The history of opera is as long and as fascinating as the operatic experiences themselves. By the time Mozart joined the Freemasons in 1784, opera had already existed for 187 years. Technically a stage play set to music, opera was born in the final decade of the 16th century during the Renaissance in Florence by a group of scholars and musicians, reportedly including Galileo’s father, Vincent Galilei, who were known as the Florentine Camerata. They were trying to revive Greek musical drama and wanted to create an art form that was more intense than anything that had come before.

And they did. Over the next 400 years, Opera would spread throughout Europe and then the world, combining literature, dance, music, drama, singing and history, and also changing and bending to various political and cultural conditions. Eventually, opera would become one of the most important creative arts: challenging, entertaining and, ultimately, moving us.[1][2]

Opera comes from the Latin opera, which means: work. And work they did. Considered as the first acknowledged opera, Dafne was composed by Jacopo Peri in 1597. This opera was important because it mimicked the ideas and values of the Renaissance; it served as a pilot, attempting a return to antiquity, to the classical Greek drama, where it was hypothesized that people had, or should have, expressed the chorus through song. While Dafne no longer survives, Peri produced another opera in 1600, called Euridice, that survives to the present day. Still performed regularly, however, is Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, composed in 1607, initially created for the court of Mantua. Monteveredi would go down in history as one of opera’s founding fathers, employing court singers and Madama Europa, who is considered to be the first opera singer. So the Renaissance set the stage; it allowed people to think about art in a way they had never considered before. However, at this point, opera was largely restricted from the masses and was reserved only for the eyes of the court.

Nonetheless, in 1637, things began to change. In Venice, people began publicly attending opera. For the first time, opera was in the city. Much like today, people purchased tickets and attended performances in Venetian theaters. However, much unlike today, these early opera houses were often loud and rough, generally lit by candles with next to no ventilation, which, when combined with sweat and perfume, created an intense atmosphere. Monteverdi wrote his two last opera: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea; however, these opera married comedy with tragedy, which didn’t appeal to the Venetian nobility. So the comedy element was removed and a new form of opera was born: opera seria.[4][5]

Around the same time, Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian-born French composer, now considered the father of French opera, was working in France during the Middle Baroque period. Lully’s opera were instrumental in raising the tempo of the dance. He introduced liveliness to the courtroom atmosphere that had not been seen before. Collaborating with Molière, a playwright, their style of opera would combine many of the key components we recognize today: comedy, music, ballet and theatre, and they would become famous both within and outside of France. Equally as notable, Lully would pioneer the use of the conducting stick, an implement now synonymous with opera. Unfortunately, the conducting sticks of the past were heavier than the ones used now, and he would continuously drop the conducting stick on his foot, causing gangrene, which eventually killed him.[7]


Opera seria was more refined and serious in tone than the performances that had come before it. Reserved for the rich, opera seria liked to focus on drama and the grandeur of singing itself. The protagonist was usually played by a castrated male. And these castrati became famous all over Europe. In fact, it was forbidden for females to sing on stage during the 17th century, so castrated males sang alto, mezzo and soprano. Interestingly, the main singers were required to stand in ballet’s third position, where one ankle was in front of the other with their knees bent and heels pressed together, and they remained that way for the entire song. One of the greatest singers of this time period, castrated or otherwise, was Baldassare Ferri. He became so well known that people would meet him three miles out of town, sometimes with gifts and flowers that would fill up his carriage.[9]


However, people had problems with opera seria. While many enjoyed the quality of the virtuosic singing, some felt the performers were overshadowing the opera – the drama – itself. In 1775, Francesco Algarotti published Essay On The Opera. From here, Christoph Gluck hypothesized that opera needed to return to its infancy where everything, such as the costumes, music, singing and ballet, would come second to the drama. And so Gluck produced Orfeo ed Euridice, which would go on to influence Wagner, Weber and Mozart.


