes of militarism and social exploitation. Wozzeck is in the style of 12-tone music or Serialism. This new compositional style, developed in Vienna by composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), placed equal importance on each of the 12 pitches in a scale, removing the sense of the music being in a particular key. 1927 American musical theater, commonly referred to as Broadway, was taken more seriously after Jerome Kern’s (1885-1945) Show Boat, words by Oscar Hammerstein, tackled issues of racial segregation and the ban on interracial marriage in Mississippi. 1935 American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), who was influenced by African American music and culture, debuted his opera, Porgy and Bess, in Boston, MA, with an all-African American cast of classically trained singers. 1945 British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) gained international recognition with his opera Peter Grimes. Britten, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), was one of the first British opera composers to gain fame in nearly 300 years. 1957 Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), known for synthesizing musical genres, brought together the best of American musical theater, opera, and ballet in West Side Story—a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary setting.
Porgy and Bess by the New York Harlem Theatre, 2009
1987 John Adams (b. 1947) composed one of the great minimalist operas, Nixon in China, the story of Nixon’s 1972 meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Musical Minimalism strips music down to its essential elements, usually featuring a great deal of repetition with slight variations. TODAY Still a vibrant and evolving art form, opera attracts contemporary composers such as Dominick Argento (b. 1927), Philip Glass (b. 1937), Tod Machover (b. 1953), Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960), Thomas Adès (b. 1971), and many others. These composers continue to be influenced by present and historical musical forms in creating new operas that explore current issues or reimagine ancient tales.
So Young Park as Queen of the Night Photo: Eric Antoniou.
THE SCIENCE AND ART OF OPERA WHY DO OPERA SINGERS SOUND LIKE THAT? Opera is unique among forms of singing in that singers are trained to be able to sing without amplification, in large theaters, over an entire orchestra, and still be heard and understood! This is what sets the art form of opera apart from similar forms such as musical theater. To become a professional opera singer, it takes years of intense physical training and constant practice—not unlike that of a ballet dancer—to stay in shape. Additionally, while ballet dancers can dance through pain and illness, poor health, especially respiratory issues and even allergies, can be severely debilitating for a professional opera singer. Let’s peek into some of the science of this art form.
HOW THE VOICE WORKS Singing requires different parts of the body to work together: the lungs, the vocal cords, the vocal tract, and the articulators (lips, teeth, and tongue). The lungs create a flow of air over the vocal cords, which vibrate. That vibration is amplified by the vocal tract and broken up into words by consonants produced by the articulators. Breath: Any good singer will tell you that good breath support is essential to produce quality sound. Breath is like the gas that goes into your car. Without it, nothing runs. In order to sing long phrases of music with clarity and volume, opera singers access their full lung capacity by keeping the torso elongated and releasing the lower abdomen and diaphragm muscles, which allows air to enter into the lower lobes of the lungs. This is why we associate a certain posture with opera singers. In the past, many operas were staged with singers standing in one place to deliver an entire aria or scene, with minimal activity. Modern productions, however, often demand a much greater range of movement and agility onstage, requiring performers to be physically fit, and disproving the stereotype of the “fat lady sings.”
Vibration: If you run your fingers along your throat you will feel a little lump just underneath your chin. That is your “Adam’s Apple,” and right behind it, housed in the larynx (voice-box), are your vocal cords. When air from the lungs crosses over the vocal cords it creates an area of low pressure (google The Bernoulli Effect), which brings the cords together and makes them vibrate. This vibration produces a buzz. The vocal chords can be lengthened or shortened by muscles in the larynx, or by increasing the speed of air flow. This change in the length and thickness of the vocal cords is what allows singers to create different pitches. Higher pitches require long, thin cords, while low pitches require short, thick ones. Professional singers take great pains to protect the delicate anatomy of their vocal cords with hydration and rest, as the tiniest scarring or inflammation can have noticeable effects on the quality of sound produced.
Resonance: Without the resonating chambers in the head, the buzzing of the vocal cords would sound very unpleasant. The vocal tract, a term encompassing the mouth cavity, and the back of the throat, down to the larynx, shapes the buzzing of the vocal cords like a sculptor shapes clay. Shape your mouth in an ee vowel (as in eat), then sharply inhale a few times. The cool sensation you feel at the top and back of your mouth is your soft palate. The soft palate can raise or lower to change the shape of the vocal tract. Opera singers always strive to sing with a raised soft palate, which allows for the greatest amplification of the sound produced by the vocal cords. Different vowel sounds are produced by raising or lowering the tongue. Say the vowels: ee, eh, ah, oh, oo and notice how each vowel requires a slightly lower tongue placement. This area of vocal training is particularly difficult because none of the anatomy is visible from the outside!
