A New Approach to the Study of Opera

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Each Fall since 1978 I have given a course for undergraduates entitled "Music and Drama in Opera." Because of its nontechnical orientation and its interdisciplinary approach, this course has attracted a number of students who might not otherwise have taken a course in the Music Department. While introduced to the fantasy world of opera, these students are at the same time exposed to a variety of humanistic subjects: fine arts, drama, comparative literature, poetry, mythology, sociology, and even the Bible.

Seen in an appropriate socio-historical context, in partnership with literature, drama, history and criticism, musical compositions acquire an added significance. While this principle holds true for vocal and instrumental music alike, it is particularly true of opera. However, many young instructors know less about opera than about any other musical genre. At many graduate schools students take courses in Baroque opera or Romantic opera or perhaps the operas of Mozart—usually the four or five that the instructor feels are important. At some first-rate schools graduate students spend a semester on one act of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro or on Wagner's sketches for the prélude to Tristan und Isolde, in line with the recent tendency to learn more about less. Confronted with the prospect of teaching a survey or broad-scale course to undergraduates, these former students/now instructors decline the challenge, prefering instead to offer whatever courses they have studied in their own formative years. We must reverse this trend, but we can only do so through broadening the interdisciplinary base of young instructors.

In my view the history of opera proceeds along the same lines as a musical theme and variations. It reflects the presence of certain constants or universals in all operas along with a number of variables, the latter depending on the historical epoch, geographical location, orientation of the composers, availability of singers, orchestral players, architecture of the theater, function of a specific performance, notation and publication of the music as well as its distribution, musical style of the composer and success or failure of his collaboration with a librettist. For all of these variables we have documentation, to be sure not always in exclusively musical or musicological areas. Consequently all of us who teach music must be alert to newer and unusual resources, in order to enrich both ourselves and our students.

Now that I have told you something about my philosophy of teaching the history of opera, let me explain the origin of this course, how it works, and why it seems to attract a wide variety of students. Let me also indicate how these students who come to class with vastly disparate backgrounds enrich our class discussions and carry away with them the kinds of information they find especially useful.

In 1977 the Director of Education at the Metropolitan Opera Guild asked me if I would like to prepare a syllabus for college-age students, "something" he said, "that would steer them to the opera house." (The Met has for years spent about $250,000 annually on school children who, in my opinion, with rare exceptions do not belong there. As of this year I learned with satisfaction that student matinées have been discontinued.) Frank Tuggle, then Director, wanted the Metropolitan to tie up with one of the universities in New York. He had heard some of my telecasts on CBS and he asked me if I thought I would like to get involved. It was just the challenge I needed. John Sawhill, then President of New York University, was pushing for closer collaboration between the University and the cultural institutions of the city and this project—when I broached the subject—attracted him. He gave his wholehearted approval and urged me to act quickly.

I had been mulling over ways in which to incorporate the Metropolitan with my classes at school and so it did not take too long to evolve a plan. I created a course that offered an overview of approximately 350 years of opera, utilizing landmarks from the Metropolitan Opera's seasonal repertory and supplementing when necessary with excerpts from my book. I arranged that wherever possible our work would dovetail with the Met's assorted broadcasts, telecasts, directors' and dress rehearsals. I also received considerable cooperation from different members of the staff: vocal coaches, stage designers (from Nathaniel Merrill on down), lighting experts, everyone who recognized that all of this would, in the long run, revert to their best interests. Experts came to class with the understanding that they would speak to our students for about 20 minutes to a half-hour after which the floor would be open to discussion. Sometimes I was not sure who enjoyed himself more: the speaker or the students!

Students registered for this course through the generally impersonal registration procedure. However, I did acquaint some of the personnel in advisement as well as some of my colleagues in the literature departments that the course was available and required no prerequisite. I also agreed to see personally any students who thought they would be interested—from the blurb in the course catalogue—but who were anxious about their lack of musical background. When they came to see me in advance, I showed them the detailed syllabus, told them they would have to do a certain amount of additional listening in our listening lab or at home—for those who had records. One short paper would be required, occasional oral reports in class, and attendance at a live performance and two rehearsals.

