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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debussy's Floating Harmonies

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

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

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

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

A Late-Blooming Leoš Janáček

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

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

A Schoenberg Student Shines

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

Go Gershwin

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

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

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

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.