A musical dramatic work in which the actors sing some or all of their parts; a union of music, drama and spectacle, with music normally playing a dominant role.


Antecedents of opera indude the intermedio, but the earliest operas staged by the group of 'camerata' around patrons in Florence were courtly entertainments in the form of the pastorale. The spread of the new "stile rappresentativo" to other Italian courts began with Monteverdi's "Orfeo" (Mantua, 1607).  As opera became a public entertainment, from 1637 at Venice, its content and structure changed to meet the demands of new audiences.  A more accessible type of opera can be seen in the romantic dramas of Faustini which Cavalli set in 1642-52 with expressive recitative and fluid arias.

By the 1660s

  • the aria structure in opera had become standardized as either ABA or ABB;
  • the proportion of arias increased as arioso became less promiment and recitative less melodic.
  • Plots and action became more varied and violent and spectacular stage effects were featured.
  • The Venetian repertory and the operatic style of Cavalli, Sartorio, Pallavicino, Legrenzi and others spread elsewhere, partly through the activities of travelling troupes. In 1650 one of these, the Febiarmonici, took opera to Naples, a city soon to rival Venice as a centre for and disseminator of opera.
By 1700 opera in Italy had been more or less standardized in a form familiar from the middle-period works of Alessandro Scarlatti:
  • a three-movement overture followed by three acts,
  • each consisting of a succession of sharply differentiated recitatives and arias (almost invariably ternary, ABA, in structure),
  • with the occasional duet or ensemble and a final "coro" for the entire cast.
The situation in France was somewhat different. French opera,
  • as seen in the tragedies lyriques of Lully,
  • was essentially a court spectacle,
  • predominantly on legendary or mythological themes,
  • and in five acts,
  • with big choral and ceremonial scenes reflecting the magnificence and social order of the age of Louis XIV.
France and Germany both imported Italian opera in the later 17th century, and there were attempts at German-language opera, especially at Hamburg, where an opera house had opened in 1678, Keiser was the leading figure and Handel wrote his first operas.

In England, French influence was at first dominant in the 'semi-opera' with spoken dialogue; all-sung English operas, of which Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" is the outstanding 17th-century example, were to be a rarity until well after 1900.

In the early 18th century there was a reaction in Italy against the alleged extravagance, over-elaboration and confusions of the 17th-century libretto; this was initiated by Zeno and completed after 1720 by Metastasio, whose opera seria librettos were set by numerous composers throughout the 18th century, including Vinci, Leo, Porpora, Hasse, Jommelli, Paisiello and Cimarosa. (Handel, whose mature operas were written for London and lie off the mainstream of the Italian tradition, set only three of them, adjusted to his requirements.)

Metastasio's librettos

  • serve as a model of the prevailing rationalist philosophy,
  • the action moving through conflicts and misunderstandings to an inevitable "lieto fine" (happy ending),
  • in which merit receives its due reward,
  • often brought about through an act of renunciation by a benevolent despot.
  • The music is equally orderly, largely an altemation of recitatives (in which the action takes place) and arias (in which the characters give vent to their emotional states).
It is, however, important to realize that in 18th-century opera, particularly as given in public opera houses,
  • the composer was not the dominant figure he was to become:
  • operas were usually put together by house composers and poets,
  • often drawing on several composers' music, old and new,
  • to suit the available singers, who (then as now) were the chief draw - above all the castratos and the sopranos.


As the century went on, the structure of opera seria was again challenged, this time from below. Lighter forms of opera, such as
  • opera buffa in Italy,
  • opéra comique or comédie mêlée d'ariettes in France,
  • ballad opera or comic opera in England and
  • Singspiel in Germany,
came from humble beginnings to flourish alongside opera seria and even to penetrate its substance.

Serious opera began to change

  • in the direction of freer choice and more imaginative treatment of subject matter,
  • reflected in the music by modifications of the strict da capo
  • and the rise of new aria forms,
  • greater use of accompanied recitatives
  • and of the chorus,
  • and in the end a virtual fusion of the formerly distinct French and Italian characteristics.
The 'reforms' of Traetta, Jommelli and especially Gluck ("Orfeo ed Euridice", 1762) were stages in this process; the final stage is best represented by the operas of Mozart from "Idomeneo" (1781), including his three with Da Ponte with their many ensembles (including extended act finales, following the Venetian reforms of the poet Goldoni and the composer Galuppi) which bring a new emotional weight to comic opera. Two-act form came to be preferred, especially in comic opera, at this period.  (See also The Operas of Mozart)

By the early 19th century, even 'serious' opera had moved from its earlier aristocratic milieu into the great public theatres with their mass audiences. One manifestation of this was the popularity of 'rescue' operas, of which Beethoven's "Fidelio" (1805) is the best known. Popular audiences were undoubtedly an influential factor in the growth of French grand opera, with its emotion-charged plots, colourful orchestration and massive choral numbers; this is seen at its most successful in the collaboration between the librettist Scribe and the composer Meyerbeer. Nature and the supernatural entered into the substance of the drama, particularly in Germany with Weber, Marschner and others.


While Italian serious opera as cultivated by Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi remained relatively conservative, there was a move towards greater musical continuity during the 19th century. The rigid separation of recitative and aria was gradually broken down, and virtually eliminated in the Wagnerian music drama, with its 'endless melody' and elaborate system of leitmotifs, and (in a different way) in the final works of Verdi and the verismo operas of his Italian successors, above all Puccini.


