Part 1: "New answers to timeless questions"

How opera told stories from the ancient world

(from the Creation to the year 500)

Part 1 of “Opera: the Autobiography of the Western World” is in 12 chapters. Below are the 12 chapter headings, each has a subheading in italics. Also included below is the table that appears at the start of each chapter. This sets the period of myth/history covered, and lists the main operas mentioned.

tapestry showing the goddess Artemis rescuing Iphigenia

The Adventures of Ulysses (Apollonio di Giovanni c1435-45, The Art Institute of Chicago).

Chapter 1

How did it all start?

From Haydn’s creation in 1800 to Wagner’s evolution in 1853

The history The oratorio and opera
THW 4004 BC* The Creation Haydn The Creation (1800), Wagner Prelude to The Rhinegold (1853)

*A note on chronology: In order to reflect the worldviews of Monteverdi, Handel and Rossini, this book uses the chronology of the Timechart History of the World, first published in the 19th century. The Timechart takes an entirely biblical view of ancient history, with the world beginning in 4004 BC and classical mythology incorporated within a Christian view of time. These dates are identified by the acronym THW.

Chapter 2

How can humanity contact God?

From a community united by faith in 1739 to a personal crisis of faith in 1932

The history The operas
THW 1491 BC Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and into Sinai Handel Israel in Egypt (1739), Rossini Moses and Pharaoh (1827), Schoenberg Moses and Aron (1932)

Chapter 3

Should we acknowledge our irrational drives?

18th century opera celebrates Apollo, reason and harmony; 20th century opera unleashes Dionysus, wildness and discord

The history The operas
THW 2220 BC Orpheus, after failing to recover Euridice from the Underworld, is dismembered by a mob of Dionysian bacchantes Monteverdi Orpheus (1607, 1609), Birtwistle The Mask of Orpheus (1986)
THW 1459 BC, Thebes Pentheus, king of Thebes, is dismembered by a mob of Dionysian bacchantes Szymanowski King Roger (1926), Henze The Frenzied Women (1966)
THW 1257 BC, Athens Theseus becomes king of Athens, visits Crete and kills the Minotaur. He jilts the Cretan princess Ariadne and marries her sister Phaedra Rameau Hippolytus and Aricie (1733), Strauss Ariadne on Naxos (1916), Birtwistle The Minotaur (2008)
THW 1130 BC Orestes dies (after killing his mother, rescuing his sister Iphigenia and killing Pyrrhus) Gluck Iphigenia in Taurus (1779), Rossini Hermione (1819), Strauss Elektra (1909)

Chapter 4

Were our ancestors like us?

Verdi makes the past seem close and familiar; Philip Glass leaves it distant and strange

The history The operas
c1650 BC, Memphis The ancient Egyptian city of Memphis is attacked from the south by the Hyksos Verdi Aida (1871)
c1350 BC, Thebes Amenhotep IV (Akhnaten) becomes Pharaoh of Egypt Glass Akhnaten (1984)

Chapter 5

How important is one person?

20th century opera is less confident than 18th century opera that it’s right to sacrifice an individual for the benefit of the state

The history The operas
THW 1204 BC, Sparta, Greece After choosing Aphrodite rather than Hera or Athena at The Judgement of Paris, the Trojan prince Paris abducts Helen and takes her to Troy Gluck Paris and Helen (1770), Tippett King Priam (1962), Achilles on Skyros and The Pretended Madwoman (set by many composers in the 17th and 18th centuries)
THW 1194 BC Outbreak of the Trojan War Gluck Iphigenia in Aulis (1774)

Chapter 6

What is history?

Operas by Purcell, Berlioz and Strauss chart shifting perceptions of history

The history The operas
THW 1184 BC (The Fall of Troy) Aeneas sets sail westwards, destined for Carthage and Rome Purcell Dido and Aeneas (1689), Berlioz The Trojans (1858)
The Greek conqueror Menelaus and his wife Helen head back to Greece Strauss The Egyptian Helen (1928)

Chapter 7

What is a home?

