Opera 101

History Of Opera

Opera is one of the world's supremely magical art forms, serving the basic human need to communicate feeling through music, singing and acting. Opera means "work" in Italian and is a play with most or all of the text sung to orchestral accompaniment, usually with elaborate costuming, sets, and choreography. It can be spectacular and grand, or simple and tender. It is the best display of visual and auditory brilliance!

The history of opera begins in 1600 in Italy when composers began setting music to the poetry of the Greeks. The music was simple and the text and voice important. These early musical plays were often performed during the intermission of a play as half-time entertainment. The oldest opera still performed is Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, written in 1607. In 1637 the first opera house opened in Venice, Italy, and opera became a spectator sport. Between 1637 and 1640, 388 operas were produced and performed in Venice. The singers were the superstars of their time. They lived or perished by their talent, being praised or run off the stage by rowdy, passionate Venetians. Opera became the first major export of Italy in the 17th century. Germany, France and England were all influenced by the phenomena of Italian opera. Each country designed opera based on its own traditions and by 1618 German composers were writing Singspiel, German opera with spoken dialogue. In France under the patronage of Louis XIV, French opera was born heavily influenced and including ballet; and in England, opera was based on the English play called the Masque.

During the Baroque era (1600-1750), composers redefined the art form. German-born George Frederich Handel was the champion of Italian opera in England during this period. Formal musical structure was given to opera, beginning with the overture, a musical introduction; recitative, sung dialogue; and the aria, the song developing emotional information about the character.

The definition of operatic form in the Baroque era paved the way for composers in the Classical era (the late 18th Century) to reform the style to a more simple, linear form. Singers no longer had the power to improvise on a whim. Flexibility was given to the singer, with guidance, at the end of a piece with a cadenza, an improvised, fast-moving, flashy ending. Two distinct Italian styles dominated in this era: opera seria, drama, and opera buffa, comedy revealing social situations, like Don Giovanni. In Germany the paralleling of opera buffa is Singspiel, German comic opera with spoken dialogue. Mozart's opera The Magic Flute is a good example. Other famous Classical opera composers are Mozart, Rossini and Beethoven.

During the Romantic Period (the late 19th century), the opera standards of today were established. The names at the top of the list are Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. These composers conjure up vivid musical ideas of grandeur: Aïda (Verdi), The Ring Cycle (Wagner), and the beautiful and familiar Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, and Turandot all by Puccini. Composers of this period explored expansive musical line, new and innovative use of the voice and instruments, and opera plots based on "real life" experience called verismo opera, like Tosca. Romantic standards include Carmen (Bizet), Romeó et Juliette and Faust (Gounod), Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach), I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo), Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni), and Slavic and Russian late Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Janacek's Jenufa, and Dvorak's Rusalka.

Opera continued to change and grow in the 20th century. American Opera has come into its own in the past 25 years with productions by American composers such as Aaron Copeland's Tender Land, Samuel Barber's Vanessa, Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Medium, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, and John Adams' Nixon in China.

Opera attendance has mushroomed in the last 20 years. The advent of supertitle translations, the worldwide popularity of Luciano Pavarotti and exposure of the Three Tenors, as well as the unique power of the art form itself have spawned new generations of opera aficionados who avidly share their enthusiasm.

Opera Vocabulary

Aria — A solo song. In opera, arias are often used to tell the audience what the character is thinking or feeling-like a monologue in plays.
Banda — The band that plays behind the stage. Sometimes in party scenes you will hear the orchestra sounding very far away - it is really the banda playing at the very back of the stage.
Baritone — The middle male voice.
Bass  — The lowest male voice.
Composer  — Writes the music for the opera.
Conductor — The leader of the orchestra and singers. Just like in a train, the conductor keeping everything on track.
Contralto — The lowest female voice.
Duet — Two people singing together.
Ensemble  — Group singing, or the group itself. An ensemble can be a chorus of 50 or a duet, trio, quartet or more.
Librettist — Writes the words for the opera.
Mezzo Soprano  — The middle female voice.
Opera — The plural form of the Latin word opus, which means work. Opera is a story told primarily through singing and is usually accompanied by an orchestra.
Pants Role — In some operas, a mezzo-soprano plays a young man or a boy whose voice hasn't changed yet. This is a very old operatic convention. Sometimes called Trousers Role.
Props — Short for "properties". Anything on stage that is not part of the set or the costumes.
Proscenium — The front part of the stage right below the place where supertitles are projected.
Quartet — Four people singing together.
Set — Short for "setting". The scenery the singers/actors work on.
Soprano — The highest female voice.
Super — Actually called a supernumerary. Supernumeraries are like movie "extras." They are the people who do not sing in large crowd scenes.