The eventual composition of the student body in this course included language majors, film majors, business majors, pre-med and pre-law students, students from our School of the Arts (which has no music department), and others from English, history, politics and economics. A mixed bag, if ever there was one. We always had a few from math and science, but we rarely had more than one or two music majors. (This was not a required course and music majors traditionally believe that opera is too low-brow for them—particularly if they are instrumentalists.) Some students who registered had double majors: psychology and music or German and music.

Their enthusiasm, once the course got underway, and their interaction—just because they brought to their studies such diverse backgrounds—made our meetings extremely lively ones. We also drew several faculty wives and a number of persons from the Metropolitan Opera Guild itself. The latter included several past presidents of the Guild, ushers, and patrons. Let me now explain how they came to be included.

The Guild offered my course as one of the perquisites of membership. And the school cooperated. I scheduled the classes for Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:30 to 11:34 in the mornings so that suburbanites could also arrive on time. For a fee of $100, Washington Square College would permit auditors—that's why I needed the president's permission—to a bona fide college course, not a course in adult education or continuing education which most members apparently thought less demanding. They really wanted this course and they were determined to keep up with us. I might add that while at first they remained silent, as auditors are expected to do, before long they began to ask questions, good, searching questions and provided a stimulus for all of us. (One has to know how to field these questions or curtail endless conversations when they occasionally occur, but one learns how to do that as well.)

In one semester we review the basic elements of opera that have appeared in works from Monteverdi and Purcell through Puccini and, if appropriate, Menotti. We examine selected landmarks to study the variations that have occurred. Of the large dimensions, we explore the hegemony between drama and music, text and tone; between the importance of the orchestra and the role of the singers; between the impact of opera in the vernacular and opera in its original language. We study the significance of staging, lighting, and the interior construction of the theaters. We observe trends in operatic writing, some the product of nationalism, political upheavals or censorship and others the results of the efforts of specific individuals involved in the creation of a work.

This last rubric leads into a consideration of smaller dimensions: the key relationships of arias and ensembles within each act as well as within an entire opera; the composer's preference for specific tonalities for parallel situations in different operas; his customary melodic profiles—with or without ornamentation; his choice of tessitura, when writing for prime donne; his control of rhythm and his use of rhythmic variety throughout an entire act; his style of recitative or conversation music; the forms of his vocal pieces (if he is writing a number opera) or his treatment of the musical fabric in a work where the orchestra commences before the curtain rises and ceases only after its fall; a study of the creative process as demonstrated in the evolution of a work from sketches to final version. Other topics might include the opportunity to disentangle the skeins of a plot, revealing the manner in which the different items of the original book or play have been sacrificed to the limitations of time in the operatic version. Students with a strong literary background sometimes apply their knowledge to a comparison of the literary and operatic texts of the same writer or a comparison of two or more libretti based on the same story.

Usually we cover between 15 and 18 operas that afford an opportunity to study landmarks of different styles, different nationalities and different historical periods, and the impact of extra-musical events upon them. One feature of this kind of approach to the study of music and drama in opera lies in its adjustability to multiple levels of understanding. The complexity of opera allows almost everyone to find something new to investigate.

Exams could become a stumbling block. How do we test students with such diverse backgrounds? What do we expect them to have learned? Even when they have done their assignments very conscientiously, they will still emerge with uneven results. A little ingenuity enables us to devise questions that will reflect the variety of students, each of whom will select from among the questions those that best reveal his or her achievement. In other words, the language major, the history major, the drama or journalism major and also, of course, the music major will have a choice among questions tailored to fit them. Their ability to recognize appropriate questions is, of itself, another barometer of their progress.

It is up to us as individuals to meet the challenge, the confrontation with a diverse group of students. We must whet their appetites for what we have to offer and then try to satisfy them. We must also endeavor to maintain their interest so that on their own they will pursue the joys of music.

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Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

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