The Origins of Opera Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Opera music has a long and varied history, dating back to the 16th century. In this blog post, we explore the origins of this popular genre of music and how it has evolved over time.

The Beginnings of Opera

Opera is a form of musical theatre that originated in Italy in the late 16th century. The word “opera” means “work” in Italian. Opera is usually sung in a foreign language. The first opera was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, which was performed in Florence in 1598.

Early Opera in Italy

The first operas were written in Florence, Italy at the end of the sixteenth century. The city was a center of culture and art, and many wealthy patrons were eager to support new forms of entertainment. The early operas were modeled after ancient Greek drama, with a mix of singing, acting, and dancing. They were also heavily influenced by the church; many early operas contained religious themes and were performed in Latin.

The first known opera composer was Jacopo Peri, who wrote Euridice in 1600. This work was followed by a number of others, including Dafne (also 1600) and Orfeo (1607). These early operas did not survive, but they paved the way for the development of the genre.

Opera began to spread beyond Italy in the early seventeenth century. French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote a number of successful operas for the court of Louis XIV, including Armide (1686) and Alcidiane (1690). Lully’s work helped to solidify some of the conventions of opera, such as the use of an orchestra and fixed-length verses. Opera also became popular in England during this period; works such as Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689) and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1683) were particularly well-received.

The First Opera Houses

The earliest known opera house was the Teatro di Nuovo in Venice, which opened in 1637. The first public opera performance took place in this theatre on October 6, 1639, when Francesco Manelli and Baldassare Galuppi presented their opera L’Andromaca.

In 1645, the Palazzo Dario in Venice was converted into an opera house. This theatre became known as the Teatro San Moisè. The opening of this theatre marked the beginning of a great period in Venetian opera.

The first permanent opera house was the Teatro Ducale in Mantua, which was opened in 1627. In 1637, the Teatro Filarmonico in Verona began presenting operas. This theatre is still in use today.

The first public opera performance in Rome took place in 1628 at the Pallacorda. The Teatro di Pompeo was Rome’s first permanent opera house; it opened its doors in 1649.

The Spread of Opera

Opera is a musical genre that emerged in the early 17th century in Italy. It spread throughout Europe and eventually became one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Today, opera is enjoyed by people all over the world. Let’s learn more about the origins and spread of opera music.

Opera in France

France became the next stronghold of opera after Italy. The first French operatic composer was Jean-Baptiste Lully, who, like Cavalli, had worked in the court of Louis XIV. Lully’s operas, however, were much grander in scale and more formally elaborate than those of his Italian contemporary. They were also sung in French rather than Italian, and their stories were drawn from French history or mythology rather than ancient Rome or Greece. Lully’s success as an opera composer was so great that he was able to obtain a monopoly on the production of all French operas from the king.

Lully’s chief rival was Nicolas Bernier, whose operas were less formal and more intimate than those of his more famous colleague. Bernier’s work represents an important step in the development of what would become known as opéra comique, a type of opera in which the story is told primarily through song rather than through spoken dialogue. After Lully’s death in 1687, French opera continued to develop along these lines. By the early 1700s, opéra comique had emerged as a distinct genre, one that would eventually exert a powerful influence on the development of opera in other countries, including Germany and England.

Opera in Germany

Germany became the center of opera in the early seventeenth century. The first operas written in German were performed in Hamburg and Brunswick in 1678. These works were inspired by Alessandro Stradella’s invention of the da capo aria and Heinrich Schütz’s musical setting of the Passion. Operas in German were also influenced by French and Italian models, as well as by native Germanic traditions of folk song and dance.

The first great German opera composer was Georg Friedrich Händel. His most famous work, Messiah, was first performed in Dublin in 1742. Händel also wrote a number of Italian operas, such as Giulio Cesare, which was premièred in London in 1728. Another important early German opera composer was Johann Adolf Hasse. His works include the comic opera La caduta de’ giganti, which was premièred in Dresden in 1744.

In the late eighteenth century, Mozart wrote a number of successful operas in German, including Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflöte (1791). The latter work is still one of the most popular operas today. Other important nineteenth-century German opera composers include Weber, Marschner, Lortzing and Wagner. Wagner’s operas, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, are among the most significant works of Western art music.

