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Lecture notes on the opera seria convention

November 2, 2007


To outline the opera seria convention, particularly how it works as music drama. A positive view is taken, so that we can see how the opera seria worked, rather than seeing it as something decadent that needed to be reformed.

The opera seria was once what worked in the theatre. The conventions came about because that was what audiences wanted; the conventions were not imposed by any individual; they arose from the conditions of the time. Audiences were, by and large, satisfied with them. They had not heard Verdi, or even Monteverdi!

However, opera seria is a particularly convention-bound genre – more so than early opera or the opera of the late 19th century. Though even opera 1850-1900 has some fairly strict conventions, e.g. female voices are always higher than male voices.

A convention is often only seen as a convention with the benefit of hindsight, think of, for example, the conventions of the silent film – we need to adjust to them now, they can be odd or amusing, but they were not `conventions` when the films were made; they were the means of expression of the time. So with the opera seria. conventional, yes, but once we know how it works, we can enjoy some great music and some great opera.

We are going to look at the convention, study some examples, and finish by watching a video of an opera that is within the opera seria convention, so that we can see the convention at work. The musical methods are the main point here. Most of the examples are by Handel, purely because of the difficulty of getting scores, videos, tapes etc. of the lesser (as we would judge it today) exponents of the opera seria.

The term opera seria and what it means

Opera seria is Italian for `serious opera`. The term was invented in the 1920s; it is not a baroque term. The composers used dramma per musica, if they thought about titles at all. The 18th century composer did not spend much time worrying about genre titles!

It distinguishes between serious opera and opera buffa; i.e. it is not comic opera, but it is important to realise that it is not a completely serious type of opera, it does include comedy. There is humour, self parody; the tone is not one of high seriousness. Some are actually comedies, e.g. Handel`s brilliant Agrippina, Venice 1709. And there is usually a happy end, the lieto fine, so opere serie are not fully fledged tragedies.

Most of all the term has come to describe a set of conventions, a way of doing things in opera, a set of formulas, though not strict rules. The convention can be outlined but it is a generality; examples will deviate from the abstract model, as is the case with any genre.

When it begins, when it ends

One of the earliest figures in developing the opera seria convention is Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). He was the main exponent of Neapolitan opera. The conventions were taking place in the 1690s, but in its heyday the opera seria is associated with the librettos of Apostolo Zeno and P. Metastasio – particularly Metastasio. So the greatest period of the opera seria was circa 1720-1790. There is no definitive higher or lower date, and the opera seria continued into the 19th century, especially in Italy and in aristocratic courts, e.g. in Germany, where it lumbered on into the 1820s – 15 or so years after Beethoven`s 5th Symphony. It was no longer the cutting edge of expression.

The opera seria is Italian, the language is Italian, with some exceptions, e.g. operas that use more than one language. Telemann`s Orpheus uses French, Italian and German.Arne`s Artaxerxes is a setting of an English translation of a libretto by Metastasio. The opera seria has its origins in Italian courts, though there is a commercial aspect even to court theatres. The audiences were aristocratic, and so the opera seria reflects the values of its aristocratic patrons. Hence hostility towards this type of opera by those rebels, the early romantics. Hence also the cultivation of the opera seria by absolute rulers, e.g. Frederick the Great. In Graun`s Cleopatra e Cesare Caesar equals Frederick; there is a strong propaganda element here, as there often is in baroque opera, with varying degrees of subtlety. Even the satirical operas like The Beggar`s Opera are making a political point.

The venues were often court theatres, or non-court theatres where the audiences were the upper echelons of society.

The venues

Before looking at the music, it is worth considering the venue. Of course theatres are different, but let`s look at one; the King`s theatre in the Haymarket, as it was after being altered in 1707-8.

This is where Handel`s Guilio Cesare was first performed in 1724.


size of the venue
space for socialising
the royal boxes
private entrance for the King
the size of the seating area compared to the size of the stage area
Note that there is potential for elaborate scenic effects; these were part of the opera seria, but not really an essential part. It all depended on the budget and the venue.

There was always a prominent place for whoever was top of the social hierarchy.

All this has implications for the singing and playing; greater intimacy than in 19th century houses, with not as much need for great vocal projection (on the other hand there was auditorium noise to contend with). This was the ideal theatre for bel canto as practised in the 18th century. The opera house was also a place for socialising, and socialising did not stop outside the performance area; the audience chatted and played cards etc during the performance. Audience behaviour generally was informal until towards the end of the 19th century.

The opera seria convention

The dominance of the singer. This is the first commandment of the opera seria- thou shalt worship the singer. This is the major conceptual problem we may have with the opera seria. We have not lived in an age that has seen anything comparable, thought there are parallels between the role of the singer in baroque opera and performers in other kinds of music, e.g. jazz, popular music. Who wrote My Way for Frank Sinatra?

