The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


opera, drama set to music.


The libretto may be serious or comic, although neither form necessarily excludes elements of the other. Opera differs from operetta in its musical complexity and usually in its subject matter. It differs also from oratorio, which is customarily based on a religious subject and is performed without scenery, costumes, or stage action. Although both opera and operetta may have spoken dialogue, in opera the dialogue usually has musical accompaniment, such as the harpsichord continuo in the operas of Mozart and Rossini.

Often, the music in opera is continuous, with set pieces such as solos, duets, trios, quartets, etc., and choral pieces, all designed to dramatize the action and display the particular vocal skills of the principal singers. For example, the last act trio from Gounod's Faust gives Mephistopheles (bass), Faust (tenor), and Marguerite (soprano) excellent opportunity to display their vocal talents singly and then weave their voices in ensemble singing as the two men vie for the soul of Marguerite, who is intent on salvation.

Early Opera

Florentine Beginnings

Although musical drama, such as The Play of Daniel (12th cent.), had previously existed, it was in the year 1600 that opera came into being. It began in Florence, Italy, fostered by the camerata [society], a group of scholars, philosophers, and amateur musicians that included the librettist Ottavio Rinuccini (1562–1621) and the composers Vincenzo Galilei, Emilio del Cavaliere (c.1550–1602), Jacopo Peri, and Giulio Caccini. It was their aim to promote the principle of monodic musical declamation, i.e., a single melodic line with modest accompaniment inspired by the example of ancient Greek drama; accordingly, the earliest operas took their plots from mythology, the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice being one of the most popular.

Because the story hinges on the expressive power of music and solo song, the early composers referred to their work as dramma per musica [drama through music], and operas of the 17th and 18th cent. used myth at first and plots about historical figures later. It had both lofty and comic strains, which were in time separated into distinct genres, the opera seria (serious opera) and the opera buffa (comic opera). Although fragments of Jacopo Peri's Dafne (c.1597) exist, the same composer's Euridice (1600), set to verse by Ottavio Rinuccini, is generally considered the first opera.

The Baroque in Rome and Venice

Development of earlier baroque opera occurred at Rome and Venice. The work that established Roman opera, Sant' Alessio, by Stefano Landi (c.1590–c.1639), appeared in 1632; it had a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX). Landi modified the strict declamatory style of the Florentines with formal devices: the recitative and aria became clearly differentiated, and more prominent use was made of choruses and instrumental form. Also, the libretto included comic scenes, which had no part in earlier operas.

However, it was not until the appearance of Claudio Monteverdi in Venice that baroque opera reached its peak, and the art form that began as entertainment for the aristocracy became available to popular audiences. In 1637 the first public opera house in the world opened in Venice, and by 1700 at least 16 more theaters were built and hundreds of operas produced. In Venice, two of Monteverdi's best-known works, the early La Favola d'Orfeo (The Tale of Orpheus, 1607) and L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), were performed. Monteverdi's influence was considerable, for he may be said to be responsible for the introduction of bel canto and buffo styles. He also reflected the moods and dramatic vividness of the libretto in his music, and his work became a model for the operatic composers who followed.

With the next generation of Venetian composers, headed by Marcantonio Cesti (1623–69) and Pietro Francesco Cavalli, an international style developed, and local schools disappeared. The recitative diminished in musical interest in favor of the aria, the chorus gave way to the virtuoso soloist, and the Renaissance interest in antiquities was superseded by a trend toward lofty scenes punctuated by comedy and parody. Alessandro Stradella, a forerunner of the 18th-century Neapolitan school, wrote operas in this style.

Early French Opera

Officially, French opera began in 1669 with the establishment of the Académie royale de Musique, which was taken over by Jean Baptiste Lully in 1672 after the bankruptcy of its founders. Italian opera, the pastoral, French classical tragedy, and the ballet de cour (see ballet) were the antecedents of French opera. Lully introduced his audience to grand-scale entertainment: lavish stage settings and scenery in addition to ballets, choruses, and long disquisitions on love and glory. His operas were divided into five acts and a prologue. The operas of Jean Philippe Rameau followed the tradition established by Lully, but were not as well received. Two of his works, however, Les Indes galantes (The Gallant Indies, 1735) and Castor et Pollux (1737), have music surpassing their librettos.

Italian Opera of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Italian opera seria continued to dominate the musical scene throughout the 17th and 18th cent. The Neapolitans cultivated opera seria, notably in the works of Alessandro Scarlatti. Musical and dramatic interest became focused on the grandiose, so-called da capo arias, which make up the bulk of these operas. In the typical da capo aria, the principal emotion is symbolized by a large opening main section, which is repeated, often in a heavily ornamented fashion, after a contrasting "B" section. One of the most influential librettists of this period was Pietro Metastasio, in whose works the separation of serious and comic opera is complete.

