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.
The words of an opera are known as the libretto (literally “little book”). Some composers, notably Richard Wagner, have written their own libretti; others have worked in close collaboration with their librettists, e.g. Mozart with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Traditional opera, often referred to as “number opera“, consists of two modes of singing: recitative, the plot-driving passages sung in a style designed to imitate and emphasize the inflections of speech, and aria (an “air” or formal song) in which the characters express their emotions in a more structured melodic style. Duets, trios and other ensembles often occur, and choruses are used to comment on the action. In some forms of opera, such as Singspiel, opéra comique, operetta, and semi-opera, the recitative is mostly replaced by spoken dialogue. Melodic or semi-melodic passages occurring in the midst of, or instead of, recitative, are also referred to as arioso. During the Baroque and Classical periods, recitative could appear in two basic forms: secco (dry) recitative, sung with a free rhythm dictated by the accent of the words, accompanied only by continuo, which was usually a harpsichord and a cello; or accompagnato (also known as strumentato) in which the orchestra provided accompaniment. By the 19th century, accompagnato had gained the upper hand, the orchestra played a much bigger role, and Richard Wagner revolutionised opera by abolishing almost all distinction between aria and recitative in his quest for what he termed “endless melody”. Subsequent composers have tended to follow Wagner’s example, though some, such as Stravinsky in his The Rake’s Progress have bucked the trend. The terminology of the various kinds of operatic voices is described in detail below.
The Italian word opera means “work”, both in the sense of the labour done and the result produced. The Italian word derives from the Latin opera, which has a similar meaning and is the plural of the word opus. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Italian word was first used in the sense “composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined” in 1639; the first recorded English usage in this sense dates to 1648. Dafne by Jacopo Peri was the earliest composition considered opera, as understood today. It was written around 1597, largely under the inspiration of an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the “Camerata de’ Bardi“. Significantly, Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the widerrevival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance. The members of the Camerata considered that the “chorus” parts of Greek dramas were originally sung, and possibly even the entire text of all roles; opera was thus conceived as a way of “restoring” this situation. Dafne is unfortunately lost. A later work by Peri, Euridice, dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present day. The honour of being the first opera still to be regularly performed, however, goes to Claudio Monteverdi‘s L’Orfeo, composed for the court of Mantua in 1607. The Mantua court of the Gonzagas, employers of Monteverdi, played a significant role in the origin of opera employing not only court singers of the concerto delle donne (till 1598), but also one of the first actual “opera singers”; Madama Europa.
Operatic vocal technique evolved, in a time before electronic amplification, to allow singers to produce enough volume to be heard over an orchestra, without the instrumentalists having to substantially compromise their volume.
Singers and the roles they play are classified by voice type, based on the tessitura, agility, power and timbre of their voices. Male singers can be classified by vocal range as bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and countertenor, and female singers as contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano. (Men sometimes sing in the “female” vocal ranges, in which case they are termed sopranist or countertenor. The countertenor is commonly encountered in opera, sometimes singing parts written for castrati – men neutered at a young age specifically to give them a higher singing range.) Singers are then further classified by size – for instance, a soprano can be described as a lyric soprano, coloratura, soubrette, spinto, or dramatic soprano. These terms, although not fully describing a singing voice, associate the singer’s voice with the roles most suitable to the singer’s vocal characteristics.
Yet another sub-classification can be made according to acting skills or requirements, for example the Basso Buffo who often must be a specialist in patter as well as a comic actor. This is carried out in detail in the Fach system of German speaking countries, where historically opera and spoken drama were often put on by the same repertory company.
A particular singer’s voice may change drastically over his or her lifetime, rarely reaching vocal maturity until the third decade, and sometimes not until middle age. Two French voice types, premiere dugazon and deuxieme dugazon, were named after successive stages in the career of Louise-Rosalie Lefebvre (Mme. Dugazon). Other terms originating in the star casting system of the Parisian theatres are baryton-martin and falcon.
Historical use of voice parts
- The following is only intended as a brief overview. For the main articles, see soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, countertenor and castrato.
The soprano voice has typically been used as the voice of choice for the female protagonist of the opera since the latter half of the 18th century. Earlier, it was common for that part to be sung by any female voice, or even a castrato. The current emphasis on a wide vocal range was primarily an invention of the Classical period. Before that, the vocal virtuosity, not range, was the priority, with soprano parts rarely extending above a high A (Handel, for example, only wrote one role extending to a high C), though the castrato Farinelli was alleged to possess a top D (his lower range was also extraordinary, extending to tenor C). The mezzo-soprano, a term of comparatively recent origin, also has a large repertoire, ranging from the female lead in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to such heavyweight roles as Brangäne in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (these are both roles sometimes sung by sopranos; there is quite a lot of movement between these two voice-types). For the true contralto, the range of parts is more limited, which has given rise to the insider joke that contraltos only sing “witches, bitches, and britches” roles. In recent years many of the “trouser roles” from the Baroque era, originally written for women, and those originally sung by castrati, have been reassigned to countertenors.
The tenor voice, from the Classical era onwards, has traditionally been assigned the role of male protagonist. Many of the most challenging tenor roles in the repertory were written during the bel canto era, such as Donizetti‘s sequence of 9 Cs above middle C during La fille du régiment. With Wagner came an emphasis on vocal heft for his protagonist roles, with this vocal category described as Heldentenor; this heroic voice had its more Italianate counterpart in such roles as Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot. Basses have a long history in opera, having been used in opera seria in supporting roles, and sometimes for comic relief (as well as providing a contrast to the preponderance of high voices in this genre). The bass repertoire is wide and varied, stretching from the comedy of Leporello in Don Giovanni to the nobility of Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In between the bass and the tenor is the baritone, which also varies in weight from say, Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte to Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlos; the actual designation “baritone” was not standard until the mid-19th century.
‘Euridice’ (1600) by Jacopo Peri
(oldest known surviving complete opera)
‘L’Orfeo’ (1607) by Claudio Monteverdi
(oldest opera still regularly performed today)