All praise to the aria!
Accessible arias: The latest in our series of posts on the importance of the aria. This week, opera writer Michael White talks about the appeal of the aria. For commentaries of many more famous arias, read Michael White’s full text on on our main site (it’s very good).
In opera, an aria is a solo song, a moment when the main action stops and you meet an operatic character face-on.
Richard Wagner thought that opera was an all-embracing art form: a gesamtkunstwerk of music, theatre, dance and visual design. He had a point.
Through most of opera’s history, though, its audiences (and singers) have been largely interested in one thing. Tunes. And tunes historically come packaged as arias: those moments when the score takes time out from the task of story-telling and allows an individual singer to be just that. Spotlit.
In an aria you meet an operatic character face-on; and though he or she may be sharing the stage with a hundred people, engaged in conversation or addressing what appears to be a public meeting, the true target of their song is you the listener. Tosca begs to know in Vissi d’arte why life turns into catastrophe. Don Giovanni asks you to the party in Finch’han dal vino. Carmen’s Habanera propositions you. And whole cast-lists of others share their secrets, fear the worst, hope for the future, or prepare for death with dignity.
These moments of encounter function telescopically: you close in on the character, and the determinants of distance – footlights, pit, conductor – vanish. Arias, however brash, busy or loud, are always invitations to a kind of intimacy; and the only difference is the way the invitation has been made across the centuries.
Opera’s founding fathers took their reference from the ancients; and the word ‘aria’ comes from the Latin for ‘air’ – not in the sense of oxygen but of atmosphere or manner. As someone might have the air of a gentleman, so early operatic song was said to come with a Venetian or perhaps Florentine air. And linguistic looseness turned ‘air’ into another word for ‘tune’.
Initially, the tune was vaguely formulated in a long declamatory flow. But then it blossomed into self-contained song, with repeating formal structures to capture that sense of stopped time when the singer shares a thought. Delivering the story was, by contrast, done through recitative: the not so tuneful music that moved faster, sounded more like speech, and drove the action. Opera turned into a string of pearls: set pieces threaded by connecting narrative.
The 17th-century poet John Dryden summed things up with period charm. ‘The recitative part of the opera’, he wrote, ‘requires a more masculine beauty of expression and sound; the other, which, for want of a proper English word I must call the songish part, must abound in the softness and variety of numbers, its principal intention being to please the hearing rather than to gratify the understanding’.
Pleasure signified indulgence; and by the early 18th century, the aria was a fabulous indulgence, designed to showcase a singer’s art with little more than token relevance to the surrounding drama. Its structure was elaborately codified into da capo form: a first section in the home key, followed by a second in the dominant or relative major, then a return to the top (da capo) for a repeat of section one with added ornament. Orchestral ritornelli intervened. And the whole thing was such a statement that the singer expected to leave the stage immediately afterwards for a rest – an ‘exit’ convention that fuelled the contrivance and complexity of 18th-century opera seria.
By Mozart’s time the rules were more relaxed, with arias embedded into their surroundings. And by the early 19th century the three-part structure had eased into a loose two-part one: typically a slow, expressive cantabile followed by a fast, embellished cabaletta.
But in the mature works of Verdi and, above all, Wagner, self-contained arias meet their nemesis. Solo numbers open out into ensembles, choruses, orchestral interjections, without clear division. Wagner’s ideal of ‘endless melody’ and flowing line, through-composed without stops and starts, eventually becomes the norm. And although, from Puccini to Britten to John Adams, you still find stand-alone solos that could be called arias, the strict principle of ‘number’ opera tends only to survive in scores that consciously revisit the past. Like Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress.
Composers these days generally go with the flow, which is perhaps a loss. Closed, set-piece arias if nothing else provide an architecture that can help the listener navigate the score. Without them it can feel like a formidably uncharted journey.