Today it is the passion of a select few music lovers – but in the 19th century, opera was a major social event, an expression of national consciousness, or even the musical declaration of national independence. But how did this happen? What role does the national opera play in Eastern Europe? And what makes an opera a national opera?
National opera – what is it actually?
The term “national opera” is often used, but what does it actually mean? Obviously, it cannot be explained by an analysis of the music alone. Very different musical works, such as Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, premiere 1868), Stanisław Moniuszko's (1819-1872) Halka (premiere 1848/58), or Bedřich Smetana's (1824-1884) Libuše (premiere 1881) have all been and continue to be called national operas, without an analysis of the music being able to provide clear characteristics of what actually makes these operas “national”. Often, the decision that an opera would henceforth be considered a national opera was based on how it was received by audiences – in some cases, not even the composer had intended this at all and was surprised by this effect of his work.
Opera as a demonstration of social prowess
The national opera of the 19th century was, one could say, an opera through which members of a particular nation wished to substantiate their political potency, their right to political independence and their own state system. From today's perspective, it seems astonishing that music, and opera in particular, played such a central role in these processes of nation-building. Nowadays, opera as an artform is regarded more as the aesthetic pursuit of an elite social class beyond day-to-day political disputes.
In fact, in the 19th century, opera was more suitable than almost any other pursuit for demonstrating a nation's cultural prowess as well as its organizational capabilities and the potential of its people. In terms of structure, opera is the most complex music genre. Though the music itself is intangible, opera is, compared to other forms, very much bound to material constraints: the sets and scenery require a large building with an opera stage. Furthermore, stage sets must be produced by hand and orchestras have to be set up. A multitude of experts from all these fields must work together to make an opera project a reality. This necessary, large-scale social collaboration distinguishes opera from other musical genres such as the concert, the symphony or chamber music.
A community that was capable of putting together something as complex as a full-length, representative opera with its own resources had thus demonstrated not only a high level of cultural education, but also organizational efficiency and the availability of good human resources – all indispensable prerequisites in the pursuit of establishing a national state of its own.
The new understanding of nation in the 19th century
The idea of a national opera emerged towards the end of the 18th century, when the concept of nationhood was undergoing a fundamental change throughout Europe. Whereas in earlier centuries a nation had often included only the nobility, who as political figures had a share in the fate of the state, it was now understood as the totality of the population, bound together by a common culture, language and origin. This new ethnic concept of the nation was not a merely a theoretical and beautiful idea, but was also harnessed for political purposes from the moment of its emergence.
While in the west of the continent it was the bourgeoisie that presented its political need for recognition on the opera stage by means of art, in eastern Europe the national idea was in many cases also supported by the nobility. The national movements in the west were mostly social power shifts within existing states, however, in Eastern Europe the national movements were mostly attempts by a bourgeois-aristocratic intelligentsia to break a nation state out of a larger multi-ethnic structure.
In the arts, that is, literature, painting and music, the so-called “Volksgeist” (spirit of the people) hypothesis of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) became significant. Herder postulated the presence of a “people's spirit” primarily in the lower, rural strata of the population. In his view, this is where the treasures of old traditions, customs and lore still remained, which constituted the very essence of the nation. On this basis, towards the end of the 18th century, urban intellectuals began to travel to the countryside in order to record precisely such forms of nonmaterial culture – oral storytelling, but also songs. Later, these songs were deliberately included in national operas in order to emphasize – at least for the appropriately informed audience – the national character of the work.
The triumph of a concept throughout Europe
On the basis of this concept, national operas now sprang up like mushrooms throughout Europe and formed artistic “flagships” of the nations. This is most evident in Eastern Europe, where the aim was to use the “national idea” to create independent, sovereign states. Polish and Russian operas were written as early as the 18th century, and in the 19th century the national operas Halka and Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor, first performed in 1865) were written by Stanisław Moniuszko and Ivan Susanin (first performed in 1936) by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), followed in Russia by other composers' works. František Škroup's (1801-1862) Dráteník (premiere 1826) was a forerunner of the Czech opera movement, which led to national operas on a grand scale with works such as Smetana's Braniborý v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, premiere 1866), Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride, premiere 1866) and Libuše. In Hungary, the two operas Hunyadi László (premiere 1844) and especially Bánk Bán (premiere 1861) by Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) are also considered national operas.
