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- "Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings."
- –Robert Benchley
- "It [ballet] projects a fragile kind of strength and a certain inflexible precision"
- –Ayn Rand
Historical Context Edit
Once European civilization had an educated, wealthy elite with too much time on their collective hands and looking for something to set themselves apart from tasteless commoners, the world was ready for opera and ballet. Jacopo Peri, around 1597 AD, composed what is considered the first opera for a group of Florentine humanists (The Florentine Camerata). Meanwhile, during that century ballet evolved as an outgrowth of courtly dances in Renaissance Italy, and developed its iconic forms in France. During the Baroque era, both became ever more refined (i.e., divorced from the music and dance of those crude commoners) in Naples, Vienna, Paris and other cultural centers.
At the beginning of the Baroque era, opera seria was the dominant style, with stories derived from classical mythology and the lead parts sung by famous castrati. But whereas these operas focused on the poetry of the words, by the end of the era this had given way to the primacy of the vocal virtuosity, the bel canto approach. During the so-called “golden age of opera,” composers such as Verdi and Wagner developed distinctive, national traditions. During the years following the French Revolution, a new, industrialist middle class had the money to frequent the theater, driven to be “cultured.” A wave of Romanticism swept across Europe, and opera became more accessible to those jumped-up commoners; in a couple decades even the lower classes could enjoy opera, for the phonograph and then radio brought the caterwauling right into their hovels.
In the 16th Century, Catherine de Medici – wife of Henry II of France and patron of the arts (among other things) – sponsored displays of refined dance, the ballet de cour, for the edification of noblemen and women at her lavish court events. A century later Louis XIV, a passionate fan of dance, sought to popularize and standardize ballet; in 1661 he helped establish the Académie Royale de Danse in Paris. By 1681 performances of ballet had moved from the court to the stage, and early ballets of the Romantic era such as Giselle and La Sylphide proved popular far beyond France … especially in Tsarist Russia. Russian composers and choreographers produced soaring works such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, which even the layman could appreciate through wars and revolutions.