Neapolitan opera became known as well for the importance it gave to comic opera as a separate genre. Comedy had maintained its place in the opera house mainly in the form of brief interludes, or intermezzi (see intermezzo), that were played between the acts of opera seria. Now it came into its own, with such works as Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La serva padrona (The Servant as Mistress, 1733), Giovanni Paisiello's (1740–1816) Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1782), and Domenico Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage, 1792). The characters were from commedia dell'arte, the subject matter satirical and earthy, replacing the staid classical heroism of earlier operas. There was no spoken dialogue.

The Development of English Opera

The first English opera was The Siege of Rhodes, with a text by poet laureate Sir William D'Avenant, in 1656. The masque was the true antecedent of English opera, and John Blow's Venus and Adonis (c.1685) was actually an opera. The one great English opera of the 17th cent. was Dido and Aeneas (1689) by Henry Purcell, after whose death England succumbed completely to Italian opera.

The reigning "English" composer was a German who had completely absorbed the Neapolitan Italian style, George Frideric Handel. Although best known as the composer of the oratorio Messiah, Handel spent most of his musical energy between 1705 and 1738 in composing operas. His first opera in England was Rinaldo (1711), an instant success, and among the many other operas he composed are Giulio Cesare (1724), Rodelinda (1725), and Alcina (1735). Handel's operas featured castrati (see castrato), who had great popularity, and who dominated this period and type of opera, sometimes forcing composers to write around them, adding music that had little or nothing to do with the plot.

Coincident with Handel's efforts at establishing Italian opera in England were the attempts of native talent to produce an English musical theatrical form. The result was The Beggar's Opera (1728), with a libretto by the poet John Gay and music composed partly by John Christopher Pepusch. The Beggar's Opera inaugurated the form of ballad opera that satirized Italian opera and contemporary politics.

German and Austrian Opera in the Eighteenth Century

The ballad opera eventually led to the singspiel, the German comic opera with spoken dialogue, which was to reach its highest development in the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although the early court opera of Germany showed preference for the Italian school—Frederick the Great is said to have compared German singing to the neighing of horses—in the 18th cent. German composers began to turn their attention to singspiel.

Georg Philipp Telemann had anticipated the technique of Pergolesi's La serva padrona in his Pimpione (1725), a comic opera with only two characters. In the same vein is Johann Christian Standfuss's (?–1756) Der Teufel ist Los (The Devil to Pay, 1752), an unpretentious composition written in the simple style of folk melody. However, it was Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782) that fully established singspiel in Vienna, the international music capital. Singspiel had now become fused with Italian aria-oriented opera.

The increasing taste of the 18th-century public for musical portrayal of emotion in a more earnest manner and on a more human scale had its most significant impact on opera seria in the works of Christoph Willibald von Gluck. In a letter to the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, Gluck stated his principal aim: "I sought to restrict music to its true function, namely to serve poetry by means of expression—and the situations which make up the plot—without interrupting the action … ." He accomplished that aim with Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767).

The unity of drama and music was continued by Mozart, through his explorations of and expansions on the comic styles. His music manages to present characters familiar to every age, with all the virtues and foibles of the human race. Goethe compared him with Shakespeare. His major librettist was Lorenzo Da Ponte, who produced texts for three of Mozart's greatest works: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (Women Are Like That, 1790). In La clemenza di Tito (1791) Mozart used the work of Pietro Metastasio for his libretto. The libretto for Mozart's last great opera, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791) was written by Emmanuel Schickaneder (1751–1812).

Opera in the Nineteenth Century

The Romantic Movement in Germany

Hero worship, a return to nature, idealism, and fantasy are elements of late 18th-century romanticism that found their way into 19th-century German opera. Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio (1805, rev. 1814), is set against the background of French rescue opera and the theme of personal freedom versus political tyranny. But it was Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, which rested on the foundations of singspiel, that was really the point of departure for German romantic opera—for E. T. A. Hoffmann's Undine (1816) and Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (1821) and Oberon (1826). These operas, although somewhat limited in melodic invention, fused in their plots the natural and the supernatural and paved the way for the grandiose music dramas of Richard Wagner, who also wrote his own librettos.

Wagner's early operas, such as Rienzi (1842), based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel of the same name, and Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843) are Italian-style operas, with arias, duets, trios, and choral pieces. In the romantic tradition, he turned to medieval lore for Tannhäuser (1845) and to tales of chivalry and knighthood for Lohengrin (1850), Tristan und Isolde (1865), and Parsifal (1882). Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), Wagner's only comic opera, used the real-life cobbler and poet Hans Sachs as the central character.

