Friday, September 08, 2017

when opera was more like watching television and how this changed toward the piety of attending a church service

I've seen a comparison made between attending the opera and watching (if you felt like it) television while you were really mingling with your social scene put forth by Richard Taruskin in his massive Oxford History of Western Music. So it's not a surprise to see this idea set forth in other contexts. 

When the first public opera houses were founded in the mid-17th century, they were designed more as venues for social interaction than as sites of aesthetic experience. Fanning out from the stage in glittering tiers were the boxes. Owned or leased by aristocrats or wealthy bourgeois, these intimate little spaces were perfect for entertaining guests, exchanging gossip or simply being seen. Down below was the parterre. Usually left open and generally without seating, this was the preserve of lower-income groups, including soldiers, students and servants, who used the space to meet friends, share a drink and gamble. Accordingly, the music was treated with noisy indifference, at best, or vocal contempt, at worst. Audiences were more interested in their own conversations than with what was happening on stage. They might perhaps listen to an aria, or watch the ballet (if there was one), but no more; and, if they did not like what they heard, they would make their displeasure known.
Angered by the lack of respect for their music, some composers attempted to fight back – even writing works satirising their audiences’ bad manners. The anonymous Critique des Hamburgischen Schauplatzes (1725), for example, offered a comical defence of opera against the frequent interruptions of German loggionisti. But it was a losing battle. Realising that no audience would listen to an entire work, composers started to produce pieces that took account of their inattention. These often included an aria di sorbetto (‘sherbet aria’), an incidental passage that allowed the audience to buy food or drink without fear of missing anything important.

Interesting stuff and it raises the natural question of when opera became so serious that it could one day be sent up by the Marx brothers.  To put a deliberately polemical point on it, we might ask when attending the opera became a setting with the decorum expectations of attending a church service. 
Not until the late 19th century did silence come to be expected of audiences. Even then, it took longer to reach some countries than others.  [emphasis added] An amusing illustration of the difference between Britain and Italy can be found in E.M. Forster’s novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). Hoping to talk their widowed sister-in-law out of marrying an Italian, the interfering siblings, Philip and Harriet Kingcroft, rush off to the Tuscan town of Monteriano. Soon after arriving, Philip spots a poster announcing a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and tries to persuade the sceptical Harriet to go with him. ‘However bad the performance is to-night’, he warns, ‘it will be alive. Italians don’t love music silently, like the beastly Germans. The audience takes its share – sometimes more.’ And so it turns out. Though Harriet does not care for music, Forster noted, she knows ‘how to listen to it’, and is outraged by the constant shouting and whistling. Not until the mid-20th century would poor Harriet have been able to find an Italian theatre where silence more or less reigned.
Why did audiences change their minds? Part of the reason is undoubtedly the evolution of opera itself. Although composers had previously been willing to accommodate unruly behaviour, the advent of Romanticism persuaded Germans to adopt a more uncompromising approach in their music. Beginning with Louis Spohr – who abhorred the ‘vile noise’ of Italian opera houses – attempts were made to make opera more like the Singspiele (‘sing-plays’) of folk tradition. This entailed grouping arias into longer and more coherent scenes, which could not be interrupted or missed without the narrative thread being lost. The culmination of this trend was Richard Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’). Combining music, poetry and drama in epic form, Wagner greatly expanded the role of the orchestra and relied more on the use of leitmotifs – recurrent musical themes associated with a particular character or idea – than on structural divisions to advance the story. So great were the demands placed on audiences, that little scope remained for inattention – or interjection. And, as Wagner’s influence spread, so did the silence. [emphasis added]
Arguably more important, however, were social factors. Between about 1650 and 1850, opera was ‘enjoyed’ by a relatively broad range of people. Though public opera houses tended to be financed by monarchs, nobles or wealthy merchants, performances were attended by high and low alike. In the later 19th century, however, the emergence of music halls changed everything. Offering every kind of entertainment – from music to magic – and a deliberately relaxed atmosphere, these quickly won the favour of lower-income groups. And as opera houses became the preserve of the upper and middle classes, so their audiences attempted to distance themselves consciously from the noisy and often crude behaviour that was increasingly associated with music halls. Silence, in other words, became what it had never been in the past – a mark of social distinction, of taste and of refinement. [emphases added]
This has rather uncomfortable implications. In preferring to listen to an opera in silence, we are really just perpetuating a form of Victorian snobbery. Now that efforts are being made to broaden the appeal of opera, perhaps the time has come to be a little less precious. Especially in the case of works like Rossini’s La Cenerentola – which were composed with noise in mind – Pereira and his colleagues could turn more of a blind eye to the loggionisti. Admittedly, there might be a bit more booing. But who knows? Perhaps the applause might be louder, too.


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