[op-er-uh, op-ruh]
opera, drama set to music.


The libretto may be serious or comic, although neither form necessarily excludes elements of the other. Opera differs from operetta in its musical complexity and usually in its subject matter. It differs also from oratorio, which is customarily based on a religious subject and is performed without scenery, costumes, or stage action. Although both opera and operetta may have spoken dialogue, in opera the dialogue usually has musical accompaniment, such as the harpsichord continuo in the operas of Mozart and Rossini.

Often, the music in opera is continuous, with set pieces such as solos, duets, trios, quartets, etc., and choral pieces, all designed to dramatize the action and display the particular vocal skills of the principal singers. For example, the last act trio from Gounod's Faust gives Mephistopheles (bass), Faust (tenor), and Marguerite (soprano) excellent opportunity to display their vocal talents singly and then weave their voices in ensemble singing as the two men vie for the soul of Marguerite, who is intent on salvation.

Early Opera

Florentine Beginnings

Although musical drama, such as The Play of Daniel (12th cent.), had previously existed, it was in the year 1600 that opera came into being. It began in Florence, Italy, fostered by the camerata [society], a group of scholars, philosophers, and amateur musicians that included the librettist Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621) and the composers Vincenzo Galilei, Emilio del Cavaliere (c.1550-1602), Jacopo Peri, and Giulio Caccini. It was their aim to promote the principle of monodic musical declamation, i.e., a single melodic line with modest accompaniment inspired by the example of ancient Greek drama; accordingly, the earliest operas took their plots from mythology, the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice being one of the most popular.

Because the story hinges on the expressive power of music and solo song, the early composers referred to their work as dramma per musica [drama through music], and operas of the 17th and 18th cent. used myth at first and plots about historical figures later. It had both lofty and comic strains, which were in time separated into distinct genres, the opera seria (serious opera) and the opera buffa (comic opera). Although fragments of Jacopo Peri's Dafne (c.1597) exist, the same composer's Euridice (1600), set to verse by Ottavio Rinuccini, is generally considered the first opera.

The Baroque in Rome and Venice

Development of earlier baroque opera occurred at Rome and Venice. The work that established Roman opera, Sant' Alessio, by Stefano Landi (c.1590-c.1639), appeared in 1632; it had a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX). Landi modified the strict declamatory style of the Florentines with formal devices: the recitative and aria became clearly differentiated, and more prominent use was made of choruses and instrumental form. Also, the libretto included comic scenes, which had no part in earlier operas.

However, it was not until the appearance of Claudio Monteverdi in Venice that baroque opera reached its peak, and the art form that began as entertainment for the aristocracy became available to popular audiences. In 1637 the first public opera house in the world opened in Venice, and by 1700 at least 16 more theaters were built and hundreds of operas produced. In Venice, two of Monteverdi's best-known works, the early La Favola d'Orfeo (The Tale of Orpheus, 1607) and L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), were performed. Monteverdi's influence was considerable, for he may be said to be responsible for the introduction of bel canto and buffo styles. He also reflected the moods and dramatic vividness of the libretto in his music, and his work became a model for the operatic composers who followed.

With the next generation of Venetian composers, headed by Marcantonio Cesti (1623-69) and Pietro Francesco Cavalli, an international style developed, and local schools disappeared. The recitative diminished in musical interest in favor of the aria, the chorus gave way to the virtuoso soloist, and the Renaissance interest in antiquities was superseded by a trend toward lofty scenes punctuated by comedy and parody. Alessandro Stradella, a forerunner of the 18th-century Neapolitan school, wrote operas in this style.

Early French Opera

Officially, French opera began in 1669 with the establishment of the Académie royale de Musique, which was taken over by Jean Baptiste Lully in 1672 after the bankruptcy of its founders. Italian opera, the pastoral, French classical tragedy, and the ballet de cour (see ballet) were the antecedents of French opera. Lully introduced his audience to grand-scale entertainment: lavish stage settings and scenery in addition to ballets, choruses, and long disquisitions on love and glory. His operas were divided into five acts and a prologue. The operas of Jean Philippe Rameau followed the tradition established by Lully, but were not as well received. Two of his works, however, Les Indes galantes (The Gallant Indies, 1735) and Castor et Pollux (1737), have music surpassing their librettos.

Italian Opera of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Italian opera seria continued to dominate the musical scene throughout the 17th and 18th cent. The Neapolitans cultivated opera seria, notably in the works of Alessandro Scarlatti. Musical and dramatic interest became focused on the grandiose, so-called da capo arias, which make up the bulk of these operas. In the typical da capo aria, the principal emotion is symbolized by a large opening main section, which is repeated, often in a heavily ornamented fashion, after a contrasting "B" section. One of the most influential librettists of this period was Pietro Metastasio, in whose works the separation of serious and comic opera is complete.

Neapolitan opera became known as well for the importance it gave to comic opera as a separate genre. Comedy had maintained its place in the opera house mainly in the form of brief interludes, or intermezzi (see intermezzo), that were played between the acts of opera seria. Now it came into its own, with such works as Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La serva padrona (The Servant as Mistress, 1733), Giovanni Paisiello's (1740-1816) Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1782), and Domenico Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage, 1792). The characters were from commedia dell'arte, the subject matter satirical and earthy, replacing the staid classical heroism of earlier operas. There was no spoken dialogue.

The Development of English Opera

The first English opera was The Siege of Rhodes, with a text by poet laureate Sir William D'Avenant, in 1656. The masque was the true antecedent of English opera, and John Blow's Venus and Adonis (c.1685) was actually an opera. The one great English opera of the 17th cent. was Dido and Aeneas (1689) by Henry Purcell, after whose death England succumbed completely to Italian opera.

The reigning "English" composer was a German who had completely absorbed the Neapolitan Italian style, George Frideric Handel. Although best known as the composer of the oratorio Messiah, Handel spent most of his musical energy between 1705 and 1738 in composing operas. His first opera in England was Rinaldo (1711), an instant success, and among the many other operas he composed are Giulio Cesare (1724), Rodelinda (1725), and Alcina (1735). Handel's operas featured castrati (see castrato), who had great popularity, and who dominated this period and type of opera, sometimes forcing composers to write around them, adding music that had little or nothing to do with the plot.

