Composer Jacopo Peri and poet Ottavio Rinuccini create Dafne, a small-scale pastoral drama featuring stile rappresentativo, a new style of sung dialogue more expressive than speech but less melodious than song. It is performed during Carnival season at the Florentine palace of Jacopo Corsi, an enthusiastic patron who plays the harpsichord for Euridice (1600), Peri's second opera, whose text is set by Giulio Caccini shortly afterwards.
Mantua's court hosts Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo, the earliest opera still performed today. Boasting a large orchestra it is one of the earliest to specify instrumentation, including three organs, double harp, cornets, trumpets and trombones. The opening of the first public opera house, the San Cassiano, in Venice in 1637 inspires Monteverdi to compose two late masterpieces, The Return of Ulysses (1639) and The Coronation of Poppea (1643).
Despite Luigi Rossi bringing his own Orfeo to Paris in 1647, French opera only takes off in the 1670s with Jean-Baptiste Lully's refined tragédies en musiques written for Louis XIV's court at Versailles. After he survives the mud-slinging from a hostile cabal at the first performance of Alceste, Lully incorporates French-style ballet and complex stage machinery into his productions while pioneering increasingly subtle psychological dramas, as in Armide (1686).
In Britain during the Protectorate public theatre is outlawed by Cromwell's Puritanical government, however five composers collaborate on a private production of The Siege of Rhodes (1656). After the Restoration of the monarchy John Blow's Venus and Adonis (1683), given at Charles's II court and with some roles being taken by women, serves as a model for Henry Purcell's masterpiece Dido and Aeneas. Purcell's semi-operas King Arthur and The Fairy Queen are subsequently staged at the Duke's Theatre.
Italian-style opera seria (‘serious opera') becomes fashionable in Europe with castrati singers such as Farinelli becoming highly paid celebrities. Starting with Rinaldo in 1711 George Frederick Handel composes over fifty Italian operas for the London stage (including Acis and Galatea, Giulio Cesare and Serse) that coexist alongside bawdy English balled operas following in the wake of Johann Christoph Pepusch and John Gay's Beggar's Opera in 1728.
Giovanni Pergolesi's short opera buffa (‘comic opera') La serva padrona proves hugely popular performed as an intermezzo between the acts of one of his more serious operas. When an Italian comedy troupe (‘bouffons') inserts it between the acts of a Lully opera in Paris in 1752 it ignites long-standing resentments that spark the Querelle des Bouffons, a vitriolic war of pamphlets exchanged about the respective merits of French and Italian opera that draws in leading philosophers including Rousseau and Diderot.
Having only turned to opera at the age of fifty, Jean-Philippe Rameau pens a series of adventurous operas (Hippolyte et Aricie, Dardanus) deemed dangerously avant-garde by traditional Lullyists and yet outdated by the pro-Italian lobby. Preferring a lyrical recitative style with arresting harmonic shifts he composes in a variety of genres ranging from tragedy to comedy, writing some operas in collaboration with Voltaire.
In Vienna, Christoph Willibald Gluck rejects the stereotypical operatic conventions associated with his former librettist Pietro Metastasio, namely formulaic structures, absurd plots, recitative accompanied by continuo and over-ornamented writing for castrati. Instead in Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) he advocates a simplified vocal style with recitative accompanied by orchestra, and he eventually revises the castrati role of Orfeo for tenor.
With its roots in German miracle plays, the style of sung and spoken words that characterizes Singspiel reaches maturity in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Subsequently working in each major operatic genre, Mozart brings a deftness of orchestration, realistic characterization and emotional subtlety to both buffa operas (The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte) and seria operas (Idomeneo) before returning to Singspiel for his final masterpiece The Magic Flute of 1791.
The French Revolution creates an appetite for ‘rescue operas' in which the hero or heroine, often a political prisoner, has to be saved from captivity or death and given their freedom. After the popularity of André Gretry's Richard Coeur-de-Lion and Luigi Cherubini's Les Deux Journées the sub-genre culminates in Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, which is premiered in Vienna, in its native German, largely to occupying French troops in 1805.
Following the success of his Italian Girl in Algiers Gioachino Rossini is engaged by powerful impresario Domenico Barbieri as musical director and resident composer of the San Carlo opera house in Naples from where he establishes his position as Italy's most popular opera composer. Describing himself as ‘the last of the classicists' he excels in buffa works such as The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola but is now best known for the overture to his last opera, William Tell.
Carl Maria von Weber forges a new direction for German Romantic opera while capturing post-Enlightenment yearning for Gothic horror in his melodramatic Singspiel Der Freishütz. With an innate feeling for drama and suspense, he evokes supernatural elements with ‘sinister' orchestration (shrieking woodwind) and diminished-seventh harmonies, anticipating Wagner in his use of recurring musical motifs.
