An Introduction to Opera
A Brief History of Opera
Late Renaissance and Baroque
Time period: Late 1500s – early 1700s
Major Composers: Claudio Monteverdi, George Frideric Handel
The foundations of opera are often traced to the late Renaissance era, to a group called the Florentine Camerata. This group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals gathered in Florence under the patronage of Count Giovanni Bardi to discuss and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama. Several of the members of the group were composers, and these gatherings eventually led Jacopo Peri to compose Dafne, widely considered to be the first opera. Like other operas composed during this time, its subject is based in poetry.
Opera gained popularity during the Baroque period as composers began experimenting with complex musical ornamentation for the voice. Themes explored in operas written during this period include poetry, religious stories and mythology.
Many of the first operas composed early in the Baroque period survive only in fragments or have been lost altogether. However, Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, which received its premiere in 1643, continues to be performed. One composer active during the latter part of the era was George Frideric Handel, perhaps most widely recognized today for his oratorios, such as Messiah. Examples of his operatic works include Serse (Xerxes) and Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar).
Time period: Mid-late 1700s
Major Composers: Christoph Willibald Gluck, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
In favor of writing music that was clear and simple to follow, composers of the Classical period rejected many of the musical techniques that defined Baroque music.
Christoph Willibald Gluck was born in Germany and sent to Prague to study music and philosophy. He composed prolifically in the opera seria style. He settled in Vienna where he penned his most famous opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, which illustrates his ideas about a new style of opera. Gluck's opera reforms (a shift in importance from the performers to the drama, the reduction of recitative) were considered controversial; however, they laid the foundations for the progression of the art form.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was another prolific composer during this time, creating more than 20 Italian operas and popular German music theater pieces before his death at the age of 35. Many of his operas depict ordinary people rather than mythological, Biblical or historical figures. Mozart's operas continue to be popular; Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Don Giovanni are among the most frequently performed operatic works today.
Time period: Late 1700s - 1850s
Major Composers: Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini
The bel canto period is defined by beautiful singing. More than in any other style of opera, the music written during this period was created to showcase a singer’s range, power and flexibility. Opera stories of this time frequently focused on passion and romance.
A leader in the bel canto style, Gioacchino Rossini is considered one of the most important Italian opera composers of the first half of the 19th century. Through his compositions, he reinvented the form and content of Italian opera. By age 20, he was the leading composer of his native Italy, and his musical contributions were widely celebrated throughout Austria, France and England. Rossini was comfortable writing serious opera, but he is perhaps best known for his comic operas, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) and La Cenerentola (Cinderella).
Another important bel canto composer was Gaetano Donizetti. Born quite poor, his life changed when a conductor educated him and sent him to a prestigious music school. Donizetti moved from Italy to Paris and finally to Vienna while pursuing his career. Of the operas that comprise his operatic legacy, one of the most well known is Lucia di Lammermoor, which is based on a popular 19th-century English novel by Sir Walter Scott.
Born in Italy, Vincenzo Bellini grew up in a musical household and was a child prodigy, composing his first work by the age of six. Trained in the Conservatory in Naples, Bellini moved to Milan where his operas were performed at the famous opera house, La Scala, and met with resounding success. Before his death at a young age, Bellini composed a number of operas, among those frequently performed today are I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues), La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) and Norma.
Opera on a Grand Scale
Time period: Mid-late 1800s
Major Composers: Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner
During his lifetime, Giuseppe Verdi dominated the opera scene in Italy. At a memorial a month after his funeral, thousands of people filled the streets of Milan and sang the most famous of his choruses, "Va, pensiero" from his opera Nabucco. His operas demanded a great deal from lead performers, orchestra and chorus, both musically and dramatically. Verdi's La traviata and Rigoletto are among the most popular operatic works performed today. Verdi is known for developing the style of grand opera, which is characterized by large casts, stunning sets, beautiful costumes and high drama. Verdi's Aida — set in ancient Egypt and including a large processional scene in which hundreds of singers, dancers and animals share the stage — is one example of grand opera.