Coincident with Handel's efforts at establishing Italian opera in England were the attempts of native talent to produce an English musical theatrical form. The result was The Beggar's Opera (1728), with a libretto by the poet John Gay and music composed partly by John Christopher Pepusch. The Beggar's Opera inaugurated the form of ballad opera that satirized Italian opera and contemporary politics.

German and Austrian Opera in the Eighteenth Century

The ballad opera eventually led to the singspiel, the German comic opera with spoken dialogue, which was to reach its highest development in the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although the early court opera of Germany showed preference for the Italian school—Frederick the Great is said to have compared German singing to the neighing of horses—in the 18th cent. German composers began to turn their attention to singspiel.

Georg Philipp Telemann had anticipated the technique of Pergolesi's La serva padrona in his Pimpione (1725), a comic opera with only two characters. In the same vein is Johann Christian Standfuss's (?-1756) Der Teufel ist Los (The Devil to Pay, 1752), an unpretentious composition written in the simple style of folk melody. However, it was Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782) that fully established singspiel in Vienna, the international music capital. Singspiel had now become fused with Italian aria-oriented opera.

The increasing taste of the 18th-century public for musical portrayal of emotion in a more earnest manner and on a more human scale had its most significant impact on opera seria in the works of Christoph Willibald von Gluck. In a letter to the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, Gluck stated his principal aim: "I sought to restrict music to its true function, namely to serve poetry by means of expression—and the situations which make up the plot—without interrupting the action … ." He accomplished that aim with Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767).

The unity of drama and music was continued by Mozart, through his explorations of and expansions on the comic styles. His music manages to present characters familiar to every age, with all the virtues and foibles of the human race. Goethe compared him with Shakespeare. His major librettist was Lorenzo Da Ponte, who produced texts for three of Mozart's greatest works: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (Women Are Like That, 1790). In La clemenza di Tito (1791) Mozart used the work of Pietro Metastasio for his libretto. The libretto for Mozart's last great opera, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791) was written by Emmanuel Schickaneder (1751-1812).

Opera in the Nineteenth Century

The Romantic Movement in Germany

Hero worship, a return to nature, idealism, and fantasy are elements of late 18th-century romanticism that found their way into 19th-century German opera. Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio (1805, rev. 1814), is set against the background of French rescue opera and the theme of personal freedom versus political tyranny. But it was Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, which rested on the foundations of singspiel, that was really the point of departure for German romantic opera—for E. T. A. Hoffmann's Undine (1816) and Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (1821) and Oberon (1826). These operas, although somewhat limited in melodic invention, fused in their plots the natural and the supernatural and paved the way for the grandiose music dramas of Richard Wagner, who also wrote his own librettos.

Wagner's early operas, such as Rienzi (1842), based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel of the same name, and Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843) are Italian-style operas, with arias, duets, trios, and choral pieces. In the romantic tradition, he turned to medieval lore for Tannhäuser (1845) and to tales of chivalry and knighthood for Lohengrin (1850), Tristan und Isolde (1865), and Parsifal (1882). Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), Wagner's only comic opera, used the real-life cobbler and poet Hans Sachs as the central character.

The set pieces of the Italian school were put aside in favor of leitmotifs (leading motifs) that were used to identify individual characters and situations and present a continuous flow of music, at times almost symphonic in nature, which was uninterrupted by recitative. The culmination of this technique was Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), a tetralogy composed of Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Siegfried (1876), and Götterdämmerung (1876).

The Development of French Grand Opera and Opéra Comique

After the French Revolution (1789), spectacular and melodramatic operas became popular. Outstanding examples are by Luigi Cherubini, Étienne Nicolas Méhul, Jean François Lesueur, and Gasparo Spontini. Extensive use was made of plots involving rescue. Paris had now become the center of operatic activity, and the performance there of Daniel François Esprit Auber's La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici, 1828), also known after its hero as Masaniello, Gioacchino Rossini's Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829), Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831), and Jacques Halévy's La Juive (The Jewess, 1835) established the grand opera tradition.

Grand opera, of which Meyerbeer's works are the outstanding examples, typically feature historical subjects with pointed reference to contemporary issues, religious elements, and violent passions. The influence of French grand opera was enormous, reaching even to the early works of Wagner and Verdi. Hector Berlioz's masterpiece Les Troyens (The Trojans, 1856-58), while owing nothing to Meyerbeer, may also be considered grand opera.

Opéra comique (distinguished from grand opera in that it had spoken dialogue) took two directions in the middle of the 19th cent., one lead toward operetta, the other toward a more serious, lyrical opera. Of that genre Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, Léo Delibes, and Jules Massenet were the chief composers. Gounod's Faust (1859) and Bizet's Carmen (1875), two of the most popular French operas ever written, actually had spoken dialogue in their original versions, but this qualification for works given at the Opéra Comique Theater was ultimately dropped. The operas of Emmanuel Chabrier and Vincent D'Indy show the influence of Wagner, while Gustave Charpentier's Louise (1900) is representative of naturalism. Perhaps the most complete realization of the ideals that had marked French opera from its beginning was Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902).

Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera

In Italy, the voice remained master of the orchestra, and melody, presented with clarity and directness, ruled out overly polyphonic writing. The early masters of this style were Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. The arias were often in two large sections, a slow section displaying bel canto singing, i.e., smoothness of vocal line with flawless phrasing and high notes, followed by a cabaletta (a rapid section requiring precision singing). Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers, 1813) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816) are just two of his comic operas that provide sparkling melodies, brilliant arias and ensembles, and fast-moving plots.

Gaetano Donizetti also wrote tragedies (for example, Lucia di Lammermoor, 1835) and a trilogy on the queens Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and Anne Boleyn that gave the soprano lead exquisite scenes and arias for displaying her ability at coloratura singing. His two comic operas L'Elisir d'Amore (1832) and Don Pasquale (1843) are in the same bubbling melodic vein of the best of Rossini. Vincenzo Bellini also gave his leading ladies splendid arias combining dramatic and coloratura techniques with unusually long melodic lines, such as those in Norma (1831) and I Puritani (1835). Neither he, Rossini, nor Donizetti slighted the male voices, writing parts that enabled them to display astonishing vocal versatility.

