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A brief history of opera

To many, opera is the pinnacle of bourgeois decadence. As it would be, this conception of opera isn’t entirely unfair as, from its earliest days, opera has drawn from traditions of rich formality and high drama as much as hilarity and irreverence. Here's a brief look at the history of opera.

From the hills of Florence

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The world’s first opera is widely regarded as “Dafne” (1597) by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), composed in Florence, Italy. Peri was among the first composers of his time who set out to retell the ancient Greek dramas through musical performances. “Dafne” tells the story of Apollo’s love for the nymph Daphne. Peri and his contemporaries gave birth to the art from of opera, which quickly gained popularity in Florence. In its first steps, two schools emerged:

  • opera seria, which dealt with high drama such as with Dafne
  • opera buffa, which were comedies.

The Baroque Era (1600–1750)

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Noteworthy composers: Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

Opera bellowed throughout the European continent with historic volume in the 1600s. Performances became elaborate with expensive, moving sets, floral arias, and intricate costumes. Dramatic texts (libretto) were used to inspire musical compositions often revolving around Greek and Roman mythology. It was during the Baroque period when the castrati appeared – young boys castrated before puberty to preserve their voices. The castrati were to be at the center of the spectacle of Baroque opera with their otherworldly voices.

By the late 1700s, the Enlightenment touched upon all aspects of European life, and opera saw a shift toward more human stories with less of the divine. Excessive vocal displays fell out of favor, and Mozart rose to the throne of the most renowned with a combination of comedies such as “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which two servants outwit their master, and high art like “Don Giovanni.”

The Romantic period (1830–1900)

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Noteworthy composers: Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Gaetano Donizetti (1791–1848)

In the wake of the Enlightenment, sensibilities swung back toward extravagance. The Romantic period saw the emergence of grand opera with ornate set designs, effects, and dramatic storytelling. The school of “bel canto” singing was developed, focusing on vocal brilliance bolstered by simple harmonic structures. Though composers of the time had a penchant for tragedy, comedies also prevailed as with other periods in opera history. It is from the Romantic period that one of the most popular operas of all time emerged: “Carmen” (1875) by George Bizet.

The legacy of Wagner

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In the 19th century, Richard Wagner (1813–1883) revolutionized opera. He was unique among composers in that he both wrote his libretto and the arrangements of his music. His works often feature “leitmotifs” in which recurrent musical themes are tied to characters, ideas, or feelings. Throughout the entirety of his body of work, Wagner sought to incorporate his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art").

Wagner felt a sense of contrivance in the narratives and performances of opera in his day. Musical composition was the foremost consideration. Wagner sought to unify his vision of perfect harmony between narrative, production, and musical composition with Gesamtkunstwerk.

His works made him a giant of his time. He had two of his own opera houses built to his specifications. However, his political leanings landed him in trouble. Wagner was a leftist who played a nominal role in the May Uprising in Dresden (1849), forcing him to flee his home country of Germany, after which he lived in exile until 1862.

It wasn’t until 1864 that Wagner’s luck took a turn when King Ludwig II took the throne of Bavaria. The king was a tremendous admirer of Wagner and brought him back to Munich while settling his outstanding financial debts. Upon return, Wagner’s work saw a fantastic resurgence.

The modern day

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From the 20th century to present, opera has seen a mix of styles ranging from revivals of grand opera, such as in the work of Giacomo Puccini, to modern political commentaries including “Nixon in China” (1987). Though opera has lost much of its widespread appeal as an art form that transcended class barriers, it lives on with contemporary expression and continued reverence across the world.