The Interesting History of Opera

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An opera is a form of theater where music has a leading role. Parts are taken by singers, but it still differs from musical theater. It is usually a collaboration of a composer and a librettist. It includes a number of the performing arts, like acting, costume, scenery, and sometimes dance. The performance usually takes place in an opera house and is accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble led by a conductor.

It is an important part of the Western classical music tradition. It was born in Italy during the Renaissance more than 400 years ago, and up until now, it continues to inspire people with this music, drama, and visual arts. If you want to know more, read on, and we will tell you about the history and some interesting facts about operas.

History of Opera

The Barber of Seville opera performance
Operas started in Florence, where a small group of artists, writers, musicians, and statesmen known as the Florentine Camerata decided to recreate the storytelling of Greek drama by means of music. Dafne was considered by many to be the first opera, and it was composed by Jacopo Peri in 1597. From then on, there were two types of opera that emerged. One is opera siera or grand, formal, and dignified pieces to befit the royalty that attended and supported them. Opera seria had classically styled themes concerning aristocracy, myths, and other subjects. The other one is an opera buffa or comedies. Opera buffa depicts the struggles and daily life of common people.

During the Baroque era, which was from 1600 to 1750, opera became very popular in Europe. It was a remarkable, expensive affair full of ornate arias and decorative stage sets featuring moving parts. Georg Frideric Handel, a German who lived most of his life in London, was one of the greatest composers of Italian Baroque opera. He is renowned for his instrumental, oratio, and operatic compositions. The English Oratorio and the organ concerto are two of his major accomplishments. Upon the coronation of the future King George II of Great Britain, he was given the assignment of writing the official hymn. The rise of castrati or male singers who were castrated as boys to preserve their soprano voices was also seen during this period. It’s because female singers were not allowed to sing on stage during these times. And the few who survived and became successful were the singing stars during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the present time, the roles of those boys were sung by women or countertenors.

When the Classical period came, which was from 1750 to 1830, opera content began to change. This is due to the social movement called the Enlightenment. Idealists and intellectuals were aiming for revolution and reform at this time. Reformations were considered during this time in a variety of areas of society, including oppression, religious fanaticism, and particularly in the government and the church. Operas during this time had less elaborate musical forms and more realistic plots. It also includes a reaction against the excessive vocal display.

During the Classical period, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the ultimate composer. Mozart was a brilliant classical composer and musician. Some of his works fall under important genres, including opera, symphony, solo concerto, piano sonata, and others. Most of his compositions are either serenades, religious music, or other light entertainment. The harmony, lightness, and clarity characteristics of classical music are evident throughout Mozart’s compositions. One of his works was The Marriage of Figaro, which is a farce where servants eventually outsmart their upper-class masters. It was based on a play by Beaumarchais, a French writer. It is fast, mocking, and funny, but was also filled with splendid music. And as seen in Mozart’s masterpiece called Don Giovanni, it is proven that he’s also a master of high drama.

In the Romantic period, which was from 1830 to 1900, opera continued its popularity. In fact, it got bigger, louder, and longer during this time, making Grand opera very famous. The Italian bel canto movement was one important style during the Romantic period. This style was all about vocal brilliance and adornment strengthened by a simpler harmonic structure. 

A lot of bel canto composers enjoyed a good tragedy, and they often made their heroines go mad via a disenchanted love affair. This made it a good excuse to enjoy a long and elaborate vocal display. One of the most popular “mad act” occurred in Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. In this opera, the heroine was forced into marriage then murders her husband on their wedding night and then loses her mind spectacularly.

In the 19th century, the best-known opera, and probably the most popular of all time, is Carmen, which is composed by a French composer named George Bizet.  This opera was about a Gypsy woman who values her free-spirited life above anything else, and a soldier who becomes infatuated with her. It is filled with catchy melodies. 

When the late 19th century came, the two giants of opera emerged. One is Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas include Aida, Il Trovatore, and Rigoletto, which all had tuneful and dramatic styles. The operatic originality of this Italian composer made him well-known. He is renowned for his intricate and subtle compositions, but he also preserved the strength of the narrative and the prominence of the singer’s singing style. He understood the human voice and the internal processes behind the characters. La Traviata is perhaps, his most popular opera. It was about Violetta, a lovely courtesan who is seriously ill with tuberculosis. In this tale, a woman transforms for the sake of love. But, due to miscommunication, intervention from others, and Violeta’s lover’s “blindness” to the reality, misunderstandings occurred, she received insults from her lover, and she suffered alone from her illness. Even though the truth eventually came out, they were able to make up, but, as was to be expected, the lead character passed away as a result of her illness, thus the conclusion was not happy ever after.

