A Brief History of the Opera

Today’s brief history of the opera video is the first in a two-part series. In this video, we’re going to focus on the early days of opera, from Baroque to Classical. Romantic and Modern opera will be the subject of the next video.

I want to start this video off by saying that I wasn’t born an opera fan. As a youth, I hated it. I loved singing pop songs on the radio, but there was something really odd and abrasive about the vocals of opera that didn’t float my boat.

But sometimes we make rash decisions about the unfamiliar. There are foods we refuse to eat because we’ve tried it once and it was nasty, only to revisit it several more times down the road to finally decide, “Hey, I like this.” Who enjoys beer or black coffee on their first sip?

That’s what opera is to me – a strong cup of black coffee that I’ve learned to really appreciate over the years. I won’t lie and tell you it’s my favorite thing ever, but opera and I have a good understanding of each other now. I’ve watched many full-length operas on YouTube with subtitles (it’s the only way to live, guys), and enjoyed them immensely.

What helped me learn to appreciate opera was to study it. I learned its history, the forms and functions, and the different genres. So that’s what I’m hoping to convey to you in this video today.

Since we barely scratch the surface in today’s video, this video is going to be the first of two parts. Even then, we’ll probably go into much more depth in the future – but this should give you an overview at least.

Let’s get started!

History of the Opera: Overview

Opera is the original musical theatre. Singers in an opera will generally alternate between recitative singing, which is almost like rapping – half-spoken, half-sung, and arias, which has an actual catchy tune.

In an opera you can expect drama, with acting and a storyline. You can expect music – vocalists plus a small orchestra. There are costumes, backgrounds and sometimes dancing.

We’ll get into all the details shortly, but as an overview:

-Opera was born in Italy at the end of the 1500’s (around the start of the Baroque era)
-It’s been a long, sustained and evolving art style, continuing hundreds of years (longer than many other styles and genres)
-Tons of famous composers have written operas, such as Handel, Mozart, and Wagner (most composers tried their hand at opera at one point or another, with varying degrees of success)

History of the Opera: Origins

Opera didn’t just appear out of thin air one day in late 16th Century Italy.

Toward the end of the Renaissance, a style called monody became more popular. See, music had become incredibly complicated in the Renaissance, with multiple layers and no way to understand what the words were, since everything overlapped.

People started craving something simpler – enter monody. Usually just a single voice over chords, it was meant to convey a dramatic, emotional message. This ended up evolving into the aria from an opera.

Other ingredients in the development of opera

At the same time, theatre was a big deal across Europe in the 1500’s (as we know from Shakespeare). Theatrical performances featuring music existed, largely used for important celebrations like weddings.

There was a group of prominent artists living in Florentine who had a vision of changing the musical and theatrical landscape of Italy, as young artists are wont to do. They basically had artistic celebrity house parties, full of music and drama and literature. These guys were really into Greek drama, and really wanted to bring it back and make it cool again.

From that, the first opera was born in 1597, called “Dafne” (after the Greek goddess), written by Jacopo Peri. However, this opera has been lost to the sands of time – the honor of the earliest opera still performed today goes to Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo”, written in 1607.

History of the opera: Baroque period

So that’s how the earliest operas came to exist – some combination of the musical and theatrical climates at the time, and the work of Greek drama revivalists.

But it was in the baroque era where the word “opera” first came into use, and the genre spread across Europe. It was also in the baroque era that opera moved from the confines of wealthy courts to public performances.

The Italian word “opera” literally means “work”, as in “this is hard work” and “it’s a beautiful artistic work”.

The word was first used in 1639 (well after opera had been created), referring to a “composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined”.

Monteverdi continued being critical to the form, writing many more operas through the mid 1600’s, including “The Coronation of Poppea” and “The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland”. These early operas tended to blend comedy with tragedy, which offended some people with finer sensibilities.

See, high class folk at the time preferred their opera to be serious, whereas the growing “new wealthy”, often from humble origins, enjoyed a little humor and sometimes crassness. So opera began splitting into different, more defined forms, such as:

Opera seria

Opera seria, or “serious opera”, was mostly made up of two components:

secco recitative (“dry” recitative, with minimal accompaniment)
-long da capo arias (accompagnato, ie more instruments and voice)

I like to think of recitatives almost like Baroque rap (it really doesn’t sound like ra). It’s a style of sing-talking, and I’ll share one with you in a moment.

The da capo arias were truly elaborate, and were often meant to be extremely difficult, so that a vocal star could show off their chops. This was a genre for virtuosos. Both men and women took these lead singing roles – women sopranos such as Faustina Bordoni, and male castatos such as Farinelli.

Opera seria became a big deal in the 1700’s all across Europe except for France – they had their own style of opera. Even though the style was spreading to places like Germany and England, writers would still use Italian libretti (the text of operas). So even though Handel was writing operas for English audiences, it was all still in Italian.

Opera Spotlight: L’Orfeo

Anyway, let’s back up a moment and get back to Monteverdi, one of opera’s innovators. Any serious study of opera includes a full watch-through of L’Orfeo and The Coronation of Poppea.

