A Timeline in Opera History

castrazione Nicolini Nicolo Grimaldi di Marco Ricci

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.

Amazing Facts about Opera


Did you know that women weren’t allowed on stage back during the seventeenth century? That means all the alto and soprano voices had to be done by males, even those in a chorus. Castrati (who were castrated males) sang the soprano/ mezzo/ alto parts. There have been many well known castrati and one such famous one was Baldassare Ferri. People would shower flowers on him even three miles out of the town.

  • While practicing for ‘Falsa immagine’ from Handel’s Ottone, famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni refused to sing the aria. This cause Handel to grab her by the waist and threaten to throw her out of the window if she did not agree.


  • Opera singers sometimes would hire a group of people to cheer their performances or to boo their rivals’ performances. This group was known as a claque and it was a common practice in European opera performances.
  • Mozart wrote his first opera at the age of just 12! The opera Bastien und Bastienne was a parody of Le devin du village which was an operatic intermezzo composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  • Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio which was produced after he worked on it for 11 years. During that time period, he revised it again and again until he felt it met his approval. It was produced in 1805, just as he was going deaf.
  • It is appropriate to cheer for male or female performances after an opera. For a male you would shout out ‘bravo’, for a female it would customary to say ‘brava’. If you want to cheer for 2 or more singers, you would say ‘bravi’ which is the plural and ‘brave’ for an only woman group.
  • The La Scala Opera House located in Milan, Italy is known for having the toughest audience to please. Apparently, the audience has been known to keep the performer singing until they get it right.


  • Dafne by Jacopo Peri with the words (liberetto) by Ottavio Rinuccini is considered to be the world’s first modern opera and was an instant hit with the audience. Although the music has since been lost to us, the music was probably secondary to the theme or story – at least in the early days of opera.
  • Euridice is the earliest surviving opera and was performed in Florence in 1600. This play was written by Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini.
  • The first public opera house ‘San Cassiano’ was opened in Venice and Claudio Monteverdi helped shift the focus of Opera to Venice. He is also known as the ‘father of Opera’ and helped make Venice the opera capital of the world.
  • The greatest opera singer of all time is arguably considered to be Enrico Caruso. He was the 18th out of 21 children and was one of the three who survived beyond infancy. To earn money for the family, he would sing on street corners and also worked in a machine shop. He was also the first opera singer to sing almost exclusively forte, which means loud.
  • If you like conspiracy theories, it is rumored that Mozart wrote several cantatas for Freemason’s ceremonies. He joined the Freemasons n 1784 and his liberettist was also a former Freemason. He composed the Magic Flute and incorporated many of their ideals into the opera – like wisdom, nature, sacrifice and friendship but died nine weeks after the premier of the opera. Some say that he was killed because his opera revealed the secrets of the society.
  • According to reports from the National Endowments for the Arts, around 6.6 million people attended at least one Opera performance in 2002.

What Makes Opera So Special And Why You Should Go To The Opera


Many people have the misconception that the opera is filled with wealthy people who are dressed to impress, sitting in their boxes looking bored but going to the opera because that’s the thing to do. When you say opera, many people think that it’s a just a bunch of fat people who sing things in a language you can’t understand, dressed in costumes that look ridiculous. This is sad because the opera is so much more than that. This is just stereotypical image that people have and its one that should be broken.

Why should you visit the opera? And why should you convince your friends to go to the opera? Well, why not? If you’ve ever watched an opera, you’ll be surprised at how it can pull at your emotional strings. You won’t come out of the theater unmoved. Opera is the most emotionally direct out of all the existing art forms. It is not only powerful vocals that can move you, but the sets with their elaborate landscapes and props to transport the viewer to a different place. You will forget that you are seated in theater surrounded by hundreds of people and you will instead be transported to a scene set elsewhere while watching dramatic scene play out with the help of an expert orchestra.

This is art in its purest form. Opera combines the best of music, vocals, acting and set design to bring you a complete package. It is story telling at its best. But we come back to why would you want to watch opera? This is because it is an experience like no other. Experience the emotional highs and lows of the drama that unfolds. You’ll be one with the heightened emotional tensions that are released at climatic moments in the opera. You’ll be carried away from the reality that you live in, to experience the joys and sorrows of the characters on stage.

Opera deals with human emotions that affect us deeply – love, sadness, joy, sorrow, anger and death and all these can be experienced through Opera. It doesn’t necessarily have to showy and dramatic, there are many compositions that are subtle but get the message across. If you or your friends are new to the world of Opera, you could start off with something that would lighter and best suited to welcome you. Certain operas like La Bohème, Don Giovanni and La Traviata.

When you think about it, Opera doesn’t conform to various social or economic realities. It is excessive in all forms – in terms of art and scale the costs soar beyond what is deemed reasonable, the demands on its performers is very high and there needs to be superb administrative skills to manage the various temperaments that will come together in this creative live. All art forms must blend in seamlessly, from vocals to music, acting to design to staging. All must go hand in hand to produce a successful opera.

When you watch Opera, you are watching the results of months of practice, hard work, sacrifices, excessive costs and coordination between hundreds of people. Each person involved in an opera plays a crucial role in bringing it about and this probably is the best example of team work that you could possibly get. We may not realize the amount of work that goes into creating and producing an opera, but to appreciate it is also to understand it. Opera utilizes a combination of great music and great drama that can move you physically and emotionally and this is why you should go to the opera.