By Taryn Graham
I’m not the first to wonder – a Google search of “operas and happy endings” returns almost 1.6 million results. Most folks, when asked, can think of one or two that end well: Falstaff, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute often top their lists. But for every Prince that finds his Cendrillon (or Cenerentola), there are three or four characters who are not so lucky: a Senta, who chooses death and loyalty to her ghostly Dutchman, or self-destructive rogues like Don Giovanni. Even operas that end in marriage, like Turandot, often do so after tallying a body count comparable to modern crime procedurals. So, if opera is largely synonymous with tragedy, where do its joyful endings arise from?
From a historical perspective, opera emerged as a spectacle, performed in lavish settings to nobility. Its combination of speeches, costumes, instrumental music, and song was revolutionary, and revived mythological themes for an audience that remained part of the entertainment until it became custom to darken the theater as the show started. By reinterpreting mythology, opera embraces sweeping, oftentragic themes, and has done so since the form’s origins. Claudio Monteverdi adapted the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in L’Orfeo, considered one of the first true operas, but interestingly, the opera as performed gives Orpheus a happier ending: he is escorted to Olympus by Apollo after losing his wife, Eurydice, in a test of faith. It isn’t a storybook-perfect ending, but it’s a better fate than being torn limb from limb by the Bacchantes, wild acolytes of the god of wine, as Orpheus is in the myth and in Striggio’s original libretto. Opera writers and composers are artists – hence, perhaps, their revisiting of Orpheus’ ability to compel through song even after death – but they also have to answer to patrons, who sometimes require their guests or audience to leave joyously, instead of in tears.
A patron’s request was not the only impetus away from tragedy; Opera Buffa (Italian comedic opera) was developed out of stitching together the short musical interludes between the acts of a more serious play. Its lively approach is most famously illustrated in its early stages by the 1734 opera La Serva Padrona (The Maid made Mistress) by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Attendees enjoyed watching the more relatable characters from a variety of classes, as well as the stories less bound by spectacle and tradition than dramatic opera. While tricking another into marriage is a common theme, both master and maid finish their tale alive, and, naturally, Uberto realizes that he loved his maid Serpina all along. There is little subtlety in naming a scheming maid Serpina, but her plot is ultimately harmless, and her adventure is relatable to both men and women in the audience.
Seeing oneself and others through the tilted mirror of the stage was also happening in England, where composer John Gay turned a sardonic look at his culture into The Beggar’s Opera. The opera immediately caught on with audiences due to its humor, diverse characters, and thinly-veiled satire of the contemporary British government and the airs of famous Italian divas alike. 1750 was, in fact, a very good year for operas with happy endings: The Beggar’s Opera opened in New York City as one of the first musical comedies produced in the United States, and Padrona was first performed in France, leading to the development of the French opéra comique, and a spirited debate between supporters and steadfast dramatic opera fans. One thing they could not debate, however, was that this variety of opera attracted a crowd.
As comedic opera flourished, composers like Mozart used elements from dramatic opera to create operas like Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) with a mixture of serious and ridiculous characters, and a more complex plot. Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte weaved the tale of the Count’s wandering eyes, several courtly plots, and love regained, which ends after only a little bloodshed and with two newly married and one reconciled couple celebrating together. Figaro had a strong debut that led poet Ferenc Kazinczy to note “…the joy which this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it. Where could words be found that are worthy to describe such joy?” As one of the most regularly performed operas in the 20th and 21st century, perhaps Kazinczy is on to something with his praise of Figaro: happy endings in opera are both created and persist out of our desire to experience something joyful. Something, to be fair, that has its share of challenges, but is worth the pin-pricks, class struggles, and romantic rivals along the way.
Taryn Graham is a writer who lives in San Francisco and enjoys the Bay Area’s vibrant culture, often Tweeting her findings at @gastronavigator. When not helping out at Merola Opera Program or SF Playhouse’s performances, she volunteers behind the scenes at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market.
Resources & Further Reading
Bareket, Donna and Eisendrath, Anne. “The Beggar’s Opera”. The Eighteenth-Century England Website. Web. 28 January 2015.
“Comic Opera”. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Web. 28 January 2015.
Elson, Arthur. “The Rise of Light Opera.” In A History of Opera. Boston: L.C. Page & Co., 1901.
“L’Orfeo,” “Le nozze di Figaro,” “La Serva padrona”. Wikipedia.org. Web. 28 January 2015.
Sorabella, Jean. “The Opera.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. Web. 27 January 2015.