A Brief History of Opera – Music & Spectacle

After introducing classical music and famous pieces in the past, I want to dedicate today’s article to Opera, which  is one of the more intimidating forms of music. It’s intense, long and loud. Not only is the audience expected to understand what is happening musically, they also have to follow the plot and observe how the sights, sounds, gestures, props and stage design interact to create a world that mirrors our own. It also blurs the relationship between reality and fiction. Howard Goodall mused that, unlike other forms of art music such as the symphony or concerto, opera is the form in which music interfaces with the real world — love, death and politics. But is that it? Surely the real world element of opera is only a small, even negligible element of the form. As Martin Crane dismissively commented, the plots of most operas are just plain goofy. There is more than the reality, more than the drama. There is the music and the spectacle.

The Inspiration of Opera- Greek Theatre

The Inspiration of Opera- Greek Theater


Opera began as a constructed form. Unlike other musical forms it did not evolve in relation to other music developments, such as sonata form arising from the development of equal temperament. It exploded onto the scene. The Renaissance’s fascination with the ancient world of the Greeks and the Romans created opera. It was one of its greatest, if misguided fruits. The original idea of opera was to recreate Greek drama, retaining, as Marianne McDonald reveals, Aristotle’s elements of tragedy: plot, character, thought, language, spectacle and music. Although earlier examples of vocal music existed they did not have the focus on plot, character and spectacle that was given to opera. For example, the chorales of the Church and the musical morality plays such as Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum (1151) were more interested in praise of God than of suspenseful enticement of the audience. As with many created forms, opera had a difficult infancy and these early years are worthy of an opera themselves.

Act I

Jacopo Peri composes Daphne (1598), the establishing introduction to the form. The music is now lost with only the text surviving and accounts are vague and minuscule. This is however not entirely unexpected. Opera was conceived by committee, a sure recipe for disaster. The Florentine Camerata, a group of highly influential thinkers, poets, and musicians, met regularly in the decades leading up to Peri’s premiere. Their ideas, primarily that of reviving what they considered Classical approaches to drama, led to the idea of opera. Peri was given the task of composing the first piece.

Act II

Despite the rather uninspiring first opera it did provide a second chance, although this created a degree of conflict that would take a hero to resolve. The Medici family, the rulers of Florence, were interested enough in the work to provide a premiere for Peri’s next opera, Euridice (1600). This second attempt certainly caused some spectacle although this was due to its theme, doomed love, being seen as inappropriate for the occasion of its premiere: the royal wedding between Maria de Medici and King Henry IV of France. However, it did have two saving graces that provided hope for the final victory in the third act. It further enhanced the form of the recitative and its relationship with its counterparts, the aria and the chorus. More importantly, these innovations encouraged Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua to give the form to his musicians.

Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi


Finally the hero is introduced who can save the fleeting form from ultimate oblivion. Claudio Monteverdi was Duke Vicenzo’s primary composer and an incredibly capable musician. His transition from monody to opera was obvious yet spectacular. Monteverdi possessed the breadth of knowledge to develop this art form, giving us L’Orfeo (1607), the first surviving opera still regularly performed today.

An Art Form Divided: Opera Seria and Opera Buffa

Another element that separates opera from other forms is that it managed to entice both the wealthy nobility and the general public. This was aided by the opening of public opera houses. The Teatro San Cassiano in Venice opened to the general public in 1637. It was run by an impresario (house manager) and supported by ticket sales to the general public rather than being exclusively for the nobility and financed by a wealthy patron. This led to a division: the opera seria or serious opera that was for the court, and the opera buffa or comic operas that were housed within the public theaters. The main difference was not only the level of humor, but also the subject matter, intended audience, and musical style. Opera seria told stories of myths and kings, with the nobility as the intended audience and had a strict three act musical form that favored the higher voices in lead roles. On the other hand, opera buffa tended toward everyday stories in plainer, often regional dialects and had a freer two act form featuring almost exclusively lower voices in contrast to the singular higher voice. Both were highly successful, and with success came extravagance and some decadent practices. One particularly extreme extravagance was the phenomena of the castrato. Although predating opera it had its hey day in the 18th century, with many of the most famous opera performers being castrato. A youth with a particularly beautiful singing voice would be castrated in order to retain the higher frequency of his prepubescence but this would be complemented by the richness from the larger chest cavity that a man would have. Although a common practice it did meet some outrage. The castrato were praised for their voices and mocked for their odd appearance (resulting from the lack of testosterone) and their clumsy, hammy acting. They were also denounced in social circles as centers of immorality, particularly as their fame grew. There was also a great deal of collateral harm, with many boys from poor families being castrated with the hope of become opera stars, and in most cases failing. But like any taboo indulgence people would still go to concerts, encouraging the practice to continue well into the late nineteenth century. One last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, was recorded in the early 20th century, although Moreschi was employed as a choir singer in the Sistine Chapel.