Born in Germany, Richard Wagner was an innovator who created large-scale operatic works that dramatize the legends and mythology of Nordic and Germanic culture. Wagner's operas are lengthy productions that challenge singers, as they require not only a sizable vocal range but also the ability to project over a large orchestra. His operas have attracted a strong fan base, with opera lovers traveling the world to see his complete Ring Cycle. Comprised of four distinct operas — Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung — The Ring Cycle is usually performed over several evenings.
Time period: Late 1800s - early 1900s
Major Composers: Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Giacomo Puccini
Verismo means "realism" in Italian, and it was often portrayed in opera through central themes of passion, violence or through sensational depictions of daily life. The composers and playwrights of this time were particularly interested in subjects that reflected the day-to-day life and struggles of ordinary people, local customs and regional language and idioms. Examples of verismo operas are Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.
Giacomo Puccini is one of the composers associated with the verismo period. Born into a family of church musicians, Puccini was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. However, after attending a performance of Verdi's Aida, he made the decision to compose opera, a choice that not only altered the course of the composer's life, but also dramatically altered the landscape of opera. His operas are known for their musical accessibility and dramatic stories. Madama Butterfly, La bohème, Turandot and Tosca are among the most frequently performed operas today.
Time period: early 1900s to present day
Major Composers: George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Carlisle Floyd
Opera has been performed in America since the 1700s, and opera houses have existed in cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco and New Orleans since the 1800s. In the early 1900s, as Broadway evolved, opera composers began to incorporate elements of musical theater into their works, blurring the lines between opera and Broadway.
George Gershwin, born in 1898, began his musical career as a songwriter working with his lyricist brother, Ira, creating such songs as "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "Our Love Is Here To Stay." The Gershwins found their musical home on Broadway, but perhaps their best-known work, Porgy and Bess, continues to be one of the most-performed American works on opera stages. Porgy and Bess contains elements from jazz, African-American music and folk traditions. It includes musical works such as jubilees, blues, prayer songs, work songs and spirituals that are incorporated alongside traditional operatic arias and recitatives.
Scott Joplin, a well-known composer of ragtime and jazz music, also wrote opera. His main composition, Treemonisha, has many traditional opera elements and also incorporates ragtime and jazz influences.
Gian Carlo Menotti, one of the more prolific opera composers of the 20th century, sought to bring opera to different mediums. His opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, was the first work written especially for radio, and his Christmas classic, Ahmal and the Night Visitors, was composed for NBC-TV, where it premiered in 1951. Several of his operas, including The Telephone, The Medium and The Consul, have been performed on Broadway. In addition, Menotti created the Spoleto Festival, which takes place annually in Italy and in Charleston, South Carolina.
Kurt Weill, a German-born immigrant and one of the 20th century's most versatile composers, created unique works with jazz influences, many of which also included dance elements. He experienced great success as an opera composer both in Europe and on Broadway, while still maintaining his own original style through his compositions. He is best known for his collaboration with Bertold Brecht on The Threepenny Opera, a series of cabaret-style musical numbers with spoken dialogue, and for Street Scene, an adaptation of Elmer Rice's novel about life in New York City that played on Broadway for 148 performances.
The 1950s saw important premieres on the opera stage, including The Tender Land by Aaron Copland and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, which premiered at Florida State University. Composers during this period sought to portray truly American subjects. The Tender Land centers on a Midwestern farming family during the Depression and follows high school senior Laurie as she makes decisions about how to live her life as she comes of age during changing times. Carlisle Floyd depicts life in rural and small-town America through such operas as Susannah, Cold Sassy Tree and Of Mice and Men.
In the 1960s and '70s, opera's popularity in the United States grew. As a result, opera companies were established in cities of all sizes, and fans no longer needed to travel to a major metropolis to see a performance. With the increased number of opera houses and with growing audiences, companies began commissioning new works, a trend that continues to this day.
New operas depict a variety of subjects, many of which originate in literature. Little Women, composed Mark Adamo, is based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott; The Great Gatsby by John Harbison is based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel; Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie and Terrance McNally is based on the writings of Sister Helen Prejean; and Margaret Garner, by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison, dramatizes the life of a historic person whose story also serves as the basis of Morrison's book Beloved.