Articulation: The lips, teeth, and tongue are all used to create consonant sounds, which separate words into syllables and make language intelligible. Consonants must be clear and audible for the singer to be understood. Because opera singers do not sing with amplification, their articulation must be particularly good. The challenge lies in producing crisp, rapid consonants without interrupting the connection of the vowels (through the controlled exhale of breath) within the musical phrase.
Perfecting every element of this complex singing system requires years of training, and is essential for the demands of the art form. An opera singer must be capable of singing for hours at a time, over the top of an orchestra, in large opera houses, while acting and delivering an artistic interpretation of the music. It is complete and total engagement of mental, physical, and emotional control and expression. Therefore think of opera singers as the Olympic athletes of the stage, sit back, and marvel at what the human body is capable of! 23
Somewhat equivalent to the lower female alto role in a chorus, mezzosopranos (mezzo translates as “middle”) are known for their full and expressive qualities. While they don’t sing frequencies quite as high as sopranos, their ranges do overlap, and it is a “darker” tone that sets them apart. One of the most famous mezzo-soprano lead roles is Carmen in Bizet’s Carmen.
Occasionally women have an even lower range that overlaps with the highest male voice. This voice type is rare, and they often play male characters, referred to in opera as trouser roles.
The highest male voice; tenors often sing the role of the hero. One of the most famous tenor roles is Roméo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliet. Occasionally men have cultivated very high voices singing in a range similar to a mezzo-soprano, but using their falsetto. Called the Countertenor, this voice type is often found in Baroque music. Countertenors replaced castrati in the heroic lead roles of Baroque opera after the practice of castration was deemed unethical.
A middle-range male voice, baritones can range from sweet and mild in tone, to darker dramatic and full tones. A famous baritone role is Rigoletto in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Baritones who are most comfortable in a slightly lower range are known as Bass-Baritones, a hybrid of the two lowest voice types.
Opera singers are cast into roles based on their tessitura (the range of notes they can sing comfortably). There are many descriptors that accompany the basic voice types, but here are some of the most common ones:
The lowest male voice, basses often fall into two main categories: basso buffo, which is a comic character who often sings in lower laughter-like tones, and basso profundo, which is as low as the human voice can sing! Doctor Bartolo is an example of a bass role in The Barber of Seville by Rossini.
The highest female voice; some sopranos are designated as coloratura, as they specialize in being able to sing very fast moving notes that are very high in frequency and light in tone, often referred to as “color notes.” One of the most famous coloratura roles is The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
DIFFERENT VOICE TYPES
Each of the voice types (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass) also tends to be sub-characterized by whether it is more Lyric or Dramatic in tone. Lyric singers tend toward smooth lines in their music, sensitively expressed interpretation, and flexible agility. Dramatic singers have qualities that are attributed to darker, fuller, richer note qualities expressed powerfully and robustly with strong emotion. While its easiest to understand operatic voice types through these designations and descriptions, one of the most exciting things about listening to a singer perform is that each individual’s voice is essentially unique, thus each singer will interpret a role in an opera in a different way. 24
THE PHYSICS OF OPERA SINGERS What is it about opera singers that allows them to be heard above the orchestra? It’s not that they simply sing louder. The qualities of sound have to do with the relationship between the frequency (pitch) of a sound, represented in a unit of measurement called hertz, and its amplitude, measured in decibels, which the ear perceives as loudness. Only artificially produced sounds, however, create a pure frequency and amplitude (these are the only kind that can break glass). The sound produced by a violin, a drum, a voice, or even smacking your hand on a table, produces a fundamental frequency as well as secondary, tertiary, etc. frequencies known as overtones, or as musicians call them, harmonics. For instance, the orchestra tunes to a concert “A” pitch before a performance. Concert “A” has a frequency of about 440 hertz, but that is not the only pitch you will hear. Progressively softer pitches above that fundamental pitch are produced in multiples of 440 at 880hz, 1320hz, 1760hz, etc. Each different instrument in the orchestra, because of its shape, construction, and mode in which it produces sound, produces different harmonics. This is what makes a violin, for example, have a different color (or timbre) from a trumpet. Generally, the harmonics of the instruments in the orchestra fade around 2500hz. Overtones produced by a human voice—whether speaking, yelling, or singing—are referred to as formants. As the demands of opera stars increased, vocal teachers discovered that by manipulating the empty space within the vocal tract, they could emphasize higher frequencies within the overtone series—frequencies above 2500 hz. This technique allowed singers to perform without hurting their vocal chords, as they are not actually singing at a higher fundamental decibel level than the orchestra. Swedish voice scientist, Johann Sundberg, observed this phenomenon when he recorded the world-famous tenor Jussi Bjoerling in 1970. His research showed multiple peaks in decibel level, with the strongest frequency (overtone) falling between 2500 and 3000 hertz. This frequency, known as the singer’s formant, is the “sweet spot” for singers so that we hear their voices soaring over the orchestra into the opera house night after night.
