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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Dancing at the Opera

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

It's perhaps a telling aspect of musical etymology that the words opera and ballet have very different origins. Opera is an Italian word, and the Oxford Dictionary of Music tells us that while opera is Italian for "work" (as in "composition"), it's also the plural of the Latin opus, also meaning "work". Opera as a musical work - a drama set to music - was an Italian invention, so it's perhaps fitting that we use the Italian word for the form today.

Ballet on the other hand is French. The word has its origins in Italian and, before that, Greek, but the French term has been borrowed directly into English.

These different national origins of the words reflect the different national preoccupations with each form. Ballet wasn't invented in France - who can claim to have invented dancing? - but there is no doubt that the love of formal ballet, and the subsequent development of ballet technique and all the terms associated with it, made ballet a particularly French artform.

The incorporation of ballet within opera is often regarded as French, too, but from its earliest incarnations in Italy at the start of the 17th century, opera included dance episodes among the vocal music. Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607 (premiered in Mantua) is a perfect example. The madrigal-type choruses of the first act were intended to be danced to, and at the very end of the fifth act, the celebrations are crowned with with a lively dance called a Moresca. [listen]

A scene from a production of Monteverdi's Orfeo at the Liceu, Barcelona

It didn't take long for the French to develop their own style of opera later in the 17th century, and this usually included a great deal of ballet. While Jean-Baptiste Lully is often credited with introducing ballets into operas, there were examples before him, of which the Monteverdi we just heard is just one.

Lully's sixteen operas were written between 1672 and 1687. He also wrote a number of quite separate ballet scores and was by all reports an accomplished dancer himself. The operas are nearly all on a very large scale - a prologue and five acts is the usual layout - and dance was as important to the flow of the work as was singing.

Jean Baptiste Lully

In particular, French grand opera in the hands of Lully (and his librettist, Philippe Quinault) incorporated dance into every part of the work, and in particular in the grand chorus scenes. In these, part of the group sang, the other danced, so ballet was not just limited to the instrumental dance movements and entrées which pepper the score; the choruses were ballet movements as well.

Modern productions, of course, reflect this to varying degrees, but there are some beautiful dance sequences in this production of Lully’s Atys (1675) which has been uploaded complete to YouTube. Two examples (out of many) may be seen starting at 44’30 and at 1h40’00. [listen]

Opera spread rapidly throughout Europe in the 17th century, and was by no means limited to Italy and France. By the start of the 18th century there were efforts to establish Italian opera in London, and while formal Italian opera seria didn't normally include ballet, there were some notable exceptions.

During his London operatic career (between 1710 and 1741) George Frideric Handel wrote in a formal Italian operatic style in which there was almost never any real scope for ballet. However in the 1730s, when he moved his operations into the Covent Garden theatre (an older building on the same site as the present Royal Opera House), Handel had access to a chorus and a ballet troupe. He made use of both in the operas he wrote for that theatre, the most famous of which are Ariodante and Alcina.

Denner: George Frideric Handel (c 1727)

Both these operas contain the same sequence of ballet music, a dream ballet at the end of the second act which is designed to fit in with the plot and not stand apart as a divertissement. This sequence of dances - all titled in French - was originally written for Ariodante, which was premiered in January 1735. The ballet takes place, as it were, in the mind of Ginevra, who has gone mad at being unjustly accused of immorality. The battle of the good dreams and the bad dreams was so successful that it was incorporated complete into Alcina, premiered a few months later, to describe Alcina's anguish at being abandoned by Ruggiero.

In its original form in Ariodante, though, the drama is carried though to the end with Ginevra waking in horror and ending the act - uniquely in Handel's output - with an accompanied recitative. The sequence start at 1h58’40 in this complete recording of the opera. [listen]

And it can be seen here in a modern production, starting at 47’15. [listen]

Handel's great French contemporary, Jean-Philippe Rameau, didn't start composing for the theatre until the age of 50. Over the next 30 years he produced a dazzling stream of theatre works, many of which were in the grand five-act form established by Lully. Others were shorter, three-act works, and others were shorter still, in a one-act form known as an acte de ballet. All these works, though, involved singing, even the acte de ballet, which had about equal amounts of sung passages and danced sections. As in the Lully works, the chorus often danced, but there were also longer ballet sections with no singing, all designed to add to the glorious spectacle that was French grand opera. And ballet. Or both.

