The birth of opera in a paragraph

Only Alex Ross could pull it off so eloquently:

Opera was, in effect, born twice. Its first coming was during the last decade of the sixteenth century, when humanist musicians and poets at the court of the Medici, in Florence, began to present a new kind of sung drama. The inaugural operas had impeccably high-minded subjects—Daphne changing into a laurel tree, Orpheus descending into Hades with his lyre—and were hyper-elegant in execution. Then, in 1637, a travelling troupe set off a fad for opera in the republic of Venice, and the art underwent a mutation. The season took place during Carnival, the time of dissolution and self-reinvention. Melodrama, bawdy humor, and disorienting collisions of high and low permeated the form. Mythological subjects took on a modern edge; castrato singers flamboyantly re-imagined classical heroes; star divas enacted scenes of madness and lament. A paying public showed lusty approval. For the rest of the century, up to five theatres operated in Venice at the same time, drawing an audience that included not only the patrician class but also courtesans, tourists, and a smattering of ordinary people. Opera acquired the intricate mixture of elements—élitist, populist, dignified, demented—which defines the genre to this day.

Read the full article–“Unsung: Recovering the operas of Francesco Cavalli”–in The New Yorker.

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