The story of opera from its origins in the Italian Baroque to the singular vision of Wagner and beyond.

Limelight’s follow-up to The History of Classical Music according to YouTube traces the story of opera, the most extravagant and costly artform in music, from the turn of the 17th century to the present day. Richard Fawkes, author of The History of Opera, describes the genre as “the most irrational of the arts, in which people sing all the time… In which the heroine invariably takes half an hour to die while a tenor shows off.” Despite today’s diva hysterics and claims that both classic and contemporary works for the operatic stage have become irrelevant, it remains the musical artform that sways our passions and touches our souls the most, and that can reflect and explore the human condition more than any other.

Italy: the birth of opera

The term “opera” is short for opera in musica: a work of drama set to music. The first forays into this kind of musical presentation in the Western world were the result of informal gatherings in the late 1500s of a “camerata“, where scholars and free-thinkers in Florence discussed the arts. Among those in attendance were composers Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) and Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) and the poet Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621), who pondered how music and drama might have merged in the ampitheatres of Ancient Greece. Above all, they strove to develop a style of singing that naturally enhanced the text: this came to be known as monody.

Peri’s first attempt (now lost) at this new style of music and theatre was based on Rinuccini’s poem Dafne and staged in Florence in 1598. His subsequent effort L’Euridice survives, demonstrating the earliest example of stile recitativo: a flowing, declamatory style between speech and song that became the mainstay of opera for the next three hundred years. Performed in 1600 at the marriage of Henry IV of France and Maria de’ Medici, it it also the first in a long line of operatic works that take as their subject the myths of antiquity.

Jacopo Peri L’Euridice



Monteverdi: L’Orfeo

In 1607, just a few years after Peri’s L’Euridice received its first performance, the Italian composer of songs and madrigals Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) tried his hand at a favola in musica (tale in music). Like Peri, fittingly, he took as his subject in this new musical venture the myth Orpheus, a musician of divine powers. Monteverdi’s first contribution to the genre, now the earliest complete opera frequently performed, broadened the scope of what was possible in opera by introducing a sophisticated mix of solo airs, duets, madrigal-like choruses and lively dances. And his Orpheus sings some of the most arrestingly beautiful music ever written.


The spread of opera in Italy

Throughout the 1600s, composers like Antonio Cesti (1623-1669), Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) in Venice and Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), founder of the 18th-century Neapolitan school of opera, continued to extend and develop the possibilities of the genre.

Cavalli La Calisto


Opera and the French Baroque

The possibilities of lavish staging in opera were ideally suited to the court of Louis XIV in France. Much stately, elegant music was written for The Sun King’s entertainment by his Italian-born composer-in-residence, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). Like Monteverdi, he counted tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses among the sources of libretti (in French, livrets) for his 16 operas, and worked with the finest poets of the day – Quinault and Molière. As in Italy, courtly love between royals was a recurring theme that pleased the nobility. This style came to be known in France as the tragédie en musique or tragédie lyrique, though they often didn’t end tragically! Both Lully and his patron were excellent dancers, and extended ballet interludes appeared throughout the operas of this time.

Lully Armide

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Rameau (1683-1764) could be said to have advanced harmony in France as much as JS Bach did in Germany. The composer, organist and music theorist came to opera late in life, penning his first in 1733 at the age of 50. Nonetheless, he became the most prolific and admired composer of tragédies lyriques in the country and took the innovations of Lully to a new level of harmonic sophistication and sheer vibrancy, especially in dance music that effortlessly blends the rustic music of the marketplace with courtly pomp and circumstance. The following clip demonstrates just how infectious Rameau’s dance rhythms can be, and how they continue to fire the imagination of choreographers today.


Opera in England

Purcell Dido & Aeneas

Listeners will hear the influence of musicians of the French court in the majestic dotted rhythms of the overture to Dido and Aeneas, a concise tragic opera (c1689) in response to John Blow‘s earlier work Venus and Adonis: these two masterpieces established the foundation for English-language operatic tradition. Purcell’s opera, performed only once at a girls’ boarding school during the composer’s short life, uses the simple, endlessly repeating chords of “ground bass” as building blocks for the arias, most famously in the Queen of Carthage’s final moments, Dido’s Lament, which is so well-known today that it has been performed in versions by the likes of Jeff Buckley and the Swingle Singers.

John Gay The Beggar’s Opera

John Gay‘s English ballad opera comprised of spoken dialogue and song has little relation to models elsewhere in Europe, but it took London by storm when it premiered in 1728. Notably for this time, it deals with low-class, bawdy characters. The Beggar’s Opera remains one of the most frequently performed operatic works in English.

The Italian High Baroque

In the early 18th century Italy’s stages were dominated by the opera seria, a work on a heroic or tragic subject adhering to by now established musical and dramatic conventions. Flourishing in Naples in particular, the genre included among its exponents Hasse, Jommelli and Galuppi.

