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Compiled by M.Tevfik Dorak


The immediate predecessors of the opera were early semi-dramatic forms as the late sixteenth-century madrigals, madrigal cycles (madrigal comedies), the pastoral, the masque, and the intermedii all of which usually featured pastoral scenes and subjects. The very first opera Dafne (now lost, except the prologue and one aria) was written in 1597-8 by Peri and in 1600, he composed Euridice (some parts by Caccini). The first opera that is still performed, however, belongs to Claudio Monteverdi: La favola d'Orfeo, first staged at Mantua in 1607. These early operas had only (half sung) recitatives and the only instrumental pieces were the ritornellos, which were not refrains but non-recurrent instrumental interludes. Thus, the early operas can be described as a collection of recitatives separated by occasional orchestral interludes and the aim was to revive Greek drama.


The earliest move towards opera was the solo-singing style called recitative. This literary-musical texture was intermediate between spoken recitation (dialogue) and singing. Solo vocal lines of one melody at a time with instrumental accompaniment (monody), as opposed to polyphony, was thought to be the correct way to set words as it would enhance the natural speech inflections but music was subservient to the words. Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini and Emilio del Cavaliere in the Florentine Camerata were the pioneers of the new style of solo singing. It started heightened speech with continuo accompaniment. In 1602, Caccini published first collection short vocal pieces with thorough-bass accompaniment in monodic style: Le nuove musiche. The dominance of recitatives (monody) in early opera was in contrast with the prevailing vocal forms of the time (choral, contrapuntal, polyphonic), and assured comprehensibility of the words. In dramatic monody, a simple melody follows the rhythms and intonations of speech, accompanied by simple chords. Opera as we know it, however, would eventually bring together almost every art form: painting, poetry, drama, dance and music.


Opera took root in Rome in the 1620s. In the music of Roman operas the separation of solo singing into two clearly defined types, recitative and aria, became more marked than ever. The recitative, dissonance and new musical effects created a more expressive, melodious vocal line often with regular phrases and triple meter (bel canto). Music started to become more important than the words and some melodic sections with recognizable melodic form (aria) evolved from the recitative. In the early Baroque operas, the recitative and aria were not separated to the extent common in the late Baroque (Italian) works.


Venice was to follow Rome in the opera tradition. Monteverdi's last two operas (The Return of Ulysses and L'incoronazione di Poppea-the Coronation of Poppea) and his student Cavalli's operas were written for Venice. The first commercial opera house was opened in Venice in 1637 (Teatro di San Cassiano) which would be run by Monteverdi’s pupil Francesco Cavalli after 1639 and this fractured the prevailing principle that opera was only for the enjoyment of the musical elite. The music in Venetian operas consists of recitative punctuated by self-contained close forms such as arias and duets. Whereas there is no choral ensemble yet, in the Ulysses and Poppea, there are trios. In the Poppea, there is also a lament (“Addio Roma” by Octavio). Beginning with Poppea, historical subjects (as opposed to myths) were used in opera librettos. In these last two operas of Monteverdi, there is another innovation, which would become common in later operas: closing the opera with a love duet. The second phase of Venetian operatic history is dominated by Cavalli (Giasone), Pietro Antonio Cesti (Il pomo d'oro), and Giovanni Legrenzi (Il Giustino). Later, however, Naples would become the centre of opera in Italy. Meanwhile, opera was spreading from Italy to other parts of Europe. By 1700, Vienna, Paris, Hamburg and London were also operatic centres.


The late Baroque opera emphasized virtuosity in vocal singing. The brief da capo aria soon superseded the strophic variation and was established as a vocal form. At least equally important was the bipartite aria, which consisted of only A and B or their variations. In contrast with the late Baroque opera and its rigid alternation of recitative and aria, the middle Baroque opera retained great formal flexibility. During the progress of opera from its primitive forms, the words started to lose their importance and the music was dominating over words again.


The beginnings of French opera go back to Lully (1632-1687). When he was the court composer to Louis XIV, he wrote tragedie-lyriques using Greek mythological subjects in which the vocal lines do not obscure the text, but rather support it. Recitatives and arias merge into one another. He shortened long complex arias to simple airs. Ballets played a major part in French opera. His recitatives are not harmonically rich. Lully also established a form of opera prelude (French overture) consisting of a slow introduction in dotted rhythm followed by a fast fugal-allegro section (also used by composers outside France like Purcell, Dido & Aeneas and Handel Messiah and Xerxes). His greatest successor was J.P. Rameau who used more sophisticated orchestral effects in balletic operas.


