The Operatic Chorus

The chorus has always been an integral part of opera. What we today call opera was invented in the 16th century by Italian nobles looking for a way to recreate the dramas of ancient Greece. Although none of the music of these ancient dramas survived, these scholars knew from surviving texts that the chorus played an important role in the dramatic performances of the ancient world. The first operas, written at beginning of the Baroque period, thus always included a chorus. As in ancient dramas, the operatic chorus commented on the action. Playing the part of bystanders, they could also represent society’s response to the action of the drama. (Note how Ophelia tells Hamlet that he is “as good as a chorus” during the play in scene 5.)

As the genre of opera developed over time, the presence and role of the chorus shifted. In France, the tradition of what is called “grand opera” was based in large part on spectacle and the inclusion of impressive technical elements, of which a large chorus was one. Meanwhile in Italy, when large choruses were employed they were often responsible for revealing the mood of “the people,” as with the chorus of enslaved Egyptians in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, or as an entertaining contrast to the individual voices of the main characters, as with the crowded Paris street scene in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

Brett Dean’s Hamlet takes the operatic choral tradition one step further, utilizing not one but two choruses: an onstage chorus that the audience can see, and an offstage chorus of eight specialized vocalists that performs from the orchestral pit. The onstage chorus often represents the might and opinions of the Danish court, while the smaller group of unseen singers comments upon the action and enhances the drama. Sometimes they repeat or double what is said by the main characters; at other times, they provide unusual color and contrast to the traditional sounds of the chorus and orchestra. According to Dean, they thus offer “a conduit between the stage and the orchestra pit.” Yet while the pit singers create a modern operatic sound, they also (coincidentally) harken back to the earliest days of dramatic choruses: In ancient Greece, the area from which the chorus performed was known as the orkestra.

Critical Inquiry
Given the long history of utilizing a group of voices like the chorus within a drama, what, in your opinion, is the function of these voices? If you were writing a play or opera with a choral component, who would the chorus represent?