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A Brief History of Opera Development

This photo is from Opera Atilier, a company who specializes in baroque opera based in Toronto Canada. They are awesome and produce stunning shows! Check them out:

The opera story begins in 17th century Rome and Venice, but lets go back a little bit before then with the medieval church who wanted to promote the Christian message. Creating dramas, called liturgical plays, like The play of Daniel, which helped greatly in spreading the Word. Popular topics for these plays were the Easter and Christmas stories. Liturgical plays developed into mystery plays (1300-1400) which had singing throughout with costumes and scenery.

In the late 1500's the Intermedii, music and dance which was performed between the acts of a play, is the truest link with the beginning of opera. A famous intermedii that is still being performed today is La Pellegrina (1589), which was first performed at the Medici wedding. It included madrigals, dancing, and a sizeable orchestra (four Harpsichords, four viols, two sackbuts, two lutes, two recorders, a flute, and a cornett).

1573 was the first meeting of the Florentine Camerata. Members included: Count Bardi (it was at his house and he was wealthy... so probably a huge house), Rinucinni, Peri, Caccini, Galilei (The composer, and father of the astronomer guy). Together they discussed trends in the arts, especially music and drama and developed the idea of Recitative.

Jacopo Peri (1561 -1633)

Euridice was performed during the Florence 1594-5 carnival season and it the text book answer to "What was the first opera?".

And then in 1602 Caccini wrote Le Nuove Musiche about this new style.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

L'Orfeo (1607) was performed during a Carnival in Mantua. It is mostly arioso in style. Chorus is in the madrigal tradition, and the plot is about mythological stories. Monteverdi also wrote Il ritorno d'Ulisse and L'incoronazione di Poppea.

1637 Teatro San Cassiano first public opera house that opened to the public.

Pierre Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676)

is worthy of mention. He was a pupil of Monteverdi and wrote some stunning operas as well: L'Ormindo and my absolute favorite La Calisto


RECAP for Y'all ....

1000 Liturgical Plays - Play of Daniel

1300 - 1400 Mystery Plays

1500 Intermedii - La Pellegrina (1589)

1573 Florentine Camerata - Recitative

1594 Peri's Euridice performed

1602 Caccini wrote Le nuove Musiche

1607 Monteverdi L'Orfeo - Librettist: Striggio

1637 First public opera house opens in Venice


The new kind of entertainment spread rapidly. And surrounding circumstances dictated what form it should take. Costs had to be considered: Casts we kept to 6-8 singers, the chorus was removed all together or reduced to little to nothing to sing. Orchestra became firmly established. The decor and machinery were probably the major expense- with their cloud machines and magical transformations, and ambitious lighting effects.

FRANCE -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Giovanni Battista Lully (1632-1687)

Giovanni Battista Lully was the first operatic composer to achieve international fame. His works were played from Paris to Stockholm. Lully basically developed the standard version of french recitative by setting the french language in a simple, accompanied form that faithfully mirrored the inflections.

Lully was glad to give Ballet an emphasis in the scheme of French Opera, which is owed to King Louis XIV who had a passion for Ballet. He also established the five voice string section, and invented the overture which we hear often in the works of Bach, Handel, Rameau, Gluck, and Mozart. Visual presentation was lavish as ever, and stage machinery was all the craze! Unlike the Italians who liked to set Real life personages, Lully drew on mythological, pastoral, and chivalric type storylines. Many of his successors (Gluck, Rameau, etc.) followed suit. With all these innovations, Lully had definitely had a profound effect on the development of Opera.

Isis (1677) Librettist: Quinalt

Persée (1682) Librettist: Quinalt

Phaëton (1683) Librettist: Quinalt

Jean-Baptiste Rameau (1683 - 1764)

The history of Opera is too lengthy for me to add information about Rameau. But his music is so freaking awesome and you need to listen to these:

Overture from his Opera: Zaïs (Librettist: Cahusac)

Aux Languer d'Apollon from his Opera: Platée (Librettist: d'Orville)

I also read somewhere that his music and rhythms became so complicated that his musicians began to refuse to play for him. Way ahead of his time.

ENGLAND ----------------------------------------------------------------

John Blow (1649 -1708)

First english opera Venus and Adonis (ca. 1680–1687), was thought to influence Henry Purcell's later opera Dido and Aeneas.

Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)

Purcell combined the English and French styles in his operas. The aim of Purcell and Dryden, his librettist, was to establish serious opera in English He is considered to be one of the greatest English composers, which no other had reached until Elgar, Vaughn Williams, and Britten.

Dido and Aeneas (1689) Librettist: Tate

King Arthur (1691) Librettist: John Dryden

The Fairy Queen (1692) Librettist: Shakespeare adaptation, was lost and wasn't rediscovered until the 20th century.

Metastasio (1698 - 1782) and Zeno (1669 -1750) Important Librettists

Zeno was the first to undertake libretto reform of 17th century opera, according to the arcadici principles, to simplify the libretto through thinning out the plot and characters. This was further developed and refined by Metastasio. This created the main dialogue and action happening in the recitative.


G.F. Handel (1685 - 1759)

Principle librettists were Nicola Haym and Paolo Rolli. Handel's greatest contribution to the development of Opera was firmly establishing the the da capo aria form. On the A prime repeated section, his start singers would ornament to show off, not to enhance the affect/emotion of the music. His opera structure became Recit, Aria, Recit, Aria.... very choppy without flow (hence, why Gluck wanted to reform opera). He also held the ability to master and incorporate new elements into the Italian opera style.

