In and Out of Opera

What's Opera Doc? image

In and Out of Opera
McHenry Library
University of California, Santa Cruz
Fall 2000

Opera has its roots in sixteenth-century Italy, where polyphonic music, the Renaissance revolution in painting, and the humanists' love of classical literature inspired new kinds of theatrical productions combining drama, music, and elaborate backdrops painted in one-point perspective.

In the last decade of the sixteenth century, a group of composers, writers and other intellectuals in Florence, Italy, known as the Camerata experimented with re-creating Greek drama. Sparked by these efforts, Claudio Monteverdi--a court composer in Mantua-- combined this new approach with dance and the madrigal comedy to create the first enduring opera, Orfeo. Orfeo tells the story of Orpheus's descent to the underworld to retrieve his beloved wife, Eurydice after her death, only to lose her a second time when he disobeys the gods by turning around to look at her before they reach the world of the living. Orpheus's fateful error and his loss-- not once but twice!--of Eurydice establish a beginning point for tragic opera, where themes of passion, death, justice, love, and revenge abound in delirious excess. When opera develops a comic strain with Mozart and later Rossini, it is in fact only doing what opera has always done best: mixing forms and aiming for strong emotional and psychic effects, whether they be in laughter or in tears.

To many viewers, the emotional response to opera's lyricism combined with its provocation to reflect on human situations is precisely what opera "means." When characters in a film attend an opera (Cher in Moonstruckor Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) or listen to opera recordings (Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, or the playing of an aria from "The Marriage of Figaro" in The Shawshank Redemption), we understand them to be engaging this complex of effects. Directors often call on these associations in film sound tracks as well--an aria from Lakme by Leo Delibes is used to great effect to enhance the seduction scene in The Hunger--possibly one of the most erotic scenes ever put on film.

Given opera's extravagance, it has inspired both emulation and parody. Bugs Bunny ("What's Opera, Doc?," "The Rabbit of Seville") and the Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera) remind us that opera is synonymous with the outrageous and the exorbitant. Opera music is everywhere in our contemporary society: In the days of radio just a few bars of the William Tell overture by Rossini produced the automatic response-- The Lone Ranger. On television it has been used to sell Rice Krispies (Pagliacci), champagne (Puccini) and other products.

But contemporary composers still turn to opera's capacity for intensity as a challenge to musical innovation (Philip Glass's 1976 Einstein on the Beach) and to capture on stage the pressing issues of our times: John Adams composed Nixon in China in 1987 in reference to the President's historic visit; and this season in San Francisco, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally are premiering their opera Dead Man Walking, which confronts the ethics of capital punishment in America.

If opera's relations to history are often evident and extremely interesting, it owes many of its plots to literary works. The earliest operas drew on Greek and Roman mythology and on Renaissance classics such as Alexandre Dumas La Dame aux camelias for La Traviata, to the Old Testament for Nabucco, to Shakespeare's drama for Otello, Macbeth, and Falstaff. Virgil Thomson's 1934 Four Saints in Three Acts is based on a text by modernist writer Gertrude Stein; and recent new operas include productions based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and on Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.

Opera is alive and well right here at UCSC. A conference this quarter entitled "In and Out of Opera: The Media and Spaces of the Operatic" will bring together scholars and opera practitioners from Santa Cruz and around the country to discuss how opera draws on literature, history, politics, and popular culture and the ways the media are incorporating opera in new kinds of productions today.

Who at UCSC is involved in opera? The generous sponsors of the opera conference and its surrounding events are Siegfried and Elizabeth Mignon Puknat. Siegfried Puknat was a founding member of the UCSC faculty, taught German literature at UCSC from 1964 to 1982, and was a lifetime lover of opera. Professor John Dizikes is a scholar of American culture and a loyal patron of operatic productions in the Bay Area; his 1993 book Opera in Americawon the National Book Critics Circle Award. Professor Sherwood Dudley teaches opera in the Department of Music at UCSC. Also in UCSCs music department, Vocalist lecturers Brian Staufenbiel and Patrice Maginnis have collaborated on student opera productions, including last spring's Carmen. Professor H. Marshall Leicester of the Literature Department teaches and writes on the high-emotion similarities among opera, horror, and pornographic films. Lecturer in French Herve Le Mansec is the Los Angeles opera reviewer for the magazine Opera Internationalin Paris. Lecturer in French Miriam Ellis is translator of numerous French operas, several of which she has directed at UCSC. Two of our outstanding graduates have achieved world-wide fame in the world of opera--Kent Nagano as musical director and conductor of the Opera Lyon in France and Patricia Schuman who has sung featured roles with the Metropolitan Opera.

The McHenry Library holdings include over 160 operas in video format and hundreds of audio recordings. This exhibit features a sampling of McHenry's holdings in books, musical scores, librettos, posters, and archival photographs.

McHenry Library Holdings

Indeed, opera is alive and well at UCSC!

Introduction by: --Deanna Shemek, Professor of Literature, Cowell College --Dave Kirk, Video Selector, McHenry Library

Exhibit by --Dave Kirk, Video Selector, McHenry Library --Irene Reti, Exhibit Coordinator, McHenry Library