There was;

no conductor
no director
no producer
often no composer

You might think that this is awful, or too good to be true.

no conductor
direction was often from the keyboard (by the composer)
even if there was a conductor, his role was rudimentary, not the overall interpreter than we are used to from the 19th and 20th centuries

no director/producer
there was often an impresario, someone who would be a manager and deal with the business side
the librettist could take charge of whatever direction was necessary. This was rudimentary; singers would not be bossed around and liked to wave to their admirers in the audience when other singers were singing, or wander off for a glass of water, or have a chat with their coaches. Though it may not always have been like this.

Even when they behaved they would take up a static position on stage, reflecting their place in the social/musical hierarchy; the more important you were the nearer the front of the stage you were. They could form a triangle on stage; reflecting on stage the hierarchical world that was also reflected in the auditorium. All this helped the opera seria to reflect, and to help to maintain, the status quo.

Acting was rudimentary; singers would adopt a stance that expressed the mood or emotion of the aria they were singing and would stick to it until the aria was over. As we shall see later on, this was linked to one of the most important ideas in baroque musical aesthetics, the idea of unity of Affekt, or, in plain English, unity of mood or emotion. Every piece had to have one dominant mood and emotion and only one.

The set designer might take a hand in proceedings, as might the patron, if he thought he was a bit of an artist. For example, Frederick the Great closely supervised the operas that he commissioned for the Hamburg opera house. He was the librettist for one, Montezuma. If he disliked Graun`s music he would replace it by music by Hasse, his favourite composer. You can forget romantic ideas about the comoser wrestling with his inner self and trying to express himself in his art.

no composer
Of course someone had to write the music, but often the operas were made up on a kind of mix and match principle. Singers would bring in their own arias, arias would be patched together from other operas, their might be more than one composer working on an opera. The composer was often only providing a harmonic framework for the singer to decorate; the status of the composer was not always high, and not always as high as that of the singer.

But most of the operas that interest us now are one composer works.

The singer

But what do we mean by `singer`? We might think of someone like Callas, a great performer, someone who sings a repertoire that is fixed, and who sings music written by someone else, the composer. These divisions did not always apply in the 18th century, because of attitudes to the training of musicians and the attitude towards the relationship between the performer and the written text.

For the opera seria the most important training institution was the Neapolitan Conservatoires (a number of different institutions in the 18th century that amalgamated in the 19th). It seems that everyone who was anyone was connected to the Neapolitan Conservatoires at some time. Their influence lasted well into the 19th century; e.g. Spontini was a student there. Students were trained to do everything; sing, compose, play the keyboard and other instruments. Often there would be little difference between a singing exercise and a composition exercise.

The vocal embellishment of a cantus firmus was a popular exercise.

Training was something like a sandwich course; it was linked to the opera industry, with students at the end of their course writing operas that would be performed at the conservatoire. So a talented student may not have seen themselves as a singer or a composer or a keyboard player; they would be capable of doing the whole lot. Of course they may choose to specialise- and being a singer was probably the best choice. So even someone who was primarily a singer , like the great Farinelli, would have a solid all round training and would be as capable of writing an opera as many composers.

One example of an important figure-

Nicola Porpora (1686-1768 ) was a singing teacher, singer and composer. He was a student at the Neapolitan conservatoire. Later he taught Farinelli and Caffarelli. 1733-36 he was in London directing the Opera of the Nobility.

In the 19th century musical training became more specialised, and a singer would not necessarily be able to compose a decent piece. We can wonder how many singer today could write an opera or a decent aria.

The castrato

The high voice was valued most in the 18th century; and the best high voice was the castrato.

The castrati were commanding figures on stage. They were not weedy and effeminate, even though they did have high voices.

The castrato would be trained at a conservatoire, then put into the theatre to sink or swim, to be a star- or not. The financial rewards were immense for all successful singers and not just castrati. In 1719 Handel engaged Durastanti (a female soprano) for £1600 for 18 months work. Senesino demanded £2000 a year and got it; then he sometimes didn`t even bother turning up on time. in order to get some idea of what these sums mean consider that a Royal pension at the same time was £200 per year. Economically and in terms of prestige the singers – not the composers – were at the top of the hierarchy.

There was a hierarchy among singers based on how much they were paid and this is reflected in the operas. The bigger the star the more arias they had and the more important their place in the opera. If the start singer had maybe 5 arias, the lesser singers would have 1 or 2. Also, the opera had to show off all the skills of a singer, lyricism, technical brilliance, sustained notes, and so on. Operas would be written for specific singers and rewritten if the singers changed.

So the aria was the centre of attention; forget continuous music drama: the focus had to be on the singer. This was accomplished by the use of the aria.

