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Opera is an art form consisting of a dramatic stage performance set to music.
The drama is presented using the typical elements of theater, such as
scenery, costumes, and acting. However, the words of the opera (collectively
referred to as the libretto) are sung rather than spoken. The singers are
accompanied by a musical ensemble, which in some operas can be as large as a
full symphonic orchestra.
In the most traditional type of opera, there are two modes of singing:
recitative, which is similar to ordinary declamation, and aria, which refers
to sung solo passages. Short sung passages are also referred to as ariosos.
Each type of singing is accompanied by musical instruments.
Singers, and the roles which they play, are classified depending on their
respective pitches. Male singers are classified, in increasing pitch, as
bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor, countertenor. Female singers are
classified, in increasing pitch, as alto, contralto, mezzo-soprano, or soprano.
Opera draws from many other art forms. Whether the words or the music are
paramount has been a central bone of contention since the 17th century. The
visual arts, such as painting, are employed to create the visual "spectacle"
on the stage, which is considered an important part of the performance.
Finally, dancing is often part of an opera performance. For this reason, the
famous opera composer Richard Wagner referred to the genre as
Gesamtkunstwerk, or "unified artwork".
The word opera means simply "works" in Latin, the plural of opus suggesting
that it combines the arts of solo and choral singing, declamation, dancing,
and so forth, in a staged spectacle. The earliest known work that would be
recognizable as an opera today dates from around 1597. It was Dafne, (now
lost) written by Jacopo Peri for an elite circle of literate Florentine
humanists who gathered together as the "Camerata." Significantly Dafne was
an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival of
Antiquity we identify with the Renaissance. A later work by Peri, Euridice,
dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present
day. Spoken or declaimed dialogue accompanied by an orchestra, called
recitative in opera, is the essential feature of melodrama, in its original
sense. The most familiar example of such incidental music is Mendelssohn's
music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The pit orchestra that underscored the
dramatic action in 19th century melodrama survives in film scores, and
spectacular films incorporating serious music are the direct heirs of
melodrama and in their "special effects" both the heirs and the competitors
of grand opera.
Opera was not spontaneously created from nothing. Earlier 16th century
elements that had not yet fused into a recognizable "opera" included the
courtly pageants called masques. New elements of masque, with many songs,
were features of Shakespeare's late fantasy play "The Tempest" (ca. 1611).
Musico-dramatic elements can also be seen in 16th century suites of
madrigals that were strung together to suggest a dramatic narrative.
In earlier times, music had been part of medieval mystery plays. A surviving
musical work which is known to be older than Dafne is Philotea, to a
religious text, by a priest called Silberman. (Opera director Johannes
Reithmeier, former general manager of the opera houses of Passau and
Landshut (Bavaria, Germany), brought it to stage in Munich, Germany, in the
mid 1990s.) Even music of Hildegard of Bingen has been given dramatic staged
Opera did not remain confined to court audiences for long; in 1637 the idea
of a "season" (Carnival) of publicly-attended operas supported by ticket
sales emerged in Venice. Influential 17th century composers of opera
included Francesco Cavalli and Claudio Monteverdi whose Orfeo (1607) is the
earliest opera still performed today. Monteverdi's later Il Ritorno d'Ulisse
in Patria (1640) is also seen as a very important work of early opera. In
these early Baroque operas, broad comedy was blended with tragic elements in
a mix that jarred some educated sensibilities, sparking the first of opera's
many reform movements, which came to be associated with the poet Pietro
Metastasio, whose librettos helped crystallize opera seria's moralizing
tone. Comedy in Baroque opera was reserved for opera buffa, in a separately
developing tradition that owed a lot to commedia dell'arte.
Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian librettos were the norm,
even for a German composer like Händel writing for London audiences, or for
Mozart in Vienna near the century's close.
The age of bel canto is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and
In conscious rivalry to imported Italian opera productions, a separate
French tradition, invariably sung in French, was founded by Italian
Jean-Baptiste Lully, who established an Academy of Music and monopolized
French opera from 1672. Lully's overtures, fluid and disciplined
recitatives, danced interludes, divertissements and orchestral entr'actes
between scenes, set a pattern that Gluck struggled to reform almost a
century later. The text was as important as the music: royal propanganda was
expressed in elaborate allegories, generally with upbeat endings. Opera in
France has continued to include ballet interludes and feature elaborate
Baroque French opera, elaborated by Rameau, was simplified by the reforms
associated with Gluck (Alceste and Orfee) in the late 1760s. French opera
was influenced by the bel canto of Rossini and other Italians (though sung
Opera Buffa and Opera Comique
French opera with spoken dialogue is referred to as opera comique,
irrespective of its subject matter. Depending on the weight of its subject
matter, opera-comique shades into operetta, which, along with vaudeville
gave rise to the musical comedy perfected in New York.
Romantic Opera and 'Grand Opera'
The elements of French Grand Opera first appeared in Rossini's Guillaume
Tell (1829) and Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831)
Mozart's German singspiel The Magic Flute (1791) stands at the head of a
German opera tradition that was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven,
Weber, Heinrich Marschner and Wagner.
Wagner pioneered a through-composed style, in which recitative and aria
blend into one another without musical "numbers", and are constantly
accompanied by the orchestra, with applause taking place only between acts.
Wagner also made copious use of the leitmotif (Weber had used a similar
device earlier), a musical device which associates a musical line with each
character or idea in the story.
Other National Operas
Spain also produced its own distinctive form of opera, known as zarzuela.
Starting with Glinka Russian composers also wrote important operas,
including Mussorgsky, Anton Rubenstein, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.
After Wagner: Verismo and Modernisms
Opera in Wagner's huge wake took several paths. One reaction was the
short-lived sentimental "realistic" melodramas of verismo operas. Another
reaction to mythic medievalizing can be seen in the psychological intensity
and social commentary of Richard Strauss.
Throughout the twentieth century, opera enjoyed tremendous appeal, and was
performed in many cities around the world, but only a very small handful of
modern operas have joined the standard repertory: Berg's Wozzeck,
Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes and
Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites could be mentioned, but the list is short.
Famous Opera Theatres
* Arena, Verona
* Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, Bavaria
* Colón Theater, Colón Theater, Buenos Aires.
* La Scala, Milan
* La Fenice, Venice
* Liceu, Barcelona
* Metropolitan Opera, New York
* L'Opéra National de Paris (Palais Garnier, Paris)
* Opéra-Comique, Paris
* Opera Garnier de Monte-Carlo
* Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
* San Carlo, Naples
* Sydney Opera House
* Teatro Regio, Parma
* Staatsoper, Vienna
* Bolschoi, Moscow
* Marinski (aka Kirov), St Petersburg
* Opéra National de Lyon
* Deutsche Oper Berlin
* Komische Oper Berlin
* Oper Frankfurt
* Bayerische Staatsoper, München, Munich
* Drottningholms Slottsteater, Stockholm
* Tokyo Kokuritsu Gekijou, New Opera Theatre, Tokyo