The Birth of Opera

The Birth of Opera

There were reasons why 17th-century Venice was the birthplace of modern opera.

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the source: “Why Venice? Venetian Society and the Success of Early Opera” by Edward Muir, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Winter 2006.

The mystery of why opera as we know it emerged in 17th-century Venice might make a best-selling Dan Brown novel. The answer, says Edward Muir, a Northwestern University humanities professor, owes everything to the city’s unique position as a locus of resistance to papal power, a hotbed of libertinism (given full flower in its carnival tradition), and a home to a supportive Italian nobility that sustained, among other things, a notorious secret society.

Opera was not invented in Venice. That distinction belongs to the 16th-century Medici courts of Florence, but operas produced there were one-time entertainments for special royal occasions. Venice opened its first per­ma­nent opera theater in 1637, and by 1678, says Muir, “all the elements of a flourishing enterprise were in place: com­petition among opera houses, the cult of the diva, . . . season-ticket holders, sold-out performances, . . . and tourists who came to Venice just to hear operas.”

That opera might catch on would scarcely have been thought possible as the 17th century dawned, with Venice chafing under the dictates of the resident Jesuit order, empowered by Rome to enforce stern moral codes regarding public entertainment. The most common shows were satirical productions by commedia dell’arte troupes, allowed only during the less-constrained carnival season leading up to Lent. But renegade Venetian writers were beginning to openly challenge church authority, which provoked a papal interdict in 1606 withholding the most fundamental sacraments from Venetians for almost a year. The city fathers responded by expelling the Jesuits from the city, making Venice, for the next two generations, “the one place in Italy open to criticisms of Counter Reformation papal politics.”

Many of these critics found their voice within a secretive society known as the Incogniti, whose ranks included, says Muir, “nearly every important Venetian intellectual of the mid-17th century and many prominent foreigners.” A number of the Incogniti were also notorious libertines of the patrician class, and the operas they staged often strained the bounds of decency as well as political rhetoric. Yet so long as they “refrained from criticizing the Venetian government they were reasonably safe from governmental prosecution, even if many of them ran afoul of the Holy Office.”

What was happening on stage was not the only scandalous aspect of Venetian opera. A prominent and novel feature of the new opera theaters, such as the Teatro S. Cas­siano, built in 1637, was theater boxes, which Venetians quickly learned to use, writes one historian, “as if they were modern motel rooms.” With opera season coinciding with carnival and many in the audience masked, the scene was set for audiences to take “full advan­tage of the collective anonymity.”

But as time passed, says Muir, commercial opera gradually became “just a subset of a whole new literary econ­omy during the 17th century,” which helped connect the city “to the broader intellectual and political developments of Europe.” Venice’s loss of the spice trade to other European shipping rivals actually boosted investment in commercial entertainment, and Venetian opera began importing talent from other cities, becoming, Muir writes, “less of a self-contained genre and more of a stop on the burgeoning opera circuit.” Opera offered audiences a welcome escape from their daily lives, which were wracked by economic concerns and worries about war and disease. Once it caught on in the other great cities of Europe, opera was there to stay.

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