Less known, but of great importance for the musical and cultural history of the region, are the works of the founder of Illyrism Illyrism Illyrism was a cultural and political movement between 1830 and 1848, which transferred the Pan-Slavic idea to the area of the South Slavs in the Habsburg Empire and was especially significant for Croatian nation-building. in music, Vatroslav Lisinski (1819-1854), with his operas Ljubav i zloba (Love and Malice, premiere 1846) and Porin (premiere 1851), and those of the Croatian composer Ivan Zajc (1832-1914), with the opera Nikola Šubič Zrinjski (premiere 1876). Other national operas were written at the beginning of the 20th century, such as the Lithuanian opera Birutė (premiere 1906) by Mikas Petrauskas (1873-1937), the operas of the Azerbaijani composer Üzeyir Hacıbəyov (1885-1948), Leyli va Madschnun (Leyli and Madschnun, premiere 1908), or the Georgian composer Sakaria Paliashvili (1871-1933) Absalom da Eteri (Absalom and Eteri, premiere 1913-1919). These last two operas also demonstrate how far east the cultural-historical concept of national opera radiated at that time.
Same function, different style
However, it was not enough to merely compose operas on the basis of the folk song material that was found. The public decided whether the work was to be elevated to the rank of a national opera. And this was only possible if it perfectly met the needs of the audience, both in terms of the plot and the style of the music.
However, these needs were by no means constant, but changed continuously and also differed from nation to nation. For this reason, the European national operas exhibit extraordinarily broad stylistic diversity and varying content. Thus, the label “national opera” often migrated from one work to another over time – analogous to progressive musical developments. For example, Carl Maria von Weber's (1786-1826) Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter, first performed in 1821) was initially considered the German national opera but was eventually superseded by Richard Wagner's Master-Singers of Nuremberg (1868). The situation was similar in Polish music: Jan Stefani's (1746-1829) Krakowiacy i Górale (premiere 1794) was considered the Polish national opera until Moniuszko's Halka (1848/58) replaced it. In both cases, musical and stylistic development had progressed so far in the intervening years that the compositions of the earlier works were no longer deemed suitable for demonstrating the artistic capabilities of the nation.
On the other hand, national musical traditions and tastes different greatly from place to place. The liveliness of the German “Singspiel” tradition and the French ballet tradition caused the creation of vastly different musical works, each attributed to different genres. Nevertheless, the romantic opera Der Freischütz and the grand opéra grand opéra “Grand opéra” is the name given to a French opera form of the 19th century. It is characterized in particular by large-scale, ambitious productions and performances, for example, mass choruses, large stage ensembles, extensive stage sets and ballet scenes. Les Huguenots (premiere 1836) by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) can equally be described as national operas, if one considers the works in terms of their social function.
The national opera as a forum for discussing the core issues of the nation
The content of an opera was equally important if the work was to be recognized as a national opera. The subject matter presented on stage had to engage with core themes and key issues currently being debated and discussed within the national community. Most often, the subject was the relationship between the national question and the social question, the two major sets of issues of the 19th century. The way in which these questions were dealt with in the national community determined which opera projects were successful.  
This is shown by a comparison between the situation in Czech and Polish culture. Traditionally, Czech culture in the 19th century was bourgeois and contrasted with the Habsburg-German oriented aristocratic administrative class. The Polish national movement, on the other hand, was supported exclusively by the nobility until well into the 19th century; a bourgeoisie hardly existed as a socially effective class, and the peasant rural population was included in the process of raising national consciousness only at a late stage. Therefore, while Czech opera projects often focused on scenes of Czech life, Polish opera projects foregrounded the contrast between nobles and subjects.
Also, the different designs of the nature of one’s own nation were reflected in the opera projects. Moniuszko's most important operas, Halka and Straszny dwór, both take up the theme of the multiculturalism of the former Polish-Lithuanian double empire, the republic of both nations, by combining and synthesizing Polish with Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian musical elements. The Czech national movement, on the other hand, which initially lacked a comparable concept, presented primarily the contrast between its own Czech and other German music.
National opera, revolution and national uprising
According to a legend already circulated by contemporaries, which has made it into today's opera guides, a Brussels performance of the opera La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici, premiere 1828) by composer Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782-1871) in the summer of 1830 was the trigger for Belgium's secession from the Spanish Netherlands, which allegedly literally emanated from the opera stage. Recent research has disproved this legend, but it is undisputed – and this is what matters – that this opera was perceived by contemporaries as a manifesto of the national desire for freedom. In 
deu. Warschau, eng. Warsaw