The other giant of opera was from Germany named Richard Wagner.  He is a well-known conductor, composer, and theater director. He changed the course of opera singlehandedly with his huge ambition and talent. He introduced new ideas in harmony, the use of themes, and expanded use of the orchestra and operatic structure. The most popular opera he created is the 15-hour, four-opera Ring cycle, which includes Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung. He’s also an important influence on the world of music. This is true, especially for composers Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Jules Massenet, and Richard Strauss, whose operas, Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, characterized by their brilliance in orchestral writing and tone color, are immersed in Wagner’s late-Romantic style.

Another Italian with a fluent talent for melody dominated the early 20th century. He’s Giacomo Puccini, who wrote vastly popular works in the Italian grand opera tradition. These operas usually feature the tragic death of the heroine. These also have a new emphasis on realism, or also known as verismo. Italian influences can be found in this operatic styl. It was created in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Realistic human stories are prevalent in this genre. Some of his popular operas include Tosca, La Boheme, Turandot, and Madama Butterfly.

In 1934, Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District clashed with 20th-century politics. This opera was so disturbingly, brilliantly dramatic that the Soviet government condemned it. The Soviet delegation was present at the opera’s world premiere, but they left before the last act even began and afterwards appeared in an article criticizing the opera. The story centers on politics and morality. In 1945, Benjamin Britten from the United Kingdom proved himself one of the masters of opera when his work called Peter Grimes debuted. It is about a difficult, outcast fisherman, his suspicious neighbors, and the sea that dominates their lives. This three-hour epic English opera is about unjust justice, anguish, and retribution.

Opera and politics come in full circle with one of the most successful and engaging works of the late 20th century, which is Nixon in China by John Adams. This opera is all about Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 to see Chairman Mao. John Adam’s most recent opera was the Girls of the Golden West in 2017. 

Today, operas are still very popular in Italy, but also in many other parts of the world, including Germany, France, England, Russia, Spain, Iran, China, Latin America, and more. Each of these places has their own styles and themes, but are all inspired by Italian opera.

Famous Opera Houses as of the Present Time

view of the Sydney Opera House image

Opera houses are symbols of luxury and opulence. Let’s have a look at some stunning opera houses in operation today.

  • Sydney Opera House- The Sydney Opera house, which opened in 1958, can accommodate 5,738 people at a time. This expressionist-influenced modern building is situated in Sydney, Australia.
  • Teatro Real- Located in Madrid, Spain, lies the Theatre Real. One of the most renowned opera theaters in Europe, it was established in 1850.
  • Teatro Colon- The Teatro colon was built in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1889 and can accommodate 2,478 people.
  • The Royal Opera House- It was built in 1728 and was formerly known as Theater Royal. 2,256 people can be seated in the main auditorium. The building’s design is classical.
  • La Scala- It was constructed in 1778 in Milan, Italy, and has a Neoclassical design. The building can hold 1800 people on its 12 storeys.
  • Teatro de San Carlo- The Imperial Palace of Naples on Italy’s grounds include the opera house, which is built in a neoclassical style. It was built in 1737 and has a capacity of 1,386 people. It was Europe’s oldest opera house.
  • Metropolitan Opera House- It is situated in Manhattan’s Upper West side. In 1880, it was founded. It can accommodate 3,850 people in seats. Any performance within the opera house cannot be recorded without the management’s prior consent.
  • Vienna State Opera- It is situated in Wein, Austria, and was founded in 1869. It can house a total of 1,709 people and has Renaissance revival architecture.
  • Palais Garnier- Emperor Napoleon III directed the construction of this masterwork of Beaux-Arts architecture, Baroque Revival architecture, and Second Empire style architecture in 1861.
  • Glyndebourne Opera House- A total of 1,200 people can sit inside the Jacobethan building, which was built in 1934. It is situated in the East of Sussex, a stunning area of the English countryside.
  • Bolshoi Theater- The neoclassical building, which was constructed in 1825, is regarded as Russia’s main theater. The government gave it recognition for its role in the growth of performing arts in the country.
  • Tokyo Opera City- This modern skyscraper, which is 234 meters tall, was built in 1992. It can be found in Tokyo, Japan.
  • Guangzhou Opera House- The 1,804 seat capacity hall was inaugurated in 2010. It has an architectural style of deconstructivism. it is located in Guandong Province, China. It is Southern China’s largest performing arts complex.
  • Royal Swedish Opera- Built in 1898, this marvel of Art Nouveau architecture is located in Stockholm, Sweden.
  • Mariinsky Theater- The building was built in 1783 and inaugurated in 1860. It was regarded as a significant Russian cultural icon. Its style is neoclassical.
  • Teatro La Fenice- Venice, Italy is home to the 1,126-seat opera theatre. It is one of Italy’s most opulent opera theaters. It was established in 1792.
  • Hungarian State Opera House- It is located in Budapest, Hungary. It can accommodate 1,300 people. Its architecture is in the Renaissance Revival-Eclecticism-Baroque style and dates back to 1884.
  • Estates Theater- This Neoclassical-Classical building, which is in the Czech Republic, was inaugurated in 1783. Locally, it was referred to as Stavovske Divadlo.
  • Gran Teatre del Liceu- It initially opened its doors in 1847 and can accommodate a spectacular 2,292 people. It can be found in Barcelona, Spain, and is one of the best opera houses in all of Europe.
  • Warsaw Grand Theater- The Neoclassical building can accommodate 2,000 people. It is based in Warsaw, Poland, and was officially launched in 1833.
  • Theatre Royal- The Classical-French Renaissance architectural gem, which has 1,541 seats, was opened in 1867 and is situated in the United Kingdom.
  • Palacio del Bellas Artes- The building process began in 1904, and it was completed in 1934. The 53-meter building was designed in the Art Nouveau, Neoclassical, and Art Deco styles. Situated in Mexico City. The national theater, national dance company, fine arts chamber orchestra, and numerous more priceless pieces of Mexican culture and the arts are all housed there.