Aved: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1728)

Rameau's Dardanus, a five act lyric tragedy, was premiered in 1739, not long after the Handel music we just heard was premiered across the channel in London. The score is dotted throughout with dance movements in between the arias and other vocal items. The whole effect would have been dazzlingly varied, and coupled with Rameau's amazingly vibrant gift for melody and harmony the whole is simply breathtaking.

This sequence - starting at 1h26’10 in this video of the complete work and running for about ten minutes - comes from the third act of Dardanus. [listen]

The association of ballet in opera with France - and particularly Paris - became stronger and stronger through the 18th century. Yet outside of France, ballet, and ballet within operas, was immensely popular in a number of centres. In 1780, when he was commissioned to compose an opera for the Bavarian court in Munich, the 24-year old Mozart produced his first mature operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo. The commission also required that he compose a small ballet suite for the occasion, although today when the opera is performed the ballet is usually omitted.

Krafft: Posthumous portrait Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1819)

The suite was designed to show off the court's ballet company, and while the music can be in some way connected with the plot of the opera, it is by no means essential to it. But Mozart showed in writing this that he was well aware of the French nature of ballet forms and steps, and the Idomeneo ballet music, still heard in concerts today, was clearly designed to make an impression. [listen]

As far as 19th century opera is concerned, from our perspective we tend to think of ballets in operas as being a particularly Parisian phenomenon, and it was. But this didn't stop composers elsewhere incorporating ballets with varying degrees of relevance into their operas. Weber, for example, added ballet music to his opera Euryanthe when it was performed in Berlin in 1825, two years after its premiere in Vienna.

But the dictates of the Paris Opera became legendary. From the 1820s, any opera performed at this leading French theatre had to contain a ballet; there were no exceptions. Whether these were relevant to the plot or not was immaterial. There had to be ballet and that was that.

In 1829 Rossini's last opera, William Tell, was premiered in Paris. It is a truly massive work in the French grand opera tradition, in four acts with about four hours of music, and it contains several ballet sequences. The Pas de Six in the first act is perhaps the best-known, given its later adaptation by Benjamin Britten (in Soirées musicales, 1941). [listen]

Gioachino Rossini

The resident master of French opera in the 1830s and 40s was Giacomo Meyerbeer, a contemporary of Rossini. Meyerbeer's career spanned Europe and was by no means limited to Paris, but he perhaps is best remembered for his operas in the grand French tradition, which include major ballet scenes. The first of these to bring him major success was Robert the Devil.

It must be said that in some of Meyerbeer's later operas the ballet is completely unconnected with the opera itself. Perhaps most notorious in this respect is his massive Les Huguenots, which has a number of ballet scenes. One of these occurs at the start of the fifth act, right before the slaughter of the Protestants in the St Bartholomew's Day massacre. To say this is irrelevant to the plot would be an understatement and in staged performances of the opera today this ballet is usually omitted.

One of the greatest monuments of French opera is the mighty epic The Trojans, composed by Hector Berlioz in the 1850s. For more than a century this magnificent masterpiece was considered unperformable; nowadays it's rightly seen as one of the great masterworks of opera of any age.

Hector Berlioz

For all its size and innovation, The Trojans follows certain conventions of 19th century French opera, and that includes ballet music. Berlioz's dramatic skills ensure that the ballets are integral to the action and not irrelevant diversions. There is music for dance included in acts 1, 3 and 4; this is the act 4 ballet. [listen]

Of course composers who wrote operas for performance in Paris knew that they had to include ballet music, but what about operas written for performance elsewhere (without a ballet) which were later performed in Paris? Regardless of the origins of operas performed in Paris, 19th century Parisian opera audiences expected ballet. If they didn't have ballet music when they were first performed then ballet music must be added for performances in Paris. Rules were rules!

By the middle of the century the rules had become so entrenched that the Paris Opera decreed that ballets had to be in the second act, and if possible followed by a subsequent dance episode in the third act. The reason for this was in part due to the influence (some might call it thuggery) of the Paris Jockey Club. The members of the Jockey Club weren't interested in opera; they weren't even interested in ballet, to be honest. They wanted to arrive late - for the second act - and have a good perve at the dancing girls. If they didn't get what they wanted they made a noise. A lot of noise.

