“Opera” is a Latin word, as well as an Italian one. It’s the plural form of opus, a neuter noun meaning “work”. We often think of operas as the work of one artist: Verdi’s story, Puccini’s characters, Wagner’s vision. Opera, however, reminds us by its very name that it is always a collective endeavour: the united works of many, honed into one overwhelming aesthetic experience. By this reasoning, the contributions of every person behind, below and upon the stage – from the lowliest stage hand to the loveliest diva, the most maddening avant-garde director to the most anciently dead composer – come together to form the opera. Indeed, they are the opera. Without this act of combination, bringing together all actions small and large, significant and paltry, ephemeral and profound, any opera would not exist. It would just be notes on a page; an aria in a rehearsal room; an entry in a book. The size, and reach, of the genre is at its very heart; and this is where its classical heritage is most apparent. By thinking about the birth of opera, and perhaps by examining a few “Greek myths”, we may illuminate something of the relationship between the cradle of culture and its most dazzling offspring.

Titian's Diana and Actaeon (between 1556 and 1559), also based on a mythological story
Titian's Diana and Actaeon (between 1556 and 1559), also based on a mythological story
Classical antiquity is the soil in which the roots of opera grew, watered and tended in a series of meetings by a group of intellectuals and humanists, the Camerata, in the house of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi in Florence between 1573 and 1582. Opera was born as the Renaissance’s version of Greek tragedy: not a specific attempt to recreate the Aristotelian ideal (a day in which destiny destroys a hero, preferably through that hero’s own character flaw, in order to evoke pity and fear and provoke catharsis), but rather, a way of reinventing music by drawing on ancient drama – particularly, the power and purity of experience for which ancient drama was revered.

The Camerata de’ Bardi wanted to create sung drama, as they thought Greek tragedies had been sung, and thus they invented recitative. They unwittingly laid the foundations for a genre of art which, like Greek tragedy, would be all-encompassing: using music, song, dance and movement, costume, scenery and story together to create a hugely powerful, comprehensive art form, hence, “opera”. What began as a musical innovation became the cornerstone of an entire new cultural edifice, which continued to call on classical antiquity for its plots, its characters, and its very form. The full flowering of opera was gradual, but classical influences remain constant and relevant – even today.

Myth 1: Greek tragedy is universal

Fresco of a scene of Roman theatre in Pompeii
Fresco of a scene of Roman theatre in Pompeii
It was easy for Renaissance (and, later, 19th-century British Romantic) scholars to generalise about what they thought Greek tragedy meant: it “brought society together”, something which captured the imagination of Wagner, because the plays were performed as part of a communal religious and social experience (the Great Dionysia) which allowed society to examine itself as a whole by focusing on the fate of a single individual – so went the theory. Classical scholars argue to this day about the real nature of the original audience of Greek tragedy: were women present at all? Were only Athenians allowed, and were Greeks from other city-states barred? What did the music (for there certainly was music, and dance, of some sort – we can see it in the rhythm patterns of the ancient poetry) sound like? What was the Greek “religious sense” (undoubtedly, very different from modern religious feelings)?

The truth is: little can be known, and even less safely assumed. All we can feel certain of is our gratitude for the handful of magnificent works which survived the ravages of time to speak to us today: and which have, in their turned, inspired glorious works of art in homage, in response, and even in retribution. The interesting thing is that the intellectuals of one tiny militarised city-state (16th-century CE Florence) reached across eternity to channel the intellectuals of another tiny militarised city-state (5th-century BCE Athens) in order to find an art that they hoped could speak for all humanity – yet each of them was only interested in playing for, and about, themselves. The “universality” is projected onto the work by us: always in a contemporary, subjective way.

Myth 2: Classical women don’t have the best of it

Sarah Connolly as Medea in English National Opera's 2013 production by David McVicar © Clive Barda
Sarah Connolly as Medea in English National Opera's 2013 production by David McVicar
© Clive Barda
It is a common misconception that female classical figures are victims: often, they are very much in charge. In Greek tragedy, women are often given the dramatic treatment precisely because they are powerful and influential: in life, and even beyond the grave (eg. Medea, Antigone, Phaedra, Clytaemnestra). The vast proportion of Classical mythology is the story of weak men being led astray by strong women – not the other way round.

Opera makes the most of this. The very first opera, Peri’s Dafne (1598), tells the story of a beautiful nymph, Daphne, who is pursued by Apollo – and gets away. Indeed, not only does she escape Apollo’s embrace, but by turning into a laurel, she becomes a symbol of her victory over him, and ironically a symbol also of what is best about Apollo – laurel wreaths rewarded victors at Apollo’s Pythian Games at Delphi. Peri’s next opera gave Euridice (1600) a happy, victorious ending. Handel shows Agrippina (1709), correctly, as a political force to be feared. Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) is a strong princess, collected and poised, who navigates her way over Fate’s hurdles with strength and honour. Strauss gives us a perfect rendition of the vengeful, furious, pious, bloodthirsty Elektra (1909) whom all three tragedians would have recognised. Even Ariadne and Dido, the poster-girls for abandoned females and the subjects of numerous operatic treatments, have the honour of true love as their motivation; one kills herself nobly, the other is rescued by a god moved to compassion by her sufferings. They are hardly passive victims.

Myth 3: Classical themes make it intellectual

The Minotaur, tondo of an Attic drinking cup
The Minotaur, tondo of an Attic drinking cup
We place a high price on classical knowledge today. It’s supposed to be terribly clever and literary. What we can forget is that most of these stories (both Homer’s epics and the entire mythological canon, for starters) are the product of a pre-literate society. Achilles’ doings and Odysseus’ adventures were recounted by sunlight and firelight for centuries, indeed, millennia, before small boys had to pore over them in dusty schoolrooms, or people won prizes for translating them at Oxford. Just because it can be complicated doesn’t mean it isn’t also very simple. The mystical poetry of Aeschylus is subtle and complex: the stories he tells are raw, inexorable, and real. Opera today looks to the ancient world for some its most aggressively, powerfully modern works: Mark-Antony Turnage’s Greek (1988), Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur (2008). These have nothing to do with shouldering the audience out: they have everything to do with making a contemporary audience confront their own behaviour and perceptions without the barriers (or comforts) of modern cultural norms.

The relationship between the world of opera and the classical world has been nourishing, stimulating and progressive for the last 440 years; hopefully we can look forward to more radical renewals of our shared classical heritage, through opera, over the next 440.