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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 and countertenor. Female singers are classified, in increasing pitch, as contralto (or alto), mezzo-soprano and 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."

Table of contents
1 History
2 Famous opera theatres
3 Additional links



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 madrigalss 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 performances.

Baroque opera

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.

Bel canto

The age of bel canto is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti

French opera

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 scenic machinery.

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 in French).

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)

German opera

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.

Contemporary trends

Famous opera theatres

Additional links