Handel was equally a business man as he was a composer and musician. He started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera, and opened and managed even more in later years - the most noteworthy is Covent Garden Theatre. He had great success in opera, but even more in Oratorio.

Guilio Cesare (1724) Librettist: Nicola Haym

Rinaldo (1711) Librettist: Rossi

Scipione (1719) Librettist: Rolli

Pergolesi (1710 - 1737)

Created first buffa opera form: La Serva Padrona (Frederico), an intermezzo.

Christophe Willibald Gluck (1714 - 1787)

Gluck felt that opera had become unnatural. His idea was to make the drama of the work more important than the star singers who performed it, and to do away with secco recitative that broke up the action. The more flowing and dramatic style which resulted has been seen as a precursor to the music dramas of Richard Wagner.

Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) - Librettist: Calzabigi

Orphée et Euridice (1774) - Librettist translator: Moline

W.A. Mozart (1756-1791)

He created the first hybrid opera buffa/seria (Don Giovanni), and pushed the boundaries of stock characters - for example: servants who are smarter than their patrons. He was an expert at setting music for the voice.

opera seria/buffa hybrid

Don Giovanni (1787) Librettist: da Ponte

opera buffa

Le nozze di Figaro (1786) Librettist : Lorenzo da Ponte

Cosí fan tutte (1790) Librettist: da Ponte

opera seria

Idomineo (1781) Librettist: Varesco


Die Zauberflöte (1791) Librettist: Schikaneder



1000 Liturgical Plays - Play of Daniel

1300 - 1400 Mystery Plays

1500 Intermedii - La Pellegrina (1589)

1573 Florentine Camerata - Recitative

1594 Peri's Euridice performed


1602 Caccini Le nuove Musiche

1607 Monteverdi L'Orfeo - Librettist: Striggio

1637 First public opera house opens in Venice

Lully - French Style Recitative, Ballet, Overture, String section, mythological subjects

Blow - First English opera Venus and Adonis.

Purcell - Combined French and Italian Opera styles, with Dryden created Serious English Opera.


Zeno & Metastasio - libretto reform, main diaolgue and action in recit.

Handel - Da capo aria form established.

Pergolesi- La serva Padrona ( intermzzo and first Opera buffa)

Gluck - opera reform. Down with secco recit, made flowing opera (precursor to Wagner).

Mozart - first hybrid opera seria/buffa, Don Giovanni. Simple beautiful vocal lines for voice.


BEL CANTO TIME ---------------------------------------------------------------

Bel Canto means "Beautiful Singing" and is the Italian Style of singing. Bel Canto writing is Florid and Intricate requiring a singer to have supreme agility, control, and stellar pitch center. The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and many others.

Aria forms for this period Cabaletta, Cavatina ( Same as Cabaletta EXCEPT... its the first aria that you sing - side eye... great... RBF)

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1876)

The Barber of Seville (1816) Librettist: Sterbini

La Cenerentola (1817) contains a cabaletta, Librettist: Ferretti

William Tell (1829) Librettists: Jouy and Bis

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 -1848)

L'elisir d'amore (1832) Librettist: Romani

Lucia di Lammermoor (1838) Librettist: Cammerano

La fille du régiment (1840) Librettist: Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Bayard

Vincenzo Bellini (1801 -1835)

I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830) Librettist: Romani

La sonnambula(1831) Librettist: Romani

Norma (1831) Librettist: Romani

FRENCH GRAND OPERA ---------------------------------------

Emotional music... Orchestras and Choruses got bigger. Themes were more Romantic in Nature. Sweeping Meldoies. No dry recitatives.

Giocomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)

Pinnacle of French Grand Opera

Les Huguenots (1836) Librettist: Scribe and Deschamps

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Les Troyens (1863) Librettist: Berlioz himself!

Charles Gounod (1818 -1893)

Faust (1859) Librettist: Barbier

Roméo et Juliette (1867) Librettist: Barbier


Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Nabucco (1841) Librettist: Solero

Solidified his career as an opera composer.

Rigoletto (1851) Librettist: Piave (based on Hugo)

Verdi blurs the distinction between the aria and recitative as it never before was, leading the opera to be "an unending string of duets"

La Traviata (1853) Librettist: Piave

is often cited as one of the first "realistic" operas because rather than featuring great kings and figures from literature, it focuses on the tragedies of ordinary life and society. Verdi was a political figure because of this. We start to see the Verismo style.

Falstaff (1893) Librettist: Boito

Rather than long, suspended melodies, Falstaff contains many little motifs and mottos, that, rather than being expanded upon, are introduced and subsequently dropped, only to be brought up again later.

Aida (1871) Librettist: Ghislanzoni

Aida was commissioned by the Egyptian government for the opera house built by the Khedive Isma'il Pasha to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal.

Richard Wagner (1813 -1883)


Leitmotifs represent each character

Bayrouth opera house

wrote his own librettos


Das Reingold


Richard Strauss (1864 -1949)

Elektra (1909) Librettist: Hofmannsthal

Der Rosenkavalier​ (1911) Librettist: Hofmannsthal

Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) Librettist: Hofmannsthal

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

After Verdi, the sentimental "realistic" melodrama of verismo appeared in Italy.

La Bohéme

Madame Butterfly


Igor Stravinsky (1882 -1971)

Rakes Progress (Neo classicism, "No word from Tom" is a Cabaletta example)

Benjamin Britten (1913 -1976)

Peter Grimes

The Turn of the Screw

Midsummer nights dream

Jake Heggie (1961- )

Moby Dick Librettist: Gene Scheer

Dead Man Walking

I think I am brain dead.

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