The set pieces of the Italian school were put aside in favor of leitmotifs (leading motifs) that were used to identify individual characters and situations and present a continuous flow of music, at times almost symphonic in nature, which was uninterrupted by recitative. The culmination of this technique was Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), a tetralogy composed of Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Siegfried (1876), and Götterdämmerung (1876).

The Development of French Grand Opera and Opéra Comique

After the French Revolution (1789), spectacular and melodramatic operas became popular. Outstanding examples are by Luigi Cherubini, Étienne Nicolas Méhul, Jean François Lesueur, and Gasparo Spontini. Extensive use was made of plots involving rescue. Paris had now become the center of operatic activity, and the performance there of Daniel François Esprit Auber's La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici, 1828), also known after its hero as Masaniello, Gioacchino Rossini's Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829), Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831), and Jacques Halévy's La Juive (The Jewess, 1835) established the grand opera tradition.

Grand opera, of which Meyerbeer's works are the outstanding examples, typically feature historical subjects with pointed reference to contemporary issues, religious elements, and violent passions. The influence of French grand opera was enormous, reaching even to the early works of Wagner and Verdi. Hector Berlioz's masterpiece Les Troyens (The Trojans, 1856–58), while owing nothing to Meyerbeer, may also be considered grand opera.

Opéra comique (distinguished from grand opera in that it had spoken dialogue) took two directions in the middle of the 19th cent., one lead toward operetta, the other toward a more serious, lyrical opera. Of that genre Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, Léo Delibes, and Jules Massenet were the chief composers. Gounod's Faust (1859) and Bizet's Carmen (1875), two of the most popular French operas ever written, actually had spoken dialogue in their original versions, but this qualification for works given at the Opéra Comique theater was ultimately dropped. The operas of Emmanuel Chabrier and Vincent D'Indy show the influence of Wagner, while Gustave Charpentier's Louise (1900) is representative of naturalism. Perhaps the most complete realization of the ideals that had marked French opera from its beginning was Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902).

Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera

In Italy, the voice remained master of the orchestra, and melody, presented with clarity and directness, ruled out overly polyphonic writing. The early masters of this style were Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. The arias were often in two large sections, a slow section displaying bel canto singing, i.e., smoothness of vocal line with flawless phrasing and high notes, followed by a cabaletta (a rapid section requiring precision singing). Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers, 1813) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816) are just two of his comic operas that provide sparkling melodies, brilliant arias and ensembles, and fast-moving plots.

Gaetano Donizetti also wrote tragedies (for example, Lucia di Lammermoor, 1835) and a trilogy on the queens Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and Anne Boleyn that gave the soprano lead exquisite scenes and arias for displaying her ability at coloratura singing. His two comic operas L'Elisir d'Amore (1832) and Don Pasquale (1843) are in the same bubbling melodic vein of the best of Rossini. Vincenzo Bellini also gave his leading ladies splendid arias combining dramatic and coloratura techniques with unusually long melodic lines, such as those in Norma (1831) and I Puritani (1835). Neither he, Rossini, nor Donizetti slighted the male voices, writing parts that enabled them to display astonishing vocal versatility.

Verdi and the Late Nineteenth Century in Italy

The dominant Italian composer in the second half of the 19th cent. was Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas epitomized the lyric-dramatic style of the Italian school. Verdi's operas are usually classified by periods—early, middle, late. Of the early period, Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, 1842) was his first success. The middle period contains three undisputed masterpieces: Rigoletto (1851, based on Victor Hugo's drama The King's Jester), Il Trovatore (The Troubador, 1853), and La Traviata (1853, based on Alexandre Dumas' play Camille). All are characterized by Verdi's trademark: magnificent, sustained melodies in the standard forms of aria, recitative, and choral numbers.

The work initiating Verdi's third period was Aïda (1871). All his life Verdi searched for the ideal libretto and finally found two in his last operas. The tragic Otello (1887) and the comic Falstaff (1893), based on plays by Shakespeare with librettos by Arrigo Boito, brought new dimensions to operatic music. Verdi also wrote two operas for the Paris Opéra: Les Vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855) and Don Carlos (1867).

Toward the end of the 19th cent. the verismo style came into being, which brought the seamier side of life to the operatic stage. Of these, Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, 1890) and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (The Clowns, 1892), now almost always performed as a pair, are prime examples.

Of Verdi's successors in Italy, the only one who approached his genius was Giacomo Puccini. His simple, lyrical melodies, at times criticized for being overly sentimental, and his pungent orchestrations underline the tragic fates of his fragile heroines. Manon Lescaut (1893) and La Bohème (1896) were Puccini's first two triumphs, and both brought him international fame. Tosca (1900), based on a melodrama by Victorien Sardou, was another instant success, but Madama Butterfly (1904) failed when it was first performed, only to succeed when revised a few months after its premiere. The suggestion that Puccini write on an American theme resulted in La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West, 1910). Although not the overwhelming success of his previous operas, La Fanciulla had harmonic textures that were a departure from his earlier work and anticipated the music of his last opera, Turandot (1926).

