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Brief History of Opera

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"No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible."

W H Auden (the translator of Don Giovanni)

What is an opera?

Opera is a sung stage drama set to music which usually plays continuously throughout the performance.

What is the difference between opera and musicals?

Musicals are plays with music; the music is incidental and the action is advanced mainly through dialogue.

What is operetta?

Nowadays the word refers to a type of light opera such as Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, or musical comedy such as Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet.

Why is opera so special?

Opera is a unique fusion of words, music and design. These ingredients, when combined, deliver large amounts of information to the audience simultaneously – information about the characters’ outlook, feelings, motivations and actions. If the composer, librettist, designer and director all rise to the challenges of the art-form, the result, for the audience, can be uniquely absorbing, moving, and thrilling.

How old is opera and where did it come from?

Opera is about 400 years old. It emerged from Florence in Italy, towards the end of the 16th century. The earliest work labelled ‘opera’ was Dafne (1594-98) by Jacopo Peri. The first truly great opera composer was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) who developed older models into a musico-dramatic style which presented the characters not as emblematic figures, but as recognisably human beings, exploring their inner feelings in a way which became the norm for composers in the 19th century.

What’s in an opera?

Traditionally, operas began with an overture. Usually, but not invariably, the overture will introduce the audience to themes which will be taken up and used later in the opera. Because of this, some composers write the overture last! Until the late 18th century, it was the convention to use ‘recitative’ to further the action, and arias to reflect on the characters’ predicaments. Recitative was speech-like declamation with minimal accompaniment, usually from a harpsichord or fortepiano: it paved the way for the set-piece aria in which a character could ruminate, for quite long periods, upon comparatively few words. Mozart was responsible, in such operas as The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, for breaking the mould of such conventions and developing recitative and aria into a relationship of real dialogue. As well as solo arias, operas contain musical numbers for every necessary combination of characters – duets, trios, quartets, quintets and so on; then there’s the chorus, who can have their own numbers but also interact musically with the principal characters in their dedicated numbers.

How has opera developed?

Wagner requires special mention because his approach to composing opera was also revolutionary: he invented the Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘unified work of art’ in which music, poetry, drama, the visual arts and song were to be brought together in a new form of expression. For his mature operas, Wagner wrote his own librettos and composed the music in an endless flow, i.e. not broken up into ‘numbers’ and, especially in the four-opera Ring of the Nibelung, assigned motto themes or ‘leitmotivs’ to elements of the stories: these could be things, like spears and magic helmets, or concepts such as pride, heroism, and redemption. As the music unfolds, therefore, the orchestra is able to deliver layers of information to the audience irrespective of what the character on stage is singing about. In the 20th century, composers developed new musical languages and in pursuit of the new styles, the use of operatic conventions become optional. But whatever the musical changes, opera is about turning music into drama on stage, and composers need to have – or acquire – a strong sense of dramatic structure and pacing in their work: these values are timeless.


England, like other European countries apart from Germany, France and Italy, lacked an established national tradition of opera until the 20th century. Henry Purcell, in the later 17th century, wrote a wealth of incidental music and contributed to a genre recent scholars have called semi -opera, an amalgamation of spoken drama and a strong and often supernatural musical element. It was Italian opera, however, that entertained the fashionable world in the 18th century, in spite of the damaging effect of the anti-opera of John Gay, The Beggars Opera. This began a new form, the English ballad opera, with its use of popular melodies. The musical borrowings, at least, must recall the practice of the Paris Fair Theatres.

19th Century

While there were English, Scottish and Irish composers of opera, there is relatively little trace of their work in continuing repertoire. Two Irish composers, however, Balfe and Wallace, are remembered, respectively, for The Bohemian Girl and Maritana staged in London in the 1840s. Another composer of paternal Irish origin, Arthur Sullivan, survives triumphantly in his operettas, collaborations with W. S. Gilbert.

National Opera

The 20th century brought an element of national opera through Vaughan Williams, Holst and others. Their work in this form was largely for local audiences. A more markedly international school of English opera started with Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in 1945. The subject was local but its implications, as a study of an outsider in a closed community, were much wider. This was followed by a remarkable series of works, chamber operas and operas for the larger stage, culminating in Death in Venice, based on the novella by Thomas Mann.
Another element in English opera of the later 20th century has been provided by Michael Tippett and by a younger generation of composers in music- theatre and in work for the opera house.

Who are the most important opera composers?

17th Century: Cavalli, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Lully, Rameau

18th Century: Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart

19th Century: Weber, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Massenet, Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Smetana, Dvorak, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo

20th Century: Berg, Schoenberg, Pfitzner, Schreker, Korngold, Orff, Stockhausen, Henze, Debussy, Ravel, Janácek, Britten, Tippett, Walton, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Menotti, Barber, Argento, Glass, Adams