The influence of the Jockey Club reached its lowest ebb in 1861 when Richard Wagner attempted to perform Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera. Tannhäuser had been premiered in Dresden in 1845, but Wagner knew that if he wanted respectability and influence in the operatic world he had to triumph in Paris. For this reason he agreed to add ballet music to Tannhäuser, which previously had none.

Richard Wagner

Wagner was, among many other things, a deeply committed dramatist. Not for him the addition of some irrelevant divertissement. The ballet had to have good reason for being there, and for Wagner the only possible place it could go was right at the beginning, after the overture. Now called the Venusberg Music, the ballet is a sensuous bacchanale, representing the realm of Venus.

Tannhäuser had 164 rehearsals (that's not a typo!) before its opening night in Paris, but all this preparation could not protect it from the Jockey Club, whose members protested about having to be at the opera from the beginning in order to see the ballet. It was doomed from the outset. The Jockey Club interrupted the performance with cat-calls and whistles. The third performance was repeatedly halted for up to a quarter of an hour at a time. After the third performance Wagner withdrew the score and never again entertained hopes of making his mark in Paris.

The Venusberg Music is thrilling and often heard today in concerts, usually in tandem with the overture, out of which it grows without a break. In this recording (with score) the ballet sequence added for Paris starts just after the 10’30 mark. The extra percussion give it away. [listen]

Wagner's exact contemporary, Giuseppe Verdi, had much better success importing his operas to Paris. Two of his operas - The Sicilian Vespers and Don Carlos - were originally composed for Paris and they included ballet music from the start, as one might expect. But four other operas which had been premiered in Italy were given additional ballet music when they were adapted for performance in Paris. These were I Lombardi (which in its French version was called Jérusalem), Il trovatore, Macbeth and Otello. The substantial ballet music for Jérusalem (about 25 minutes of music) was the first ballet music Verdi ever composed and it has no connection with the plot at all.

Boldini: Giuseppe Verdi (1886)

The ballet music he wrote for his other Parisian operas all has some connection with the plot. The ballet in Trovatore is for the gypsies, and this music, the ballet added to his early operatic treatment of Macbeth, is for the spirits and devils who join the witches at the start of Act 3. It’s a shame it’s usually cut when the opera is performed today. [listen]

One of Verdi's late operas which had ballet music right from the start - because it suited the plot so well - was Aïda. Aïda wasn't premiered in Paris - that event took place in Cairo - but its ready-made ballet music meant that Verdi didn't have to add any when it eventually was performed in the French capital.

One could literally fill dozens of surveys like this with ballet music composed for operas performed in Paris; most of it is fairly pedestrian and not of the quality of the music we've discussed in this article so far. But some ballet music of this type is of a very high quality, such as the Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah [listen], and of course, opera didn't have to be performed in Paris for composers to include ballet music if it suited the plot.

In Oscar Wilde's French play Salome there is at one point a simple stage direction stating that Salome dances the danse des sept voiles for Herod, with no suggestion of music. When Richard Strauss wrote his incredibly powerful operatic treatment of the play at the start of the 20th century, the Dance of the Seven Veils became instantly notorious. Here ballet in opera becomes the crux of the drama. Decadent? This music, first performed in 1905, redefined the word. [listen]

The long tradition of incorporating dance into opera continued into the 20th century but with the decline of French grand opera - and the rule of the Jockey Club - even in French opera it ceased to be essential at any cost. Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, premiered in 1902, has no ballet for example.

And in operas written elsewhere, dance was included if it was deemed appropriate to the story. First performed at Covent Garden in 1955, Sir Michael Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage contains a sequence of "ritual dances" which have, like a lot of operatic ballet music, had a better life in the concert hall than on the operatic stage. [listen]

One of the most famous balletic inclusions in an opera of recent years comes in the second act of John Adams's Nixon in China, first performed in 1987. Chiang Ch'ing - the wife of Mao - and her dance company present a ballet for the touring Americans called The Red Detachment of Women. It is integrated into the action and contains singing, both from those in Madam Mao's dance company and those observing the performance. [listen]

John Adams
A ballet scene from Nixon in China

These days we tend to think of opera and ballet as completely separate entities but as I hope this survey has shown, the two have happily coexisted for centuries. Ballets without singing and operas without dancing are of course the norm, but for a sizable chunk of western music history they have also often been intertwined, and plenty of great music has been created as a result.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2012.

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