It wasn’t until Mozart that German opera was taken seriously, or at least as seriously as Italian opera. Considered a genius from birth, Mozart began composing when he was five years old, and he even performed for royalty. Picking up with Gluck left off, Mozart would go on to produce some of the most influential opera known today, including Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. He would eventually pass away just nine weeks after premiering The Magic Flute (1791), an opera that incorporated much of the Freemason ideology, and rumors would spread that he was killed for revealing too many of their secrets.[10] [11]


Then came Richard Wagner. Born in 1813, Wagner would go on to become one of the most revered and controversial composers in musical history. Mostly self-taught, apart from a brief stint at Leipzig, Wagner exploded onto the scene with his new take on opera, Gesamtkunstwerk that translated to a complete work of art. In keeping with the unification of the arts at the time, where painters composed poetry and musicians wrote novels, opera would serve as the ultimate experimental environment, a medium where all art forms could be combined and performed to the masses. Wagner was instrumental in promoting the orchestra and exploring recurring themes and characters between his works. In one of his greatest achievements, Wagner produced Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring), a cycle of four opera. While normally performed individually, it was Wagner’s vision that they be performed together. When this happened, The Ring became the world’s longest opera, lasting 14 hours (not including intermissions). It was produced for over 30 years, and it shares many similarities to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Wagner even had his own unique opera house called the Festival Theatre where he housed The Ring, and even today people make the pilgrimage to see and hear Wagner’s music. Also known as an anti-Semite, in 1859, Wagner wrote Jewry in Music, an essay that looked down on the work of Jewish composers, something Hitler later admired.[12] [13] [14] [15]


Moreover, the 19th century would mark the rise of bel canto, which translates, literally, to beautiful singing. In some ways opera seria returned, though improved upon, with bel canto. In this new style, exemplified by Bellini, Rossini and Pacini, amongst others, there was a large focus on the pitch control, where the lines were florid and detailed. Eventually this would birth a stronger style, typified by Giuseppe Verdi, who published Nabucco, a biblical opera that would change Italian opera forever. Perhaps for the first time, strong, dramatic story telling was matched with vocal range and Verdi’s opera stuck a chord with an Italy experiencing a wave of nationalism. Marrying politics with art, Verdi became synonymous with the patriotic movement, and in the 1850s produced Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. Verdi was important because he challenged the very idea of opera, blurring arias and recitatives, eventually creating a new form that involved two people in a constant state of duet. In his last work, Falstaff, Verdi would influence a new generation into the 20th century, notably Puccini, Strauss and Britten, with a style that rid opera of long, suspended melodies, and instead replaced them with short motifs and mottos.


Of course opera spread to other countries outside of Italy and Germany. Spain developed its own brand of opera called zarzuela, which came to prominence in the mid-17th century. Likewise, Czech composers created their own opera movement in the 19th century with composers like Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček leading the charge. They collectively published 25 opera, including the internationally recognized The Bartered Bride, Rusalka and The Cunning Little Vixen. Looking further, the Ukrainian Semen Hulak-Artemovsky would publish A Cossack Beyond the Danube, which is still performed the world over. In Turkey, Arshak II, composed in 1868 by Armenian composer, Tigran Tchoukhajian, was partially performed in 1873, and then fully performed in 1945. Finally, and most notably, the Soviet Union experienced a wave of new opera beginning in 1937. Opera such as Koroğlu, by the Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov became very popular, while the first Kyrgyz opera, Ai-Churek, premiered in Moscow at the Bolshoi Theatre on 26 May 1939, during the Kyrgyz Art Decade.[17] [18]


Opera’s ability to shift and mold to foreign cultures is, perhaps, what makes it most interesting. Chinese contemporary classical opera grew to prominence in the mid-20th century. Drawing on western opera traditions, The White Haired Girl debuted in 1940. At the same time, China had their own revolutionary opera of the Cultural Revolution, such as Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, which borrowed from Peking opera, highlighting socialist texts and subjects. In the 20-year period between the 1950s and the 1970s, there was a revival of patriotic socialist opera, including Red Gaurds on Honghu Lake, and even more recently, in 2009, modern Chinese opera has continued these realist socialist discourses with the production A Village Teacher.[19]


As opera moved through the 20th century, the art form turned its back on traditional tonality and replaced it with atonality. Beginning with Wagner, the style was developed by Strauss, Debussy, Puccini, Hindemith, Britten and Pfitzner. The melodies became shorter. Two Viennese composers, Schoenberg and Berg, used heavy chromatic harmony and general dissonance. At the same time, smaller scale orchestras were becoming the norm. No longer was it economically feasible to afford the luxuries of the past: huge string sections, extra horns and harps were no longer viable. With government funding and private patronage in decline, opera had to learn how to make do with smaller budgets.