Warsaw is the capital of Poland and also the largest city in the country (population in 2022: 1,861,975). It is located in the Mazovian Voivodeship on Poland's longest river, the Vistula. Warsaw first became the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian noble republic at the end of the 16th century, replacing Krakow, which had previously been the Polish capital. During the partitions of Poland-Lithuania, Warsaw was occupied several times and finally became part of the Prussian province of South Prussia for eleven years. From 1807 to 1815 the city was the capital of the Duchy of Warsaw, a short-lived Napoleonic satellite state; in the annexation of the Kingdom of Poland under Russian suzerainty (the so-called Congress Poland). It was not until the establishment of the Second Polish Republic after the end of World War I that Warsaw was again the capital of an independent Polish state.

At the beginning of World War II, Warsaw was conquered and occupied by the Wehrmacht only after intense fighting and a siege lasting several weeks. Even then, a five-digit number of inhabitants were killed and parts of the city, known not least for its numerous baroque palaces and parks, were already severely damaged. In the course of the subsequent oppression, persecution and murder of the Polish and Jewish population, by far the largest Jewish ghetto under German occupation was established in the form of the Warsaw Ghetto, which served as a collection camp for several hundred thousand people from the city, the surrounding area and even occupied foreign countries, and was also the starting point for deportation to labor and extermination camps.

As a result of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from April 18, 1943 and its suppression in early May 1943, the ghetto area was systematically destroyed and its last inhabitants deported and murdered. This was followed in the summer of 1944 by the Warsaw Uprising against the German occupation, which lasted two months and resulted in the deaths of almost two hundred thousand Poles, and after its suppression the rest of Warsaw was also systematically destroyed by German units.

In the post-war period, many historic buildings and downtown areas, including the Warsaw Royal Castle and the Old Town, were rebuilt - a process that continues to this day.

, which was briefly liberated from Russian rule in the wake of the November Uprising of 1830, the most urgent task was therefore to stage this opera. Stanisław Moniuszko's Halka is also clearly influenced by Auber's Muette.
The aria from Act 2 of the opera Bánk Bán by Ferenc Erkel, with its words “Hazám, hazám, te mindenem” – “My house, my house, my everything” – played an important identity-forming role in Hungary alongside the national anthem. For the Croatian national movement, in turn, the chorus “U boj, u boj” – “To the fight, to the fight” – from Ivan Zajc's Nikola Šubič Zrinjski took on a similar function. The famous “Prisoners' Chorus” in Giuseppe Verdi's (1813-1901) opera Nabucco (1842) can be added to this series, along with many other examples.
Recognition before the European family of nations
However, it was by no means enough to elevate to the status of national opera works that merely met with the approval of their own public. Such a work could create an internal identity, but it failed to create an external identity, especially if the work was criticized abroad or even branded as an attempt at imitation. A national opera that was to represent national and political aspirations – also to the outside world – thus had to arouse recognition among leading music critics and international musical circles; in view of the musical geography of the 19th century, this meant the necessity of recognition above all by members of what were then called the “great musical nations”, namely Germany, Austria, Italy and France.
A national opera in Eastern Europe thus had to essentially fulfill the stylistic specifications of the Italian and German models, but was also not allowed to simply copy them, lest this in turn lead to their rejection. This connection acted as a kind of aesthetic-stylistic bracket, which nevertheless allowed the very variable form of the national opera to become a kind of genre. The result was the formation of the combination of romantic or late romantic stylistics characteristic of many national operas of the 19th century, each of which had a greater or lesser degree of “national labeling” in the form of symbols, melodies, dance movements and rhythms, and more.
This trend only came to an end with the First World War. With it, not only did many of the old musical-aesthetic and social connections and lines of communication dissolve, but also in terms of music history, a new era dawned.
English translation: William Connor

Siehe auch