Unification: Gluck and Mozart

Although the separate styles of opera would continue until the nineteenth century, it was around the mid-18th century when reforms started taking place that would see opera seria lose its hierarchical structure. Christoph Willibald Gluck made strong reforms that reduced the indulgence of the singers, increased the size and role of the orchestra and brought together more elements of music, dance, drama and theater in works such as Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). He wished, as stated in his Preface to Alceste, to remove all the “abuses, introduced either by the mistaken vanity of the singers or by the too great complaisance of composers, which have so long disfigured Italian Opera and made of the most splendid and most beautiful of spectacles the most ridiculous and wearisome.”

A new generation of composers began writing new operas that involved great musical feats as well as having great dramatic and humorous elements. One of these composers was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although beginning as an opera seria composer of his three greatest operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Ginovanni and The Magic Flute, the former two are classified as comedic operas, although this does not limit their emotional and dramatic impact. Jessica Waldoff argues that each holds a special place within Mozart’s catalog, with Figaro being celebrated as his greatest operatic work, Magic Flute being his most high-minded theater piece, and concluding that no opera rivals Don Gionvanni for its influence on the history of ideas. The final scene, in which the libertine refuses a final chance to repent his ways, has inspired many writers and philosophers.

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

The Golden Age: The Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century saw several developments in opera, the first notable one being Grand Opera that spread from Paris and the French opera tradition that developed separately from the styles of Italy and Germany. This featured longer works (between four and five acts) larger casts and orchestras and as well as lavish, dazzling stage designs and effects. One of the prominent composers from this era was Giacomo Meyerbeer, who, with his German orchestral training and his mastery of Italian singing style was able to produce the grand style they craved in Paris. The middle of the nineteenth century saw the rise of two of the greatest opera composers, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Although their styles and motivations were different they too believed in the place of spectacle and music. Wagner’s earlier operatic ventures were strongly influenced by Meyerbeer. In fact, his first successful opera, Rienzi (1842), was strongly supported by Meyerbeer. However, over the course of his personal and artistic struggles Wagner gained a disdain for ‘opera.’ It was glitzy, glossy, and garish, performed in decadent theaters that encouraged debauchery in its listeners and the ‘talent’ on stage. He found it diminished the plot and character in preference for music and spectacle. Anyone who has ever listened to Wagner realizes that he was not averse to either of these two elements, but he placed great importance on the other elements as well, attempting to reach a synthesis between the various art forms. He wished to create the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork, going to the lengths of building a theater specifically for his works and redefining the bounds of tonality. His closet accomplishment to this ideal was with his epic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1869-1876) Verdi’s style was far more egalitarian. Although his works became strongly linked with the Risorgimento (the rise of Italian nationalism and reunification), he was less revolutionary, both in his politics and his art. Rather than reworking the basis of music and opera like Wagner, Verdi worked with and developed the existing styles, creating a large variety of works, including his much loved operas like Nabucco (1841) and Rigoletto (1851), but also an acclaimed requiem and numerous works inspired by Shakespeare.

The myth around Nabucoo was that it was composed as a theme for unifying the Italian people and that at its premier the audience enthusiastically called for an encore of the chorus “Va, pensiero”, wherein the exiled Israelites longed for their homeland. Encores were forbidden by mandate of the Austro-Hungarian authorities that ruled the North of Italy at the time, so an encore of this section carried great political weight. However, although an encore was requested, it was for actually for Immenso Jehova, a hymn of thanks from the Jews to God. The significance of the opera and Verdi with the Risorgimento has since been reassigned, however, this does not diminish the power and contribution of Verdi to the art of opera.

Auditorium. An interior of opera theatre. Odessa, Ukraine

Auditorium. An interior of opera theater. Odessa, Ukraine

 Opera: The Complete Artwork?