Russian Opera

The 19th cent. also saw the beginning of Russian opera. Mikhail Glinka in A Life for the Czar (1836) and Russlan and Ludmilla (1842), Aleksandr Dargomijsky in Russalka (1856), and Modest Moussorgsky in his masterpiece Boris Godunov (1874) turned to Russian history and literature to produce strictly national operas. Russian opera was marked by the nonnational romanticism of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Eugene Onegin (1879), after Pushkin's poem, and The Queen of Spades (1890). On the other hand, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov added the dimension of folklore and fantasy in May Night (1880), The Snow Maiden (1881), and in his last opera, The Golden Cockerel (1909).

Twentieth-Century Opera

In the early part of the 20th cent. the foremost operatic composer was Richard Strauss. Although influenced by Wagner, he composed operas with even richer and more stunning orchestrations, often using dissonant harmonies and abandoning tonality to emphasize the humor or drama of a scene. Among his most successful operas are Salomé (1905), Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), and the allegorical Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow, 1919).

After World War I a period of innovation began that has continued to the present day. Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu (1937; posthumously completed in 1979) have been the most enduring of early atonal operas. Arnold Schoenberg's serial work (see serial music) Moses and Aaron (unfinished, 1932) had successful revivals in the United States in the 1960s and again in the United States and Germany in the 1980s. George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) is considered the first great American opera, while Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (1938), dealing with the life of the painter Mathias Grünewald, represents the trend of the 1930s toward lavishly staged, moralistic epics.

Operatic composers who have emerged since World War II include Gian-Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Alberto Ginastera, and Hans Werner Henze. The former two have composed in traditional musical idiom, such as Menotti's The Medium (1946), The Consul (1950), and Amahl and the Night Visitors (written for television, 1951) and Barber's Vanessa (1957) and Antony and Cleopatra (1966). Henze's The Young Lord (1965) and Ginastera's Bomarzo (1964) and Beatrix Cenci (1971) are highly innovative and controversial. Operas by the Americans Douglas Moore and Carlisle Floyd used American history, legend, and folk music, as reflected in Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956) and Floyd's Susannah (1955).

The most internationally accepted post–World War II composer of operas was the Englishman Benjamin Britten. His first operatic success was Peter Grimes (1945), followed by The Rape of Lucretia (1946). Britten's other works include Billy Budd (after Melville's story, 1951), The Turn of the Screw (after Henry James's story, 1954), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (after the novella by Thomas Mann, 1973). Britten's operas are cast in traditional musical and dramatic form.

Some late 20th-century avant-garde operas include The Devils of Loudon (1968–69) by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki; Le Grand Macabre (1978) by the Hungarian György Ligeti; Three Sisters (1996) by the Hungarian Peter Eötvös; and Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1980), Akhnaton (1984), The Voyage (1992), and White Raven (1998) by the American Philip Glass. Other operatic works by Americans in the same period include Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) by John Adams; The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) by John Corigliano; and McTeague (1992) and A View from the Bridge (1999) by William Bolcom. Owing to widespread indifference to new works on the part of the opera-going public and most major opera houses, plus the financial burden incurred in staging a new work, many composers in the latter part of the 20th cent. turned to community and college opera workshops to produce their works. However, in the 1990s and 2000s this trend was partly reversed, with younger audiences becoming interested in opera, and more large companies presenting operas by contemporary composers.


H. Graf, Opera for the People (2d ed. 1969); R. G. Pauly, Music and the Theater: An Introduction to Opera (1970); J. Wechsberg, The Opera (1972); L. Orrey, A Concise History of Opera (1973); S. Braubard, The Future of Opera (1988); D. Grout, A Short History of Opera (3d ed. 1988); C. Headington et al., ed., Opera: A History (1988); S. Sadie, Opera (1988) and, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1998); R. H. Kornick, Recent American Opera: A Production Guide (1991); P. Gossett, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera (2006); C. Abbate and R. Parker, A History of Opera (2012); E. Baker, From the Score to the Stage (2013).

For studies of librettos see P. J. Smith, The Tenth Muse (1971) and A. H. Drummond, American Opera Librettos (1973). For books containing summaries of opera plots, see K. Kohrs, ed., The New Milton Cross' Complete Stories of the Great Operas (1952) and The New Milton Cross' More Stories of the Great Operas (1980), and H. W. Simon, ed., The Victor Book of the Opera (13th ed., 1968).

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