Opera means ‘work’ in Italian and is derived from the Latin word Opera which is a singular noun meaning ‘work’ and also the plural of the noun ‘opus’. Opera is a form of western classical music and started in the late 16th century in Florence, Italy and soon spread to the rest of Europe. By the 18th century, Italy dominated the opera scene in Europe and soon foreign composers were attracted to Italian shores. Famous composers like Handel and Mozart composed many operas that enchanted the world. Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro, /don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and the Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte).
But how did it all start? History, mythology, folk tales, fairytales have all inspired composers for centuries to create poems, music and even literature. Opera is created to be the most creative of all the performing arts. The Renaissance in Italy proved to be a game changer for many things – in terms of music, art and architecture. This was a time when all the arts were revived.
A small group of wealthy artists, writers, musicians and statesmen, named the Florentine Camerata gathered to see how Greek drama could be revived. They heightened the text and created solo melody which would enhance the natural speech. The first acknowledged opera was composed in the late 1590s by Jacopo Peri names Dafne. Claudio Monteverdi continued with opera compositions like Orfeo, Arianna, L’incoronazione di Poppea and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse. The first opera house was also built in Venice in 1637.
The next change that entered the opera world from 1650 – 1750 was the Baroque period when the works of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi became popular and Baroque opera flourished in the royal courts as well as opera houses of Europe. Handel’s operas dominated the English landscape with his works Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare and Semele which are still played on opera stages today.
Significant composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck and Haydn emerged from 1750 – 1827 and Opera evolved to expand in structure, content and harmony. The orchestra gained in importance as they provided harmonic depth and variety to various accompaniments. Now arias and duets included chorus, solo ensembles and instrumental passages. Haydn composed over 75 works for the Esterhazy Court, Gluck stuck with a more simpler style where mythology played a huge part in the content and is remembered for his work Orfeo ed Eurydice. Mozart was a musical dramatist who painted emotions with his music by defining characters and plots with specific keys, solo ensembles and also using a variety of styles and languages. He is known to compose opera in various operatic forms like Idomeneo, Singspiel and Don Giovanni.
The French Revolution took place and more middle class people started frequenting the theaters and this caused a change in content. Shakespeare was looked for inspiration instead of the mythological creatures composers had earlier looked at. Grand Opera incorporated solo voices, chorus, ballet and elaborate scenery to enthrall its audience. The Opera Comique also emerged where the content was more humorous and less pretentious than the Grand Opera and Operetta also came up during this time. The Classical and Romantic periods were bridged with Bizet’s work like Carmen which provided exotic locations, musical themes, and drama.
From 1817 – 1900 Romanticism and Impressionism took over the world with Italian composers like Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti inspiring their singers to sing in the bel canto style which required superb technique and timing from both the main singer and the entire cast. Verdi also produced many works that are followed in many opera houses to this day. Wagner and Strauss took opera to the next level and introduced dissonance into the operas. Debussy and Ravel explored impression and stretched tonality and form at the end of the Romantic period. Recent opera composers have created operas for the singer and those that perform operas today need to be expert singers, actors and vocal technicians.