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Opera is an all-in-one art form… a feast for the eyes, ears, heart, mind and soul. And while you probably know more about Opera than you think you do, digging a little deeper before your visit will make the experience even sweeter.
Explore on. Read about the transition of Opera from its beginnings to today – and learn about monumental works from each period.
The roots of opera can be traced back to the late Renaissance, when Italian philosophers and artists in Florence attempted to revive the ways of ancient Greece in academics and the arts. Like the Greeks, they aimed to combine poetry, music, and stage visuals all at once but they did not have a name for this new art form so they called it "work"; and the Italian word for work is opera.
This new art form spread from Florence to all of Italy and then to France, gaining popularity in the Baroque period as composers began to experiment with musical ornamentation for the voice. These stories were drawn mostly from classical mythology and the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome. Many Baroque operas have been lost, but Claudio Monteverdi’s La Incoronazione di Poppea, from 1643, is still performed today! Another operatic name from the Baroque period – though he is most well known for his Messiah- is Handel, whose operas include Serse (Xerxes) and Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar).
In this era, opera shifted its importance from the singer to the drama, letting the music help tell the story. Composer Gluck is credited for this controversial shift, which set the precedent for all opera to follow. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a large figure in this era. His works offer an impressive range of witty comedies to profound allegories, many of which remain popular today. Some of Mozart's main operatic works include:
While the Classical period of Opera tried to advance the art form, the Bel Canto period tried to reassert the importance of the voice. Bel canto literally meaning “beautiful singing,” the Italian composers of this movement sought to reassert the importance of the voice as the chief expressive element in opera. In serious opera, tragic endings and mad scenes become hallmarks; in comic opera, or opera buffa, slapstick still rules. A couple of the period's most popular operas are:
In the latter half of the seventeenth century, Giuseppe Verdi reigns supreme. The works of great literary Romantics of his day – Shakespeare, Hugo, and others – inspire action-packed melodramas filled with vivid characters. Deeply involved in politics, Verdi himself becomes a national hero, and his catchy music becomes the anthem of the Italian people, particularly the famous Va pensiero. Verdi crafts opera into a seamless whole in which the music flows from beginning to end, rather than the stop-start style of his predecessors.
While Verdi was developing opera on the Italian front, Richard Wagner was revolutionizing the art form in his own way. Wagner had his own ideal of what opera should be: He lengthened operas, enlarged their orchestras, wrote music that was continuously flowing with challenging vocal lines, and combined mythology, psychosexual undertones, spirituality, and overwhelmingly emotional music to create his ideal art form. A few of Verdi’s and Wagner's masterpieces include:
French operas were being written concurrently to Wagner’s body of work and ensured the audience understood every word. Budgets at the Paris Opéra were lavish. Productions used huge orchestras, awing sets and costumes, and special effects ranging from ice-skating ballets to exploding volcanoes. The most important composers include Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, Jacques Offenbach (The Tales of Hoffmann), Jules Massenet (Manon, Werther), and Claude Debussy (Pelleas and Melisande). Two of the most-well known and most revered operas are:
The most beloved opera composer of all time, Puccini ruled the world of opera by writing emotional, passionate, and evocative stories of suffering women. His masterpieces are the most accessible, most frequently performed operas to date, and hook us with realistic stories about characters that are utterly believable. Whether his works contain romance or thrilling suspense, you’re always sure to leave the theater humming a Puccini melody. Several of his masterworks include:
At the turn of the twentieth century, operas emerge from all over the world. Many modern operas concern the anxiety and alienation of twentieth-century life, and explore contemporary themes using techniques drawn from the musical, visual, and narrative art forms of the time. We also begin to see a blurring of lines between opera and musical theater. Some landmark works from 1900 to present:
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