As the cult of the celebrity prima donna (‘first lady‘) reaches its zenith, Italian composers produce Rossinian bel canto (‘beautiful singing') operas, favouring smooth melodic vocal lines with florid ornamentation above clarity of diction or dramatic urgency. Leading soprano Giuditta Pasta creates title roles in Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena (1830) and Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula and Norma (both 1831) before an indisposition opens up opportunities for sisters Maria Malibran (Donizetti's first Maria Stuarda) and Pauline Viardot.
The first great Russian opera, Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, is premièred at the Bolshoy in St Petersburg. Based on the life of Russian peasant folk hero Ivan Susanin who sacrifices himself so that the Romanov dynasty can come to power, it flows naturalistically with native folk songs and idioms. It soon inspires a generation of younger composers, including Alexander Dargomizhsky and several members of The Five, to create a distinctive style of Russian opera.
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Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco, with its evocative chorus of Hebrew Slaves, is an instant hit at La scala, Milan, leading to Verdi being adopted as a symbol of Italian nationalism. In an illustrious career spanning fifty years he sees Rigoletto banned for obscenity, is applauded for the realism of La traviata, attempts a sprawling ‘opera of ideas' in La forza del destino, writes the exotic Aïda for the opening of Cairo Opera House and achieves a subtle, mature fluidity in Otello and Falstaff (1893).
Impresario Léon Carvalho turns Paris's third opera house, the Théâtre Lyrique, into a base for premièring home-grown operas often turned down by larger houses. Perennial favourites Charles Gounod's Faust (1859) and Georges Bizet's Pearl Fishers (1863) both start life here, as does Hector Berlioz's ambitious epic Les troyans (1862). All three demonstrate strong melodic writing and are noted for their superb orchestration.
In Tristan and Isolde Richard Wagner takes chromaticism to new levels, expanding contemporary notions of harmonic tension and resolution and pioneering the use of Leitmotiv as a central unifying element. With funding from ‘mad' King Ludwig II of Bavaria he has a purpose-built Festspielhaus erected in Bayreuth where his cycle of four operas The Ring of the Nibelungen is first performed complete over several days in 1876.
Having evolved as a satirical and deliberately light-hearted alternative to increasingly pretentious French opéras comiques, operetta finds different national identities across Europe. From Offenbach's risqué Orpheus in the Underworld and Chabrier's influential Le roi malgré lui via the very Viennese Die Fledermaus (1874) by Johann Strauss II and The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár to Gilbert and Sullivan's wordy Victorian ‘Savoy Operas', the genre eventually gives way to musical comedy in the 20th century.
Criticised as ‘noisy' and ‘vulgar', Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godonov (1874) is only recognised as an astonishing piece of taught psychological drama after the composer's premature death from alcoholism in 1881; he leaves Khovanshchina unfinished. Meanwhile Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky emphasises similar emotional complexity to great dramatic effect in his Pushkin adaptations Eugene Onegin, Mazeppa and The Queen of Spades.
Pietro Mascagni achieves overnight fame when his Cavalleria rusticana (1890) wins a competition and is performed in Rome. Dubbed verismo (a literary term) for its realistic portrayal of the difficult, often sordid, lives of ordinary people with no money or status, it gives rise to a host of similar works including Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, with which it is often now coupled in a double-bill, Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier and several operas by Puccini.
Following the success of Manon Lescaut (1893) Giacomo Puccini soon takes over from Verdi as Italy's leading opera composer with a string of major works that continue to sell out opera houses today: La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Il trittico and Turandot (1924). Admired for his smoothly tonal melodic writing and innate craftsmanship he is nevertheless sometimes criticised for lacking depth and for attempting to manipulate the audience's emotions.
After a long gestation Claude Debussy's only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, divides opinions at its Paris première, attracting comments of ‘outstanding' from some while others leave bewildered by its direct expression of human emotions in a seemingly intangible and incomprehensible context. Debussy vividly conjures the atmospheric light and darkness of Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolist play using ambiguous post-Wagnerian harmonies and transparent orchestration.
Oscar Wilde's play Salome provides ideal material for Richard Strauss's first operatic success of the same name, scandalously mixing erotic sexuality with a biblical subject matter. After composing Elektra, his most dissonant and modernist score for the stage, Strauss continues to work with librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal but turns to lush romanticism for Der Rosenkavalier. His final opera, Capriccio (1942), amusingly addresses the enduring operatic question over whether words or music are the most important.
