A Brief History of Opera

“No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”

~W. H. Auden

For Starters:

Some of you may be wondering: what exactly is an opera? Operas are defined as dramatic works that are set entirely to music. Unlike in musicals, where characters mix dialogue and song, operas are traditionally entirely sung. They are also typically set to classical, orchestral music.

The origins of opera:

As a musical genre, opera is about 400 years old. It emerged from Florence in Italy, towards the end of the 16th century when Jacopo Peri published and produced Daphne, the earliest work labelled ‘opera’. The first composer to make opera a popular and well-renowned form of art was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) who utilized older dramatic models like troubadour’s plays to present an opera’s characters as human beings, exploring their inner feelings in a way which became the norm for composers in the 19th century. His opera L’Orfeo (1609), based on the Classical legend of Orpheus and Euridice, was the first opera of significance and is still put on in opera houses today.

The Baroque Period:

By the Baroque era, opera was wildly popular throughout Europe, with lavish and expensive productions being put on in almost every major city. Although this period contains many great operatic pieces, arguably the greatest composers of Italian Baroque opera was in fact a German who lived out most of his life in London – Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759). During this period, castrati, male singers who were castrated as boy trebles to preserve their soprano voices, were widely used in opera. The few who both survived, and made it to the top of their profession, were the singing stars of the 17th and 18th century.

The Classical Period

With the movement known as the Enlightenment, every facet of life in Europe began to change, including opera. This period favored less elaborate musical forms and more realistic plots – fewer gods, more humans – and a reaction against excessive vocal display. The ultimate composer of the classical period was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). A master of both drama and musical composition, Mozart created masterpieces such as Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro.           

The Romantics:

Opera continued to flourish during the Romantic period. Grand opera was suddenly all the rage, with everything getting bigger, louder and lasting longer. One important strand at this time was the Italian bel canto movement (literally ‘beautiful singing’), which was all about vocal brilliance and ornamentation underpinned by a simpler harmonic structure. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), who happens to be my favorite operatic composer, had a particular talent for ebullient comedy and unforgettable melodic hooks (La Cenerentola of 1817 and Il Barbiere de Siviglia from 1816, which features the ridiculously catchy ‘Largo al factotum’). However, this period contains its fair share of tragedies and dramas in addition to comedies. The famous Bizet opera Carmen features a feckless gypsy woman and her ill-fated love affair with a soldier.

Turn of the Century Opera:

The late 19th century was dominated by two giants of opera, Italian Giuseppe Verdi and German Richard Wagner, both born in 1813. Verdi wrote in a hugely tuneful and dramatic style. Perhaps his most popular opera is probably La Traviata, the tragic story of a dying courtesan. Meanwhile, in Germany, Wagner singlehandedly changed the course of opera with his huge ambition and talent. Probably his best-known music is the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. During the turn of the century, opera was dominated by Giacomo Puccini and his famous operas like La bohèmeMadame Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca.

3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Opera

  1. I am completely aware of your love of opera! And I think it’s great! I have never been to an opera and really want to go one day, so if you have any good recommendations let me know! I wish I could have seen one back in the Classical period. That would have been amazing!

  2. Alayna, I love this post so much! I have played parts (mostly overtures) from many of the operas you have mentioned, and they are always really fun. I do admit, Rossini is great, but I have to say that my favorite operatic composer is probably Wagner. I’m personally a huge fan of the late Romantic period in general. Anyway, awesome post that covers the gist of opera!

  3. I’ve never been really big into the opera, but growing up with people that loved to perform made me have a greater appreciation to the performing arts, such as musicals. I couldn’t stand musicals when I was younger, but during junior and senior year I found myself getting really hyped up about our yearly productions and the productions in the area. Thanks for the brief history lesson on opera; it was a very interesting read. Oh, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

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