Verdi and the Late Nineteenth Century in Italy

The dominant Italian composer in the second half of the 19th cent. was Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas epitomized the lyric-dramatic style of the Italian school. Verdi's operas are usually classified by periods—early, middle, late. Of the early period, Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, 1842) was his first success. The middle period contains three undisputed masterpieces: Rigoletto (1851, based on Victor Hugo's drama The King's Jester), Il Trovatore (The Troubador, 1853), and La Traviata (1853, based on Alexandre Dumas' play Camille). All are characterized by Verdi's trademark: magnificent, sustained melodies in the standard forms of aria, recitative, and choral numbers.

The work initiating Verdi's third period was Aïda (1871). All his life Verdi searched for the ideal libretto and finally found two in his last operas. The tragic Otello (1887) and the comic Falstaff (1893), based on plays by Shakespeare with librettos by Arrigo Boito, brought new dimensions to operatic music. Verdi also wrote two operas for the Paris Opéra: Les Věpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855) and Don Carlos (1867).

Toward the end of the 19th cent. the verismo style came into being, which brought the seamier side of life to the operatic stage. Of these, Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, 1890) and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (The Clowns, 1892), now almost always performed as a pair, are prime examples.

Of Verdi's successors in Italy, the only one who approached his genius was Giacomo Puccini. His simple, lyrical melodies, at times criticized for being overly sentimental, and his pungent orchestrations underline the tragic fates of his fragile heroines. Manon Lescaut (1893) and La Bohème (1896) were Puccini's first two triumphs, and both brought him international fame. Tosca (1900), based on a melodrama by Victorien Sardou, was another instant success, but Madama Butterfly (1904) failed when it was first performed, only to succeed when revised a few months after its premiere. The suggestion that Puccini write on an American theme resulted in La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West, 1910). Although not the overwhelming success of his previous operas, La Fanciulla had harmonic textures that were a departure from his earlier work and anticipated the music of his last opera, Turandot (1926).

Russian Opera

The 19th cent. also saw the beginning of Russian opera. Mikhail Glinka in A Life for the Czar (1836) and Russlan and Ludmilla (1842), Aleksandr Dargomijsky in Russalka (1856), and Modest Moussorgsky in his masterpiece Boris Godunov (1874) turned to Russian history and literature to produce strictly national operas. Russian opera was marked by the nonnational romanticism of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Eugene Onegin (1879), after Pushkin's poem, and The Queen of Spades (1890). On the other hand, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov added the dimension of folklore and fantasy in May Night (1880), The Snow Maiden (1881), and in his last opera, The Golden Cockerel (1909).

Twentieth-Century Opera

In the early part of the 20th cent. the foremost operatic composer was Richard Strauss. Although influenced by Wagner, he composed operas with even richer and more stunning orchestrations, often using dissonant harmonies and abandoning tonality to emphasize the humor or drama of a scene. Among his most successful operas are Salomé (1905), Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), and the allegorical Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow, 1919).

After World War I a period of innovation began that has continued to the present day. Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu (1937; posthumously completed in 1979) have been the most enduring of early atonal operas. Arnold Schoenberg's serial work (see serial music) Moses and Aaron (unfinished, 1932) had successful revivals in the United States in the 1960s and again in the United States and Germany in the 1980s. George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) is considered the first great American opera, while Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (1938), dealing with the life of the painter Mathias Grünewald, represents the trend of the 1930s toward lavishly staged, moralistic epics.

Operatic composers who have emerged since World War II include Gian-Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Alberto Ginastera, and Hans Werner Henze. The former two have composed in traditional musical idiom, such as Menotti's The Medium (1946), The Consul (1950), and Amahl and the Night Visitors (written for television, 1951) and Barber's Vanessa (1957) and Antony and Cleopatra (1966). Henze's The Young Lord (1965) and Ginastera's Bomarzo (1964) and Beatrix Cenci (1971) are highly innovative and controversial. Operas by the Americans Douglas Moore and Carlisle Floyd used American history, legend, and folk music, as reflected in Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956) and Floyd's Susannah (1955).

The most internationally accepted post-World War II composer of operas was the Englishman Benjamin Britten. His first operatic success was Peter Grimes (1945), followed by The Rape of Lucretia (1946). Britten's other works include Billy Budd (after Melville's story, 1951), The Turn of the Screw (after Henry James's story, 1954), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (after the novella by Thomas Mann, 1973). Britten's operas are cast in traditional musical and dramatic form.

Some late 20th-century avant-garde operas include The Devils of Loudon (1968-69) by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki; Le Grand Macabre (1978) by the Hungarian György Ligeti; and Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1980), Akhnaton (1984), The Voyage (1992), and White Raven (1998), all by the American composer Philip Glass. Other operatic works by Americans in the same period include Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) by John Adams; The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) by John Corigliano; and McTeague (1992) and A View from the Bridge (1999) by William Bolcom. Owing to widespread indifference to new works on the part of the opera-going public and most major opera houses, plus the financial burden incurred in staging a new work, many composers in the latter part of the 20th cent. turned to community and college opera workshops to produce their works. However, in the 1990s and 2000s this trend was partly reversed, with younger audiences becoming interested in opera, and more large companies presenting operas by contemporary composers.


H. Graf, Opera for the People (2d ed. 1969); R. G. Pauly, Music and the Theater: An Introduction to Opera (1970); J. Wechsberg, The Opera (1972); L. Orrey, A Concise History of Opera (1973); S. Braubard, The Future of Opera (1988); D. Grout, A Short History of Opera (3d ed. 1988); C. Headington et al., ed., Opera: A History (1988); S. Sadie, Opera (1988) and, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1998); P. Gossett, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera (2006). For studies of librettos see P. J. Smith, The Tenth Muse (1971) and A. H. Drummond, American Opera Librettos (1973). For books containing summaries of opera plots, see M. J. Cross, Complete Stories of the Great Operas (1952), More Stories of the Great Operas (1971), and The Victor Book of the Opera (13th ed., ed. by H. W. Simon, 1968); R. H. Kornick, Recent American Opera (1991).

Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work (called an opera) which combines a text (called a libretto) and a musical score. Opera is part of the Western classical music tradition. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble.

