Although the first German-language operas date from the early seventeenth century, German composers did not completely break from the dominance of Italian opera for another two hundred years. During the eighteenth century the "Singspiel" (sung play) was the most popular form of musical stage entertainment in Germany. It featured spoken dialogue and musical numbers that ranged from simple songs to fully operatic arias (elaborate solos) and vocal ensembles. The form reached its pinnacle in 1791 with Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), who was equally successful with his Italian-style operas, such as Don Giovanni (1787).
By the 1820s, German opera drew increasingly on the rich Germanic literary heritage. In the 1840s Richard Wagner (1813–1883) began to develop “music dramas” that combined every aspect of the operatic production into a single vision, his own. Wagner became the towering figure of German opera, and his four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), was the most complete expression of his artistic philosophy. By redefining the operatic genre and widening its musical vocabulary, Wagner paved the way for twentieth-century operas such as the masterpieces of Alban Berg (1885–1935).
Mozart's Don Giovanni
With the full title Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni (The Libertine Punished, or, Don Giovanni), this opera was written in 1787 for Prague's National Theater. Based on the legend of Don Juan, perhaps the world's most notorious lover, the opera's moralistic stance is evident from its title, "The Libertine Punished." The opera tells the story of the downfall of Don Giovanni (Don Juan): after he kills the father of one of his intended conquests, the ghost of the slain father appears and forces him to answer for his life of debauchery. Traditionally set in seventeenth-century Spain, as shown here in the scenic design for Don Giovanni's palace by American theatre designer Oliver Smith (1918–1994), the work is subtitled a "dramma giocoso" (literally, a jocular, or humorous, drama) for its unusual blending of comic and tragic elements.
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Oliver Smith. Rendering for act II, scene 1 (Outside Elvira's House), for Don Giovanni, San Francisco Opera, 1965. Watercolor on paper. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi. All rights reserved (003.00.00)
Oliver Smith. Rendering for act II, scene 5 (Don Giovanni's chambers) for Don Giovanni, San Francisco Opera, 1965. Watercolor on paper. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi. All rights reserved (004.00.00)
Images of Don Giovanni
This illustrated title page of the first edition of the opera's piano-vocal score, published the year of the opera's first production, depicts the reprobate Don Giovanni as much younger and less imposing than he is often imagined—and usually portrayed today. Don Giovanni was the most popular role sung by Ezio Pinza (1892–1957), one of the most brilliant international opera stars of the 1920s through 1940s, who sang more than fifty roles during his career.
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Il Dissoluto Punito, osia Il Don Giovanni. Dramma giocoso in due Atti (The Libertine Punished, or, Don Giovanni. Humorous Drama in Two Acts). Leipzig: Breitkopf and Härtel, 1787. Music Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)
Ezio Pinza as Don Giovanni, n.d. New York Times Studio. Music Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)
Souvenir Libretto from the First Production of Don Giovanni
Until well into the nineteenth century, opera librettos that reflected specific productions in particular locations were commonly printed. This libretto identifies the location of Don Giovanni's premiere production—in Prague, where Mozart's operas were extremely popular.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Il Dissoluto Punito, osia Il D. Giovanni, Da Rappresentarsi nel Teatro di Praga l'anno 1787 (The Libertine Punished, or, Don Giovanni, Presented at the Theater of Prague [the National Theater] in the Year 1787). Prague: Di Schoenfeld, ca. 1787. Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)
Mozart's The Magic Flute
Composed in the last year of Mozart's life, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) draws on elements of Freemasonry, with influences from the Enlightenment philosophy of the eighteenth century. Its libretto, by dramatist, director, singer and actor Emanuel Schikaneder (1751–1812), pits evil against good as Prince Tamino seeks the lovely Pamina (daughter of the evil Queen of the Night), who is held captive by the sorcerer Sarastro. Tamino takes with him a magic flute that will protect him on his journey and that has the power to turn sorrow into joy. The fantastical nature of Die Zauberflöte's story has attracted many noted artists to design productions, including Marc Chagall (1887–1985), who created sets and costumes for the Metropolitan Opera in 1967; bass Jerome Hines (1921–2003) is shown here in Chagall's costume for Sarastro.
