Opera was invented in Florence, Italy towards the latter part of the 16th century by a group of wealthy intellectuals and musicians. Their goal was to reproduce the dramas of the ancient Greeks using the plays and text that already existed. Europe was in the throes of the Renaissance period and during that time, architects, musicians, and writers became fascinated with ancient cultures, particularly the Greeks. The ancient plays indicated that music was used as an accompaniment; however, no music had been recorded. The Renaissance Italians began reciting the plays out loud and adding musical notes as they recited. This eventually caused them to start singing the text as they recited and led to the invention of opera.
In 1607, Monteverdi invented the very first opera which he titled La Favola d’Orfeo, which translated means The Legend of Orpheus. This opera is still performed today, over 400 years later. The first operas emphasized the words of the dramas with music merely playing second fiddle to the narrative during small interludes. However, as professional composers became involved, they added choruses, dances, and complicated, showy songs called Arias to showcase the actor’s vocal talents.
Venice opened the first opera house in 1637 and quickly became the center of opera with the opening of 16 additional opera theaters. Popularity spread through Italy and then on to England, Spain, Russia, Germany, Portugal, France, and the rest of Europe. The major opera centers of the 1700’s were London, Naples, Paris, and Vienna. While operas were first written in Italian, eventually composers began writing in their native languages. The most famous composers include Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Handel, Verdi, Puccini, Monteverdi, Mozart, Berlioz, Britten, and Janacek.
Opera finally made its way to America in the 1800’s, brought by immigrants from Europe. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City is the most famous opera theater in America and was opened in 1883. Despite the proliferation of modern writers and composers, the most popular operas performed worldwide to this day were written during the 18th and 19th century.
Aria: Instrumental or vocal melody.
Ballad Opera: Dance, dialogue, and song combined.
Finale: The last part of the play.
Musical Comedy: Songs, music, and dancing.
Operetta: A cheerful opera.
Overture: Musical piece at the start of the opera.
Synopsis: An operas story.
Baritone: Deep male voice, usually an evil character.
Bass: Deepest male voice, usually old, wise or funny men.
Castrato: Singer who has been castrated to preserve their childlike vocal tone.
Contralto: Rare, dark female voice, usually an old woman, witch, or grandmother.
Mezzo-soprano: Second highest female voice, usually a temptress, witch, or mature woman.
Prima Donna: Lead female singer, usually the most popular singer in the play.
Soprano: Highest female singer, usually the heroine but can be other funny characters.
Tenor: Highest male singers.