When people think of classical music, opera is considered a category all its own. I’m sure we all know people who enjoy symphonies, sonatas and concertos but have an indifference or even an aversion to opera. And likewise opera lovers find themselves shortchanged when listening to anything else. In the end, it’s a love or hate thing, but what would be a shame is if the people who hate it never really gave it a chance. So, dear readers, if you are on the disdain side, please try experiencing opera one more time, just to be sure. I won’t use the platitude that your life will be incomplete without it, but do not deny yourself any of mankind’s artistic achievements due to a few bad recordings or caricatured productions. If you love music, why not add a little spectacle?

Recommended Reading:

The Birth of an Opera, Michael Rose

Works Cited:

Christoph Willibald Gluck, “Preface to Alceste,” from Alceste (Music). Kassell: New York, 1988. Howard Goodall, Big bangs: The Story of Five Discoveries that Change Musical History. London: Vintage, 2001. Marianne McDonald, “The Dramatic Legacy of Myth: Oedipus in Opera, Radio, Television and Film,” from Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Jessica Waldoff, “Don Giovanni: Recognition Denied,” from Mary Hunter and James Webster, eds., Opera Buffa in Mozart’s Vienna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

A Brief History of Opera - Music & Spectacle
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A Brief History of Opera - Music & Spectacle
Learn all you need to know about the basics of the history of opera in under 10 minutes with videos & explanations.
12 replies
  1. Andreas Giannakopoulos says:

    Absolutely fantastic introduction to opera! Perhaps, hopefully, after reading this, the ranks of us opera-lovers might increase!

  2. Kasper Johansen says:


    I was thrilled to se an article about Opera here.
    I haven’t known this website for too long, and until know only read articles about style and clothing.
    this is a most welcome addition to what is already a very inspirational site.
    Keep up the good work!

  3. Julian says:

    Wonderfully written, as usual, although I think you should have included a footnote exhorting people to dress up for opera productions: I have attended performances of, say, Don Giovanni or La Bohème and sat next to people wearing jeans and Pink Floyd T-Shirts.

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Thank you, Julian. I am extremely pleased you enjoyed the article.

      Dressing well for productions certainly worthwhile encouraging, although should be extended for concerts in general.

      We may look into a future article dedicated to concert etiquette as a whole. Two of my colleagues here at the Gentleman’s Gazette, Jay Sennett and Keith McKee, write extremely thoroughly about etiquette for different occasions.

    • Daniel Gerson says:

      Well, I am glad that people actually do attend opera performances at all. Of course, it is somewhat irritating to see them not dressed properly for the occasion, but at the end of the day you are there to enjoy the stagecraft and not the failings in the audience members wardrobe choices. The only issue I have is with people who are forced to attend a performance and show their discontent by being noisy, either by talking among each other, playing around with mobile devices or leaving during an act.

      • A.C. Mertin says:

        Well stated, Daniel, it is ultimately about what’s on stage not on people’s persons. I do sometimes think that people in shorts and T-shirts are there simply for the pleasure of the music. It does have a certain ascetic dedication for the art that is encouraging. Complementing transcendent music with fine tailoring is an experience in itself, but they are by no means mandatory companions. If someone is inhibited in appreciating the music due to discomfort from a seldom worn necktie then I would rather they be attired for comfort.

        But it is extremely frustrating if they do not wish to be there and disrupt the performance. I was once at a Mahler Chamber Orchestra performance where a large portion of the audience seemed intent on leaving, clapping and exiting before the end of the piece essentially ending the performance early. Those that stayed were treated to a preview of the following night’s concert of Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 (From The New World) which soothed the event, but still an extremely infuriating experience.

      • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

        I agree, the opera is about the spectacle and the performance, not the wardrobe of the attendants. At one point in time, a certain formal wardrobe was an expression of respect, but I don’t think most people would see it like that anymore. Chances are that people who are not interested in going to the opera won’t dress up. At the same time, I have met people who dressed up for the opera but they just went because they wanted to be part of a certain circle in society, even though they don’t care about the performance at all… At the end of the day, each to his own, but just think about an audience all in white tie…

        • Julian says:

          An audience all in white tie would certainly be a sight for sore eyes indeed.
          I, for once, like to don my vintage silk top hat for the odd opera production. People tend to regard me as if I came from another planet, but well…

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