Grosse Oper/Grand Opera
Although technically described as a "singspiel", a sung play, Die Zauberflöte makes extremely daunting vocal demands on its performers, from the Queen of the Night's stratospheric vocal displays to Sarastro's very low bass notes. The first edition libretto characterizes the work as a "Grosse Oper" (grand opera), entirely in keeping with the nature of the music of the opera's solo singing.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Die Zauberflöte. Grosse Oper in zwei Aufzügen, von Em. Schickaneder, Musik von Wolfgang Amad. Mozart (The Magic Flute. Grand Opera in Two Acts, by [librettist] Emanuel Schickaneder, Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Vienna: Wallishauser'sche Buchhandlung (Josef Klemm), ca. 1791. Music Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)
Set in tenth-century Antwerp, Lohengrin was inspired by medieval Germanic legends of knights in search of the Holy Grail. The title character is a Knight of the Swan, imbued with mystical powers, who travels in a boat drawn by swans to rescue maidens in distress. In the photograph, Lauritz Melchior (1890–1973), the preeminent Wagnerian tenor from the 1920s through the 1940s, is shown in a traditional costume for Wagner's Knight of the Swan. Completed in 1848, Lohengrin followed shortly after Wagner's Tannhäuser (1845); these operas represent the middle period of Wagner's output. Wagner's firmly held convictions about all aspects of his music dramas are reflected in his voluminous correspondence, including his letter to conductor Rudolf Schöneck (1829–1904) in which Wagner discusses Lohengrin and expresses his satisfaction with Schöneck's 1853 production of Tannhäuser.
First Edition Full Score of Lohengrin
This score demonstrates the size of Richard Wagner's expanding orchestration—much larger than that used by his predecessors. Particularly notable at this point in Wagner's development is the expansion of the woodwind and brass sections of the orchestra. The physical heft of the volume also suggests the musical and emotional power of Wagner's new "music dramas."
Participants in the First Production of Lohengrin
The first edition libretto of Lohengrin includes not only the names of the cast members but also that of musical director Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Liszt is much better remembered today as a pianist and composer; he was also an influential conductor at the court of Weimar in Germany and an avid supporter of Wagner's music. He became Wagner's father-in-law in 1870 when his daughter Cosima (1837–1930) became Wagner's second wife.
Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen
Named for a magic ring made of gold taken from the Rhine River, and with a libretto based on Germanic mythology, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) chronicles the epic struggles of gods and mortals. The protagonists include Brünnhilde (the leader of the Valkyries) and Siegfried, her lover. Wagner began work on his magnum opus in 1848 with a draft for what he intended to call Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death); he expanded his concept to include Siegfried's youth and an earlier portion of the story in which the ring first appears. In all, the four operas require more than fifteen hours to perform (a complete Ring Cycle is usually presented on four successive evenings). Wagner finished the work in 1874, twenty-six years after he began, and the first complete Ring was performed in 1876. The costumes for that production, designed by Carl Emil Döpler (1824–1905), featured winged helmets for the Valkyries, a concept echoed in many later productions.
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Richard Wagner. Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death), 1850. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)
Cyrena van Gordon (1893–1964) as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Chicago: Daguerre Studio. Charles Jahant Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)
The first opera by Alban Berg, Wozzeck was composed intermittently between 1914 and 1922. The libretto was based on a play by German dramatist Georg Büchner (1813–1837) and adapted by Berg himself. Wozzeck broke new ground dramatically as well as musically, incorporating varied styles of vocal writing ranging from rhythmic speech to operatic singing into a tightly structured musical masterpiece that quickly become one of the most important operas of the twentieth century. Wozzeck's three acts follow the descent into madness of the title character, a German soldier who subjects himself to medical experiments to financially support his unfaithful lover and their illegitimate child. A critical success at its premier at Berlin's Staatsoper in 1925, Wozzeck received its first American performance under the direction of Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) in 1931.
The Construction of Wozzeck
In composing an "atonal" score (the music is not in a particular key) and using leitmotifs (melodic and harmonic themes associated with specific characters and events), Berg followed both the operatic tradition established by Wagner and the musical school of Berg's teacher, Viennese master Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). Berg studied counterpoint, theory, harmony, and composition with Schoenberg between 1904 and 1911. Schoenberg became something of a father figure to Berg (his junior by only eleven years), and although their relationship was at times somewhat difficult, they two remained friends until Berg's death in 1935. They exchanged frequent letters; this page from a 1920 letter outlines the harmonic construction of Wozzeck—which Berg would not complete for another two years.