Opera in England

Opera in England began in the late 16th century, with the first known performance of John Dowland’s Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans in 1594. This work was followed by others such as Thomas Morley’s Canzonets (1595) and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), which helped to establish opera as a distinct genre in England.

Opera began to take off in England in the early 18th century, with the first public opera house opening in London in 1711. George Frideric Handel was a major figure in English opera, writing works such as Giulio Cesare (1724) and Alcina (1735). Italian opera also became popular in England, with productions of Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas taking place in London from 1708 onwards.

In the 19th century, English opera began to develop its own distinctive character. Operas such as The Bohemian Girl (1844) by Michael Balfe and The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) by Gilbert and Sullivan showed that English composers could create works that were both tuneful and comic. Victorian grand opera also had a significant impact on English opera, with operas such as Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (1843) and Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867) being performed in London.

The 20th century saw a decline in the popularity of opera in England, but there were still some important works written for the English stage, such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962). Today, English National Opera is one of the leading companies producing opera in the UK.

The Development of Opera

Opera is a musical art form that originated in Italy in the late 16th century. Opera was developed from the intermezzo, which was a brief musical entertainment that was performed between the acts of a play. The first opera, Dafne, was written by Jacopo Peri and was performed in 1597. Opera quickly spread throughout Europe and became one of the most popular forms of entertainment.

The Rise of the Opera Seria

One of the most important and popular forms to develop during the baroque period was opera. Although its origins can be traced back to the Renaissance, opera as a distinct genre did not really develop until the early 1600s. The first operas were private court entertainments, presented for the Medici family in Florence. These earliest operas were actually closer to modern musical theatre, with spoken dialogue interspersed with sections of singing. However, by the early 1700s, opera had become a fully-fledged musical genre in its own right, and one of the most important forms of entertainment in Europe.

The first operas were what we would now call ‘opera seria’ (serious opera). These were large-scale works, often with casts of hundreds of singers and musicians, and dozens of expensive sets and costumes. They were designed to be grandiose spectacles, impressing both the audience and the patrons who had commissioned them. The plots of opera seria were usually based on classical myths or heroic stories from history, and they tended to be fairly serious and solemn in tone. The style of singing was also relatively formal and ornate, with little or no opportunity for the performer to show off their individual personality or style.

Notwithstanding their grandeur and scale, opera seria did have one major drawback: they were often quite dull! The long recitative passages could be particularly tedious for audiences, who often preferred the more tuneful arias. In addition, because they depended so heavily on expensive set pieces and large casts, opera seria was often beyond the means of all but the wealthiest patrons. As a result, a new form of opera began to develop in northern Italy during the early 1700s…

The Birth of the Opera Buffa

The Origins of Opera Music can be traced back to the 6th century BC in ancient Greece. This is when a new form of musical drama, which included singing and dancing, began to take shape. However, it wasn’t until the 16th century that opera as we know it today began to take form.

The first operas were created in Florence, Italy during the early 1600s. These early operas were called “opera buffa”, which means “comic opera”. They usually had a light-hearted story line and were meant to be entertaining. The first successful opera buffa was written by a composer named Domenico Cimarosa. His opera, The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in 1786 and was an instant hit!

As Opera Buffa became more popular, other composers began to experiment with different genres of opera. In 1797, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote an opera called The Magic Flute, which combined elements of both Opera Buffa and Opera Seria (“serious opera”). This new genre of opera, which is now known as Opera Buffa-Seria, became very popular throughout Europe during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

One of the most famous composers of Opera Buffa-Seria was Gioachino Rossini. He wrote more than 30 operas in this genre, including The Barber of Seville and Cinderella (La Cenerentola). Rossini’s operas were so popular that they helped make him one of the richest composers of his time!

The Golden Age of Opera

Opera is a form of Western theatre that originated in the mid-16th century in Italy, specifically Florence. It then spread to the rest of Europe over the next few decades, arriving in England in the late 17th century. Opera quickly became popular among the upper classes, and remained so for many years.

