In 1600, the year the first opera was first performed, the people of Italy, France and Germany were ruled by emperors, kings and aristocrats. By the year 2000, all three countries were democratically elected republics. During the four centuries between, political, religious and social revolutions transformed Europe fundamentally. Monarchies and empires collapsed, fascist and communist regimes rose and fell, while a growing democratic outlook fostered concerns about human rights and alertness to the welfare of the individual. After wars more devastating than any in history, Europe and the wider western world became more accepting of different outlooks and viewpoints.
Night after night during those four intervening centuries, the most powerful and influential people in Europe regularly attended operas. Opera spread to the continent’s dominant ruling courts in the 17th and 18th centuries and flourished in its leisure capital, Venice. During the 19th and 20th centuries, opera was a popular pastime for Europe’s new leaders - the politicians, entrepreneurs, bankers and lawyers who had the future of the continent in their hands.
The opera house joined the gothic cathedral as an architectural centrepiece in the major cities of the western world. The design was as generic as the amphitheatres of ancient Greece and Rome. In these new buildings generations of leaders were introduced to evolving ideas about statecraft and nationhood, to alternative views on personal and public morality, and to changing perspectives on myth, ancient history, medieval history and modern history.
In postcolonial nations such as Argentina and the USA, opera houses helped to connect prosperous communities around the globe to their cultural roots in Europe.
In his 2019 book 'Dominion, The Making of the Western Mind' Tom Holland argues convincingly that the mindset of the modern West owes a great deal to Christianity. But the rapid changes in outlooks and values across the modern West over the past 400 years suggest that additional cultural catalysts have been at work.
While the sources of spiritual guidance in cathedrals remained stable, the outlooks and viewpoints given voice in opera houses changed dramatically. These outlooks and viewpoints weren’t preached as religious dogma or political ideology, they weren’t argued dogmatically by historians or journalists. They were communicated in stories told through music, the most emotionally engaging of the arts. Audiences came to the opera to be entertained and moved, and to socialise: their guard was down. Consequently, the operatic repertoire lives on as an astonishingly eloquent record of how the modern West changed its mind on key political, religious and social issues over four centuries. In the opera house, new ideas spread by osmosis through the worldviews of the West’s ruling classes, affecting the way businesses were run, legislation was drawn up and legal decisions were made.
Like all other art forms, opera reflected changes in society and played a part in shaping values and views. What makes opera unique is its international reach, its association with people in power, and the coherent way it developed as an art form over four centuries.
The operatic repertoire is a living record of the western world on a 400 year voyage of self-discovery.
The structure of OPERA: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE WESTERN WORLD
There are two timescales in this book. Firstly there is a single historical narrative, one book-long journey through history beginning with the earliest mythological stories and moving onwards towards the present. Each chapter begins with a table listing clusters of related historical events. The 36 chapters are arranged in broadly chronological order.
But there is also a second timescale. Each of the 36 chapters takes its own mini-journey through the 400 year history of opera, tracing how the same material was revisited, reworked and brought to contrasting musical life by major opera composers. By exploring how history was recreated in different musical idioms, the book tracks the changing preoccupations of people living between 1600 and the present.
Each chapter focusses on a single issue, and traces changes in the way that issue was treated over time. The western world of the early 21st century was created through a series of interconnected political, religious, social and scientific revolutions. Some of the issues explored are political (eg chapters 16, 19 and 25), some religious (eg 2, 8 and 24) and some social (eg 7, 22 and 30). Science is touched on briefly (eg 1, 28 and 36). Cumulatively, the unfolding themes tell a single story – the creation of the complex, pluralist West of today.