As with ballet, the classical art of singing alongside well composed arias to tell a tale otherwise known as opera, first came to be in the courts of Italy. The first origins that can be traced back in opera started in the Renaissance. Having grown from the 1600s until today opera has become one of the most prestigious vocal art forms to exist in the world today.
We would like to take you on a little trip down the road of opera’s existence and stop at the five most important time periods in the genre.
Composed in 1590 the first live singing and musical performance that could be described as an opera was Dafne, by Jacopo Peri but there isn’t much of the score left to be played or performed so L’Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi is the first opera to be composed that can still be performed and played. L’Orfeo premiered in 1607 in Italy.
Most of the operas that would fit under the title of Baroque work were composed in Italy. This European country was the most prolific in and the dominant force in the art came out of Italy. The Baroque period was centered in Italy from 1600 to the mid-1700s
In these early days of opera, it was an art form exclusive to the wealthy and royals in Europe but, as it grew, people of all walks of life were into the opera. Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully are the most revered composers to come out of the Baroque period. Handel is personally given the credit for bringing opera to the less wealthy classes of the time because of his immense popularity.
Opera was popping up all over Europe during the Baroque period. Jacob Peri composed Euridice for the wedding of Maria de’Medici and Henri IV of France. This work also still survives and sits at the top of opera historical timelines. Other composers thrived in this era including Francesco Cavalli, whose Giasone, was a hit when it opened at the Teatro S. Cassiano in Venice on January 5, 1649.
English composer John Blow was the first composer is said to have premiered the first English opera in 1683. There are conflicting reports that this was performed at the court of Windsor or somewhere in London. Other works to come out of this time were Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen, which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s wonderful work A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Willibald Christoph Gluck gets the credit for taking the opera everyone knew and putting an another spin on the art form. His work Alceste, categorized as a “reform” opera, premiered on the day after Christmas in 1767. It was his influence that created “reform” operas, which were a result of crowds growing weary of the excessive style coming out of Italy. The works were becoming repetitive and expected in their composure.
It was Gluck who created “recitativo accompagnato,” which simply means the larger use of an orchestra in productions. This type of composing requires that the rhythm of the performance is controlled completely by the music. It was quite a contrast to recitativo secco, which was they popular style of the time. The latter type had a singer alongside continuo, which is bass lines and harmony performed with only a few instruments like keyed instrument and bass cello.
One of the most recognizable composers of the Classical era was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had his first premiere at the astonishing age of twelve. This was a singspiel titled Bastien und Bastienne. It was shown for the first time in 1768 at the residence of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer. An interesting fact is that this was the physician who created “magnetism therapy” a concept that Mozart later mocked in his world famous opera Cosi fan tutte. Other Mozart operas you can watch today are Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni.
Other operas to come out of the Classical period include Joseph Haydn’s Il mondo della luna, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, André-Ernest-Modeste’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion, categorized as a rescue opera, and Antonio Salieri’s Axur, re d’Ormus. Next, we come to the turn a century and a new direction for the composition of opera music.
Once we hit the 1800’s Romantic opera began in waves and would be the most performed style for the next two hundred years. It was during this period when opera choruses grew in numbers and orchestras became much grander. Everything about the art got larger and the drama skyrocketed as well. It was during this time when composers like Wagner, Puccini, and Verdi emerged.
But, the opera didn’t only grow during the Romantic period, it was during this time when it also became more individualized. Both ideologies of the individual and the expression of the “self” were brought to the forefront of opera composition. This new direction became evident in the harmonies and the pairing of vocals and instruments as equal entities in the opera.
Also hailing from this expressive era of opera was Gioachino Rossini, Carl Maria von Weber, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. Of course, these are only a few names. When looking at the amount of composed music from this time period the number of writers is humungous.
An important note about this time period is when Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer who is considered by some to be the best composer of all time, created. Fidelio, his only opera, was premiered in 1805. It was during this time that Tchaikovsky premiered Queen of Spades at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. A lesser known Pietro Mascagni premiered his opera of one-act titled Cavalleria rusticana at the Teatro Costanzi.
This was the time of operas heyday. It was the coolest and hippest thing to attend and it was during this period when opera gained its timelessness. While it has a long history previous to the Romantic period, during this period it gained steam and became a central focus by many more composers whom will still listen to today.
4. 20th Century
Some sources claim that at this point in opera when less new works were being composed and instead, companies focused on replaying pieces composed in the previous three centuries. Yet other sources list an array of 20th century composers that created a great deal of new work in this century. Peliéas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy, a well-known 20th century composer, premiered in April of 1902.
Other composers include Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Benjamin Britten, and Béla Bartók all fall under the list of 20th century composer. While the numbers of composers per period may sway heavier during the Classical era, opera in the 20th century still produced some influential and ageless operas.
It was in the 20th Century when women started to make a splash in the world of opera composition. The Wreckers by Ethel Smyth premiered at the Neues Theater in Leipzig on November 11, 1906. Smyth was not only a prominent women composer she was a strong voice in the suffragette movement of that time.
Some of the most contemporary works in the 20th century are Nixon in China by John Adams, premiering in 1987, Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, which premiered in 1976, and Mask of Orpheus by Harrison Birtwistle, premiering in 1986.
5. The 21st Century
The century we are now living and experiencing is very new and we are all getting to its unique attitudes and expressions of art. Some of the operas to come out of this century are Song from the Uproar by Missy Mazzoli, Rasputin written by Einojuhani Rautavaara, Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov, and Doctor Atomic written by John Adams.
We don’t know what the future of opera holds for us fans but new writers, composers, singers, and musicians are being born every day. Most likely, whatever direction the art form decides to sway, the past will be a grand influence. This is evident after reviewing the path opera has taken until now.