Another trend that emerged was contemporary historical opera, where the characters portrayed in the opera were often still alive. Some notable examples include The Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic, Dead Man Walking and Anna Nicole. Perhaps most important, Nixon in China is an opera by John Adams that recalls president Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and is considered essential to American minimalist music.[23]


At the same time with the commercialization of media and the rise of the internet, many opera companies have had to find alternative funding solutions. Radio and television broadcasts, movie theater screenings and streaming services opened new revenue paths and created opportunities for a new audience. With an ageing population and a youth invested in alternative entertainment, the modernization of opera has become integral to its survival. In one of the most famous movies of all time, the opening scene of The Shawshank Redemption did, perhaps, a better job at introducing new people to opera than any book or marketing scheme to have come previously. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, sung by Gundula Janowitz and Edith Mathes, played over the loudspeaker of a prison yard reminds us of the power of music. And when Morgan Freeman delivers his monologue we are reminded of the power of opera.


“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian women were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voice soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”[24]


From its humble beginnings 400 years ago, opera is now performed in major cities all around the world. Beginning in Italy, before spreading to Germany, the rest of Europe and then the world, opera has combined literature, dance, music, drama, singing and history. It is a constantly changing, mutating and evolving art form that reminds us of our past and of the various political and cultural conditions humanity has endured. Eventually, opera would become one of the most important creative arts: challenging, entertaining and, ultimately, moving us. As an enduring art form, the most frequently performed opera are La Bohème, Tosca, La Traviata, Le Nozze di Figaro, Carmen, Don Giovanni, L’elisir d’amore, Die Zauberflöte, Aida, Madama Butterfly and Turandot.[25] Watch many of these and other classics today at Cennarium!



[1] Abbate, C. and Parker, R. 2012. A History Of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years. New York, NY: Penguin.

[2] Walsh, M. 2007. So When Does the Fat Lady Sing? New York, NY: Amadeus Press.

[3]  Pendle, M. 2001. Women and Music: From 1587–1600 a Jewish Singer Cited Only As Madama Europa Was In The Pay Of The Duke of Mantua

[4] Grout, D and Williams, H. 2003. A Short History Of Opera. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[5] Parker, R, ed. 1996. The Oxford History of Opera. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[6] Spitzer, J and Zaslaw, N 2001. The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution.

[7] David, R. 1995. Opera for Beginners. New York, NY: Writers and Readers Limited.

[8] OperaAmerica. Accessed: September 29, 2009.

[9] Riding, A. and Dunton-Downer, L. 2006. Opera. New York, NY: DK Publishing.

[10] Donington, R. 1990. Opera and Its Symbols: The Unity of Words, Music, and Staging. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[11] Zaslaw, N. 1989. Man and Music: the Classical Era: entries on Gluck and Mozart in The Viking Opera Guide.

[12] General outline for this section from The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Chapters 1–3, 6, 8 and 9, and The Oxford Companion to Music; more specific references from the individual composer entries in The Viking Opera Guide.

[13] OperaAmerica. Accessed: September 29, 2009.

[14] Raeburn, M. 1998. The Chronicle of Opera. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, Ltd.

[15] Ibid.

[16]  Available at: [Accessed: 06/30/2016]

[17] Abazov, R. 2007. Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics. Greenwood Publishing Group.

[18]  Igmen, A. 2012. Speaking Soviet with an Accent. PLACE: University of Pittsburgh Press.

[19] World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/ Pacific, p. 140 Series Rubin – 1998 “Western-style opera (also known as High Opera) exists alongside the many Beijing Opera groups. The Central … Operas of note by Chinese composers include A Girl With White Hair written in the 1940s, Red Squad in Hong Hu and Jiang Jie

[20] Zicheng, H. 2007. A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature.

[21] Xiao, L. and Hong, L. 2003. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women.


[23] Raeburn, M. 1998. The Chronicle of Opera. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, Ltd.

[24] Ron, D. 2013. The History Of Opera For Beginners. Danbury, CT: Forbeginnersbooks

[25] OperaAmerica. Accessed: September 29, 2009.

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