Yes, there is Mozart and Strauss and Puccini and Donizetti and Bizet. But when one thinks of the Master of Opera, one thinks of either Verdi or Wagner. Born on the same day in the same year, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were rivals their whole lives. Both had equivalent Olympian levels of success, and both have left larger legacies in opera–and in entertainment generally–than can be quantified. Despite all of their similarities, they are as different as night and day–for some reason, no one can decide which is night and which is day.
Verdi was The Master of Italian Grand Opera. He understood people and so composed to manipulate their emotions, leading to some of the most iconic characters with the most iconic arias from the most iconic operas. Verdi knew how to compose works that enthrall audiences to this day. No one ever topped him on that front.
Wagner reconstructed Germanic conceptual opera and music as a medium for storytelling. Like Verdi, Wagner knew drama and storytelling, but he was more academic in his approach. He streamlined and organized musical functions and tools, and his effect on music and storytelling can be seen in entertainment today. Music existed before Wagner, but he thought there wasn’t enough–so he wrote what he wrote.
The oversimplified distinction between Verdi and Wagner is that Verdi composed for the audience and Wagner for the form. They both left great legacies, and it is helpful to note that Verdi’s legacy remains more outwardly iconic, and Wagner’s has more subtly influenced modern entertainment. They both have great musical complexity. Both have topical operas that discuss heavy themes, like patriotism, hatred, societal outcasts, and xenophobia. However, Verdi’s shows are seen as more escapist, melodramatic, and laden with emotion when Wagnerian operas are more so brute forces of music. Verdi is too easy to watch and listen to whereas Wagner is too difficult. From this distinction, two views can be taken.
One view is that Verdi is better because he does what we expect the traditional artist to do: show the human condition and tell the world something about itself in an entertaining fashion. The other view is that Wagner is better because his complexity is unparalleled and his effect on subsequent storytellers is too entrenched to deny. There are several counterarguments to each of these claims and several spinoff claims that can be made. But neither of these are my main point.
I have my opinions, but there is no definitive answer. This body of complexities–between “for the people” and “for the form”–has only grown since the 19th century. Andrew Lloyd Webber is too dramatic when Stephen Sondheim is too eclectic; Apple is too chic when Microsoft is too industrial; even Trump is too over–dramatically populist when Hillary is too unapproachably intellectual. These are questions with which we must grapple. But all of these comparisons also have aspects to themselves that may seem to further complicate things, but in fact clarify: morality. There is bigotry and hypocrisy abound in all of these scenarios, possibly most potently in the original operatic debate. I am still not offering a definitive answer. I am merely advocating against the dislocation of morality from debates of substance. Complexities can clarify