Despite the popularity of Bedrich Smetana's Bartered Bride (1866) and Antonín Dvorák's Rusalka (1900) Czech opera only takes off when 62-year-old Leos Janácek witnesses Jenufa, his 1904 tale of love, jealousy and infanticide, staged to great acclaim at Prague's National Theatre. It spurs him on to compose a variety of new stage works each inhabiting its own personal sound world, from the bizarrely comic Excursions of Mr Broucek to the human tragedy of Kátya Kabanová and the grimly austere From the House of the Dead (1930).
Two dark and deeply psychological one-act operas, Arnold Schoenberg's expressionist monologue Ewartung and Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, precede Alban Berg's full-length Wozzeck, sometimes considered the first fully atonal opera. Dramatically strong and musically coherent via its network of motifs and closely worked formal conventions, it leads Berg to experiment with twelve-tone technique in his second opera, Lulu (1934). The music of Schoenberg's unfinished Moses and Aron (1932) is based entirely on a single tone row.
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's sharply political Threepenny Opera runs for over two years in Berlin, spawning productions across Europe before being banned in Germany by Hitler in 1933. Weill and Brecht flee to America where in 1937 the US government prohibits Orson Welles's production of Marc Blitzstein's pro-unionization work The Cradle Will Rock. Although committed to writing proletarian music theatre works for Broadway, Weill describes his swansong, the lyrical Street Scene (1947), as ‘a Broadway opera'.
An all-black company calling themselves the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music stage Virgil Thomson's ground-breaking Four Saints in Three Acts, the first distinctively American opera with its miscellany of vernacular styles (hymn-tunes, marches) set to a quirky libretto by Gertrude Stein. The following year its choral director Eva Jessye directs George Gershwin's jazz-infused Porgy and Bess in New York. Despite receiving a concert performance with piano in 1915 Scott Joplin's Treemonisha (1910) remains unstaged until 1972.
Hailed as the first great opera of the Soviet era and intended as the first in a trilogy, Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is attacked in the government newspaper Pravda for its dissonance and is banned for almost three decades. Russian opera suffers greatly during the Stalinist era although Sergei Prokofiev secures his War and Peace (1945) a place in the repertory by making countless revisions stipulated by a Soviet arts committee.
The première of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes confirms the resurgence of English opera and results in Britten founding the English Opera Group, creating a home for them at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Often featuring outsiders of one sort or another his operas range from the comic Albert Herring to the chilling Turn of the Screw, and from the sparing concentration of the church parable Curlew River to the sophisticated and exotically orchestrated semi-serial Death in Venice (1973).
Gian-Carlo Menotti's appealing and accessible Amahl and the Night Visitors is the first opera composed especially for television. Among the many 1950s operas written in a more ‘retro' or instinctive compositional style are Igor Stravinsky's neo-classical Rake's Progress, Francis Poulenc's emotional Dialogues des Carmélites and Samuel Barber's lyrical Vanessa. Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1957) is a Broadway hit, with its lyricist Stephen Sondheim subsequently composing highly original musicals, some now performed in opera houses.
After the success of Luigi Dallapiccola's twelve-tone Il prigioniero (1950), several left-wing avant-garde composers from the Darmstadt School use serialism in combination with other approaches: Luigi Nono's Intolleranza 1960 and Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten both integrate electronic sounds with live orchestra while Hans Werner Henze draws heavily on traditional forms in Boulevard Solitude, Der Prinz von Homburg and The Bassarids.
British opera thrives with Michael Tippett's self-assured King Priam and The Knot Garden, Peter Maxwell Davies's Taverner, Thea Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots, Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, Mask of Orpheus and Gawain, Oliver Knussen's children's operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Piggelty Pop! and Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera.
As opera springs from an increasingly wide variety of countries, it is characterized by pluralism and eclecticism, as in Georgy Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, Luciano Berio's Un re in ascolto, Aulis Sallinen's The King Goes Forth to France, Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise and Krzysztof Penderecki's The Black Mask. At the première of Donnerstag (1984), the best-known of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Licht cycle of seven operas, the ‘farewell' is played from buildings outside the opera house.
Minimalism proves a popular compositional style, credited with making contemporary opera more ‘accessible'. Notable successes include Philip Glass's Akhnaten, Steve Reich's The Cave, Michael Nyman's The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1994), Louis Andriessen's Rosa, a Horse Drama and John Adams's impressive oeuvre ranging from Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer to Doctor Atomic.
Notable successes of the last decade include Paul Rouders' The Handmaid's Tale, Mark-Anthony Turnage's The Silver Tassie, Thomas Adès' The Tempest and spectralist operas from Kaija Saariaho including L'amour de loin and Emilie (2010). At the premiere of his 2006 opera The First Emperor, which mixes Eastern and Western musical styles, Chinese composer Tan Dun predicted ‘Opera will no longer be a Western form'.