Opera is an art form consisting of a dramatic stage performance set to music.
The drama is presented using the typical elements of theatre such as scenery, costumes, and acting. However, the words of the opera, or libretto, are sung rather than spoken. The singers are accompanied by a musical ensemble ranging from a small instrumental ensemble to a full symphonic orchestra.
Traditional opera consists of two modes of singing: recitative, the dialogue and plot-driving passages often sung in a non-melodic style characteristic of opera, and aria, during which the movement of the plot often stops and the music and the singers focus on one topic using full voice. Short sung passages are also referred to as arioso. Each type of singing is accompanied by musical instruments.
Singers and the roles they play are classified according to their vocal ranges. A particular singer's classifications change drastically over his or her lifetime, rarely reaching vocal maturity until well past middle age. Male singers are classified as bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and countertenor. Female singers are classified, as contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano. Each of these classifications has subcategories, such as lyric soprano, coloratura, soubrette, spinto, and dramatic soprano, which associate the singer's voice with the roles most suitable to the vocal timbre and quality and its range, or tessitura. The German Fach system is an especially organized system of classification.
Opera draws from many other art forms. Whether the words or the music are paramount has been the subject of debate 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.
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 in a staged spectacle. The earliest work considered an opera in the sense the work is usually understood dates from around 1597. It is Dafne, (now lost) written by Jacopo Peri for an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the "Camerata". Significantly Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of 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.
Earlier 17th 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 The Tempest (ca. 1611). Musico-dramatic elements can also be seen in 16th century suites of madrigals 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. Additionally, the music of Hildegard of Bingen has been given dramatic staged performances.
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 Trapassi, called 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 partly derived from the commedia dell'arte.
Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian libretti were the norm, even for a German composer like Handel writing for London audiences. Italian libretti remained dominant in the classical period as well, for example in the operas of Mozart, who wrote in Vienna near the century's close.
Bel canto and Italian nationalism
The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Literally "beautiful singing", bel canto opera derives from the Italian stylistic singing school of the same name. Bel canto lines are typically florid and intricate, requiring supreme agility and pitch control.
Following the bel canto era, a more direct, forceful style was rapidly popularized by Giuseppe Verdi, beginning with his biblical opera Nabucco. Verdi's writing demanded vocal endurance and strength more than the agility required in bel canto; his works were also more demanding dramatically. Verdi's operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the nationalist movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical).
In rivalry with imported Italian opera productions, a separate French tradition, sung in the 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 propaganda 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 opéra comique
French opera with spoken dialogue is referred to as opéra 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 French grand opera
The elements of French grand opéra first appeared in Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829) and Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831). Grand opera is usually in five acts and includes dance interludes for complete ballet company. Historically the most famous opera in the French grand opera tradition is probably Gounod's Faust, particularly in the United States where it was a favorite at the Met for the better half of the 20th century. The extravagant production, including ballet set pieces, of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin can probably be traced back to the grand opera tradition as well.
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 (who wrote only one), Weber, Heinrich Marschner and Wagner.
Wagner pioneered a through-composed style, in which recitative and aria blend into one another and are constantly accompanied by the orchestra. Wagner also made copious use of the leitmotif (Weber had used a similar device earlier), a dramatic 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, which had two separate flowerings: one in the 17th century, and another beginning in the mid-19th century. During the 18th century, Italian opera was immensely popular in Spain, supplanting the native form.
Just like in Spain, Italian opera was highly popular in Russia. In the 19th century, Russian composers also began to write important operas based on nationalist themes, national literature, and folk tales, beginning with Mikhail Glinka (e.g. Ruslan and Lyudmila) and followed by Alexander Borodin (Prince Igor), Modest Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko), and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin). These developments mirrored the growth of Russian nationalism across the artistic spectrum, in part as a function of the more general Slavophilism movement.
Czech composers also developed a thriving national opera movement of their own in the 19th century. Antonin Dvorak, most famous for Rusalka, wrote 13 operas; Bedrich Smetana wrote eight (The Bartered Bride being the most famous); and Leos Janacek wrote ten, including Jenůfa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Katyá Kabanová.
After Wagner: verismo and modernism
Opera in Wagner's huge wake took several paths. One reaction was the sentimental "realistic" melodramas of verismo operas, a style introduced by Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and popular operas of Giacomo Puccini. Another reaction to mythic medievalizing can be seen in the psychological intensity and social commentary of Richard Strauss (e.g. Salome, Elektra).
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, while opera enjoyed tremendous appeal and has been performed around the world, only a handful of modern operas have joined the standard repertory: Berg's Wozzeck, Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Glass's Einstein on the Beach and Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites being among them.
Sociology of opera
All art forms have a social context, and opera likewise cannot exist in a vacuum. A string quartet exists in manuscript and printed score, and a truly musical person, playing one part, or seated at a keyboard, can hear the intent of the music, but the printed score for an opera must be realized in a production, even a slender one, for its impact. Thus there exists a "sociology of opera", which would be as interesting to general social historians (who are unaware of it, on the whole) as it is to opera buffs. Operas have always been written with a specific audience in mind, whether more aristocratic or more popular, expressing their local prejudices and expectations, and even taking account of the vocal character of certain singers' voices. Operas have also been affected behind the scenes, by opera house politics and sometimes government censors. But the idea that there is a canon of operas, an opera repertory that is reflected in a "List of famous operas," for example, is a late entry in the sociology of opera.
Development of an opera audience
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Development of the idea of "opera repertory"
During the lifetimes of composers up to Meyerbeer there was no "repertory" of operas. Composers like Bellini and Donizetti were expected to come up with fresh material, season after season, even if they had to cannibalize their own works for material that had not been offered to that city's audience. (Compare pastiche). One common strategy was to imitate the work of other composers, especially when such work had achieved considerable success. The idea of an opera repertory originated with Richard Wagner, in his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.
Wikipedia's list of famous operas is a good guide to the standard operatic repertory reflected in contemporary productions and recordings.
Sydney Opera House: one of the world's most recognizable opera houses