Changing ideas about home and homecoming

The history The operas
THW 1174 BC After 20 years away, the Greek hero Ulysses (Odysseus) returns to Ithaca and his wife Penelope Monteverdi Ulysses Returns to his Homeland (1640), Fauré Pénélope (1913), Dallapiccola Ulysses (1968)

Chapter 8

Is there an overarching plan?

Handel can see a divine plan; Saint-Saens can’t

The history The operas
THW 1451 BC, Jericho Joshua leads the Hebrews to the Promised Land Handel Joshua (1748)
THW 1155 BC, Gaza Samson, blinded by the Philistines, pulls down their temple from within, killing himself in the process Handel Samson (1743), Saint-Saens Samson and Dalila (1877)
THW 1015 BC, Jerusalem Solomon becomes king of Israel Handel Solomon (1749)
THW 885 BC, Judah Athaliah becomes queen of Judah Handel Athalia (1733)
165 BC, Jerusalem The Jewish priest Judas Maccabeus restores Jewish worship in the Temple at Jerusalem Handel Judas Maccabaeus (1747)

Chapter 9

Is empire building wise?

18th century opera celebrates with the builders of empire; 19th and 20th century opera suffers with the victims of empire

The history The operas
587 BC, Jerusalem The Babylonian Empire destroys Jerusalem Verdi Nabucco (1842), Britten The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966)
539 BC, Babylon Cyrus the Great destroys the Babylonian Empire and founds the Persian Empire Handel Belshazzar (1745)
522 BC, Persepolis Darius the Great seizes control of the Persian Empire Vivaldi The Coronation of Darius (1717)
481 BC, Hellespont Led by Xerxes, the Persian Empire invades Greece Handel Xerxes (1738)
334 BC, Hellespont The Greek king Alexander the Great invades (and in 331 BC destroys) the Persian Empire Handel Alexander (1726), Poro (1731), Mozart The Shepherd King (1775)

Chapter 10

Are we learning from history?

Confidence that humanity was benefitting from the lessons of the past faltered after 1945

The history The operas
509 BC, Rome The rape of Lucretia by a royal prince triggers the foundation of the Roman Republic Britten The Rape of Lucretia (1946)
209 BC, Spain Scipio Africanus captures New Carthage for the Roman Republic Handel Scipio (1726)
52 BC, France Julius Caesar conquers Gaul for the Roman Republic Bellini Norma (1831)
46 BC, North Africa Julius Caesar’s imperious behaviour heralds the end of the Roman Republic Vinci Cato in Utica (1728)

Chapter 11

Were pagans wicked?

Europeans become less inclined to assume that people of a different religion are bad people

The history The operas
49, Rome The emperor Claudius marries Agrippina Handel Agrippina (1709)
62, Rome The emperor Nero marries Poppea Monteverdi The Coronation of Poppea (1643)
79, Capua The emperor Titus sponsors disaster relief after the eruption of Vesuvius Mozart The Clemency of Titus (1791)
117, Antioch The emperor Trajan appoints the future emperor Hadrian as governor of Syria Caldara Hadrian in Syria (1732)

Chapter 12

Is love human or divine?

Music dramas about saints chart a growing focus on human love

The history The operas
259, Armenia Saint Polyeuctus is martyred Donizetti Poliuto (1838)
304, Egypt Saints Theodora and Didymus are martyred Handel Theodora (1750)
412, Rome Saint Alexius of Rome dies Landi Saint Alexius (1631)
440, Egypt Saint Thaïs is born, according to the Life of Thaïs Massenet Thaïs (1894)
Greek vase showing an episode from the end of the Trojan War

Menelaus, reunited with his wife Helen, leads her back home to Sparta (Attic black figure amphora, the Amasis painter, c 550 BC; Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Germany).