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Sydney Opera House: one of the world's most recognizable opera houses and landmarks. Sydney Opera House: one of the world's most recognizable opera houses and landmarks.

Opera refers to a dramatic art form, originating in Europe, in which the emotional content or primary entertainment is conveyed to the audience as much through music, both vocal and instrumental, as it is through the lyrics. From the beginning of the form (about 1600), there has been contention whether the music is paramount, or the words, a theme that Richard Strauss took up in his final opera, Capriccio (1942). Also, dramatic speech in opera is often sung in recitative. By contrast, in musical theater, dialogue is spoken and an actor's dramatic performance is generally more important than in opera.

Comparable art forms from various parts of the world, many of them quite ancient in origin, exist and are also sometimes called "opera" by analogy, usually prefaced with an adjective indicating the region (for example Chinese opera). However, other than superficial similarities, these other art forms developed independently from and are completely unrelated to opera but are art forms in their own right, not derivatives of opera.

The drama is presented using the primary elements of theatre such as scenery, costumes, and acting. However, the words of the opera, or libretto, are customarily sung rather than spoken. The singers are accompanied by a musical ensemble ranging from a small instrumental ensemble to a full symphonic orchestra.

Besides words and music, opera draws from many other art forms. The visual arts, such as painting, scenery and sculpture, are employed to create the visual spectacle on the stage; in the Baroque "English opera" or Restoration spectacular, visual arts are especially important, even predominant. Finally, dancing is often part of an opera performance, particularly in France. Generally, however, opera is distinguished from other dramatic forms by the importance of song.

Singers and the roles they play are initially classified according to their vocal ranges. Male singers are classified by vocal range as bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and countertenor. Female singers are classified by vocal range as contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano.[1] Additionally, singers' voices are loosely identified by characteristics other than range,such as timbre or color, vocal quality, agility, power, and tessitura. Thus a soprano may be termed 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. The German Fach system is an especially organized system of classification. 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.

Traditional opera consists of two modes of singing: recitative, the dialogue and plot-driving passages often sung in a non-melodic style characteristic of opera, and aria, during which the movement of the plot often pauses, with the music becoming more melodic in character and the singer focusing on one or more topics or emotional affects. Short melodic or semi-melodic passages occurring in the midst of what is otherwise recitative are also referred to as arioso. In the late 19th century, many composers abolished much of the distinction between recitative and aria, writing opera that is essentially presented in a restlessly melodic arioso style throughout. All types of singing in opera are accompanied by musical instruments, though until the late 17th century generally, and persisting until even later in some regions, recitative was accompanied by only the continuo group (harpsichord and 'cello or bassoon). During the period 1680 to roughly 1750, when composers often used both methods of recitative accompaniment in the same opera, the continuo-only practice was referred to as "secco" (dry) recitative, while orchestral-accompanied recitative was called "accompagnato" or "stromentato." The complexity of orchestral accompaniment to recitative continually tended to become more complex until, in the late 18th century, composers began to write recitativo obbligato at dramatic junctures of opera seria, in which the orchestra has independent passages of a violent or pathetic character, sometimes reflecting musical motifs or the melodies of important arias.

Some genres of opera use spoken dialogue accompanied or unaccompanied by an orchestra rather than recitative. Such dialogue also is the essential feature of melodrama, in its original 19th century sense. Such melodrama grew partly from the practice that seems to have originated in the 16th century of writing incidental music to stage plays, either those already existing or newly composed. The most familiar example of such to most readers will probably be Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream; this work is almost certainly the most frequently performed of the genre in a context separate from its accompanying play, and has been transcribed for nearly all imaginable chamber combinations, as well as concert band. The pit orchestra underscoring the dramatic action in 19th century melodrama survives in today's tradition of film scores, and spectacular films incorporating serious music can be considered the direct heirs of melodrama. Perhaps such film scores can in some sense even be considered both the heirs and the competitors of grand opera.




