The drama is presented using the typical elements of theater such as scenery, costumes, and acting. However, the words of the opera, or libretto, are sung rather than spoken. The singers are accompanied by a musical ensemble ranging from a small instrumental ensemble to a full symphonic orchestra.
Traditional opera consists of two modes of singing: recitative, the dialogue and plot-driving passages often sung in a non-melodic style characteristic of opera, and aria, during which the movement of the plot often stops and the music and the singers focus on one topic using full voice. Short sung passages are also referred to as arioso. Each type of singing is accompanied by musical instruments.
Singers and the roles they play are classified according to their vocal ranges. A particular singer's classifications change drastically over his or her lifetime, rarely reaching vocal maturity until well past middle age. Male singers are classified as bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and countertenor. Female singers are classified, as contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano. Each of these classifications has subcategories, (German, fach), such as lyric soprano, coloratura, soubrette, spinto, and dramatic soprano, which associate the singer's voice with the roles most suitable to the vocal timbre and quality and its range, or tessitura..
Opera draws from many other art forms. Whether the words or the music are paramount has been the subject of debate since the 17th century. The visual arts, such as painting, are employed to create the visual spectacle on the stage, which is considered an important part of the performance. Finally, dancing is often part of an opera performance.
Table of contents
The word opera means simply "works" in Latin, the plural of opus suggesting that it combines the arts of solo and choral singing, declamation, dancing in a staged spectacle. The earliest work considered an opera in the sense the work is usually understood dates from around 1597. It is Dafne, (now lost) written by Jacopo Peri for an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the "Camerata". Significantly Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance. A later work by Peri, Euridice, dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present day. Spoken or declaimed dialogue accompanied by an orchestra, called recitative in opera, is the essential feature of melodrama, in its original sense. The most familiar example of such incidental music is Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The pit orchestra that underscored the dramatic action in 19th century melodrama survives in film scores, and spectacular films incorporating serious music are the direct heirs of melodrama and in their "special effects" both the heirs and the competitors of grand opera.
Earlier 17th century elements that had not yet fused into a recognizable opera included the courtly pageants called masques. New elements of masque, with many songs, were features of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (ca. 1611). Musico-dramatic elements can also be seen in 16th century suites of madrigalss that were strung together to suggest a dramatic narrative.
In earlier times, music had been part of medieval mystery plays. A surviving musical work which is known to be older than Dafne is Philotea, to a religious text, by a priest called Silberman. Additionally, the music of Hildegard of Bingen has been given dramatic staged performances.
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. Influential 17th century composers of opera included Francesco Cavalli and Claudio Monteverdi whose Orfeo (1607) is the earliest opera still performed today. Monteverdi's later Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (1640) is also seen as a very important work of early opera. 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, which came to be associated with the poet Pietro Trapassi, called Metastasio, whose librettos helped crystallize opera seria's moralizing tone. Comedy in Baroque opera was reserved for opera buffa, in a separately developing tradition that partly derived from the commedia dell'arte.
Bel canto and Italian nationalism
The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. 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 writing demanded vocal endurance and strength more than the agility required in bel canto; his works were also more demanding dramatically. Verdi's operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the nationalist movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical).
In rivalry with imported Italian opera productions, a separate French tradition, sung in the French, was founded by Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully, who established an Academy of Music and monopolized French opera from 1672. Lully's overtures, fluid and disciplined recitatives, danced interludes, divertissements and orchestral entr'actes between scenes, set a pattern that Gluck struggled to reform almost a century later. The text was as important as the music: royal propaganda was expressed in elaborate allegories, generally with upbeat endings. Opera in France has continued to include ballet interludes and feature elaborate scenic machinery.
Baroque French opera, elaborated by Rameau, was simplified by the reforms associated with Gluck (Alceste and Orfee) in the late 1760s. French opera was influenced by the bel canto of Rossini and other Italians (though sung in French).
Opera buffa and opera comique
French opera with spoken dialogue is referred to as opera comique, irrespective of its subject matter. Depending on the weight of its subject matter, opera-comique shades into operetta, which, along with vaudeville gave rise to the musical comedy perfected in New York.
Romantic opera and 'Grand Opera'
The elements of French Grand Opera first appeared in Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829) and Meyerbeer\'s Robert le Diable (1831). Grand Opera is usually in five acts and includes dance interludes for complete ballet company.
Mozart's German singspiel The Magic Flute (1791) stands at the head of a German opera tradition that was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven (who wrote only one), Weber, Heinrich Marschner and Wagner.
Wagner pioneered a through-composed style, in which recitative and aria blend into one another and are constantly accompanied by the orchestra. Wagner also made copious use of the leitmotif (Weber had used a similar device earlier), a musical device which associates a musical line with each character or idea in the story.
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.
In the 19th century, Russia composers also began to write important operas based on nationalist themes, national literature, and folk tales, beginning with Mikhail Glinka (e.g. Ruslan and Ludmila) and followed by Alexander Borodin (Prince Igor), Modest Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, Khovanschina), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko), and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin). These developments mirrored the growth of Russian nationalism across the artistic spectrum, in part as a function of the more general Slavophilism movement.
Czech composers also developed a thriving national opera movement of their own in the 19th century. Antonin Dvorak, most famous for Rusalka, wrote 13 operas; Bedrich Smetana wrote eight (the Bartered Bride being the most famous); and Leos Janacek wrote ten, including Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Katya Kabanova.
After Wagner: verismo and modernism
Opera in Wagner's huge wake took several paths. One reaction was the sentimental "realistic" melodramas of verismo operas, a style perpetuated in the well-known, popular operas of Giacomo Puccini. Another reaction to mythic medievalizing can be seen in the psychological intensity and social commentary of Richard Strauss.
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, while opera enjoyed tremendous appeal and has been performed around the world, only a handful of modern operas have joined the standard repertory: Berg's Wozzeck, Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Glass's Einstein on the Beach and Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites being among them.
Sociology of operaAll art forms have a social context, and opera likewise cannot exist in a vacuum. A string quartet exists in manuscript and printed score, but the printed score for an opera must be realized in a production. Thus there exists a "sociology of opera", which would be as interesting to general social historians (who are unaware, on the whole) as it is to opera buffs. Operas have always been written with a specific audience in mind, whether more aristocratic or more popular, expressing their local prejudices and expectations. Operas have also been affected behind the scenes, by opera house politics and sometimes government censors. But the idea that there is a canon of operas, an opera repertory that could be reflected in Wikipedia's entry "List of famous operas," for example, is a late entry in the sociology of opera.
Development of an opera audience
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Development of the idea of "opera repertory"During the lifetimes of composers up to Meyerbeer there was no "repertory" of operas. Composers like Bellini and Donizetti were expected to come up with fresh material, season after season (but compare pastiche). The idea of an opera repertory originates with Richard Wagner, in his Festspielhaus in [[Bayreuth].
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- List of opera composers
- List of movies based on classical operas
- List of opera houses
- An Invitation to the Opera by John Louis DiGaetani (ISBN 0-385-26339-2)