More Interesting Facts About Operas

opera performance
If you still want to know more about these performances, here are some interesting facts about operas.

  • The term “opera” is from the Latin word opus, which means work. In 1939, the term “soap opera” was first used. It was a derogatory term for daytime shows on the radio that were sponsored by soap manufacturers.
  • If you are wondering how the opera singers’ voices can be heard over a full orchestra, it’s because they sing at a different sound frequency.
  • In 1697, when Pope Innocent XII heard of the scandalous behavior at the Tor di Nona, he pronounced the opera house immoral and ordered it to be burned.
  • During the 18th century, opera seria or serious opera featured the main singers standing in ballet’s third position, with bent, bowlegged knees and heels together, with an ankle in front of the other. The main singers remained in that position the entire song.
  • After an opera, it is proper to yell bravo for a man and brava for a woman. If you are cheering for two or more singers, you can use the plural form, bravi. If the opera consists only of women, then you can yell brave (brah-vay).
  • In 1778, La Scala in Milan was inaugurated. It is popular for having the hardest-to-please audience in opera. In fact, the opera audience can make a performer keep singing until he gets it right.
  • San Cassiano was the first public opera house, and it opened in 1637 in Venice. Claudio Monteverdi changed the opera from a more dialogue-based opera to a more musical opera. He’s the one who helped Venice become the opera capital of the world.
  • Opera music has been incorporated into a lot of popular movies and commercials. Some of these include “The Flower Duet” by Leo Delibes from Lakme, which can be heard in Superman Returns, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and the American President. Another one is “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini, which was featured in Space Jam, Jumanji, Deep Impact, and Nike’s award-winning commercial starring Charles Barkley.
  • After Luciano Pavarotti sang in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in Berlin, he received 165 curtain calls on February 24, 1988.
  • There were opera composers who hired groups of applauders to cheer their works and boo their rivals. This was common in French theaters during classical times. Acting agencies, as part of an organized institution, managed and supplied claqueurs. They would employ feign tears, loud laughter, ask for encores, and keep the audience in good humor. Later on, this practiced spread to other places, including New York and Italy.
  • The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini, which was one of the most popular operas, was written in only two weeks.
  • After Placido Domingo’s performance in Verdi’s Otello on July 30, 1991, in Vienna, the audience clapped for an hour and twenty minutes. This had set a new world record for the longest applause ever.

Female performer facing an empty audience seat image

These are some of the most interesting facts about opera and its history. Amazingly, the operas we see today are inspired by the works of composers and artists from hundreds of years ago. And it seems that as long as people have a story to tell and ideas to share, operas will continue its popularity.

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