Opera started in Italy at the end of the 16th century (Jacopo Peri's lost Dafne, produced in Florence about 1597) and soon spread through the rest of Europe: Schütz in Germany, Lully in France, and Purcell in England all helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. However, in the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe, except France, attracting foreign composers such as Handel. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his "reform" operas in the 1760s. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute, a landmark in the German tradition.

The first third of the 19th century saw the highpoint of the bel canto style, with Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all creating works that are still performed today. It also saw the advent of Grand Opera typified by the works of Meyerbeer. The mid to late 19th century is considered by some a golden age of opera, led by Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy. This 'golden age' developed through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French opera through to Puccini and Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel operatic traditions emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia. The 20th century saw many experiments with modern styles, such as atonality and serialism (Schoenberg and Berg), Neo-Classicism (Stravinsky), and Minimalism (Philip Glass and John Adams). With the rise of recording technology, singers such as Enrico Caruso became known to audiences beyond the circle of opera fans. Operas were also performed on (and written for) radio and television.

Operatic terminology

The words of an opera are known as the libretto (literally "little book"). Some composers, notably Richard Wagner, have written their own libretti; others have worked in close collaboration with their librettists, e.g. Mozart with Lorenzo da Ponte. Traditional opera consists of two modes of singing: recitative, the plot-driving passages often sung in a non-melodic style characteristic of opera, and aria (an "air" or formal song) in which the characters express their emotions in a more structured melodic style. Duets, trios and other ensembles often occur, and choruses are used to comment on the action. In some forms of opera, such as Singspiel, opéra comique, operetta, and semi-opera, the recitative is mostly replaced by spoken dialogue. Melodic or semi-melodic passages occurring in the midst of, or instead of, recitative, are also referred to as arioso. During the Baroque and Classical periods, recitative could appear in two basic forms: secco (dry) recitative, accompanied only by "continuo", which was often no more than a harpsichord; or accompagnato (also known as "strumentato") in which the orchestra provided accompaniment. By the 19th century, accompagnato had gained the upper hand, the orchestra played a much bigger role, and Richard Wagner revolutionised opera by abolishing almost all distinction between aria and recitative in his quest for what he termed "endless melody". Subsequent composers have tended to follow Wagner's example, though some, such as Stravinsky in his The Rake's Progress have bucked the trend. The terminology of the various kinds of operatic voices is described in Section 3 below.



The word opera means "work" in Italian (it is the plural of Latin opus meaning "work" or "labour") suggesting that it combines the arts of solo and choral singing, declamation, acting and dancing in a staged spectacle. Dafne by Jacopo Peri was the earliest composition considered opera, as understood today. It was written around 1597, largely under the inspiration of an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the "Camerata de' Bardi". Significantly, Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance. The members of the Camerata considered that the "chorus" parts of Greek dramas were originally sung, and possibly even the entire text of all roles; opera was thus conceived as a way of "restoring" this situation. Dafne is unfortunately lost. A later work by Peri, Euridice, dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present day. The honour of being the first opera still to be regularly performed, however, goes to Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, composed for the court of Mantua in 1607.

Italian opera

The Baroque era

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. Monteverdi had moved to the city from Mantua and composed his last operas, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea, for the Venetian theatre in the 1640s. His most important follower Francesco Cavalli helped spread opera throughout Italy. 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, sponsored by Venice's Arcadian Academy which came to be associated with the poet Metastasio, whose libretti helped crystallize the genre of opera seria, which became the leading form of Italian opera until the end of the 18th century. Once the Metastasian ideal had been firmly established, comedy in Baroque-era opera was reserved for what came to be called opera buffa.

Before such elements were forced out of opera seria, many libretti had featured a separately unfolding comic plot as sort of an "opera-within-an-opera." One reason for this was an attempt to attract members of the growing merchant class, newly wealthy, but still less cultured than the nobility, to the public opera houses. These separate plots were almost immediately resurrected in a separately developing tradition that partly derived from the commedia dell'arte, (as indeed, such plots had always been) a long-flourishing improvisitory stage tradition of Italy. Just as intermedi had once been performed in-between the acts of stage plays, operas in the new comic genre of "intermezzi", which developed largely in Naples in the 1710s and '20s, were initially staged during the intermissions of opera seria. They became so popular, however, that they were soon being offered as separate productions.

Opera seria was elevated in tone and highly stylised in form, usually consisting of secco recitative interspersed with long da capo arias. These afforded great opportunity for virtuosic singing and during the golden age of opera seria the singer really became the star. The role of the hero was usually written for the castrato voice; castrati such as Farinelli and Senesino, as well as female sopranos such as Faustina Bordoni, became in great demand throughout Europe as opera seria ruled the stage in every country except France. Indeed, Farinelli was the most famous singer of the 18th century. Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian libretti were the norm, even when a German composer like Handel found himself 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. Leading Italian-born composers of opera seria include Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Porpora.

Reform: Gluck, the attack on the Metastasian ideal, and Mozart

Opera seria had its weaknesses and critics, and the taste for embellishment on behalf of the superbly trained singers, and the use of spectacle as a replacement for dramatic purity and unity drew attacks. Francesco Algarotti's Essay on the Opera (1755) proved to be an inspiration for Christoph Willibald Gluck's reforms. He advocated that opera seria had to return to basics and that all the various elements -- music (both instrumental and vocal), ballet, and staging -- must be subservient to the overriding drama. Several composers of the period, including Niccolò Jommelli and Tommaso Traetta, attempted to put these ideals into practice. The first to really succeed and to leave a permanent imprint upon the history of opera, however, was Gluck. Gluck tried to achieve a "beautiful simplicity". This is illustrated in the first of his "reform" operas, Orfeo ed Euridice, where vocal lines lacking in the virtuosity of (say) Handel's works are supported by simple harmonies and a notably richer-than-usual orchestral presence throughout.

Gluck's reforms have had resonance throughout operatic history. Weber, Mozart and Wagner, in particular, were influenced by his ideals. Mozart, in many ways Gluck's successor, combined a superb sense of drama, harmony, melody, and counterpoint to write a series of comedies, notably Così fan tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni (in collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte) which remain among the most-loved, popular and well-known operas today. But Mozart's contribution to opera seria was more mixed; by his time it was dying away, and in spite of such fine works as Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, he would not succeed in bringing the art form back to life again.

