The Arts

The Interesting History of Opera

the stage in an opera house
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. The other one is an opera buffa or comedies.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

The other giant of opera was from Germany named Richard Wagner. 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. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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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