On the other end of the spectrum, there was the opera buffa or dramma giocoso; a comic opera with roots in Commedia dell’arte stock characters.

The Rise of coloratura: Handel and the Castrati

By the early 1700s, operatic singing had become grander (as audiences grew and cavernous opera houses were built and became important cultural destinations in the major European cities) and vibrato became a part of singing technique in order to project in large spaces. The arias, too, became increasingly florid to show off pyrotechnic vocal display and keep audiences coming back for me. No singers were more praised or revered than the Italian castrati, those highly-paid superstars of Baroque opera whose rare gifts came at a terrible price.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) was a German composer who established a lucrative opera company in London and wrote masterpiece after masterpiece. He perfected the da capo aria, a set-piece form that consisted of two sections of contrasting mood, with a da capo repeat of the first section at the end, allowing the singer to embellish the original melody with virtuosic feats of ornamentation.

Since the barbaric practice of castrating young choirboys was banned by the Vatican in the first years of the 20th century, their roles are taken in modern performances by countertenors (male singers in falsetto) or female contraltos and mezzo-sopranos. The following clip is from the 1994 French film Farinelli, a biopic exploring the life of the celebrated castrato Farinelli (1705-1782).


Not so long ago, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was famous for his Four Seasons violin concerto while his dozens of Italian operas languished. A recent discovery of lost manuscripts in Turin has changed all that, and Baroque specialists are now turning their attention to his 50-odd extant scores. He, too, was a great exponent of the da capo aria.


Opera reform and the Classical era

By the mid-1700s, some composers, and established librettists like Calzabigi and Metastasio, began to call for a return to simpler forms in opera. The latter claimed that coloratura showpieces reduced arias to “symphonies for the voice” without any engagement with the meaning of the text. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) strove to return opera to its “true function of serving the poetry by expressing feelings and the situations of the story without interrupting and cooling off the action through useless and superfluous ornaments”. The Bohemian-born composer achieved this with a true synthesis of Italian and French styles, having studied in Italy and worked under the patronage of Marie Antoinette in Paris. Returning yet again to the myth of Orpheus, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762 demonstrates the “beautiful simplicity” he sought.

Mozart and opera buffa

No composer has managed to integrate music and drama as masterfully as Mozart. His three great comic operas to libretti by Da Ponte – Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790) are the crowning glories of the genre, particularly in the way he balances increasingly chaotic action in the great ensemble finales, as shown here. He also brought an unprecedented depth of character to comic opera, articulated perfectly in the music and through use of more complex structures like the sonata form in his arias.

German Opera: Mozart and Beethoven

In addition to his contributions to Italian opera, Mozart penned one of the greatest works in the German language, the Singspiel (spoken dialogue with arias) Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute of 1791), which blends fantasy elements, a serious philosophical message and sublime music in a way no other opera has achieved.

Mozart Die Zauberflöte

Beethoven Fidelio

Soon after Die Zauberflöte came Beethoven’s Fidelio of 1805, a profoundly human drama – none of the fantastical humour of Mozart – that explores many of the same themes of truth, loyalty and persistence and patience to overcome trials. The expanded orchestra has music of burnished beauty, clarity and openness in line with principles of the Enlightenment, also a guiding force in Mozart’s Singspiel.


Bel Canto

Bel canto refers to a light tone in the higher register and flexible delivery for rapid passage-work. Somtimes the term is applied exclusively to the operas of Giacomo Rossini (1792-1868), Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). Early 19th-century opera in Italy, as with Handel in the Baroque, prized vocal agility but with some major differences. Coloratura singing now emphasised the highest notes rather than nuanced skill across the entire vocal range, and sopranos in particular had some stratospheric bravura displays to pull off. Meanwhile, tenors began to replace the outmoded castrati as heroic leads. They, too, extended their range, and by the 1830s a strong “high C” became the mark of a great tenor voice. The orchestral and vocal writing tended towards smooth, lilting legatos and cantabile harmonies in thirds.

Rossini The Barber of Seville


A specialty of the bel canto era was the “mad scene”, in which reams of expressive coloratura were used to portray a deranged (female) character, with a climactic high note for good measure.

Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor

Bellini I Puritani




France: Grand Opéra

By the mid-19th century, France had left the charming dance rhythms and delicate gestures that had come to define their distinctive Baroque national style. In the wake of Napoleon, the French embraced large-scale orchestral works on monumental subjects (often with a tragic ending), which later found a home in the heavily gilded Palais Garnier in Paris. Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Halévy’s La Juive (rarely performed today outside of France) and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots are the early masterpieces in the expansive grand opéra tradition that extends to later works including Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Delilah and Massenet’s Manon.

Meyerbeer Les Huguenots (1836)



Opéra comique

Confusingly, this Romantic genre of French opera isn’t necessarily a comic opera but, in similar fashion to the German Singspiel, intersperses spoken dialogue with sung arias and other musical numbers. The repertoire of these works grew around the Opéra-Comique theatre in Paris with early masters Grétry and Philidor, but the greatest example in the genre, one of the most tuneful and popular operas of all time, is Bizet’s Carmen.



