Academic journal article Journal of Singing

All the World's a Stage

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

All the World's a Stage

Article excerpt

THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS ARTICLE came from my inimitable predecessor and creator of "The Song File," Carol Kimball. My recent purchase of her 2013 book, Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music, led to many pleasant hours perusing some fabulous and oft forgotten poetic/recital programming ideas.1 One in particular appealed to me greatly, and the more I read and researched, the more fascinated I became with why the early 16th century commedia dell'arte had such farflung influence on Western culture, especially on 19th century French Symbolist poets. Professor Kimball included a wonderful table of some eight or so songs composed on the characters of the commedia in both the book and her article in the January/February 2010 issue of Journal of Singing, which may be easily downloaded through the NATS website.2 My aim here is to further expound on the ideas promulgated by this masked theatrical art form and briefly trace its influence on vocal music in France and beyond in order to inspire us to involve both ourselves and our students more intimately in the imagery of these beautiful and descriptive songs.

HISTORY OF THE COMMEDIA

The commedia was originally called commedia all' improvvisa, or "comedy of improvisation," to distinguish it from commedia erudita, or "learned comedy," which was written by literati and performed by amateurs. In 16th century Italy, arte meant something closer to "that which is made by artisans," and the term dell'arte was later added to denote that these were professional actors. The theatrical form employed stock themes, stock characters, and stock pranks or jokes (lazzi), and while there were some authored plays, many of the scenes were loosely interpreted and the actual performance was highly improvisatory. As early as the 1520s, early performers of the zanni character type were entertaining audiences in a manner much like the later commedia of 1750, when the style actually received its name from Carlo Goldoni in his play, Il teatro comico. Although Goldoni used it as a term of disparagement, the name stuck and became a source of pride among 18th century practitioners who saw their tradition as thoroughly professional.3 In fact, theater historians believe the legacy of commedia (the term I will henceforth use to refer to the commedia dell'arte all'improvvisa) was the first truly professional theater company; more notable is the fact that it was also the first tradition in Europe in which women played the roles of female characters on stage.4

The commedia probably sprang up as a result of several disparate elements. Its roots may be traced back to the ancient Roman comedies of Titus Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE), who wrote some 130 Latin farces, and whose plays had undergone a rediscovery during the Renaissance; to the Venetian Carnevale, which originated in 1162 and where elaborate masks were (and still are) the custom; to the mime theater practice of the Byzantine world; to the jongleurs of medieval Europe and the market culture of popular entertainment in the piazza. There is even a theory that the commedia was a response to the political and economic crises of the 16th century that caused actors to band together and form an early sort of "union." It is probably best to sum it up by saying the commedia was the result of the right ingredients coming together at the right place in the right time, as most truly creative endeavors seem to do.

Whatever its origins, what is certain is that the masks worn at Carnevale came in several distinct types, which were often associated with different occupations and character traits. Table 1 is a very brief summary of the major masks and sub-masks and some of the associated names of these stock characters. It would be impossible to include the variants of each name in every language, but the main theme should be readily apparent and easily related to your own knowledge of song literature and opera. I have placed in upper case the main type each character inhabits. …

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