The word opera means "work" in Italian (from the Latin), the plural of opus suggesting that it combines the arts of solo & choral singing declamation, and dancing in a staged spectacle. "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". Significantly Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival 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.

Peri's works, however, did not arise out of a creative vacuum in the area of sung drama. An underlying prerequisite for the creation of opera proper was the practice of monody. Monody is the solo singing/setting of a dramatically conceived melody, designed to express the emotional content of the text it carries, which is accompanied by a relatively simple sequence of chords rather than other polyphonic parts. Italian composers began composing in this style late in the 16th century, and it grew in part from the long-standing practise of performing polyphonic madrigals with one singer accompanied by an instrumental rendition of the other parts, as well as the rising popularity of more popular, more homophonic vocal genres such as the frottola and the villanella. In these latter two genres, the increasing tendency was toward a more homophonic texture, with the top part featuring an elaborate, active melody, and the lower ones (usually these were three-part compositions, as opposed to the four-or-more-part madrigal) a less active supporting structure. From this, it was only a small step to fully-fledged monody. All such works tended to set humanist poetry of a type that attempted to imitate Petrarch and his Trecento followers, another element of the period's tendency toward a desire for restoration of principles it associated with a mixed-up notion of antiquity.

The solo madrigal, frottola, villanella and their kin featured prominently in semi-dramatic spectacles that were funded in the last seventy years of the 16th century by the opulent and increasingly secular courts of Italy's city-states. Such spectacles, called intermedi, were usually staged to commemorate significant state events; weddings, military victories, and the like, and alternated in performance with the acts of plays. Like the later opera, an intermedi featured the aforementioned solo singing, but also madrigals performed in their typical multi-voice texture, and dancing accompanied by the present instrumentalists. The intermedi tended not to tell a story as such, although they occasionally did, but nearly always focused on some particular element of human emotion or experience, expressed through mythological allegory.

Another popular court entertainment at this time was the "madrigal drama," later also called "madrigal opera" by musicologists familiar with the later genre. This, as can probably be guessed, consisted of a series of madrigals strung together to suggest a dramatic narrative.

In addition to opera in Italy, developing concurrently in the late 16th-early 17th centuries were the English masque and the French ballet au court, which were similar to the Italian intermedi in many respects. In both cases, the main difference apart from local musical style was a greater degree of audience (at this time, of course, the audience consisted only of invited nobles and courtiers) participation in the form of staged or processional dances. The English masque also featured a culminating "revel," in which the performers drifted into and cavorted with the audience. Opera was imported into both countries before the middle of the 17th century, where it fused with the local incipient genres. This led to the dominance of ballet in opera of the French tradition, while the thriving English tradition of incidental music, as well as the totalitarian Cromwell regime at mid-century, made it difficult for Italian-style opera to take hold there.

In earlier times, music had been part of medieval mystery plays, with the composer of these best-known to modern audiences being Hildegard of Bingen. Whether these are to be regarded as possible progenitors of opera is highly debatable. At the time of their original performance, they were easily regarded as liturgical accretions. Such accretions to the generally prescribed system of chants were quite common, and the liturgical ceremony was itself dramatic to a degree, often featuring elaborate processions, to which the actions associated with liturgical drama may have been considered merely a minor addition. A new, 17th century form of religious drama, the oratorio did arise shortly after the advent of opera, though it owes at least as much to the (originally secular) non-dramatic recititive-aria form of the cantata.