Early Romantic opera in Italy retained a series of recitatives, arias, duets, and choruses, with little dramatic continuity.  Later in the century, mainly under the influence of Verdi, it showed:
  • greater dramatic unity
  • better-developed characters
  • and more credible plots.
  • These plots were often quasidramatic, but there was a general improvement in quality.
  • The recitative and aria were still the principal closed forms,
  • with melody in the popular bel canto style
  • and an emphasis on virtuosity.
  • There was also greater balance among voices and instruments,
  • but the orchestra still served as accompaniment.

Another development in Italian Romantic opera was the style embraced by Leoncavallo, Mascagni, and Puccini, know as "verismo," or realism.  Realism was not limited to music.  It was also shown in the choice of libretti that presented subjects from everyday life and depicted people in familiar situations.  (See The Operas of Puccini)


Opera in Germany presented two significant styles:  1) German Romantic opera and 2) music drama, the latter conceived and developed by Richard Wagner.

In German Romantic opera,

  • the libretti were often based on German legends and folklore,
  • with the mystery of nature and supernatural forces serving to intensify dramatic expression.
  • The recitatives and arias in German Romantic operas were distinct forms and were sometimes based on folk song or melodies in folk style.
"Melodrama" (instrumentally accompanied speech), sometimes an independent form, was used for special effects.

Two traits of the music drama were exhibited to some degree in the German romantic opera.

  • The orchestra became a powerful instrument in creating atmosphere, moods, and even bits of realism.
  • There was also a prototype of the music dramas' "leitmotif," in which particular instruments and melodies are used to identify and characterize individuals.

The ideal of music-drama, or the art of the future as it was called by Wagner, was that of an art form in which all the arts were woven into one cohesive and continuous line of dramatic expression.

  • Wagner continued the German tradition but developed his own stories, drawing heavily upon German myths and folklore.
  • His libretti were filled with romantic mysticism and supernaturalism, and almost all were concerned with the concept of redemption through love.
  • There were few closed forms, such as recitative and aria.
  • The vocal line became a continuous melody rising out of an orchestral fabric that was also continuous, without usual cadences.
  • The leitmotif unified the sonorous and tension-filled musical texture.  The Wagnerian leitmotif was a musical figure that was associated with a particular idea, person, object, mood, or situation.
  • Because Wagner used the orchestra as the main source of dramatic expression, his operas are symphonic in nature.  Consequently, it has been possible to have successful concert performances of much of his music without staging or vocal parts.
(See also The Operas and Music Dramas of Wagner)


Opera in 19th-century France showed some characteristics that were different from the Italian.  French grand opera
  • treated historical subjects
  • and was an art form of excess.
  • The stage sets were grandiose,
  • casts were very large,
  • and the libretti were generally of great length.
  • The entire text was sung.
  • The chorus and ballet were extensively used as in earlier French opera.
Meyerbeer, a German, was the most important composer in this form.

During the early part of the century there was a marked distinction between grand opera and "opéra comique," but as Romanticism matured, the two styles merged into one.

"Opéra comique" was generally distinguished from grand opera by:

  • use of some spoken dialogue instead of a continuous musical texture.
  • Generally it was simpler in musical expressiveness,
  • used fewer characters, and
  • compared with earlier French opera, relied very little on the chorus.

In the French lyric opera the theatrical aspect and the simple forms of "opéra comique" were combined with virtuosity and drama of the grand opera.  A particular trait in all French opera was the ballet, and it became even more important during the Romantic era.  There was:

  • unity of dramatic action with the music that was seldom found in the Italian style.
  • There was also less virtuosity with more emphasis on the lyric quality of melody.
  • Moreover, French Romantic opera rarely displayed the intensity and passion of either the Italian or the German
  • but was more conservative in its music and in its dramatic content.


In addition to Italian, French, and German operas, there were operatic developments in those countries where nationalism was strong, especially in Russia and Bohemia.  These operas were
  • also based on folklore
  • or upon events of national significance
  • with nationally important personages.
Composers such as Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov) in Russia created works that are
  • highly original,
  • with great dramatic power
  • but without using the closed forms of the the Italians and without imitating Wagner.

20th Century

Similar examples in the 20th century were the operas of Janacek and, on an epic scale, Prokofiev's "War and Peace".

The underlying note of 20th-century opera is tragedy, whether conveyed in terms of

  • symbolism (as in Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande")
  • expressionism (Strauss's "Salome" and "Elektra", Schönberg's "Erwartung")
  • naturalism ("Peter Grimes" and other operas by Britten)
  • fantasy (Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges", Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortilèges")
  • allegory (Tippett's "The Midsummer Marriage")
  • grotesque comedy (Shostakovich's "The Nose")
  • patriotism (Prokofiev's "War and Peace")
  • irony (Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress", the last and greatest neoclassical opera)
  • political or philosophical tract (Henze's "Der junge Lord" and "The Bassarids")
  • personal epic (Stockhausen's cycle on the days of the week).
New operas continue to be composed, but the expense of staging them and the difficulty of reconciling advanced forms of musical utterance with the requirements of the traditional opera house and its audience have induced many composers to prefer chamber opera or other kinds of music theatre susceptible to concert, 'workshop' or experimental production.