Bel canto, Verdi and verismo

The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante and many others. 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 operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the patriotic movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical). In the early 1850s, Verdi produced his three most popular operas: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. But he continued to develop his style, composing perhaps the greatest French Grand opera, Don Carlos, and ending his career with two Shakespeare-inspired works, Otello and Falstaff, which reveal how far Italian opera had grown in sophistication since the early 19th century.

After Verdi, the sentimental "realistic" melodrama of verismo appeared in Italy. This was a style introduced by Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci that came virtually to dominate the world's opera stages with such popular works as Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Later Italian composers, such as Berio and Nono, have experimented with modernism.

German-language opera

The first German opera was Dafne, composed by Heinrich Schütz in 1627 (the music has not survived). Italian opera held a great sway over German-speaking countries until the late 18th century. Nevertheless, native forms developed too. In 1644 Sigmund Staden produced the first Singspiel, a popular form of German-language opera in which singing alternates with spoken dialogue. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Theater am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg presented German operas by Keiser, Telemann and Handel. Yet many of the major German composers of the time, including Handel himself, as well as Graun, Hasse and later Gluck, chose to write most of their operas in foreign languages, especially Italian.

Mozart's Singspiele, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflöte (1791) were an important breakthrough in achieving international recognition for German opera. The tradition was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven with his Fidelio, inspired by the climate of the French Revolution. Carl Maria von Weber established German Romantic opera in opposition to the dominance of Italian bel canto. His Der Freischütz (1821) shows his genius for creating a supernatural atmosphere. Other opera composers of the time include Marschner, Schubert, Schumann and Lortzing, but the most significant figure was undoubtedly Richard Wagner.

Wagner was one of the most revolutionary and controversial composers in musical history. Starting under the influence of Weber and Meyerbeer, he gradually evolved a new concept of opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk (a "complete work of art"), a fusion of music, poetry and painting. In his mature music dramas, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, he abolished the distinction between aria and recitative in favour of a seamless flow of "endless melody". He greatly increased the role and power of the orchestra, creating scores with a complex web of leitmotivs, recurring themes often associated with the characters and concepts of the drama; and he was prepared to violate accepted musical conventions, such as tonality, in his quest for greater expressivity. Wagner also brought a new philosophical dimension to opera in his works, which were usually based on stories from Germanic or Arthurian legend. Finally, Wagner built his own opera house at Bayreuth, exclusively dedicated to performing his own works in the style he wanted.

Opera would never be the same after Wagner and for many composers his legacy proved a heavy burden. On the other hand, Richard Strauss accepted Wagnerian ideas but took them in wholly new directions. He first won fame with the scandalous Salome and the dark tragedy Elektra, in which tonality was pushed to the limits. Then Strauss changed tack in his greatest success, Der Rosenkavalier, where Mozart and Viennese waltzes became as important an influence as Wagner. Strauss continued to produce a highly varied body of operatic works, often with libretti by the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, right up until Capriccio in 1942. Other composers who made individual contributions to German opera in the early 20th century include Zemlinsky, Hindemith, Kurt Weill and the Italian-born Ferruccio Busoni. The operatic innovations of Arnold Schoenberg and his successors are discussed in the section on modernism.

French opera

In rivalry with imported Italian opera productions, a separate French tradition was founded by the Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of King Louis XIV. Despite his foreign origin, Lully established an Academy of Music and monopolised French opera from 1672. Starting with Cadmus et Hermione, Lully and his librettist Quinault created tragédie en musique,a form in which dance music and choral writing were particularly prominent. Lully's operas also show a concern for expressive recitative which matched the contours of the French language. In the 18th century, Lully's most important successor was Jean-Philippe Rameau, who composed five tragédies en musique as well as numerous works in other genres such as opera-ballet, all notable for their rich orchestration and harmonic daring. After Rameau's death, the German Gluck was persuaded to produce six operas for the Parisian stage in the 1770s. They show the influence of Rameau, but simplified and with greater focus on the drama. At the same time, by the middle of the 18th century another genre was gaining popularity in France: opéra comique. This was the equivalent of the German singspiel, where arias alternated with spoken dialogue. Notable examples in this style were produced by Monsigny, Philidor and, above all, Grétry. During the Revolutionary period, composers such as Méhul and Cherubini, who were followers of Gluck, brought a new seriousness to the genre, which had never been wholly "comic" in any case.

By the 1820s, Gluckian influence in France had given way to a taste for Italian bel canto, especially after the arrival of Rossini in Paris. Rossini's Guillaume Tell helped found the new genre of Grand opera, a form whose most famous exponent was another foreigner, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer's works, such as Les Huguenots emphasised virtuoso singing and extraordinary stage effects. Lighter opéra comique also enjoyed tremendous success in the hands of Boïeldieu, Auber, Hérold and Adolphe Adam. In this climate, the operas of the French-born composer Hector Berlioz struggled to gain a hearing. Berlioz's epic masterpiece Les Troyens, the culmination of the Gluckian tradition, was not given a full performance for almost a hundred years.

In the second half of the 19th century, Jacques Offenbach created operetta with witty and cynical works such as Orphée aux enfers, as well as the opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann; Charles Gounod scored a massive success with Faust; and Bizet composed Carmen, which, once audiences learned to accept its blend of Romanticism and realism, became the most popular of all opéra comiques. Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Delibes all composed works which are still part of the standard repertory. At the same time, the influence of Richard Wagner was felt as a challenge to the French tradition. Many French critics angrily rejected Wagner's music dramas while many French composers closely imitated them with variable success. Perhaps the most interesting response came from Claude Debussy. As in Wagner's works, the orchestra plays a leading role in Debussy's unique opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and there are no real arias, only recitative. But the drama is understated, enigmatic and completely unWagnerian.

Other notable 20th century names include Ravel, Dukas, Roussel and Milhaud. Francis Poulenc is one of the very few post-war composers of any nationality whose operas (which include Dialogues des carmélites) have gained a foothold in the international repertory. Olivier Messiaen's lengthy sacred drama Saint François d'Assise (1983) has also attracted widespread attention.

