A musical dramatic work in which
actors sing some or all of their parts; a union of music, drama and
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
pastorale. The spread of the new "stile
to other Italian courts began with Monteverdi's "Orfeo"
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
dramas of Faustini which Cavalli
set in 1642-52 with expressive recitative and fluid arias.
By the 1660s
By 1700 opera in Italy had been more or less
in a form familiar from the middle-period
works of Alessandro
- the aria
structure in opera
had become standardized
as either ABA or ABB;
- the proportion
increased as arioso
became less promiment and recitative
- Plots and action became more varied
and spectacular stage effects
- The Venetian
and the operatic style of Cavalli,
Pallavicino, Legrenzi and others spread
partly through the activities of travelling troupes. In 1650 one of
the Febiarmonici, took opera to Naples, a city soon to rival Venice as
a centre for and disseminator of opera.
The situation in France was somewhat
- a three-movement overture followed by
- each consisting of a succession of
recitatives and arias (almost invariably
ABA, in structure),
- with the occasional
duet or ensemble and a final
"coro" for the entire cast.
France and Germany both imported Italian
the later 17th century, and there were attempts at German-language
especially at Hamburg,
where an opera house had opened in 1678, Keiser was the leading figure
- as seen in the tragedies
lyriques of Lully,
- was essentially a court
- predominantly on legendary
or mythological themes,
- and in five
- with big
ceremonial scenes reflecting the
and social order of the age of Louis XIV.
In England, French influence was at first
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
In the early 18th century there was a
in Italy against the alleged extravagance, over-elaboration and
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
and lie off the mainstream of the Italian tradition, set only three of
them, adjusted to his requirements.)
It is, however, important to realize that in 18th-century
opera, particularly as given in public opera houses,
- serve as a model of the prevailing
- the action moving through conflicts
and misunderstandings to an inevitable
"lieto fine" (happy ending),
- in which merit
its due reward,
- often brought about through an act
of renunciation by a benevolent despot.
- The music
orderly, largely an altemation of recitatives
(in which the action takes place) and
arias (in which the characters give vent to their emotional states).
- the composer
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
As the century went on, the
of opera seria was again challenged,
this time from below. Lighter forms
of opera, such as
came from humble beginnings to flourish
opera seria and even to penetrate its substance.
or comédie mêlée d'ariettes in France,
or comic opera
in England and
Serious opera began to change
The 'reforms' of Traetta, Jommelli and
("Orfeo ed Euridice",
1762) were stages in this process; the final stage is best represented
by the operas
(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
came to be preferred, especially in comic opera, at this period.
(See also The
- in the direction of freer choice and
treatment of subject matter,
- reflected in the music by
of the strict da
- 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.
By the early 19th century, even 'serious'
had moved from its earlier aristocratic milieu into the great public
with their mass audiences. One manifestation of this was the popularity
of 'rescue' operas, of which Beethoven's
(1805) is the best known. Popular audiences were undoubtedly an
factor in the growth of French grand
with its emotion-charged plots, colourful orchestration and massive
numbers; this is seen at its most
in the collaboration between the librettist Scribe and the composer Meyerbeer.
the supernatural entered into the substance of the drama,
in Germany with Weber,
While Italian serious opera as
by Rossini, Donizetti
conservative, there was a move towards
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
and elaborate system of leitmotifs,
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
a series of recitatives, arias, duets, and choruses, with little
continuity. Later in the century, mainly under the influence of Verdi,
- greater dramatic unity
- better-developed characters
- and more credible plots.
- These plots
quasidramatic, but there was a general improvement
- The recitative
were still the principal closed forms,
- with melody in the popular bel
- and an emphasis on virtuosity.
- There was also greater
balance among voices and instruments,
- but the orchestra
served as accompaniment.
Another development in Italian Romantic
was the style embraced by Leoncavallo, Mascagni,
know as "verismo,"
or realism. Realism was not limited to music. It was also
in the choice of libretti
that presented subjects from everyday life
and depicted people in familiar situations.
Operas of Puccini)
Opera in Germany presented two
styles: 1) German Romantic opera
and 2) music drama,
the latter conceived and developed by Richard
(instrumentally accompanied speech), sometimes an independent form, was
used for special effects.
- the libretti were often based on German
legends and folklore,
- with the mystery of nature
and supernatural forces serving to
- The recitatives
in German Romantic operas were distinct forms and were sometimes based
on folk song or melodies in folk style.
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
- There was also a prototype of the
in which particular instruments and melodies are used to identify and
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
were woven into one cohesive and continuous line of dramatic
(See also The
Operas and Music Dramas of Wagner)
- Wagner continued the German
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
- There were few
forms, such as recitative and aria.
- The vocal line became a continuous
melody rising out of an orchestral
fabric that was also continuous, without
- The leitmotif
unified the sonorous and tension-filled musical texture. The
leitmotif was a musical figure that was associated with a particular
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
to have successful concert performances of much of his music without
or vocal parts.
Opera in 19th-century France
characteristics that were different from the Italian. French
German, was the most important composer in this form.
- treated historical
- and was an art form of excess.
- The stage sets were grandiose,
- casts were very large,
- and the libretti were generally of great
- The entire
- The chorus
were extensively used as in earlier French opera.
During the early part of the century
a marked distinction between grand opera
and "opéra comique,"
but as Romanticism matured, the two
merged into one.
comique" was generally distinguished
grand opera by:
- use of some
instead of a continuous musical texture.
- Generally it was simpler
in musical expressiveness,
- used fewer
- 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
were combined with virtuosity and drama of the grand opera.
A particular trait in all French opera
it became even more important during the Romantic era. There was:
- unity of dramatic action with the
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
in its music and in its dramatic content.
In addition to Italian, French,
operas, there were operatic developments in those countries where
was strong, especially in Russia
These operas were
Composers such as Mussorgsky
Godunov) in Russia created works that
- also based on folklore
- or upon events of national
- with nationally
- highly original,
- with great dramatic
- but without
closed forms of the the Italians and without
Similar examples in the 20th
were the operas of Janacek
on an epic scale, Prokofiev's
The underlying note of 20th-century opera
whether conveyed in terms of
New operas continue to be composed, but the expense
of staging them and the difficulty of
advanced forms of musical utterance with the requirements
of the traditional opera house and its audience
have induced many composers to prefer
opera or other kinds of music theatre
to concert, 'workshop' or experimental production.
- symbolism (as in Debussy's
"Pelleas et Melisande")
- expressionism (Strauss's
- naturalism ("Peter
Grimes" and other operas by Britten)
- fantasy (Prokofiev's
"The Love for Three Oranges",
Ravel's "L'enfant et les
- allegory (Tippett's
"The Midsummer Marriage")
- grotesque comedy (Shostakovich's
- patriotism (Prokofiev's
"War and Peace")
- irony (Stravinsky's
"The Rake's Progress",
the last and greatest neoclassical opera)
- political or philosophical tract
"Der junge Lord"
and "The Bassarids")
- personal epic (Stockhausen's
cycle on the days of the week).