Discover how opera came into being with this potted history explored through the first nights of a dozen of our favourite works.
A Brief History of Opera
How did opera come about?
Where it all began
The first opera can be traced back to Italy at the start of the 17th century. Its roots probably lay in several sources, including a fascination with what Ancient Greek drama may have looked – and sounded – like, and from already existing theatrical entertainments, such as the intermedi that punctuated spoken drama with song, dance and instrumental music.
The first opera
Jacopo Peri’s Euridice of 1600 is generally regarded as the earliest surviving opera. Opera’s first composer of genius however, was Claudio Monteverdi, who was born in Cremona in 1567 and wrote Orfeo in 1607 for an exclusive audience at the Duke of Mantua’s court. The story was mostly delivered in the innovative style known as recitar cantando – speech in song – or recitative.
1643: L’incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi
The first opera house
Thirty years after Orfeo, the first public opera house opened in Venice bringing opera to a much wider audience. It was here that Monterverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) was performed during Carnival in 1643.
Arias arrive on the scene
Since Orfeo, the balance between words and music had begun to shift with the recitative having to make more space for solo arias which came increasingly to carry the emotional interest of the story. Audience expectations had changed too. Now, what people wanted to see above all else were the singers, who, as the 17th century advanced, regularly earned four times as much as the composer!
1724: Giulio Cesare in Egitto by George Frideric Handel
By 1724, the dominance of opera by star singers had reached its peak. Handel made the most of this enthusiasm with his use of the solo ‘da capo’ aria. This was basically an A section followed by a contrasting B section which was in turn followed by a repeat of the A section, but with even more opportunity for vocal dexterity.
The cult of the Castrati
The real superstars of the time were the castrati: male singers who, having been castrated before puberty, combined a high vocal range with phenomenal power and control. It was one of the most celebrated, Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino, who took the title role in Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), opposite the Cleopatra of Francesca Cuzzoni. Their partnership ensured the opera was an immediate hit in its first season.
1762: Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck
The story of Orpheus and Euridice has been retold by composers throughout opera’s history. In remaking the myth for the Vienna Burgtheater, Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi performed a reboot of Italian opera with a more natural and fluid combination of words and music, making dances and choruses more prominent and fully integrating them into the narrative.
Feelings come to the fore
Orfeo’s famous aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ encapsulates the direct expression of feeling to which the duo aspired. The reverberations of Gluck and Calzabigi’s reforms and their dedication to ‘nobility and simplicity’ continued to be felt long after the first night of Orfeo ed Euridice in October 1762.
1786: Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The magic of Mozart
Based on a French play by Beaumarchais which was banned in Vienna because of its political content, Figaro is a comedy with a serious heart. It reveals a world turned upside down, where servants become masters and women gain the upper hand over their men, all underpinned by Mozart’s glorious score.
A disappointing run
Mozart is one of the few great opera composers to have excelled in purely instrumental music. In Figaro, the orchestra is integral to the unfolding of the story, with one of the opera’s great glories being the ensembles, particularly the 20-minute finale to Act Two.
However, while many people today come to the opera precisely because Mozart is the composer, the richness and novelty of his music may actually have been something of a barrier at its earliest performances in Vienna, where its initial run of nine performances was merely respectable.
1831: Norma by Vincenzo Bellini
Along with Rossini, Donizetti and, a little later, Verdi, Bellini helped establish the tradition of Italian Romantic opera that, for many people, goes to the heart of what opera is all about. He was one of the finest purveyors of the ‘bel canto’ (literally, beautiful singing) tradition.
The story of ‘Casta diva’
Norma is a classical tragedy set in Gaul during the Roman occupation. Its most famous number is ‘Casta diva’ (‘Chaste goddess’) sung by the opera’s heroine. The role was created by Giuditta Pasta. Apparently she was none too keen on it at first, so Bellini made her a deal: if, after she’d practiced it every day for a week, she still had doubts, he would rewrite the number to suit her better. When the time was up, Pasta decided that none were required.
Unfortunately, it only received a lukewarm reception on the first night at La Scala. The Milanese audiences soon warmed up however, and by the end of the century, Norma had been performed in 35 countries in 16 different languages.
1853: La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi
La traviata was inspired by The Lady of the Camellias, a domestic tragedy set in contemporary Paris. Concerned about perceived immorality however, the Italian censors forced Verdi to relocate the story to the 18th century. Violetta, the heroine, is a courtesan dying of tuberculosis, who is offered one last chance of real love, only to have it snatched away by society’s hypocritical double standards.
A bad beginning
La traviata is one of those operas of unassailable popularity nowadays that was an outright failure at its premiere. Verdi described the first night as a ‘fiasco’. At least part of the problem was that the cast seems not to have been up to the task: the distinguished baritone Felice Varesi claimed that Verdi had composed the score without reference to their vocal capabilities. Verdi quickly withdrew the opera and revised it for a revival at another Venetian theatre 14 months later. It has never looked back!
