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Opera, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M033-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Opera, which may be defined as a dramatic action set in large part to music, is an inherently unstable art form, more so than any other. It has been characteristic of its practitioners and critics to call it periodically to order, in idioms which vary but carry much the same message: the music exists to further the drama. This has often been taken to be a matter of settling the priority of two elements: music and text. But in fact three are involved: music, text and plot (or action).

Opera began very abruptly in Northern Italy at the end of the sixteenth century, partly as the result of discussions about its possibility. To begin with, familiar Greek myths were employed, set in the vernacular, with simple accompaniments so that every word could be heard. This led to pre-eminence for the singers and for spectacle. After each wave of excess – vocal prowess, dance interludes, stilted plots and texts, then once again, in the nineteenth century, empty display, and later gargantuan orchestras – there was a movement of revolt. Philosophers rarely took part in these aesthetic disputes, most of them being uninterested in music, and possibly more relevantly, being uninterested in any subject which can only be studied in historical terms. But it is fruitless to think about opera apart from its manifestations; every great operatic composer makes his own treaty between the potentially warring elements, Wagner being the most passionate propagandist for his own conception. In the twentieth century the aesthetics of opera have become pluralistic, as has, to an unprecedented degree, the form itself. The perpetual danger is that opera should degenerate into entertainment, and it is always the same message that recalls it to its original function – one which most spectators and listeners are happy to ignore: opera is a form of drama.

Citing this article:
Tanner, Michael. Opera, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M033-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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