MANY YEARS AGO A BARITONE visiting the Opera House in Parma, Italy, was delighted to discover that upon finishing the last note of the Prologue to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci the audience greeted him with cries of “Bis! Bis!” or “More! More!” Naturally, the singer was well pleased with himself and proceeded to sing the aria again. The crowd roared for another time through; the singer complied. Again the audience requested a repeat; again the baritone gave it to them. But, they were not to be so easily satisfied, and still cried for more. The dazed singer, who was by this time exhausted, came before the curtain and said “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, but I cannot sing it again.” A voice from the crowd answered authoritively: “You will sing it until you get it right.”
About the same time in El Paso, a touring opera company was presenting The Barber of Seville. One of the musicians happened to mention to his neighbors during the intermission that the touring version included several minor cuts. Within minutes the word spread throughout the audience, who then became so enraged that the sheriff had to be summoned. The ticket holders were convinced they had been cheated and were not getting their money’s worth.
Separated as they were by geography and cultures, these two incidents together reflect the sort of growth which has kept Grand Opera alive and vital through the centuries.
From its Florentine beginnings around 1600, opera’s growth has almost always followed a two-part pattern. First of all, opera is seen as a diversion for the rich. (This is usually accompanied by the belief that the host country is not sophisticated enough to produce real opera, and that foreign composers and artists must be relied on to provide the necessary skills and talent.)
The second stage occurs when someone (or some people) realize that their nation (or section) is not as impoverished as everyone believed, and that homegrown singers and composers could produce operas just as vibrant and alive as those fancy foreigners.
This pattern is particularly evident throughout European history. In France, many thought that a successful French Opera was impossible until the composer Lully assumed control of the Royal Music Academy and forged a new French style. Germany borrowed styles, composers and singers from Italy until Mozart came along and produced a masterpiece called The Magic Flute, which became the progenitor of all subsequent German Opera.
In his Short History of Opera Donald Grout points out that: “The English tendency to underrate their own music in comparison with Continental composers has been a bane of their musical history ever since Elizabethan times.” He goes on to describe the emergence of a true English opera as being owed “partly to the genius of a very small number of English composers who were either conservative enough or of sufficient original genius to resist foreign domination.” One of those composers was Henry Purcell, who produced England’s first operatic masterpiece: Dido and Aeneas.
Even Russia has experienced the difficulties of starting a successful national opera. Until the 19th century most singers, conductors, and stylistic features were imported directly from Italy or France. Then Glinka composed A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila both of which became models for later Russian opera.
The Russian court nobility was as intent on getting its money’s worth from visiting Italian companies as was that turn of the century El Paso audience. Even critical Parma’s