Baroque opera

Opera did not remain confined to court audiences for long; in 1637 the idea of a "season" (Carnival) of publicly-attended operas supported by ticket sales emerged in Venice. Influential 17th century opera composers included Francesco Cavalli and Claudio Monteverdi whose Orfeo (1607) is the earliest opera still performed today. Monteverdi's later Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) is also seen as a very important work of early opera. In these early Baroque operas, broad comedy was blended with tragic elements in a mix that jarred some educated sensibilities, sparking the first of opera's many reform movements, sponsored by Venice's Arcadian Academy (not a physical school, but rather a group of like-minded aristocrats and pedants), but which came to be associated with the poet Pietro Trapassi, called Metastasio, whose librettos helped crystallize so-called opera seria's moralizing tone. Once the Metastasian ideal had been firmly established, comedy in Baroque-era opera was reserved for what came to be called opera buffa. Before such elements were forced out of opera seria, many librettos had featured a separately unfolding comic plot as sort of an "opera-within-an-opera." One reason for this was an attempt to attract members of the growing merchant class, newly wealthy, but still less cultured than the nobility, to the public opera houses. These separate plots were almost immediately resurrected in a separately developing tradition that partly derived from the commedia dell'arte, (as indeed, such plots had always been) a long-flourishing improvisitory stage tradition of Italy. Just as intermedi had once been performed in-between the acts of stage plays, operas in the new comic genre of "intermezzi", which developed largely in Naples in the 1710s and '20s, were initially staged during the intermissions of opera seria. They became so popular, however, that they were soon being offered as separate productions.

Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian libretti were the norm, even when a German composer like Handel found himself writing for London audiences. Italian libretti remained dominant in the classical period as well, for example in the operas of Mozart, who wrote in Vienna near the century's close.

Bel canto and Italian nationalism

The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante and many others. Literally "beautiful singing", bel canto opera derives from the Italian stylistic singing school of the same name. Bel canto lines are typically florid and intricate, requiring supreme agility and pitch control.

Following the bel canto era, a more direct, forceful style was rapidly popularized by Giuseppe Verdi, beginning with his biblical opera Nabucco. Verdi's writing demanded vocal endurance and strength more than the agility required in bel canto (although his work includes arias demanding great vocal agility); his works were also more demanding dramatically, and many listeners prefer to hear his work sung by voices with great expressive quality, even at the sacrifice of beautiful tone.[2] Verdi's operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the nationalist movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical).

French opera

In rivalry with imported Italian opera productions, a separate French tradition, sung in the French, was founded by Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully arrived at court as a dancer and companion for young Louis XIV, that he might practice his Latin by conversing with a native speaker. Despite his foreign origin, he established an Academy of Music and monopolized French opera from 1672; and thus an Italian championed the French style in the struggle for supremecy between the French and Italian operatic styles, which raged in the French press for over a century. Lully's overtures, fluid and disciplined recitatives, danced interludes, divertissements and orchestral entr'actes between scenes, set a pattern that Gluck struggled to "reform" almost a century later. The text was as important as the music: royal propaganda was expressed in elaborate allegories, generally with affirmatory endings. Opera in France has continued to include ballet interludes and feature elaborate scenic machinery.

Baroque French opera, elaborated by Rameau,[3] was in some sense simplified by the reforms associated with Gluck (Alceste and Orfee) in the 1760s. Gluck's arias and choruses advanced the plot, a significant innovation to the static, even irrelevant, arias and choruses common at the time. The use of choruses at all had been unstylish, especially in Italy, for almost a century. While the methods of Gluck were partially derived from those of the more progressive Italians (particularly in comic operas such as Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, which had been influential in France since its performance there in 1752), he also desired to strip opera of some Italian characteristics he considered superfluous and confusing. In this effort, he adopted such French tendencies as more syllabic text-setting, use of the chorus (still occasionally used in France, unlike Italy), and less adherence to the standard da capo aria form. Because Gluck combined Italian and French methods of undermining opera seria, his reforms united those styles, his response to an ever-continuing controversy. Later in the century and early in the first half of the 19th, French opera was influenced by the bel canto style of Rossini and other Italians. This international synthesis of styles leads directly into 19th century French "Grand Opera," the most grandiose operatic genre of the 19th century with the possible exception of some Wagner works.

