The History of Opera

The word “opera” simply means a work. Opera is for all intensive purposes a story told is told using music and dance. These stories originate in many places, such as history, folk stories, and myths. Opera first developed out of the courts of Europe during the 16th century. It incorporates all forms of performance, such as dance, art, music, costumes, and even makeup. History has played a large role in shaping what opera has become today. As opera has survived wars, gloominess, epidemics, etc. it has just evolved into what defines it today.

Opera began in Italy. It was created by a group of wealthy Italians who were interested in reproducing ancient Greek dramas. During the time that the Italians were trying to reproduce these dramas, 16th century Europe was in a time period that was known as a Renaissance. During this time, artists, writers, and architects focused on the culture of the past, especially dedicating much of the focus to the ancient Greeks.

While focusing on the culture and artistic side of the ancient Greeks, the Italians discovered that music was used in the productions of the Greek dramas. It was unclear what exactly the music was, what it sounded like, or how it was incorporated because there was no recordings at this time in history. Therefore, the Italians had to use their imaginations to figure out how exactly the music was incorporated into the plays. So they began to try out different methods of reading the plays out loud and adding various musical chords. Eventually, putting music to the plays led the Italians to singing the words (“Brief History of Opera”, 2005).

It wasn’t until 1594 or 1597 (the exact year is unknown) that the first real opera was developed. It was a recitative work that was titled Dafne. It was written by Jacopo Peri. This opera was written for the court of Medici in Florence. Because there were no ways to publish music in that period of time, the opera was lost. However, it is known to exist because so many critics have commented about the performance. It was a very popular thing to see in that time period and many people told everyone they could about the opera.

During this time period, many composers and creative people decided to compose operas. The most well known operatic composer of this era was Claudio Monteverdi, however. The vast majority of his operas were performed in Venice, Italy and it was here that a sort of “operamania” arose (Arizona Opera).

Monteverdi’s early work was composed for the court of Mantua. His early work entitled Orfeo was written in 1607 and was composed for this court. However, later in his career, he wrote for the first public opera house (“A History of Opera”, 2006).
Monteverdi expanded the new form of opera to include arias, which were showy and complicated songs that allowed the opera performers to express their characters better, add a bit more emotion to the performance, and show of their various singing abilities. It wasn’t until later that chorus parts, dances, and instrumental interludes were added to give opera a new style. It continued to evolve.

Opera continued to grow and spread. Although it originated in Italy, it quickly could be found in Germany, France, Russia, Spain, Portugal, and other countries. It wasn’t until 1637 that an opera house was built. The first ever theater to be used only for opera productions was constructed in Venice. Soon after that, 16 other opera theaters were built in Venice.
Because the opera originated in Italy, composers would write the operas in Italian. German and Austrian composers considered opera to be an Italian art form. However, composers soon began to write the operas in their own language. It made the operas more desirable to the people.

By the late 19th century, the lengths of operas were greatly increasing. Opera composers such as Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were writing operas that needed big voices, large choruses, large orchestras, and extensive scenery. These operas were very expensive and complicated productions and differed in many ways from the original operas of the 16th century.

Because Baroque music was so popular throughout the 18th century, Baroque Opera also increased throughout much of Europe. However, it was the Italian school that was most prominent. Operas that were of a serious matter were known as Opera Seria. Operas that were comedic in nature were known as Opera Buffa. Ballad Opera was opera that was written with a more common style of spoken dialogue with music included.

Opera Seria was a variety of opera in which the material for the opera was taken from history or myths. Castrati, who were male singers who were castrated as young boys in order to remain soprano and alto voices, were cast for the important solo parts. This genre was favored by German composers. In fact, some of the most important German operas came out of this genre and are still popular today. This works include operas written by Handel and Gluck. In each genre of opera, there is a distinct musical feature that makes the genre a bit different from the others. In the case of Opera Seria, this distinct feature is known as the da capo aria, which is simply a solo song that repeats a basic tune with special embellishment. Even the binding pieces between each aria were sung. These binding or connecting pieces of the song were known as recitative.
Opera Buffa was the comedic genre of opera. These operas were based on a comic subject. They were performed with ordinary people and plots. However, these performances included disguises and impersonations. Rather than having the leading roles performed by castrati, the leads roles were sung by tenors and basses. Some examples of opera in this genre include Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro (“A History of Opera”, 2006).

Ballad Opera was spoken dialogue and songs that were set to the tune of old ballads. This was typically performed in English. For a period of time, this popular style became more popular than the Italian opera in London! Similarly, the Germans had their own style of ballad opera that was known as Singspiel. In this style of performance, the sung sections of the opera were connected with spoken dialogue rather than the common recitative. Mozart wrote Die Zauberflote with the intention of it becoming a Singspiel but it also morphed into part Opera Seria because of the style of music and Opera Buffa because of the ensembles. Another example is Beethoven’s Fidelio. This is considered to be Singspiel because of the spoken dialogue (Grout and Williams).

In the 18th and 19th century, the European immigrants started the trickling of opera into the United States. It wasn’t until 1883 that the most famous opera house opened in the United States. It opened in New York City and is called the Metropolitan Opera House.

The 19th century brought about many changes to opera. Because of the rise in nationalism, different countries began to develop different traditions. One big change was in the Italian style of opera. Opera Seria was no longer the main type of opera in Italy. Rather, it was Bel Canto that developed out of the Opera Seria style.

Bel Canto translates exactly to “beautiful singing”. This style of opera was a combination of the Opera Seria and the Opera Buffa styles. The role of the castrato was combined with the features of having tenor and more wide-ranging plots. Some examples of this style of opera are Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Bellini’s Norma, and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (“Opera,” 2005).

Verdi, who was considered to be the greatest Italian composer, began developing his own unique style of opera. Verdi began to compose in the new style of Bel Canto. By the end of the century, Verdi had moved away from the Bel Canto style and had developed his own style. This style was known as Verismo (“A History of Opera”, 2006).

While these changes were taking place in Italy, France was also making changes of their own. During these changes, the styles of Opera Comique and Grand Opera begin. Although these styles are rarely performed today, they were very popular in France from the 1820s to the 1860s. Grand Opera was the most elaborate type of opera ever produced. It consisted of five acts, a ballet, a large cast, and an intensive set that included lighting and scenery. One example of this style of opera is Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer. The less serious style of opera in the French genre was Opera Comique. This opera consisted of spoken dialogue and it was quite serious. One example of an opera in this genre is Carmen by Bizet (History World, 2005).
Another style of opera was the German Romantic opera. It developed out of the style of Singspiel. This style was influenced by the French style of Opera Comique and it consisted of very influential mystical undertones. Wagner was strongly influenced by this style of opera. However, as his career continued, he began to develop his own style which consisted of precise librettos that were based on legends. These consisted of the features of the Leitmotif, where each person, place, or theme in the act was representing by a musical phrase that repeated. In this style, the music and the orchestra were given a very large role. In fact, the role of the orchestra changed the type of person that would fill the lead role. The lead role then required someone who could communicate over the loud instruments.

The 20th century was quite similar to the 19th century in terms of what was happening in opera. However, as the 20th century continued, the public became less accepting of opera. Composers began to branch off into new ideas of what they thought opera should be. However, the most popular composers remain classics such as Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini.
Throughout the evolution of opera, many things have changed. Opera has been shaped by the current events of the world, the prominent figures of the time, and the culture of the area. However, the basis for opera has remained the same. The heavy Italian influence lies underneath all opera, regardless of the genre.

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