The Italian Opera Seria

Opera seria (“serious opera”) is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and “serious” style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to c. 1770. The term “opera seria” itself was used at the time and only attained currency much later, after c. 1800. Opera seria was mainly, but not exclusively, performed by professional singers of competing character types: sopranos for the female characters, castrati or countertenors for the male protagonists, basses or bass-baritones for costume roles, and tenors for bootblack characters or young nobles.

The main genres of opera seria were heroic drama (see opera) and pastoral drama (see bucolic opera). Opera seria was also characterized by its gorgeous arias and grandiose visuals, as well as being opere per musica (i.e., works written specifically for musical performance rather than other forms such as plays with incidental music). This new style was immediately transplanted to France with the premiere in 1714 of Giovanni Porta’s heroical-comical La Finta Meraviglia set to a libretto by Marco Coltellini;[1] in Germany it took a little longer with Johann Mattheson’s Hamburg version of La Meraviglia opening in 1721.

As an artistic form, however, it flourished only until around 1740s; later works in this style are often classified as neo-opera seria. In order to sustain interest beyond one season in what was seen as a yawningly predictable genre full of stock characters requiring set ways of singing their assigned couplets, many impresarios began to experiment with more dramatic works, such as Ariadne auf Naxos by Christoph Willibald Gluck, which contained spoken dialogue between the music passages; this forerunner of German Singspiel ultimately led to true German Opera through Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Der Freischütz.

The German Singspiel

The German Singspiel was an important predecessor of the modern opera. It was a type of musical play that was very popular in Germany in the 18th century.

The singspiel consisted of a series of songs, duets, and ensembles interspersed with spoken dialogue. The dialogue was usually in the vernacular ( German), unlike the opera seria, which was sung in Italian.

The plots of singispiels were often light-hearted and humorous, and they frequently included elements of magic and fantasy. They were sometimes also quite bawdy, with lots of double entendres.

The first singspiel to achieve lasting international success was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which was premiered in 1791. Other well-known examples of the genre include Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) and Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario).

The French Opera

Opera was born in Italy in the late 16th century, but it wasn’t until the early 17th century that it began to spread to other countries. France was one of the first places outside of Italy to embrace opera, and by the mid-17th century, French opera was all the rage.

French opera is characterized by its dramatic stories and lavish productions. Some of the most famous French operas include Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Tyrannique amour” (1672) and François Couperin’s “Les Misérables” (1690). These early works laid the foundation for the French operatic tradition, which would reach its apex in the 18th century.

The 18th century is often considered the golden age of French opera. This was a time when operas such as Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” (1733) and André Grétry’s “Richard Coeur de Lion” (1784) were hugely popular. These works blended elements of Italian and French opera to create a unique sound that captivated audiences.

The golden age of French opera came to an end in the early 19th century with the rise of Romanticism. This new artistic movement favored more personal and introspective stories, which didn’t always lend themselves well to operatic treatment. As a result, French opera went into decline in the early 19th century, though there were still some bright spots, such as Gioachino Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” (1829).

Opera Today

Opera is a form of musical theatre that combines acting, singing, and stagecraft, and sometimes dancing. The libretto (text) of an opera is usually in Italian (or sometimes in French or German), even though many operas have been written in English.

Opera in the 20th Century

In the early years of the 20th century, opera continued to evolve. New styles were developed, such as verismo, which was designed to capture real life in operatic form. Composers such as Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote operas in this style, which was characterized by melodies that sounded more naturalistic than those found in earlier works.

Opera in the 21st Century

The operas of the 21st century can be characterized in a number of ways. For one, composers are no longer afraid to experiment with the form and structure of opera, often resulting in works that are a hybrid of different genres. Additionally, many 21st century operas deal with contemporary issues and themes, such as racial tension, political corruption, and environmental disaster. The following is a list of some of the most significant operas composed in the 21st century.

• The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) by John Adams is an opera about the terrorist hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 and the murder of one of its passengers, Leon Klinghoffer.

• Katrina (2006) by Anthony Davis is an opera about one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history: Hurricane Katrina.

• 9/11 (2011) by Steve Mackey is an opera about the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

While many 21st century operas deal with dark and difficult subject matter, there are also works that are more light-hearted in nature. For example, Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005), by Eric Idle and John Du Prez, is a hilarious parody of both medieval knights and musical theater itself.

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