The height of Italian Romanticism


In his 28 operas, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) demonstrates a remarkable “hit rate”, with a dozen or so frequently performed as the top tier of opera repertoire today. Certainly his music demonstrates an innate understanding of heightened suspense and adds a dramatic heft to the Bel canto style that preceeded his greatest work.



Italian opera from the 1870s was dominated by the verismo movement of true-to-life, small-town melodramas ripped from the headlines and ultimately revealing the truest form of human passions. The two most famous examples of the genre, today usually staged as a double bill (affectionately known as Cav and Pag), are Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892) which depicts a double murder within a travelling performance troupe.




Leoncavallo I Pagliacci


Wagner and new directions

If there is one composer who has done more to extend opera than any other, if only to serve his egomaniacal artistic vision, it must be Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Following the great success of his Tristan Isolde (1859), which expanded the orchestra to never-before-heard textures and has had composers obsessing over the lush “Tristan chord” for generations, he spent 25 years composing his Ring cycle of four gargantuan operas to his own libretto based on Norse mythology. No existing opera house could house the massive orchestral or technical forces required to realise his ideal performance, so he built his own in the hitherto unremarkable Bavarian town of Bayreuth. When his revolutionary Festspielhaus was completed in 1876, fanatical composers from around the world to experience its wonders – it became a musical rite of passage.

Among the innovations Wagner introduced were the placement of the orchestra in a pit so as not to detract from the action onstage or drown out the singers, and the use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with each character – a basic tenet in the language of film music today.


Rebelling against the Austro-German-centric culture of classical music in the latter half of the 19th century, opera composers from Russia and Bohemia began to tell stories based on the literature and folklore of their homelands, in their native tongue, and to reach towards a distinctive regional idiom of their own. Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)  is one of the earliest examples of Russian nationalism in opera, which reaches its zenith in the Tsarist tale of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1873).

Czech composers like Bedrich Smetana (The Bartered Bride) Antonín Dvorák (Rusalka) and Leos Janácek took up themes that focused on traditional Bohemian tales and peasant life, with rustic dance-inspired music to add local colour.



While composers in Prague and St Petersburg were looking to their homeland for inspiration, the French and Italians cast their nets further abroad with fanciful Oriental settings. Bizet’s Pearl Fishers (1863) and Delibes’ Lakmé are typical examples of the French fascination with temples and high priests of the far East; Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) looked to China (Turandot) and Japan (Madama Butterfly)… As well as to Red Indians in the United States (The Girl of the Golden West)!

Sumptuous silks and brocades made for alluring design onstage, while fairly rudimentary experiments with pentatonic scales explored composers’ limited knowledge of Asian traditional music  nonetheless imaginatively integrated into lush Romantic harmonies.


Opera and Modernism

Strauss Salome

Along with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, the opera Salome by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) is one of the 20th century’s biggest succès de scandale. By 1905, the year of its premiere, it had become clear that narrative conventions in opera would be subverted in the years to follow; no more shepherds, princesses and foundling children…

One of the most psychologically disturbed characters in opera, the biblical Salome sings, as her final aria, a ravishing love song to the head of John the Baptist, which she has demanded be brought to her on a platter. The huge orchestral forces respond with music of staggering richness and dissonance, thrusting us well and truly into a new 20th-century landscape.


Berg Lulu (1935)

Another diabolical femme fatale, Lulu is the first embodiment of a modern, urban woman in opera, leaving a trail of lesbian lovers and suicides in her wake before her wicked ways catch up with her and she herself is murdered by Jack the Ripper. The intensely dark sexual psychology of the work is underpinned by the starkly atonal score; one of the first in opera.


Gershwin Porgy and Bess (1935)

George Gershwin’s operatic masterpiece was revolutionary for two reasons: firstly because it explored jazz idioms in opera for the first time (see also the odd German jazz opera Jonny spielt auf by Ernst Krenek) and because it premiered with an all-African American cast of classically trained singers. It also contains Summertime, one of the most famous arias in opera comparable in reach and popularity to Purcell’s Dido’s Lament.


Britten Peter Grimes

When Peter Grimes had its premiere at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London in 1945, it was met with overwhelming critical and public acclaim. Not since Purcell in the 1600s had there been such a masterful voice in British opera. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) developed a particular gift for composing for voice in the English language and seemed to launch a revival in the country’s opera landsccape with other great works including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare) and The Turn of the Screw (Henry James).


Adams Nixon in China

The American minimalist scene of the 1960s and 1970s has given us several remarkable operas including Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. John Adams in particular is known for the bold political statements in his operatic works. Nixon in China focuses on the historic meeting between President Nixon and Mao Tse-Tung and uses dense, repetitive orchestral textures to create surprising modes of melodic development.

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