Other "comic" styles

French opera with spoken dialogue is referred to as opéra comique, regardless of its subject matter — it can include serious and even tragic plots, such as Bizet's Carmen and Massenet's Manon. German opera of this type is called Singspiel. Depending on the weight of its subject matter, opera comique shades into operetta, which arose as a wildly popular form of entertainment in the second half of the 19th century. Along with the music-hall potpourri called vaudeville, this gave rise to the 20th century genre of musical comedy, perfected in New York and London between the wars.

Romantic opera and French grand opéra

The synthesis of elements that is French grand opéra first appeared in Daniel-François-Esprit Auber's La muette de Portici (1828), Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829) and Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831). Grand opera is usually in four or five acts and includes dance interludes for a complete ballet company. While this genre reached its apotheosis in Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece Don Carlos, the most famous opera in the French grand opera tradition may be Gounod's Faust, particularly in the United States where it was a favorite at the Met for the better half of the 20th century. But it should be noted that Faust started out as an opéra comique, and did not reach grand opera status until later. By mid-century, opera practically meant Grand Opera; the works of Verdi, supposedly a quintessential Italian composer, owe much to this genre, as do those of Wagner, who was both influenced and made acceptable by the sheer extravagance of scale involved in such productions. The similarly extravagant production, including ballet set pieces, of such Russian works as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin can probably be traced back to the grand opera tradition as well.

German-language opera

Before the late 18th century, German-language opera was largely a copy of the Italian, although in early-century works of such composers as Reinhard Keiser, the German-speakers achieved a seriousness of tone and grandeur of scale rarely approached in Italy. The above-mentioned singspiel also flourished at this time, being descended from the school dramas with interpolated songs that the students in Lutheran church-schools often produced.

Mozart's German Singspiel Die Zauberflöte (1791) stands at the head of a German opera tradition that was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven (who wrote only one, which actually stands more in the French Revolutionary "rescue opera" tradition of Balfe and Gretry), Heinrich Marschner, Weber (composer of the great Der Freischütz, containing elements of both singspiel and melodrama, and a major influence on several Romantic composers) and eventually Wagner.

Before Wagner, there had been little all-sung German language opera of any account for several decades. Though very much inspired by the works of Weber, Wagner pioneered a through-composed style, in which recitative and aria blend into one another and are constantly accompanied by the orchestra; this results in a sort of endless melody, which is perpetuated by the avoidance of any clear cadence until moments of great articulation. Wagner also made copious use of the leitmotif, a dramatic device which associates a musical line with each character or idea in the story. Weber had used a similar device earlier, and was hardly the first to do so; in Wagner's work, however, leitmotifs are a main building-block of his scores, rather than mere recurring motifs.

Other national operas

Spain also produced its own distinctive form of opera, known as zarzuela, which had two separate flowerings: one in the 17th century, and another beginning in the mid-19th century. During the 18th century, Italian opera was immensely popular in Spain, supplanting the native form.

Just as it was in Spain, Italian opera was highly popular in Russia. In the 19th century, Russian composers also began to write important operas based on nationalist themes, national literature, and folk tales, beginning with Mikhail Glinka (e.g. Ruslan and Lyudmila) and followed by Alexander Borodin (Prince Igor), Modest Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko), and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin). These developments mirrored the growth of Russian nationalism across the artistic spectrum, in part as a function of the more general Slavophilism movement.

Czech composers also developed a thriving national opera movement of their own in the 19th century. Antonín Dvořák, most famous for Rusalka, wrote 13 operas; Bedřich Smetana wrote eight (The Bartered Bride being the most famous); and Leoš Janáček wrote ten, including Jenůfa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Katyá Kabanová.

The key figure of Hungarian national opera in the 19th century was Ferenc Erkel, mostly dealing with historical themes. Among his most often performed operas are Hunyadi László and Bánk bán.

Verismo and after

El Lissitzky's poster for the modernist opera Victory over the Sun (1923). El Lissitzky's poster for the modernist opera Victory over the Sun (1923).