Just to give you a sense of a Baroque secco recitative, check out this video:

Called “in un fiorito prato”, or, “in a flowery meadow”, it’s a very passionate recitative from the messenger Silvia, who is explaining the details of Euridice’s death. Giving brief synopses of opera seldom works because they’re usually so detailed and weird, but it helps to at least have a little bit of context.

History of the Opera: Movement against opera seria

As time went on, the genre of opera seria became more and more convoluted. It became less about the story, and more about crazy vocalists showing off everywhere. Christoph Gluck was one such critic, saying that the music must be subservient to the drama.

Gluck created his own operas to display this ideal, including Orfeo ed Euridice. The melodies weren’t wild and showy, and the harmonies were much simpler.

This was also the beginning of the Classical era, and Gluck’s work would go on to influence Classical composers such as Mozart and later Wagner.

Opera Spotlight: Orfeo ed Euridice

To get a sense of Gluck’s simpler tastes, I’ll share a link with you from Act 1, Scene 1 of Orfeo ed Euridice:

‘Ah, se intorno a quest’urna funesta’. It’s got English subtitles and the whole opera can be found on YouTube.

It’s a sad, grim moment as Orfeo mourns the death of Euridice, and nymphs and shepherds sing the chorus.

History of the Opera: Mozart

Mozart took Gluck’s philosophy and ran with it. Though he did compose several operas in the opera seria genre, such as Idomeneo, the genre was basically out of fashion by the mid to late 1700s, and they didn’t have much success.

Where Mozart really shone and made his mark was in the genre of opera buffa, which is my personal favorite genre.

Opera buffa

Opera buffa is a genre of comic operas. There are like the romantic comedies of yesteryear. As a rule they:

Mozart wrote some excellent opera buffa, including “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”. I’ve watched them both, and they’re particularly great as “first operas”, since they’re so approachable to the casual viewer.

The librettist, or playwright, was Lorenzo Da Ponte, and though his name isn’t as famous as Mozart’s, he was just as critical to the success of these operas. Mozart did all of the music stuff; Da Ponte did all of the writing stuff. It was a 50/50 venture.

Opera Spotlight: The Marriage of Figaro

Here’s a video of the full Marriage of Figaro, which is long at 3 hours, but totally worth a watch. The breathless orchestral intro is very famous and you’ll probably recognize it right away. Mozart really brought a fresh, irreplaceable spirit to opera. 10/10 would recommend.

German opera – singspiel

Just because Italian opera dominated the European landscape doesn’t mean that other countries weren’t playing with their own versions of opera.

Germans devised something called “singspiel”, in which singing alternates with speaking. Early German opera was quite a bit simpler than Italian opera, with simpler harmonies and melodies. Many early German composers like Handel chose to write in the Italian language, foregoing their own entirely, to write in the fashion of the time.

But then Mozart (who else?) entered the scene and wrote some singspiele, which allowed German opera to hold more prominence. Among these singspiele are Il Seraglio and The Magic Flute. Mozart then passed the singspiel torch to his successors Beethoven, Schubert and finally Wagner (which we’ll talk about in Part 2 of this video).

Opera Spotlight: The Magic Flute

I want to share with you a recording of The Queen of the Night singing an aria from The Magic Flute. It’s from Act II, Scene III, and it’s a very famous little tune – skip ahead the bit of dialogue and you’ll probably recognize the impressive vocal hopping.

This tune is titled, “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” – Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart. It’s all about murder, though the music is quite happy. I love it!

French opera

Instead of absorbing the Italian opera tradition, the French created their own. It started with Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, which was written in the genre tragedie en musique. This genre, a “musical tragedy”, featured mythological stories (like opera seria), but didn’t usually end tragically – the main concern was that the opera be noble and elevated.

Since these operas were specifically designed for the French language, the recitatives are unique and “move” differently than Italian operas (since the contours of language are different). Another unique feature was how each act would end with a divertissement, which involved big choruses, group dances, and a big visual spectacle (to appeal to the public).

The French also weren’t a fan of castratos, like the rest of Europe, preferring their male roles to sound a little more like men (though they were still high tenor voices).

Jean-Baptiste Lully, considered the father of French opera, wrote Cadmus et Hermione in 1673, along with the librettist Philippe Quinault. The two continued to release yearly operas in the tragedie en musique style, which would then go on to influence successors such as Rameau.

Opera comique

The French had their own version of opera buffa, which had a lot in common with the German singspiel – a mix of singing and speaking. This was called opera comique. However, instead of being like romantic comedies, these were operas with light moments but not necessarily a happy ending, like a modern-day drama.

Gluck’s Influence

Gluck, even though he was German, carried the torch left by Rameau, since he was a huge fan of French opera and incorporated a lot of French elements into his own operas. Marie Antoinette was a patron of Gluck, and he wrote a series of six stage works for Parisian audiences. This was a huge, controversial issue – bringing in an outsider to write operas in Paris – and nearly sparked a civil war.

In 1774, the French version of Orfeo et Euridice was performed, which brings us full circle in Gluck’s story. He wrote French versions of some of his other operas as well before retiring, and left a legacy that would inspire yet more musicians on the Western Music Family Tree, such as Salieri and Sacchini.

Conclusion

Stay tuned for the second part of this “History of the Opera” series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far, and I highly encourage you to check out some of the aforementioned operas – they’re lots of fun.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.