There are two types of music in the opera seria: recitative and aria.

a speech like setting of the words, carrying the action. usualy secco, or dry, but sometimes arioso

the aria was solo
it was usually in the da capo form
it was a reflection on the action; we see how that character feels, what they are planning

duets are rare
even rarer are trios and quartets

choruses are rare, often found at the beginning and end of the opera, when the principals combine to be a chorus

The aria always ends with an exit by the singer – a dramatic exit equals applause from the singer` fans and therefore a nice ego massaging moment for the singer- this convention is rarely broken.

So the aria is where it all happens, or doesn`t happen, depending on your point of view. Let`s have a look at an early da capo aria to see how this works.

Example, A. Scarlatti

aria Precipata filosofia from Eraclea (1700)

This is a comic aria from a serious opera.

The form

Is typical of the da capo aria, essentially ABA, with the second A not written out. The repetition is often decorated by the singer. In the mature opera seria this is expected.

The aria is within the typical processes used by baroque music, it gives the essence of the baroque approach to composition, where the basic elements are:

the basso continuo – a continuous bass line
the continuo – a keyboard or harmony instrument that fills in the harmony; there could be other instruments playing the bass line, so the continuo can be a group
figured bass- the short hand that indicates to the player what to fill in
treble and bass polarity- baroque music is like a sandwich ( in this case the top part is a bass baritone, usually it of course a high part) but the interesting parts are on the outside.

This is of course ideal for opera, because the focus is on the melody of the top line.

unity of Affekt

affekt is a German work meaning `emotion`. The theory of Affekt is that every piece such keep to one mood, express one emotion; the same piece cannot express contrasting emotions. This is a cornerstone of baroque musical aesthetics. The composer selects an idea that expresses a mood or emotion, and then develops than throughout the piece, some times varying it but not going into radically contrasting moods or emotions. The aria is the exemplar. There are exceptions, but even these confirm the basis of the theory, because sharp contrasts in mood come in arias where characters are behaving irrationally or are under extreme emotional stress. Mad characters violate unity of affekt, as do neurotics. Unity of affekt fitted in nicely with the method of acting in baroque opera; stand and deliver in the apropriate attitude -and don`t change it- before sweeping off to applause.

The doctrine of unity of affekt was not compatible with duets, trios etc. where characters express contrasting emotions at the same time. Characters who sing together must sing music of the same mood, usually accomplished by giving them the same music, e.g. having them echo each other, sing in octaves , in 6ths and in thirds. Very rarely is this rule ignore – there is a marvellous example in Handel’s Acis and Galatea where in a trio between the lovers and Polyphemus. The lovers love and Polyphemus rages.

So you can see how all these ideas are fitting together to form a harmonious whole; the texture of the music that emphasises the melody at the top of the texture, affekt theory, the dominance of the singer, the aria as reflection rather than action, the use of a form that allows the singer to embellish and improvise, the style of acting, the exit convention, the hierarchy of singers.

But what problems for the librettist! The amazing thing is that so often it does work.


We now look at how this works in an example, Handel`s Ariodante, 1735.

Consider the beginning of the opera.

Before we start, it is worth pointing out that the big star here was the castrato Giovanni Carestini, who sang the part of Ariodante. Now this is usually sung by a female.


the recitative aria separation
the unity of affekt arias
the duet that uses unity of affekt
the use of the exit aria
how the number of characters goes 3,2,1, then has to start to build up again from the 1.

Note the predominance of high voices, but this opera also has a prominent role for a bass.

Advantages of the opera seria convention

It gave the public what they wanted- to see the star singers do their stuff.

Operas could be written quickly; it was a day`s work for C.H. Graun to write an aria.

The composer always had clear aims; he didn`t have to search his soul for what format would suit this particular bit of text.

Operas could be concocted from pre-existing music and even pre-existing works.

As drama it has the advantage that the words can be heard, and it explores emotional states – albeit rather impersonal ones- in depth. We have a good idea of what characters are thinking and feeling.

The convention could be used to create dramas that interest us, as they interested their contemporaries, but we have to be prepared to relinquish ideas that opera should be continuous music drama.

There was a time not so long ago when the opera seria convention presented an insurmountable hurdle to audiences, but that no longer seems to be the case. There has even been a film about the great singer Farinelli. Part of the interest of the opera seria is that this world is so alien to ours; it is difficult to think back to what these performances must have been like.

There is one advantage to the opera seria genre. In opera one of the most important questions is- what is the music doing, why is it here? The baroque composer always had an answer to that question; he always knew exactly why the music was there and what it should be doing. This can`t be said of all opera. The opera seria is also a distinctive genre that is opera and nothing else; it is not akin to any spoken drama in form. As Don Basilio says in The Barber of Seville; those were the days when opera was opera- and men were sopranos.

Barry Mitchell

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nthabeleng Pitikoe permalink
    December 27, 2011 6:12 am

    I’m glad to have read this theory, I learned a lot and would like to know more about opera.

  2. Artur Warchavchik permalink
    April 26, 2016 3:43 am

    Fantastic read! Thank you

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