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Opera Amended: Gluck's 'Iphigenia in Aulis'

What did the 18th-century opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and 20th-century jazz great Miles Davis have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out, including a genuine disregard for the status quo.

In 1957, Davis released his album, Birth of the Cool . It was the result of his first important recording sessions as a band leader -- and it really was the birth of something new.

At the time, jazz was dominated by the up-tempo, sometimes frenetic bebop style, with its long, intricate solos showcasing the prodigious technique and improvisational skills of musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

But with Davis's new album, things changed. None of its tunes are much more than three minutes long -- shorter than many bebop solos. Its style was less agitated, more relaxed. It truly was "cool," and that became the name of the new school of jazz the album inspired. It was one of those rare moments when the very nature of music seemed to change, almost overnight.

Back in the 1760s and '70s opera composer Gluck did something similar. For decades, opera had been dominated by the form known as opera seria, which -- sort of like bebop -- had become a virtuoso showcase for flashy soloists: the world's great singers and their amazing vocal gymnastics.

Gluck reacted to this by going back to basics. Calling opera seria "ridiculous and tedious," he wrote dramas emphasizing simpler, more straightforward musical forms. He replaced long, technically cumbersome arias with shorter and more direct solo numbers, interwoven with highly-expressive declamatory singing, simple ensembles and choruses that played a true part in the story's action.

All of this was an attempt to make sure the music in his operas was devoted to conveying the opera's story, and its raw emotions -- not just to showing off the singers. Gluck's efforts are now known as "reform operas." And while they may not have spawned any blockbusters, they influenced composers for generations to come.

After playing a major role in establishing Italian opera on the stages of Vienna, Gluck took his reform movement to France with Iphigenia in Aulis -- the classic story of a young woman whose father summons her for a wedding, but instead offers her up as a human sacrifice. Gluck also ruffled some feathers in the process, creating quite a stir at the tradition-bound Paris Opera by suggesting that all of its performers -- from the principals to the choristers -- should be ordered to act their roles, not just sing them.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Iphigenia in Aulis from La Monnaie, in Brussels. Christophe Rousset conducts, with soprano Veronique Gens in the title role and baritone Andrew Schroeder as Agamemnon.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.