Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Handel was much more known for operas than oratorios when he was alive.

For a long time after he died, he was most known for one of his oratorios, "Messiah," and his operas were considered unperformable.

Now his operas are frequently performed, and "Messiah" continues to be a very popular Christmas season piece in the US and Lent and Easter piece elsewhere. By content, it is more Lent and Easter than Christmas. The "Hallelujah Chorus"--"and he shall reign for ever and ever" is about a period in Christ's life considerably post-birth.

Handel got into oratorios, which made his music performed a lot during the centuries when his operas were performed almost never, when the government in England banned opera performances during Lent--too frivolous, too not religious.

Handel started writing oratorios on religious subjects to be performed in theatres where opera was performed during Lent, so all the theatre workers from opera had work--singers, ticket takers, the lot.

Why did people think for a long time that Handel's operas, very popular couldn't be performed now?

Basically, because they were in the mood to think that, and for quite a while. The mood of impossibility was catching over a considerable period of time.

Impossible now because they had parts written for castrati--men castrated so they could sing high as adutls.

Impossible because they are mostly arias, which is to say solos, without ensembles singing, trios and duets which people are now used to.

Impossible because they demanded stages not like stages we have now.

Impossible because the plots were even more convoluted and unlikely than other plots opera goers of post-Handel times were used to.

Well, Xerxes, by Handel is part of the San Francisco Opera's 2011 season, and that is not unusual. The performance of Handel's operas has been going on for a bit.

You tell people the opera is aria heavy, and they accept that, especially is you get particularly awesome singers to be in the opera and sing all those operas.

You cast a counter tenor, a man who sings high, in the castrati part, that's one way.l

In the current SF production of Xerxes they take advantage of being in San Francisod, where people don't have cement walls around genders.

As writen by Handel, Xerxes, the part, is to be sung by a castrati, and the part of Xerxes brother is to be sung by a woman of fairly low voice--what's called a trousers part--a male part written for a woman.

However, in this production, Xerxes, written for a castrati, is sung by a fairly low voiced and famous and popular woman, Susan Graham and the brother, written for a woman is sung by a famous and popular counter tenor, David Daniels, a man.

The big stage question, stages used to be bigger or something, which was one reason given for the unperformabiliyt of Handel, doesn't seen to relate to this opera.

In a candid piece about building an opera season in an artistically and financially good way, a piece printed in the program for every opera of the season, the manager of the San Francisco Opera says a good thing about Xerxes is it has a small cast. He doesn't quite say that that helps him afford to get great singers in the fairly few roles, but it's implied.

A splendid time is had by all, including the audience. The main characters are brought out at the beginning and playfully introduced, helping people move lightly into the plot of a opera with a light tone.

There are different kinds of impossible. Handel's operas have moved from very popular in his lifetime to impossible to perform to a place where people who make opera think about how to make them work as well as possible.