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Ancient Greeks contribution to Οpera and Broadway

Dr Dimitra Kamarinou
The National Herald
Vol. 20 Issue 1005, p.9
January 14-20, 2017

Is the ancient drama the ancestor of the opera and the Broadway plays? Not only the theater, but opera and musicals resemble the Ancient Greek drama in many ways regarding the plot elements, the arts collaboration and even the scenography. That is the reason why many of the English performing arts terms derive from Greek.

Regarding the architectural terminology, the Ancient Greek word theatron (theater) refers to the actual structure of the theater building. The word derives from the ancient Greek verb theome, which means I watch. For some scholars the word Theos comes from the same verb, as He is the One who can see everything.

In the Ancient Greek theaters, the performance area was a circular space called orchestra. A flattened circular space at the foot of a hill, whose slope created a natural theatron (a place for viewing), where the audience would sit amphitheatrically, the so called koilon. This arrangement increased the sound of the voices. On the opposite side of the koilon and behind the orchestra was located the skene, the stage building. Therefore, the English word orchestra refers to the space in front of the stage of a modern theater that is used by an orchestra, to the main ground floor of a theatre, to the first rows of seats, and to a group of musicians organized to perform ensemble music.

In the orchestra the chorus sang and danced, and the actors played their parts. The chorus consisted of a group of 12-15 individuals,usually actors, typically all of the same gender as the protagonist. They performed between the episodes, which were the principal characters’ dialogues,and enacted in lyric verses accompanied by live music and song, commenting on the dramatic action. The words choir and choreography derive from chorus. The choir because chorus sang as a homogeneous, non-individualized group. A modern parallel is the singing chorus in the opera, which, after the manner of Greek chorus, usually represents the general population’s voice.
Under the inspiration of an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists, Jacopo Peri sought to revive the classical Greek drama in “Dafne” (1597), the earliest opera composition. The concept of opera was conceived in the Rennaisance as a revival of the ancient Greek theater and is a dramatic work performed in a theatrical setting, which combines chorus singing, music by a live orchestra, and vocal acting meant to convey emotions’ and roles’ characterization: recitative, a speech-inflected style and arias of more melodic style. Many opera works, and definitely the earlier,have librettos based on Greek myths and characters, like Peri’s “Euridice” (1600) and Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’ Orfeo.”

Because Ancient Greek actors and chorus participants wore masks, the audience couldn’t read their faces’ expressions. To convey their feelings they had to use the expressive potential of their whole body as harmonized dance movements. Choros in Modern Greek and in the English word choreograply is the dance.

C h o r e o g r a p h y (chorus and graphy= writing) literally means”dancewriting,” designing sequences of dance movements. Though we have scarce information on ancient Greek music and dance, we need to imagine that singing, music and dance would make for a major part in the ancient Greek drama performances, probably as much as in the modern musicals and opera. The chorus singing parts covered almost half of the plays’ duration. The masks, which covered the actors’ faces, would demand a different articulation and vocalization than everyday speech.Given that even the episodes’ text was poetry, characterized by the rhythm, the Greek meter, the prosody, and the sequence of closed-short and open-long vowels, it is highly probable that even the actor’s parts were melodic.
Like opera and musicals the ancient drama was a combination of performing, aural and visual arts. The skene was the wooden stage building, which would represent the palace or other city buildings. The English word scene, deriving from skene, means the place where the action occurs. In the performance arts scenery means the structures, the hangings and the decorative background on a stage, which represents or indicates a specific place. Scenography (scene+graphy) initially meaning scene painting (the pinakes were painted pictures hung to create scenery in the ancient theaters), has today been developed through moving light, digital technology, and stage mechanics. Stage mechanics that make musicals and operas spectacular were not unknown to ancient Greeks. They have invented two of the main stage elements we use today. The wheeled platform, ekkyklema, was mainly used to bring dead characters into view for the audience, because killing was never shown in view of the spectators.

The word mechanics derives from the Ancient Greek mihani, which was usually a crane used to hoist an actor through the air into the stage, thus representing a flying God.

Dimitra Kamarinou, PhD, has studied philology and archaeology at the University of Ioannina,Würzburg and Bochum in Germany.
She has been honored with the Academy of Athens Award in Archaeology and Homeric Philology.