By Mary Ridley
For my cultural project, I studied the role of ballet in Italian opera, in particular those of Giuseppe Verdi. Ballet in opera is of French origin, and never became popular in Italian opera. In a French grande opera, there must be a small divertissement during the second act, then a longer ballet during the third act. These were strict rules that the Paris Opera insisted upon – an opera could not be performed without these requirements. The French used ballet as a way to showcase the art of classical dance, reflect the emotional themes of the opera in an abstract manner, and also to display the beautiful ballerinas for the members of the influential Jockey Club in Paris.
The Italians, however, felt that ballets and dance scenes interrupted the cohesion and flow of the action of the opera. They were perfectly happy to have ballets performed the same night as an opera, but not during an opera. One Italian who did use ballet and dance in his operas fairly often was Giuseppe Verdi. A highly successful and influential composer, Verdi worked for many years with the Paris Opera. Although he personally did not agree with the use of dance during operas for the same reasons as other Italians, Verdi rewrote six of his operas to include dance scenes for the Paris Opera.
Despite Verdi’s complaints and objections to including ballet in his works, Verdi decided, on his own, to include dance in his masterpiece Aida. Verdi discovered that he could use the dance scenes as a way to complement and continue the flow of the plot, and not as an unnecessary interlude. As Jurgensen wrote,
The fact seems to indicate that in 1871 Verdi had arrived at the conviction that all grand operas, whether French or Italian, should include dance movements, fully integrated into the dramatic scheme… The dances in Aida neither belong to the category of opera-ballets ‘imposed’ by the theatrical conventions of the time, nor were they the result of a theater director’s wish to add further brilliance to the mise en scène. Rather, they occupy a particular place among Verdi’s ballets, since they represent a deliberate artistic and dramaturgical choice on the composer’s part.
Although Verdi never came to love the idea of dance in opera, he found a place for it and also revealed his significant talent for composing dance music. George Balanchine, a famous Russian ballet choreographer, once said, “Every Verdi opera you can dance, it is dance music.” Verdi has also been compared to Tchaikovsky, another noteworthy dance music composer. Whatever Verdi’s personal feelings toward ballet’s place in opera, he certainly proved himself to be a virtuoso in the field of dance music.
Read other students’ testimonials on their experiences in Padua.