The History of Opera: How Did Opera Get Started?

Opera is one of the more popular and accesible forms of classical music. An opera is a theatrical presentation in which dramatic perfromances are set to music. It is like a play, except that instead of speaking lines, the performers sing their lines. Operas can be dramas, comedies, and/or farces.

Many people think of opera as something reserved for the wealthy or the sophisticated. Others see it as something that would be boring. Most people do not realize that opera was as casual as going to the movies. The history of opera provides a wealth of information about this form of entertainment, and also explains why the assumptions about opera were formed.

Opera originated in Italy around 1600. The word opera is actually an Italian word that basically means “works”. It came to be because small groups of nobles, poets, and composers began to meet regularly in Florence, Italy somehwere around 1575. This group was known as the “Camerata”, which means fellowship or society.

The group was looking to create a new vocal style that would be influenced and modeled on the music of the ancient Greek tragedy. They did not however, have the actual music come down them from the Greeks. Therefore, they had to base all their ideas and theories upon literary accounts that were still around. The group also wanted the vocal lines to follow the rythms and pitch differences of speech.

Opera came about during a musical period called the Baroque Era. During this time, most opera was written for ceremonies and special occasions that displayed things superiorly. The subjects were mainly drawn from ancient history of Greek mythology. People were drawn to the to civilizations of Greece and Rome, and identified with the Greek and Roman heroes. Most of the audience of opera was aristocracy, so while composers had a chance to express themselves, they also were given a chance to be flattering.

The first opera made, or at least the first opera to be preserved, was “Euridice” by Jacob Peri. However, it was Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “Orfeo” that became the first spectacular opera, dazzzling aristrocrats with his Florence style musical dramas. Because opera was mainly for the wealthy, many in the lower social classes did not get a chance to attend and watch. Because of this, the impression was formed that opera is only for the wealthy. Unfortunately, this impression is sometimes still around today.

The first public opera house was formed and opened in Venice in 1637. Opera then became accessible to anyone that could pay the admission price. Over the years, many opera houses began opening up all over Italy. Cities such as Hamburg, Leipzig, and London also began opening opera houses. However, the fastest growing opera houses were in Italy.

Several different musial styles and definitions were created because of Opera. A new vocal style called recicitative speech was formed, because of the way opera was modeled after speech. Virtuoso singers also began to arise, and the term castrato arrived, meaning male singers that were castrated at puberty so that their voices would remain the same. The castrato combined the power behind a man’s voice, yet the vocal ranges of a woman.

This intriqued listeners and made opera even more popular. Another termed formed was secco recitatives, meaning a recicitative was only accompanied by a basso continuo. If the opera is supported by an orchestra, then the term accompanied recitatives would be applied. The term de capo ,was also formed, meaning to start from the beginning, or repeating the opening of a section.

Opera has taken off in many directions from its original beginning. While at one time opera was mainly performed in Italian, it is now performed in almost every language worldwide. What started as a small creation in Italy has won the hearts of millions of people, and continues to do so with each passing year.

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