The (Tuscan) History of Opera

I recently learned that opera is the Italian word for “work.” I found that surprising for a couple of reasons. First, I think of opera as a form of expression so full of beauty, grace and emotion, that it could not possibly have anything to do with work. Second, I always understood lavoro to be the Italian word for work. The answer lies in the context. There’s work and then there’s work. Think of the opera-type of work as a creation, a thing of tremendous beauty, a work of art.

If you follow this blog at all, you’ve heard me say it before. Here, I will say it again. Many of life’s most spectacular treasures have their origins in Renaissance Florence. (Exhibit A, my recent post about gelato). Opera is no exception.

In Florence of the late 1500s, a small group of artists, writers and musicians known as the Florentine Camerata set out to recreate the storytelling of Greek drama through music. This was the essence of what the Renaissance was all about: A “rebirth” of classical beauty. Enter Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), who composed Dafne, which is widely considered to be the first opera. It tells the story of Apollo’s pursuit of the nymph Dafne. From there, two types of opera began to emerge: opera seria, or stately, formal and dignified pieces to please the royalty that attended and sponsored them, and opera buffa, or comedies.

During the Baroque era (1600s and 1700s), opera took the world by storm, or at least Europe. It became very ornate and expensive. The stars of this scene were men known as castrati, who had been castrated as boys to preserve their soprano voices. By the way, the same roles are now performed by women, which seems a much more reasonable approach.

Into the 18th and 19th centuries, opera got even bigger and grander during the Italian bel canto movement (meaning “beautiful singing”). Composers also began to write heartbreaking and unforgettable tragedies.  The late 19th century was dominated by two giants of opera: German Richard Wagner and Italian Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi was a master at creating compelling characters and had a flare for the dramatic. Perhaps his most popular opera is La Traviata, which tells the story of Violetta, a beautiful courtesan who is fatally ill with tuberculosis. The early 20th century saw the rise of Giacomo Puccini, who wrote hugely popular works in the Italian grand opera tradition, and usually cruelly subjected his audience to the tragic death of his heroine. His works include La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot.

Little of the above information is based on my own personal experience. Although I’ve always been a fan of live music and theater, I only recently took in my first opera. My TTG co-founder Brandy and her family invited my family to join them at the San Francisco opera house for Verdi’s La Traviata (the one about the tubercular courtesan). From the moment we entered that incredible building, I knew this would be good.

Goosebumps and tears figured prominently in my La Traviata experience. The sets and costumes were spectacular. The voices, rising and falling with the orchestra, pierced straight to my heart. The narrative, though performed in Italian, was easy to follow, with helpful subtitles floating high above the stage. No one in the audience missed a moment, and there were moments when we held our collective breath as the drama and the tragedy washed over us. The experience was simply beautiful, and I know it be my first but not my last opera.