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What's Opera, Doc? Part 6: The Company

By Alex Richards

The Pollard Opera Company. Consisting largely of members of James Pollard's large family. The company ran from 1881 to 1903.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I’m using the term ‘company’ rather broadly for this article, encompassing the entire group responsible for actually putting on an operatic production. This can encompass a vast number of people - ranging from the well known figures of the company directors who might be responsible for choosing what operas to produce in the first place, through the set and costume designers, down to the carpenters, make-up artists, painters, decorators, tailors and dressmakers who actually turned those ideas into reality. It also encompasses the orchestras, choruses, understudies and dance troupes who formed the on-stage support and structure for the soloists and who were usually much less mobile in their careers.

While the many individuals who actually put the hard work into turning ideas into reality were, and remain, vital to the industry of opera; when considering the forces that have defined how operas have looked at various times, there are three main groups of people who have had the biggest influence on matters - the Directors, the Ensemble itself, and the Patrons. The three groups are heavily interlinked, with the Directors usually being involved in selecting the composition of the Ensemble, and being in turn selected by the Patron, though the general trend over time has been one where the Directors have ended up becoming the main drivers of matters, even as the role has been divided among different people.

At the root of everything is money - how much is available and how it can be spent. In the earliest days of opera, this represented a direct link between Patron and Ensemble - a composer and a number of musicians would be employed by a notable individual, almost always a senior noble. The conductor would usually serve as the Director - though they might employ someone else to design costumes if any were to be used - and the venue would usually be a room temporarily given over for the purpose in the estate or townhouse of the individual in question. For this reason, the Ensemble was generally on the small side. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607 - produced for the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua - was probably written for a cast of 10 people, in which apart from Orfeo himself, all of the soloists would have doubled their roles and served as members of the chorus where appropriate. The instrumentation, in contrast, was comparatively lavish with a large string section of 14 people, 11 brass players, and 10 players in what’s termed the ‘continuo’ or bass section, which included a small reed organ, two small pipe organs, two harpsichords, a double harp, viols and theorbos. Two recorders and a relative of the lute may have been played by the chorus/soloists, while the conductor would probably have used a hand drum to keep time.

Jump forward to the years of Lully’s time as director of the Académie Royale de Musique - now the Opéra de Paris - and the resources of the court of Versailles, combined with state enforced restrictions on his competitors, are evident in the expanded nature of operas. His 1675 work Atys features 17 identified soloists - including one silent role[1] - on top of which were also 8 dancers and both the chorus and the corps de ballet. An engraving of Alceste being performed at Versailles from the time is probably representative in showing 5 soloists on stage, 16 chorus members and 40 musicians - who it appears only represent the strings and part of the continuo section given that no trumpeters, harpsichords or flute players are visible.

This wealth of resources, highly controlled market, and continual reinforcement of the musical structure first set out by the likes of Lully would go on to create a drastic and marked contrast between French opera and the fashions that emerged in other countries - where the nobles sponsoring productions may have had less money to spend, or where theatres and Companies based on consortia, investments or the selling of stocks started to emerge. Handel’s Alcina of 1735 has only 7 soloists, a chorus and perhaps a couple of dozen musicians (depending on the size of the string section). Mozart’s Don Giovanni of 1787 has 8 soloists, a chorus and 30 or so musicians. Rameau’s Zoroastre of 1749, by contrast, featured 21 solo roles (and perhaps 15 actual soloists), the chorus, and an orchestra of perhaps a similar size to Mozart’s, but with less in the way of woodwinds or brass.

Handel's Alcina, being performed in Athens in 2019.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

That dichotomy between the demands of Paris for large-scale, 5 act operas including a ballet, and the more financially constrained theatres elsewhere reached its apogee in the 19th Century. By this point the influence of mass production on instruments meant that the actual members of the orchestra were becoming largely standardised, and though the size would still vary between venues, it wasn’t unusual to have upwards of 50 or 60 musicians in the orchestra - double that of a century before. And more than ever before, the directors of the Paris Opera in particular were able to demand that a composer meet their requirements rather than the other way around. Thus Verdi’s Macbeth was originally premiered in 1847 in Florence, before being reworked for Paris - a process that involved not just translation in French, but the addition of a ballet, additional arias and chorus numbers, the lengthening of other sections and, at the composer’s own wishes, the complete re-writing of the ending. The process took until 1865 and Verdi found that unlike in Florence much of the artistic direction of the work was out of his control; his ability to influence the appearance on stage reduced to mere suggestions and commentaries relayed by letter to the artistic director - even his preferred choice of translator was ignored. It is telling that the influence of Paris in the opera scene is enough that the 1865 version is the one usually revived or recorded today, despite it seeing much less commercial or critical success with contemporary audiences than the smaller-scale 1847 version.

The 19th Century was also the age of high-concept, elaborate stage set-pieces, the result of an ever-increasing desire for one-upmanship. Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete broke ground with the first ever use of an electric arc light to replicate daylight on stage, and a finale full of smoke and flames. Aida wowed audiences with the scale of its sets and Wagner’s fantastical array of mechanical dragons and ‘swimming’ Rheinmaidens were one of the reasons for his construction of a new theatre in Bayreuth. In the end, perhaps inevitably, the expense just became too great for the genre - even before the political and economic fallout from WWI and the decline of opera in general. Wagner helped bankrupt the King of Bavaria with his demands. The many vast and expensive sets from French operas of the 1840s stored at the Salle Le Peletier were destroyed in the fire of 1873 and the opera saw little desire to recreate them once it had moved into the new Palais Garnier - and tastes were, in any case, changing.

With the end of mass popularity for opera, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the final triumph of the Directors. Revivals have become the dominant feature of schedules rather than new works, which in turn means a split between attempts at ‘period’ productions, ‘modernised’ staging and ‘reinterpretations’ - all of which have had their successes and complete failures. While some very large scale festivals still go in for massive set pieces - not least to allow the audience at the back to actually see what’s happening - the dual aspects of cost and environmental impact are joining to produce a current trend for new works being premiered to aim for smaller scale sets - where a room may be suggested with a few items rather than displayed with a backdrop. At the same time the advent of ‘historically informed’ or ‘Baroque revival’ works means that paradoxically the post-war era has made it easier than any time since the French revolution to get a hold of a Harpsichord or Theorbo - both allowing for a recreation of the sounds of Baroque opera and for new experimentation. Electronic sound effects and synthesisers have also made themselves known, adding new options - for better or worse - to the potential arsenal a composer or director has to hand.

Flemish-style harpsichord, engraved with the inscriptions: SINE SCIENTIA ARS NIHIL EST (without knowledge, skill is nothing) and DUM VIXI TACUI MORTUA DULCE CANO (while I lived, I was mute; dead, I sweetly sing).

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And with the ever-increasing ease with which productions can be accessed - by CD, DVD, film screenings or online streams - those interpretations and new works are reaching wider audiences than ever before.

[1] Yes, believe it or not, there exists a category of silent soloist. This is a role that is entirely acted at by the other characters and who drives the plot forward by just bringing some things. Such are usually a very minor role. Ideally the individual in question has some sort of routine - as an acrobat or the like - that demonstrates why they're on stage but not singing.

Also suitable for that nephew of the Patron who you've been required to include in the piece but who can't hold a note to save his life.

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Alex Richards is the author of Tippcanoe and Wallace Too, from SLP.


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