Although Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) had studied in Venice with G. Gabrieli and later with Monteverdi, and even staged his opera Daphne (in German) at Torgau in 1627 for a royal wedding, the structure of German society and the religious outlook in the country provided poor soil for opera and it was slow to flourish. In 1678, an opera company was started in Hamburg where Reinhard Keiser was the leading composer of opera in German. Handel was influenced by his operas during his visit in 1703. German opera had to wait till the time of Beethoven and Weber to gain international fame.


Handel's forty or so operas written in the first half of the eighteenth century are almost exclusively in Italian. They are often criticized for the strictly da capo structure of their arias whose long repeats arrest the progress of the drama. In Xerxes (written in 1738), Handel had to abandon the stiff opera serie style in response to the success of the Beggar's Opera in 1728 and the collapse of his opera company the Royal Academy of Music as well as its rival the Opera of the Nobility in 1737. The rigid conventions of a character's exit after singing an aria, and the dominance of da capo arias were abandoned in Xerxes. Most arias were now in strophic form as in ballad opera. Handel's contemporaries were Rameau in France and Alessandro Scarlatti (the father of Domenico Scarlatti) in Italy. Scarlatti first developed the distinction between recitativo secco for ordinary dialogue and recitativo accompagnato to awaken emotions. He also realized the importance of the aria for conveying poetic-operatic emotions. His many operas were full of virtuoso arias with negligible emphasis to drama. The ‘Neapolitan’ opera became a series of arias connected by recitative passages. The recitatives had changed their character from those of Monteverdi. In such late Baroque operas, they serve the purpose of telling the story quickly. In other words, the action took place during recitatives and arias were merely an opportunity to reflect upon the events. In the operas of Scarlatti and Handel, the story is not that important and there is a little action. What is paramount now is the singer and the show pieces personally tailored for those highly trained virtuoso singers.


Opera overture and orchestral accompaniment followed the evolution of the vocal part. A. Scarlatti established sinfonia (Italian overture) in fast-slow-fast pattern as an orchestral introduction to his operas at the turn of the century. This genre is the forerunner of the symphony emerged later in the Classical era. At the end of the seventeenth century, certain poets, under the influence of the French drama, advocated that opera librettos be purified: divested of comic scenes and supernatural or other implausible elements in the plot. This reform -opera seria- is popularised by the two Neapolitan librettists: Apostolo Zeno (1668–1750) and Pietro Trapassi, better known as Metastasio (1698–1782). The texts tended to exalt certain virtues and to be concerned with the triumph of these virtues (such as loyalty and patriotism) over obstacles and problems. The arias and recitatives were sharply separated; aria gained importance while the use of chorus declined. The arias were in the closed da capo aria form, which inhibited the dramatic flow. From Handel to Mozart, many composers used librettos written by Zeno or Metastasio in their opera serie in the eighteenth century. Adolf Hasse was acknowledged as possibly the most eminent composer of the Metastasian kind of opera seria. By the time of high Classicism, following Gluck's operatic reforms, opera seria died out. Opera buffa and rescue opera took over (discussed below). Some of the last examples of opera seria belong to Mozart: Idomeneo, rè di Creta and La clemenza di Tito.


At the beginning of the eighteenth century, opera comique (or opera buffa as opposed to opera seria) was created in Naples. It became extremely popular and successful in the early years of the eighteenth century via the works of such composers as Pergolesi. His intermezzo La Serva padrona (1733) achieved enormous popularity and affected the subsequent history of opera. Opera buffa was characterized by a vigour, exuberance, spontaneity, directness and charming fluency. Intermezzi and opera buffa differed from opera seria in that they showed awareness of changing trends in drama and literature, and considered those in their use of subject matter. Many of the plots became more down-to-earth. The da capo aria was disregarded in favour of less closed forms. Altogether, the dramatic nature of the opera was becoming more apparent. The later and more mature examples of opera buffa are Il barbiere di Siviglia and Le nozze di Figaro.


Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) and his followers upgraded the instrumental preludes in the opera. The overture had been a neutral piece without any link to the following opera (except some of Rameau's overtures). It now assumed a programmatic character, anticipating the mood of the first scene or even the whole drama that was going to unfold. In the operas of the later Neapolitan School (Leo, Vinci, Jommelli), the use of virtuoso aria was so extended that the whole consisted of arias specially written to exhibit vocal virtuoso. This abuse was the main point of attack for reformists. Gluck's operatic reform by purifying it of extraneous action and musical virtuosity resulted in a simple and classical style. He created a new, more vital, intensely expressive drama in which the music and the words were more closely allied than ever before. Gluck revived the serious approach to the arts, interest in classical -especially Greek- antiquity and a new feeling for nature and the natural. He portrays the emotions more simply, more truthfully, and in a manner more meaningful to the person of feeling and sensibility. In his first Viennese operas Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767), there was already a radical break both in form and style. As Copland summarizes 'Gluck made the dramatic idea (not the singer) supreme and wrote music that served the purposes of the text (not the singer).' Gluck's operatic reforms were:


1. Use of overture to prefigure the coming action,

2. Exclusive use of recitative accompanied by the orchestra (recitativo accompagnato as opposed to recitativo secco). The continuous sequence of linked numbers always had the orchestral support avoiding the unnaturalness of the change of texture when recitative had only harpsichord accompaniment,

3. Drastic shortening of most arias,

4. Suppression of vocal ornamentation,

5. Extensive use of ensembles and choruses stressing the collective nature of human emotion,

6. Flexibility of musical forms: recitative, aria, chorus and instrumental sections can be freely intermingled whenever the dramatic situation requires. (Orfeo has no da capo arias with elaborate writing for the voice; instead there are arias of unusually varied lengths whose scale and design are dictated only by the needs of the situation.)


Gluck is the first composer where music is fully representative of the classic style of the late eighteenth century with classic elegance and restraint (Iphigénie en Tauride is an example). Gluck's reforms influenced Spontini, Cherubini, and Mozart, but until Berlioz (Les Troyens) and Wagner, he did not have a true successor. Most people think of Mozart as the great symphonic writer, or the composer of beautiful piano concertos but he was a truly operatic composer. His 22 operas include Idomeneo, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflote. He was not a reformist but a natural opera composer. His main contribution to the form was the operatic finale. In his operas, the final scene usually consists of all main characters singing altogether (not necessarily the same thing) leading to a grand climax. The grand finale replaced the old Baroque tradition of closing with a love duet. This was so effective that almost all composers use it since then; Fidelio, Aida (Act II) and Turandot, for example, have such finales. Mozart was also the first to compose a comedy set in the German language. Die Entfuhrung aus dem Seraglio was the beginning of a German operatic tradition.


At the turn of the century, because of the violent events of the French revolution and growing Romantic spirit, the public interest changed from the Gluckian type serious opera to rescue operas and heroic operas (Cherubini's Medee [1797], Mehul's Joseph [1807] and Spontini's La Vestale [1807]). The rescue opera became popular during the war and distress in Europe between the French revolution and the eventual fall of Napoleon (1789-1815). It was a subdivision of opera-comique. Early examples were Les Rigueurs du Cloitre by Berton (1790), and Lodoiska by Cherubini (1791).  The first rescue opera staged in Vienna was Lodoiska in 1802. Cherubini's Les Deux Journees (1800), and Pierre Gaveaux's Leonore, ou l'Amour conjugal (1798) provided examples for the classic rescue opera Fidelio (1805) by Beethoven. In rescue operas, the principal character is in prison as a result of a political act. The rescue should be achieved by ordinary human characters in a realistic way. Themes deal with survival rather than death. The rescue opera is classified as a Romantic operatic genre rather than Classical. Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) is usually credited with having been the father of Romantic opera in Germany. In his best-known operas Der Freischutz (1821) and Oberon (1826), the music is lyrical, rich in tone, and descriptive; themes describe certain characters (predecessor of Wagner's leitmotives); and music is fused with words and action (rather than being a series of arias).


The following trend was the Grand Opera, which was initiated by Spontini in Paris (La Vestale, 1807). Meyerbeer (1791-1864) maintained the grand opera tradition of Spontini. He was the most successful composer of this type (Les Huguenots, L'Africane, etc.). This tradition was somehow restricted to Paris perhaps because the visual spectacle was so important in French opera but not so prominent in Italy.


