Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble. Opera is part of the Western classical music tradition. It started in Italy at the end of the 16th century (with Jacopo Peri‘s lost Dafne, produced in Florence in 1598) and soon spread through the rest of Europe: Schütz in Germany, Lully in France, and Purcell in England all helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. In the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe, except France, attracting foreign composers such as Handel. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his “reform” operas in the 1760s. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze Di Figaro), Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), a landmark in the German tradition. The first third of the 19th century saw the high point of the bel canto style, with Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all creating works that are still performed today. It also saw the advent of Grand Opera typified by the works of Auber and Meyerbeer. The mid-to-late 19th century was a “golden age” of opera, led and dominated by Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy. The popularity of opera continued through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French opera through to Puccini and Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel operatic traditions emerged in central and eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia. The 20th century saw many experiments with modern styles, such as atonality and serialism (Schoenberg and Berg), Neoclassicism (Stravinsky), and Minimalism (Philip Glass and John Adams). With the rise of recording technology, singers such as Enrico Caruso became known to audiences beyond the circle of opera fans. Operas were also performed on (and written for) radio and television. An opera is generally referred to as “a stage presentation or work that combines music, costumes, and scenery to relay a story. Most operas are sung, with no spoken lines.” The word “opera” is actually a shortened word for opera in musica. In 1573, a group of musicians and intellectuals came together to discuss various subjects, especially the desire to revive Greek drama. This group of individuals are known as the Florentine Camerata; they wanted lines to be sung instead of simply being spoken. From this came the opera which existed in Italy around 1600. At first the opera was only for the upper class or aristocrats, but soon even the general public patronized it. Venice became the center of musical activity; in 1637, a public opera house was built there. It takes a lot of time, people and effort before an opera finally makes its premiere. Writers, librettists (dramatist who writes the libretto or text), composers, costume and stage designers, conductors, singers (coloratura, lyric and dramatic soprano, lyric and dramatic tenor, basso buffo and basso profundo, etc.) dancers, musicians, prompters (person who gives cues) producers and directors are some of the people who work closely together in order for an opera to take shape. Different singing styles where developed for the opera, such as:
- recitative – imitating the pattern and rhythm of speech
- aria – when a character expresses feelings through a flowing melody
- bel canto – Italian for “beautiful singing”
- castrato – During the Baroque period, young boys were castrated before they reached puberty to avoid the deepening of voice. Main roles of the opera were written for the castrato.
Types of Operas
- Comic Opera – Also known as light opera, this type of opera often tackles light, not so delicate subject matter where the ending often has a happy resolution. Other forms of this opera are opera buffa and operetta, to name a few. In this type of opera the dialogue is often spoken and not sung. An example of this opera is La serva padrona (The Maid as Mistress) by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
- Serious Opera – In Italian it’s opera seria, also referred to as Neopolitan opera mainly due to the volume of composers who were from Naples who contributed to this type of opera. Often, the story revolves around heroes and myths, emphasis is also given to the solo voice and bel canto style. Bel canto is Italian for “beautiful singing;” the vocal style used by operatic singers in Italy which emerged during the 17th century. An example of this opera is Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel.
- Opera Semiseria – This type of opera has a serious story but has a happy ending. This is why some loosely define it as a combination of the elements of both comic and serious opera. An example of this is La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie} by Gioachino Rossini
- Opera Cornique – Is a type of French opera wherein instead of singing, the lines are spoken. In its early form, it was satirical but would later on have serious storylines such as Carmen by Georges Bizet.
- Grand Opera – Refers to the type of opera which emerged in Paris during the 19th century. It’s an opera of a larger scale, from the flamboyant costumes to the choruses; it also includes ballet. An example of this type is Robert le Diable by Giacomo Meyerbeer.
- Opera Verismo – Verismo is Italian for “realism;” it’s a type of opera that emerged during the later part of the 19th century. Characters were often based on everyday people you may meet in real life and the plot is often melodramatic. An example is Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo.Most operas are written in French, German and Italian. Euridice by Jacopo Peri is known as the earliest opera that’s been preserved. One great composer who wrote operas was Claudio Monteverdi, specifically his La favola d’Orfeo (The Fable of Orpheus) which premiered in 1607 and thus known as the first grand opera. Another famous opera composer was Francesco Cavalli especially noted for his opera Giasone (Jason) which premiered in 1649.