Once everybody else saw that the Italians had come up with a Good Thing, other countries wanted to get in on it. I already covered the Germans in an earlier lesson, so I won’t talk about them anymore. German composers weren’t the only non-Italians who wrote operas although they probably thought they were the only ones worth bothering about.
The French got into the act pretty early, even though their most famous opera composer in those years was an Italian expatriate named Giovanni Battista Lulli. Because he knew the French hated foreigners, he turned himself into Jean Baptiste Lully and pretended he didn’t know any Italian songs when anyone asked him to play at a party.
Another famous French opera composer was a misplaced German Jew named Jacques Offenbach. He wrote a lot of operettas and one opera, The Tales of Hoffman. In typical German fashion, the opera has spooky scenes and evil supernatural stuff, but it’s in French and Offenbach was thoroughly French by then, so the Germans can’t claim it as one of theirs even if they want to, which they probably don’t.
The Germans have a way of sneaking into things, even when people try to ignore them.
The most famous of French operas is Carmen, by Georges Bizet. Everybody thinks of this opera as Spanish, because Bizet did a good job of imitating Spanish music in it and it takes place in and around Seville, which is in Spain, in case you don’t know. For some reason, more than one French composer has written Spanish-style music. Italian composers dabbled in it once in a while, but they didn’t make a habit of it.
Carmen is popular because the story is easy to follow and it’s full of passion and sex and pathos and everything else that makes a ripping good story. Opera singers like it because it gives them plenty of chance to show off. For an opera singer, showing off in front of an audience is the main reason for existing. If you don’t believe this, just try upstaging one of them sometime. You’ll only get a chance to do that once. The resulting retaliation will hurt. A lot.
Carmen is a story about a one-sided love affair between a lively Spanish gypsy named Carmen and a Basque soldier named Don Jose. It’s one-sided because for her it’s a fling and for him it’s a your-my-woman-and-you’re-stuck-to-me-whether-you-want-to-be-or-not obsession. To add to the confusion, the soldier has a virginal girlfriend from back home named Micaëla, who he was supposed to marry before he ran off with someone more fun.
The problem is that Carmen, the gypsy, gets the hots for the toreador Escamillo, who is a lot more exciting than Don Jose. When Don Jose has to go home to see his dying mother, Carmen takes advantage of his absence to abscond and take up with Escamillo. Don Jose finds her and asks her to come back to him. She tells him to get lost and he stabs her to death. This is the end of the opera and the end of Carmen.
All this is sung to some pretty exciting music, full of well-known tunes, some of which have been recycled and used elsewhere. “I didn’t know that was from an opera!” is one reaction that people give when they hear Carmen’s Habanera sung in its original form. But yes, it is from an opera. And the original words to Escamillo’s Toreador Song are NOT “Toreador, don’t spit on the floor … .” It’s important to know that.
I haven’t forgotten about the Russians.
Russian composers got into the act of writing operas in the 19th Century and never really stopped, even though in the 20th Century the Communists were watching them to make sure they were not imitating degenerate composers from the West. Composers like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin had a lot of other problems, but at least they didn’t have to worry about that because Communism hadn’t been imposed on anyone yet.
Russians are a lot like Italians in that they like a lot of drama and emotion onstage. Tchaikovsky, for example, put a lot of both into his operas. Just catch the final scene of Eugene Onegin, if you don’t believe me. Although she has a hard time doing it, the heroine sends the leading man packing, to the great delight of the audience, because he’s a selfish, irresponsible bastard and she’s way too good for him.
All of that is done to some very lush music, which makes everything better.