Prof. Tecumseh Fitch, evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, explains the difference between a fundamental frequency and formant frequency in the human voice. For an opera singer, the lower two formants (peaks on a graph) determine the specific vowel sound. The third formant and above add overtones that are specific to each particular singer’s voice, like a fingerprint. When two people sing the same note simultaneously, the high overtones allow your ear to distinguish two voices. 25
Boston Opera House
A RESONANT PLACE The final piece of the puzzle in creating the perfect operatic sound is the opera house or theater itself. Designing the perfect acoustic space can be an almost impossible task, one which requires tremendous knowledge of science, engineering, and architecture, as well as an artistic sensibility. The goal of the acoustician is to make sure that everyone in the audience can clearly understand the music being produced onstage, no matter where they are sitting. A perfectly designed opera house or concert hall (for non-amplified sound) functions almost like gigantic musical instrument. Reverberation is one key aspect in making a singer’s words intelligible or an orchestra’s melodies clear. Imagine the sound your voice would make in the shower or a cave. The echo you hear is reverberation caused by the large, hard, smooth surfaces. Too much reverberation (bouncing sound waves) can make words difficult to understand. Resonant vowel sounds overlap as they bounce off of hard surfaces and cover up quieter consonant sounds. In these environments, sound carries a long way but becomes unclear or, as it is sometimes called, wet–as if the sound were underwater. Acousticians can mitigate these effects by covering smooth surfaces with textured materials like fabric, perforated metal, or diffusers, which absorb and disperse sound. These tools, however, must be used carefully, as too much absorption can make a space dry–meaning the sound onstage will not carry at all and the performers may have trouble even hearing themselves. Imagine singing into a pillow or under a blanket. The shape of the room itself also contributes to the way the audience perceives the music. Most large performance spaces are shaped like a bell–small where the stage is, and growing larger and more spread out in every dimension as one moves farther away. This shape helps to create a clear path for the sound to reach every seat. In designing concert halls or opera houses, big decisions must be made about the construction of the building based on acoustical needs. Even with the best planning, the perfect acoustic is not guaranteed, but professionals are constantly learning and adapting new scientific knowledge to enhance the audience’s experience.
Boston Symphony Hall, opened in 1900, with acoustical design by Harvard physicist Wallace Clement Sabine, was the first concert hall to be designed with scientific acoustic principles in mind. Each seat was mathematically designed and placed for acoustical perfection.
NOTES TO PREPARE FOR THE OPERA You will see a full dress rehearsal–an insider’s look into the final moments of preparation before an opera premieres. The singers will be in full costume and makeup, the opera will be fully staged, and a full orchestra will accompany the singers, who may choose to “mark,” or not sing in full voice, in order to save their voices for the performances. A final dress rehearsal is often a complete run-through, but there is a chance the director or conductor will ask to repeat a scene or section of music. This is the last opportunity the performers have to rehearse with the orchestra before opening night, and they therefore need this valuable time to work. The following will help you better enjoy your experience of a night at the opera: • Arrive on time! Latecomers will be seated only at suitable breaks in the performance and often not until intermission. • Dress in what you are comfortable in so that you may enjoy the performance. For some, that means dressing up in a suit or gown, for others, jeans and a polo shirt fit the bill. Generally “dressy-casual” is what people wear. Live theater is usually a little more formal than a movie theater. Please do not take off your shoes or put your feet on the seat in front of you. • Respect your fellow opera lovers by not leaning forward in your seat so as to block the person’s view behind you, and by turning off (not on vibrate) cell phones and other electronic devices that could make noise during the performance. Lit screens are also very distracting to your neighbors, so please keep your phone out of sight until the house lights come up. • Taking photos or making audio or video recordings is strictly forbidden. • Do not chew gum, eat, drink, or talk while the rehearsal is in session. If you must visit the restroom during the performance, please exit quickly and quietly. • At the very beginning of the opera, the concertmaster of the orchestra will ask the oboist to play the note “A.” You will hear all the other musicians in the orchestra tune their instruments to match the oboe’s “A.” • After all the instruments are tuned, the conductor will arrive. Be sure to applaud! • Feel free to applaud or shout Bravo! at the end of an aria or chorus piece if you liked it. The end of a piece can be identified by a pause in the music. Singers love an appreciative audience! • It’s OK to laugh when something is funny! • When translating songs and poetry in particular, much can be lost due to a change in rhythm, inflection and rhyme of words. For this reason, opera is usually performed in its original language. In order to help audiences enjoy the music and follow every twist and turn of the plot, English supertitles are projected.
• Sit back, relax and let the action on stage pull you in. As an audience member, you are essential to the art form of opera—without you, there is no show!
HAVE FUN AND ENJOY THE OPERA!
Boston Opera House
• Listen for subtleties in the music. The tempo, volume, and complexity of the music and singing depict the feelings or actions of the characters. Also, notice repeated words or phrases; they are usually significant.