1875: Carmen by Georges Bizet
Bizet had written more than a dozen stage works before Carmen, but only one of these – The Pearl Fishers – is still performed today. Carmen’s librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, were an experienced theatrical A-team and, together with Bizet, fashioned one of the great ‘outsider’ operas: Carmen is a woman on the margins of society, driven by a fierce, uncompromising desire for personal liberty.
Carmen seems to have been a moderate failure rather than an outright fiasco on the first night, but some critics were unforgiving, and the reception was a severe blow to Bizet’s mental and physical health; he had a heart attack exactly three months later and died never knowing what a world-beater his opera was destined to become.
1876: Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner
A cycle of operas
The Ring cycle – three operas, plus a ‘preliminary evening’ – was first performed over five days in August 1876 at the theatre Wagner had built specifically for the purpose in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth. Wagner himself described his works as ‘music drama’ but, like the first composers of opera, he found inspiration in myth (Norse-Germanic in his case), and, like them, he repurposed ideas about ancient Greek theatre.
A ‘total work of art’
The Ring circles around the conflicting impulses of power and love as it takes us from the birth of the world to its ending – and the possibility of a new beginning. Wagner aimed to immerse the audience in a ‘total work of art’ which fully integrated text, music, scenography and performance. The result was arguably the single most ambitious artwork of the 19th century.
The first Bayreuth Festival
It is hardly surprising that Wagner was dissatisfied with certain aspects of the Ring cycle’s execution at the first Bayreuth Festival. ‘“Next year, we’ll do it all differently” he said afterwards. But the festival made such a stupendous loss that the Ring was never again performed there in his lifetime.
1904: Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
The end of Italian Romantic opera
The grand sweep of Italian Romantic opera, which had begun with Rossini in the 1810s, reached its terminus with Puccini. After his final, unfinished, opera Turandot premiered in 1926 no subsequent Italian opera gained a permanent place in the repertoire. But if Puccini’s career was a sunset, it was glorious: together with the librettists Giacosa and Illica, Puccini wrote three of the most popular operas of all time: La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).
First night failure
Puccini was a keen theatre-goer and immediately spied the operatic potential of David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan when he saw it in London in 1900. Having said that, the premiere of Madama Butterfly in Milan in 1904 was an outright failure – ‘a real lynching’ Puccini called it. Revised for Brescia three months later though, the tragic tale began to exert a vice-like grip on audiences that has never been relaxed.
1921: Katya Kabanova by Leoš Janáček
Born in a small Moravian town, Janáček had one of the most distinctive voices and remarkable careers of any 20th-century opera composer. The eventual success of his earlier opera Jenůfa in Prague and his love (probably unrequited) for a much younger married woman were important factors in the extraordinary late flowering of creativity that saw him produce four of the most important operas of the 20th century after the age of 65.
Most of the melodic interest in Janáček’s operas is to be found in the orchestra; the vocal writing is largely the preserve of what he termed ‘speech-melody’, his project to reproduce the ‘melodic curves and contours of human speech’ in music. The relatively conventional structure of Katya Kabanova and the strain of lyricism associated with its deeply sympathetic heroine have ensured that it remains the most frequently performed of Janáček’s operas.
1945: Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten
Opera after the War
The first night of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells a month after VE Day was arguably the most significant ever in the history of English opera. Peter Grimes had been chosen for the return of the Sadler’s Wells opera company to the theatre on Rosebery Avenue after the war, but there was a good deal of hostility within the company towards the new work. The company’s manager at the time, the soprano Joan Cross, was staunch in her support of Britten however, and despite a tense first night, the opera was an instant and enduring success.
Giving community a voice
Few composers of any nationality have possessed dramatic instincts as sure as Britten’s, or his extraordinary sensitivity to words. Both are in evident in Peter Grimes which is based on George Crabbe’s collection of poems The Borough (1810). The visionary but violent fisherman Grimes is another of opera’s great outsiders, but Britten ensured the community of the Borough is at least as important in the opera as Grimes himself.
2007: The Adventures of Pinocchio by Jonathan Dove
Few contemporary composers have devoted as much creative energy to opera as Jonathan Dove, who has written more than twenty operatic works, of all shapes and sizes, for all sorts of audiences. In them he has consistently celebrated the potency of the unamplified singing voice, which, from the beginning, has been the essence of opera.
Composing for all ages
Pinocchio was an ambitious attempt to make a large-scale opera with genuine appeal for the whole family. The original production had it all: full orchestra and chorus, a large cast of soloists, plus dancers, puppets, acrobats, more than 100 costumes, and a complex set that was literally a great wooden box of tricks! It became one of the most successful new operas to be produced in the first decade of the 21st century, touring Germany, America and Russia after its world premiere in Leeds.
Four centuries after it was first performed, opera continues to evolve attracting more people to experience and enjoy this unique art-form. Here’s to the next 400 years!
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