English-language opera

In England, opera's antecedent was the 17th century jig. This was an afterpiece which came at the end of a play. It was frequently libellous and scandalous and consisted in the main of dialogue set to music arranged from popular tunes. In this respect, jigs anticipate the ballad operas of the 18th century. At the same time, the French masque was gaining a firm hold at the English Court, with even more lavish splendour and highly realistic scenery than had been seen before. Inigo Jones became the quintessential designer of these productions, and this style was to dominate the English stage for three centuries. These masques contained songs and dances. In Ben Jonson's Lovers Made Men (1617), "the whole masque was sung after the Italian manner, stilo recitativo".

The approach of the English Commonwealth closed theatres and halted any developments that may have led to the establishment of English opera. However, in 1656, the dramatist Sir William Davenant produced The Siege of Rhodes. Since his theatre was not licensed to produce drama, he asked several of the leading composers (Lawes, Cooke, Locke, Coleman and Hudson) to set sections of it to music. This success was followed by The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658) and The History of Sir Francis Drake (1659). These pieces were encouraged by Oliver Cromwell because they were critical of Spain. With the English Restoration, foreign (especially French) musicians were welcomed back. In 1673, Thomas Shadwell's Psyche, patterned on the 1671 'comédie-ballet' of the same name produced by Molière and Jean-Baptiste Lully. William Davenant produced The Tempest in the same year, which was the first musical adaption of a Shakespeare play (composed by Locke and Johnson). About 1683, John Blow composed Venus and Adonis, often thought of as the first true English-language opera.

Blow's immediate successor was the better known Henry Purcell. Despite the success of his masterwork Dido and Aeneas (1689), in which the action is furthered by the use of Italian-style recitative, much of Purcell's best work was not involved in the composing of typical opera, but instead he usually worked within the constraints of the semi-opera format, where isolated scenes and masques are contained within the structure of a spoken play, such as Shakespeare in Purcell's The Fairy-Queen (1692) and Beaumont and Fletcher in The Prophetess (1690) and Bonduca (1696). The main characters of the play tend not to be involved in the musical scenes, which means that Purcell was rarely able to develop his characters through song. Despite these hindrances, his aim (and that of his collaborator John Dryden) was to establish serious opera in England, but these hopes ended with Purcell's early death at the age of 36.

Following Purcell, for many years Great Britain was essentially an outpost of Italianate opera. Handel's opera serias dominated the London operatic stages for decades, and even home-grown composers such as Thomas Arne and John Frederick Lampe wrote using Italian models. This situation continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, including in the work of Michael Balfe, and the operas of the great Italian composers, as well as those of Mozart, Beethoven and Meyerbeer, continued to dominate the musical stage in England. The only exceptions were ballad operas, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), musical burlesques, European operettas, and late Victorian era light operas, notably the Savoy Operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, all of which types of musical entertainments frequently spoofed operatic conventions. Sullivan wrote only one grand opera, Ivanhoe (following the efforts of a number of young English composers beginning about 1876), but he claimed that even his light operas constituted part of a school of "English" opera, intended to supplant the French operettas (usually performed in bad translations) that had dominated the London stage throughout the 19th century into the 1870s. London's Daily Telegraph agreed, describing The Yeomen of the Guard as "...a genuine English opera, forerunner of many others, let us hope, and possibly significant of an advance towards a national lyric stage."''

In the 20th century, English opera began to assert more independence, with works of Ralph Vaughan Williams and in particular Benjamin Britten, who in a series of fine works that remain in standard repertory today, revealed an excellent flair for the dramatic and superb musicality. Today composers such as Thomas Adès continue to export English opera abroad. More recently Sir Harrison Birtwistle has emerged as one of Britain's most significant contemporary composers from his first opera Punch and Judy to his most recent critical success in The Minotaur. In the 2000s, the librettist of an early Birtwistle opera, Michael Nyman, has been focusing on composing operas, including Facing Goya, Man and Boy: Dada, and Love Counts.

Also in the 20th century, American composers like Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Gian Carlo Menotti, Douglas Moore, and Carlisle Floyd began to contribute English-language operas infused with touches of popular musical styles. They were followed by composers such as Philip Glass, Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Robert Moran, John Coolidge Adams, and Jake Heggie.

Russian opera

Opera was brought to Russia in the 1730s by the Italian operatic troupes and soon it became an important part of entertainment for the Russian Imperial Court and aristocracy. Many foreign composers such as Baldassare Galuppi, Giovanni Paisiello, Giuseppe Sarti, and Domenico Cimarosa (as well as various others) were invited to Russia to compose new operas, mostly in the Italian language. Simultaneously some domestic musicians like Maksym Berezovsky and Dmytro Bortniansky were sent abroad to learn to write operas. The first opera written in Russian was Tsefal i Prokris by the Italian composer Francesco Araja (1755). The development of Russian-language opera was supported by the Russian composers Vasily Pashkevich, Yevstigney Fomin and Alexey Verstovsky.

However, the real birth of Russian opera came with Mikhail Glinka and his two great operas A Life for the Tsar, (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842). After him in the 19th century in Russia there were written such operatic masterpieces as Rusalka and The Stone Guest by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky, Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and The Snow Maiden and Sadko by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. These developments mirrored the growth of Russian nationalism across the artistic spectrum, as part of the more general Slavophilism movement.

In the 20th century the traditions of Russian opera were developed by many composers including Sergei Rachmaninov in his works The Miserly Knight and Franchesca da Rimini, Igor Stravinsky in Le Rossignol, Mavra, Oedipus rex, and The Rake's Progress, Sergei Prokofiev in The Gambler, The Love for Three Oranges, The Fiery Angel, Betrothal in a Monastery, and War and Peace; as well as Dmitri Shostakovich in The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Edison Denisov in L'écume des jours, and Alfred Schnittke in Life With an Idiot, and Historia von D. Johann Fausten.

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.

Czech composers also developed a thriving national opera movement of their own in the 19th century, starting with Bedřich Smetana who wrote eight operas including the internationally popular The Bartered Bride. Antonín Dvořák, most famous for Rusalka, wrote 13 operas; and Leoš Janáček gained international recognition in the 20th century for his innovative works including Jenůfa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Káťa Kabanová.

