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Music in Our World: Vocal Melody in Opera Introduction

July 31, 2016 0 Comment

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READ CHAPTER 8 (attached)


As you have read in the text, opera, was first started by the FLORENTINE CAMERATA, a group of Italian nobles, poets and composers in the late 16th century. They were trying to bring about a renaissance of the ancient Greek drama, a total work of art.


Opera incorporates music, poetry (libretto or words of an opera), dance, fine arts (rich backdrops, sets and colorful costumes) and drama. It is intended to be the culmination or highest of all the art forms.


Opera singers are vocal virtuosos, training for many years to develop their voice. Their voice needs to be strong enough to project unamplified over an orchestra and fill an entire hall, flexible enough to negotiate large leaps and intricate musical passages, and have a range broad enough to accommodate very high or low pitched passages. Opera singers don’t usually start performing before their mid 30’s, though they may train for 10 or more years prior to performing. Like an athlete training for the Olympics, it takes much time, talent and hard work.


In the early days of opera (16th-17th centuries), many of the roles, male and female, were performed by CASTRATOS, a unique group of male singers. These were boys with exceptional singing talents who were castrated. As they matured into men, they retained the high range of their boyhood voices while acquiring the power of an adult male singer. The result was a voice of high range and great power whose timbre captivated audiences. Many of these singers were extremely well know in their day, the “pop divas” of their time. Obviously this tradition is not maintained today, but it interesting to note that the opera singers and their roles from this time period probably sounded quite different than what we hear today.


An interesting article about the history of castratos can be found by clicking on the following link.





Vocal Melody in Opera – Activity #1


The following video is an excerpt from a movie about a castrato. Watch the first couple of minutes and try to imagine what it would be like to be back in Handel’s time watching this performance. The virtuosity of the singer is undeniable.




Vocal Melody in Opera – Activity #2


Now listen to the last actual castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, recorded 100 years ago. The timbre of his voice is very distinct.


Vocal Melody in Opera – Activity #3


GIACOMO PUCCINI, whose opera LA BOHEME we will listen to, is one of the masters of Italian opera from the Romantic period (see pg. 144-145 MIOW text). He wrote beautiful melodies, great orchestration (how a composer assigns different parts of a piece to different instruments in the orchestra) and his plots have universal appeal. Like many serious operas (as opposed to comic operas) there is much sadness and ends very tragically.


Watch the video of Musetta’s Waltz, one of the most famous songs from La Boheme


Vocal Melody in Opera – Activity #4


Review the plot synopsis, pg. 151-154 MIOW text


Click on the 2 links below to listen to La Boheme I and La Boheme II by Puccini, end of Act II (I can’t copy the links from the instructor and can’t find on youtube, but anyone of part 1 and 2 on youtube should work.


Let’s analyze it further.


→Meter Does it have a clear meter in the beginning? When can you start feeling a clear beat? What kind of meter does it have? Subdivisions? Syncopation?


→Texture? What instruments do you hear? Is there a melody? Is there accompaniment? Is there antiphony? What kind of texture do you hear? Does the texture change?


→Instrumentation? Which instruments do you hear? Do new instruments enter at different sections?


→Phrasing? Are there phrases that repeat? Are they balanced or unbalanced? How would you describe the phrases?


→Melodic Characteristics? Describe the melody. Conjunct or disjunct? Large or small range? Text setting? Ornamentation? How does it compare with other melodies we’ve heard?


→Form? Are there sections? What delineates the sections? Do they repeat?


Instructor video explanations: see La Boheme analysis attached.


Answer Question:

Have your listened to opera before this? Have your perceptions of opera changed after learning more about it? What do you think about castratos and the role they played in developing the operatic form? How does operatic singing compare with other styles of singing, or other musical tradtions, for example Indian classical music?

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