The New Grove Dictionary of Opera considers La Cilla (music by Michelangelo Faggioli, text by F. A. Tullio, 1706) and Luigi and Federico Ricci’s Crispino e la comare (1850) to be the first and last sightings of the genre, although the term is still occasionally applied to newer work (for example Krenek's Zeitoper Schwergewicht). Summits in this history are the 80 or so libretti by Carlindo Grolo, Loran Glodici, Sogol Cardoni and various other approximate anagrams of Carlo Goldoni, the three Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, and the comedies of Gioachino Rossini.
Comic characters and situations, usually involving servants, had been a part of opera until the early 18th century, when comic opera, or "opera buffa", began to emerge as a separate genre. Opera buffa was a parallel development to opera seria and arose in reaction to the so-called. first reform of Zeno and Metastasio. It was, in part, intended as a genre that the common man could relate to more easily. Whereas opera seria was a lavish entertainment that was both made for and depicted kings and nobility, opera buffa was made for and depicted common people with more common problems.
In the early eighteenth century, comic operas often appeared as short, one-act interludes known as intermezzi that were performed in between acts of opera seria. These gave way to the full-fledged comic opera later in the 18th century. La serva padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736), is the one intermezzo still performed with any regularity today, and provides an excellent example of the style.
Opera buffa is distinguished from opera seria by its subjects, voice types, and aria forms. While opera seria deals with mythical subjects such as gods and ancient heroes and only occasionally contained comic scenes, opera buffa involves the prominent use of comic scenes, characters, and plot lines.
Other important details and characteristics are used to differentiate opera buffa from opera seria. The traditional model for opera seria had three acts, dealt with serious subjects in mythical settings as stated above and only used high voices. This meant that there were no basses or baritones used anywhere in the opera. Most opera seria was written to include the "castrati" meaning men who were castrated before going through puberty so as to retain their high voices from boyhood. In contrast, the model that generally held for opera buffa was having four acts, dealing with comic scenes and situations as earlier stated and using the full range of voices. This led to the creation of the "basso buffo" which became a staple character in opera buffa. The basso buffo was a low-voiced male who was the center of most of the comic action. Many of his arias and solos are very fast-paced and have numerous leaps between notes to add comic effect. A well-known basso buffo part is Leporello from Mozart's Don Giovanni.
In some of the opere buffe, a language was used that the lower class would relate to, often in the local dialect, and used caricatures that were often found in Italian commedia dell'arte.
The type of comedy could vary, and the range was great: from Rossini's The Barber of Seville in 1816 which was purely comedic, to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 which added drama and pathos. The genre declined in the late 19th century, and it is often considered that Verdi's Falstaff, in 1893 was the last of the Opera buffa.
On an external side, French Encyclopédistes considered opera buffa "à l'Italienne" a positive response to the rigid schemes then used, and made of it a sort of symbol of compositional freedom.