The key figure of Hungarian national opera in the 19th century was Ferenc Erkel, whose works mostly dealt with historical themes. Among his most often performed operas are Hunyadi László and Bánk bán. The most famous modern Hungarian opera is Béla Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle.

The best-known composer of Polish national opera was Stanislaw Moniuszko, most celebrated for the opera Straszny Dwór. In the 20th century, other operas created by Polish composers included King Roger by Karol Szymanowski and Ubu Rex by Krzysztof Penderecki.

Contemporary, recent, and Modernist trends


Perhaps the most obvious stylistic manifestation of modernism in opera is the development of atonality. The move away from traditional tonality in opera had begun with Wagner, and in particular the Tristan chord. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Giacomo Puccini, Paul Hindemith and Hans Pfitzner pushed Wagnerian harmony further with a more extreme use of chromaticism and greater use of dissonance.

Operatic Modernism truly began in the operas of two Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and his acolyte Alban Berg, both composers and advocates of atonality and its later development (as worked out by Schoenberg), dodecaphony. Schoenberg's early musico-dramatic works, Erwartung (1909, premiered in 1924) and Die glückliche Hand display heavy use of chromatic harmony and dissonance in general. Schoenberg also occasionally used Sprechstimme, which he described as: "The voice rising and falling relative to the indicated intervals, and everything being bound together with the time and rhythm of the music except where a pause is indicated".

The two operas of Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg, Wozzeck and Lulu (left incomplete at his death) share many of the same characteristics as described above, though Berg combined his highly personal interpretation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique with melodic passages of a more traditionally tonal nature (quite Mahlerian in character) which perhaps partially explains why his operas have remained in standard repertory, despite their controversial music and plots. Schoenberg's theories have influenced (either directly or indirectly) significant numbers of opera composers ever since, even if they themselves did not compose using his techniques. Composers thus influenced include the Englishman Benjamin Britten, the German Hans Werner Henze, and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich. (Philip Glass also makes use of atonality, though his style is generally described as minimalist, usually thought of as another 20th century development.)

However, operatic modernism's use of dodecaphony sparked a backlash among several leading composers. Prominent among the vanguard of these was the Russian Igor Stravinsky. After composing obviously Modernist music for the Diaghilev-produced ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, in the 1920s Stravinsky turned to Neoclassicism, culminating in his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. When he did compose a full-length opera that was without doubt an opera (after his Rimsky-Korsakov-inspired works The Nightingale (1914), and Mavra (1922)), in The Rake's Progress he continued to ignore serialist techniques and wrote an 18th century-style "number" opera, using diatonicism. His resistance to serialism (which ended at the death of Schoenberg) proved to be an inspiration for many other composers.

Other trends

A common trend throughout the 20th century, in both opera and general orchestral repertoire, is the use of smaller orchestras as a cost-cutting measure; the grand Romantic-era orchestras with huge string sections, multiple harps, extra horns, and exotic percussion instruments were no longer feasible. As government and private patronage of the arts decreased throughout the 20th century, new works were often commissioned and performed with smaller budgets, very often resulting in chamber-sized works, and short, one-act operas. Many of Benjamin Britten's operas are scored for as few as 13 instrumentalists; Mark Adamo's two-act realization of Little Women is scored for 18 instrumentalists.

Another feature of 20th century opera is the emergence of contemporary historical operas. The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China by John Adams, and Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie exemplify the dramatisation on stage of events in recent living memory, where characters portrayed in the opera were alive at the time of the premiere performance. Earlier models of opera generally stuck to more distant history, re-telling contemporary fictional stories (reworkings of popular plays), or mythical/legendary stories.

The Metropolitan Opera reports that the average age of its patrons is now 60. Many opera companies have experienced a similar trend, and opera company websites are replete with attempts to attract a younger audience. This trend is part of the larger trend of greying audiences for classical music since the last decades of the 20th century. In an effort to attract younger audiences, the Met offers a student discount on ticket purchases. Major opera companies have been better able to weather the funding cutbacks, because they can afford to hire star singers which draw substantial audiences who want to see if their favourite singer will be able to hit their high "money notes" in the show.

Smaller companies have a more fragile existence, and they usually depend on a "patchwork quilt" of support from state and local governments, local businesses, and fundraisers. Nevertheless, some smaller companies have found ways of drawing new audiences. Opera Carolina offer discounts and happy hour events to the 21–40 year old demographic. In addition to radio and television broadcasts of opera performances, which have had some success in gaining new audiences, broadcasts of live performances in HD to movie theatres have shown the potential to reach new audiences. Since 2006, the Met has broadcast live performances to several hundred movie screens all over the world.

From musicals back towards opera

Also by the late 1930s, some musicals began to be written with a more operatic structure. These works include complex polyphonic ensembles and reflect musical developments of their times. Porgy and Bess, influenced by jazz styles, and Candide, with its sweeping, lyrical passages and farcical parodies of opera, both opened on Broadway but became accepted as part of the opera repertory. Show Boat, West Side Story, Brigadoon, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Light in the Piazza and others tell dramatic stories through complex music and are now sometimes seen in opera houses. Some musicals, beginning with Tommy (1969) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and continuing through Les Miserables (musical) (1980), Rent (1996) and Spring Awakening (2006), utilize various operatic conventions, such as through composition, recitative instead of dialogue, leitmotifs and dramatic stories told predominantly through rock, pop or contemporary music.

Acoustic enhancement with speakers

A subtle type of sound electronic reinforcement called acoustic enhancement is used in some concert halls where operas are performed. Acoustic enhancement systems help give a more even sound in the hall and prevent "dead spots" in the audience seating area by "...augment[ing] a hall's intrinsic acoustic characteristics." The systems use "...an array of microphones connected to a computer [which is] connected to an array of loudspeakers." However, as concertgoers have become aware of the use of these systems, debates have arisen, because some "...purists maintain that the natural acoustic sound of [Classical] voices [or] instruments in a given hall should not be altered.

