Stephen Powell’s singing of “Cortigiani” defined what opera is.
Photo from Stephen Powell's website
I came up with a new theory during the San Diego Opera production of Verdi’s masterpiece, Rigoletto, on Tuesday, February 5. The theory? “Pure Opera.”
A few weeks ago I became involved in a shockingly civil online discussion on the topic of “what is opera.” I prefaced my comments by confessing that I am, in fact, a curmudgeon when it comes to this topic.
We cannot simply check off items on a list and then proclaim a composition an opera, in my opinion. Opera is more than a type of singing. It is more than no microphones. Even though those are elements are required for the designation of opera. There are compositions which have operatic singing which I wouldn’t classify as opera.
I consider the term “chamber opera” to be an oxymoron. There is a scale factor in terms of production and in terms of archetypical characters which are required for opera. For instance, the character of Rigoletto isn’t a suburban dad.
While we could extrapolate his position as the court fool to any number of sycophantic occupations which fill the days of suburban dads in our current culture, the archetype of the fool, forced to play a false role, is a character we can find across the operatic landscape. We can look at characters as diverse as Leporello in Don Giovanni and Canio in Pagliacci and find the same archetype in different situations from that of Rigoletto’s.
All that to say that archetypical characters are necessary for opera. Specific individuals tend to be less effective. I will say that archetypical characters are opera’s greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Their eternal nature across time and culture allows for immense inclusivity. Their weakness comes when they interact with other archetypical characters in ways which we would consider “unrealistic”. In order for a composition to be an opera, it must have an unrealistic plot based on archetypes.
All that to say the even in an undisputed operatic work such as Rigoletto there are moments which become what I’m calling “pure opera”. One such moment came when baritone Stephen Powell sang Rigoletto’s famous, pleading aria, “Cortigiani” on Tuesday night. Powell’s singing of that aria defined what opera is.
As definitive as that instance was, it’s nigh impossible to list the characteristics which make it so purely operatic. Powell is a seasoned veteran of the operatic stage. In my experience, it is most often the veterans of opera who create these “pure opera” moments. Yet can I say in order for something to be considered opera it needs to be performed by seasoned performers? I can’t say that but I still think it is kind of true a lot of the time.
Were there other instances of my precarious “pure opera” theory in Rigoletto? Yes, there were but “Cortigiani” defined it, for me.