After Wagner, all opera for many decades laboured in his gigantic shadow. Nearly all composers felt they must react or respond to him in some way, and opera in the early 20th century took several paths. One fairly short-lived path was manifested in the sentimental "realistic" melodramas of verismo operas, a style introduced by Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and such popular operas of Giacomo Puccini as La Boheme and Tosca. Another reaction to Wagner's mythic medievalizing can be seen in the psychological intensity and social commentary of Richard Strauss (e.g. Salome, Elektra).

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, opera has enjoyed tremendous appeal and has been performed around the world. But only a few twentieth-century operas premičred after the first performance of Puccini's Turandot in 1926 are regularly performed: Strauss's Arabella and Capriccio, Berg's Lulu, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Britten's Peter Grimes and Billy Budd and Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites are among these.

Sociology of opera

All art forms have a social context, and opera likewise cannot exist in a vacuum. A string quartet exists in manuscript and printed score, and a truly musical person, playing one part, or seated at a keyboard, can hear the intent of the music, but the printed score for an opera must be realized in a production, even a slender one, for its impact. Thus there exists a "sociology of opera", which would be as interesting to general social historians (who are unaware of it, on the whole) as it is to opera buffs. Operas have always been written with a specific audience in mind, whether more aristocratic or more popular, expressing their local prejudices and expectations, and even taking account of the vocal character of certain singers' voices. Operas have also been affected behind the scenes, by opera house politics and sometimes government censors. But, the idea that there is a canon of operas, an opera repertory which is reflected in a "List of famous operas," for example, is a late entry in the sociology of opera. Indeed, for most of opera's history, only new works were acceptable to audiences; an opera house that mounted productions of twenty year-old operas (or certainly any older) would with but few exceptions have been equivalent to a modern movie house showing similarly outdated films.

Development of the idea of "opera repertory"

During the lifetimes of composers up to Meyerbeer there was no "repertory" of operas. Composers like Bellini and Donizetti were expected to come up with fresh material, season after season, even if they had to cannibalize their own works for material that had not been offered to that city's audience (compare pastiche). One common strategy was to imitate the work of other composers, especially when such work had achieved considerable success. The idea of an opera repertory originated with Richard Wagner, in his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.

The list of famous operas is a good guide to the standard operatic repertory reflected in contemporary productions and recordings.


  • Toreador's song
    • From Georges Bizet's Carmen. Performed by the Damrosch Orchestra (1903)
  • La donna č mobile
    • Enrico Caruso sings La donna č mobile, from Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto (1908)
  • K527
    • Overture from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni
  • No Pagliaccio non son
    • From Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Performed by Enrico Caruso
  • Die Hölle Rache
    • From Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute


  1. ^ Men sometimes sing in the "female" vocal ranges, in which case they are termed sopranist, countertenor, and contralto. Of these, only 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.
  2. ^ An outstanding example of this would be Maria Callas. Her voice was unarguably flawed, but she possessed enormous acting talent and a wide range of vocal coloration. Oddly, she was able to apply this quality to great effect in tragic operas from the bel canto period, such as Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma.
  3. ^ Rameau was actually opposed by many French critics of his own day for altering Lully's practises; others, on the other hand, saw him as a champion of French sensibilities against the rising popularity of Italian opera in the country.

See also

The foyer of Charles Garnier's Opéra, Paris, opened 1875. The foyer of Charles Garnier's Opéra, Paris, opened 1875.

General references

  • The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie (1992), 5,448 pages, is the best, and by far the largest, general reference in the English language. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 and ISBN 1-56159-228-5
  • The Viking Opera Guide (1994), 1,328 pages, ISBN 0-670812927
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, by John Warrack and Ewan West (1992), 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
  • Opera, the Rough Guide, by Matthew Boyden et al. (1997), 672 pages, ISBN 1-85828-138-5

Further reading

  • Andersen, H. C., Opera and Evil Kings (ISBN 0-325-25779-7)
  • DiGaetani, John Louis, An Invitation to the Opera (ISBN 0-385-26339-2)
  • Simon, Henry W. (1946). A Treasury of Grand Opera. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.

External links

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