Opera: Music for the Masses
When the curtain goes up on season’s opening at the Metropolitan Opera, the audience presents a picture of aristocratic splendor and ostentation. No matter that eleven million people listen to the Saturday matinee broadcasts; no matter that it was the one-dollar contributions of plain Americans that saved the Metropolitan from ruin a few years ago—in the minds of most Americans, opera still means wealth: the Golden Horseshoe, the Vanderbilts, and the Van Rensselaers.
Many for whom the Metropolitan is the embodiment of aristocratic “culture” might be surprised to learn that opera was originally created and developed as a musical spectacle for the masses. At the end of the 16th century, when an association of rich Florentine merchants sponsored the first operatic venture, it did so with the express purpose of creating a new art form that would speak to the middle classes by other means than the “pure” language of music. The medieval aristocrats, raised in a leisurely tradition of art appreciation, had required no dramatic plot to make music palatable to them. But the new bourgeoisie, now coming to power, needed a short cut to understanding.
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