Kai Harada's article "Opera's Dirty Little Secret" states that opera houses began using electronic acoustic enhancement systems in the 1990s "...to compensate for flaws in a venue's acoustical architecture. Despite the uproar that has arisen amongst operagoers, Harada points out that none of the major opera houses using acoustic enhancement systems "...use traditional, Broadway-style sound reinforcement, in which most if not all singers are equipped with radio microphones mixed to a series of unsightly loudspeakers scattered throughout the theatre." Instead, most opera houses use the sound reinforcement system for acoustic enhancement, and for subtle boosting of offstage voices, child singers, onstage dialogue, and sound effects (e.g., church bells in Tosca or thunder effects in Wagnerian operas).

Operatic voices

Vocal classifications

Singers and the roles they play are classified by voice type, based on the tessitura, agility, power and timbre of their voices. Male singers can be loosely classified by vocal range as bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and countertenor, and female singers as contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano. (Men sometimes sing in the "female" vocal ranges, in which case they are termed sopranist or countertenor. Of these, only the countertenor is commonly encountered in opera, sometimes singing parts written for castrati -- men neutered at a young age specifically to give them a higher singing range.) Singers are then classified by voice type - for instance, a soprano can be described as a lyric soprano, coloratura, soubrette, spinto, or dramatic soprano. These terms, although not fully describing a singing voice, associate the singer's voice with the roles most suitable to the singer's vocal characteristics. A particular singer's voice may change drastically over his or her lifetime, rarely reaching vocal maturity until the third decade, and sometimes not until middle age.

Historical use of voice parts

The following is only intended as a brief overview. For the main articles, see soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, countertenor and castrato.

The soprano voice has typically been used throughout operatic history as the voice of choice for the female protagonist of the opera in question. The current emphasis on a wide vocal range was primarily an invention of the Classical period. Before that, the vocal virtuosity, not range, was the priority, with soprano parts rarely extending above a high A (Handel, for example, only wrote one role extending to a high C), though the castrato Farinelli was alleged to possess a top D (his lower range was also extraordinary, extending to tenor C). The mezzo-soprano, a term of comparatively recent origin, also has a large repertoire, ranging from the female lead in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas to such heavyweight roles as Brangäne in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (these are both roles sometimes sung by sopranos; there is quite a lot of "movement" between these two voice-types). For the true contralto, the range of parts is more limited, which has given rise to the insider joke that contraltos only sing "witches, bitches, and britches" roles. In recent years many of the "trouser roles" from the Baroque era, originally written for women, and those originally sung by castrati, have been reassigned to countertenors.

The tenor voice, from the Classical era onwards, has traditionally been assigned the role of male protagonist. Many of the most challenging tenor roles in the repertory were written during the bel canto era, such as Donizetti's sequence of 9 "C"s above middle C during La fille du régiment. With Wagner came an emphasis on vocal heft for his protagonist roles, with this vocal category described as Heldentenor; this heroic voice had its more Italianate counterpart in such roles as Calaf in Puccini's Turandot. Basses have a long history in opera, having been used in opera seria in supporting roles, and sometimes for comic relief (as well as providing a contrast to the preponderance of high voices in this genre). The bass repertoire is wide and varied, stretching from the comedy of Leporello in Don Giovanni to the nobility of Wotan in Wagner's Ring Cycle. In between the bass and the tenor is the baritone, which also varies in "weight" from say, Guglielmo in Mozart's Così fan tutte to Posa in Verdi's Don Carlos; the actual designation "baritone" was not used until the mid-nineteenth century.

Famous singers

Early performances of opera were too infrequent for singers to make a living exclusively from the style, but with the birth of commercial opera in the mid-17th century, professional performers began to emerge. The role of the male hero was usually entrusted to a castrato, and by the 18th century, when Italian opera was performed throughout Europe, leading castrati who possessed extraordinary vocal virtuosity, such as Senesino and Farinelli, became international stars. The career of the first major female star (or prima donna), Anna Renzi, dates to the mid-1600s. In the 18th century, a number of Italian sopranos gained international renown and often engaged in fierce rivalry, as was the case with Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, who started a fist fight with one another during a performance of a Handel opera. The French disliked castrati, preferring their male heroes to be sung by a haute-contre (a high tenor), of which Joseph Legros was a leading example.

Though opera patronage has decreased in the last century in favor of other arts and media, such as musicals, cinema, radio, television and recordings, mass media has also supported the popularity of famous singers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras ("The Three Tenors"). Other famous 21st century performers include Renee Fleming and various other artists who have gained note as "crossover" performers by featuring in pop music and movie scores.


Major opera houses and production companies have begun broadcasting their performances to local cinemas throughout the United States and in many other countries. The Metropolitan Opera, first opened in 1883, began high-definition television transmissions in 2006.. Many of its performances are also shown live in movie theaters around the world. In 2007, Met performances were shown in over 424 theaters in 350 U.S. cities. La bohème went out to 671 screens world-wide. The Met remains the only company that transmits all of its performances live, although in many cases this is only via radio broadcast. San Francisco Opera, founded in 1923, began prerecorded broadcasts in March 2008. As of June 2008, approximately 125 theaters in 117 U.S. cities carry the broadcast. Their distribution company, Bigger Picture, screens the operas with the same HD digital cinema projectors used for major Hollywood films. European opera houses and festivals such as La Scala in Milan, the Salzburg Festival, La Fenice in Venice and the Maggio Musicale in Florence have also broadcast their productions to 91 theaters in 90 U.S. cities since 2006.

See also


Main list: List of basic opera topics

Related topics



  • Silke Leopold, "The Idea of National Opera, c. 1800," United and Diversity in European Culture c. 1800, ed. Tim Blanning and Hagen Schulze (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 19-34.
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie (1992), 5,448 pages, is the best, and by far the largest, general reference in the English language. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 and ISBN 1-56159-228-5
  • The Viking Opera Guide (1994), 1,328 pages, ISBN 0-670-81292-7
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker (1994)
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, by John Warrack and Ewan West (1992), 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
  • Opera, the Rough Guide, by Matthew Boyden et al. (1997), 672 pages, ISBN 1-85828-138-5
  • Opera: A Concise History, by Leslie Orrey and Rodney Milne, World of Art, Thames & Hudson

Further reading

  • DiGaetani, John Louis: An Invitation to the Opera Anchor Books, 1986/91. ISBN 0-385-26339-2
  • Simon, Henry W.: A Treasury of Grand Opera. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1946.

External links

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