Opera is a genre that combines music with story by fusing a musical score and a libretto (meaning “little book” and refers to the text of an opera). It has elements of both the concert and the theatre, with orchestra or other ensemble, stage sets and scenery, costumes, and actors. Opera traditionally incorporates two types of singing, the aria, a structured and melodic song in which opera characters share their feelings with the audience, and recitative singing, which drives the plot. This latter type of singing is in some operas omitted in favour of spoken dialogue. Opera singers are identified by their vocal range (from bass to countertenor for men and from contralto to soprano for women).
Opera originated in Florence, Italy in 1598 with “Dafne”, a work by Jaco Peri, that is often considered the first opera. In the 17th and 18th century, the art form spread its way gradually throughout Europe. It was imported to France in 1645 with Francesco Sacrati’s “La finta paza”. While opera was not initially well received, due to its promotion by an unpopular Italian-born French minister, the French eventually developed their own form of opera with the aid of Pierre Perin, who established the Academie d’Opera in 1669.
Various forms of opera have been popular over the years, beginning most notably with “Opera seria”, a highly serious form of Italian opera that dominated Europe in the 1700s. George Fredric Handle, Johann Adolf Hasse, Alessandro Scarlatti, Leonardo Vinci, Christoph Gluck, and W.A. Mozart, were popular composers of this genre. Opera seria made use of the da capo aria, an aria in ternary form. The first section of the da capo aria was usually a complete work beginning and ending in the tonic key. This was proceeded by another section usually in a different key (and a times even a different tempo). A return to the first section was usually indicated with a “da capo” (back to the beginning) direction at the end of the second section. The performer was often expected to embellish the return to the first section with improvised ornaments. The three acts of the opera seria typically ended with a buoyant chorus. These operas could contain up to thirty musical movements. The castrati, male singers who had been castrated, were conspicuous voices in this style.
In France, a special national form of opera was preferred, which has become known simply as French Opera. Prominent composers of this genre were Hector Berlioz, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Claude Debussy, Georges Bizet, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Olivier Messiaen.
In contrast to opera seria was opera buffa, a comedic form of opera that originated in Naples in the 18th century, before spreading to northern Italy and Rome. It emphasised local dialects and ordinary settings as well as simple vocal writing and produced such works as Faggioli and Tullio’s “La Cilla” and Luigi and Frederico Ricci’s “Crispino e la comare”. Mozart, though he began by composing opera seria, is perhaps best known for his comic operas, such as “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute”. The comic opera is so called for its happy endings.
In the 1800s, the bel canto style of singing dominated opera. Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti composed works during this era, which was followed by a golden age of opera, represented by Richard Wagner ( “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Walküre”) and Giuseppi Verdi (“Oberto”, “Rigoletto”, and “Il corsaro”).
Opera continued to evolve, as Bohemia, Russia, and other central and eastern European nations developed their own styles in the 19th century. Composers Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini created popular operas toward the beginning of the 20th century, and modern styles have included the neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky, the serialism of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, and the minimalism of Philip Glass and John Adams.