The equivalents of opera buffa (or opera comique) were singspiel in Germany and ballad opera in England. The nineteenth century Romantic opera was a result of cross-influence between Italian and French styles, intermixing of serious and comic genre characteristics and the absorption of traits from contemporary symphonic music. The main sources of Romantic opera lay in the comic opera traditions. Romantic opera was based more on stereotyped musico-dramatic conventions, popular material and subjects drawn from contemporary life or recent history. Italian opera in the nineteenth century remained a 'number opera', and division of the drama into clear-cut smaller forms continued. Choral and orchestral contribution, however, gained importance. The French grand opera used plots mainly from recent European history. It was a stage spectacle, with music involving large ensemble-choral scene complexes and stunning ballets. Conventionally, it is cast in five acts. In the dramatic unit ‑tableau- of the grand opera, there is no alternation of action and repose, as in traditional recitative-da capo aria structure, but rather a steady intensification of the dramatic pace leading up to a climax. Perfect cadences with structural importance occur only at the end of each tableau not to interrupt the build-up. As a result of French operatic ballet tradition, the orchestration is more colourful than its Italian counterpart.


An artistic development emerged in Italy towards the end of the nineteenth century in Italy. This realistic opera movement was called verismo (verita means truth in Italian). It concluded a century that had seen Rossini’s comedies, the bel canto era, the grand operas and Verdi’s spectaculars. The verismo operas were re-enactment of real life with unsentimentalised characters and events. They did not deal with Greek mythology characters, legends, superpowers or heroism, but real life characters. The examples include Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni), Pagliacci (Leoncavallo), Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea) and Andrea Chenier (Giordano).


Although the aria, as a discrete unit, remained in favour with opera composers throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Wagner discarded it more or less completely while Verdi continued to use it except in his last two operas (Otello and Falstaff). In such operas, it is hard to separate an aria from the music, as the whole act is the unit of continuous drama. Richard Wagner, the last great reformist in opera history, visualized the form as a union of arts: poetry, drama, music, and staging. He renamed the opera as music drama. The uncompromising continuity brought realism in the dramatic form. He is also the creator of leitmotif, which brings cohesion to the opera by associating a musical motif with a character, idea or event. In Wagner's operas, the orchestra became part of the whole drama. It is said that Wagner brought the symphony orchestra to the opera house. Although Wagner emphasized the equality of the arts in his operas, it is the music that is supreme.


A composer with operatic ideas contrasting very much with those of Wagner was Claude Debussy. Similar to Beethoven’s, his eminent place in opera history is established by a single opera: Pelleas et Melisande (first performance in 1902). Often considered as the first modern opera, Pelleas is an example of dominance of words over music. Debussy used almost exact words of a medieval play by Maeterlinck, and not a libretto. This poignant piece of ‘understatement’ is Debussy’s answer to complex works of Wagner. Debussy did not complete another opera and nobody else attempted to use the Pelleas model. While Pelleas et Melisande remains unrepeatable, the twentieth century did produce many more original, daring, and forward-looking operas most of which have found a permanent place in operatic repertory. The operas of Strauss, Berg and Britten, for example, are enjoyed by modern audiences no less than some other ‘classic’ operas.


Resources used in this compilation:

- Copland A. What to Listen for in Music. Mentor Books, 1985 (Chapter 15: Opera and Music Drama)

- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Opera (subscription required)

- Grout DJ & Palisca CV. A History of Western Music. 4th Ed, Paris: ADAGP, 1988

- NAXOS A to Z of Opera

- Orrey L. Opera: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996

- Plotkin F. Opera 101. New York: Hyperion, 1994

- Sadie S (Ed). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 1980

- Schumann K. The History of Opera. In Opera Magic. Philips Classics Productions, 1993

- The Open University A314 Course Team. From Baroque to Romantic: Studies in Tonal Music. Milton Keynes (UK): Open University Press, 1996 (A314; Units 1,2,12,28,29)

- A number of opera guides by the Royal Opera (UK), English National Opera and Welsh National Opera.

How to Listen to and Understand Opera: A Course on Video (US)    Suggestions for Beginners

Timeline of Opera History

M.Tevfik Dorak, B.A. (Hons)

Last edited on 6 June 2006

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