Opera originated in Italy in 1598 with the production of Dafne by Jacopo Peri, which is regarded as the earliest work that could be deemed an opera. This art form combines singing and music and also incorporates acting, costuming, and scenic displays. Typically performed on the theatre stage, opera depends upon text (libretto) and a musical score to relate its performance to an audience. Opera is a cornerstone of Western classical music tradition and continues to be performed in theatres around the world.
According to art historians, Dafne was first performed in Florence and was an attempt to revive Greek drama. Though opera quickly spread to many other parts of Europe, it has a long and illustrious history in Italy. The second opera to be produced was also composed by Jacopo Peri; his Euridice has the distinction of being the second opera produced and is the oldest surviving opera as Dafne has been lost. Although opera was initially performed for court audiences, it was soon embraced by the wider public sphere. Early operas tended to be based on poetry, mythology, and Biblical stories.
From the mid to late-eighteenth century, opera enjoyed its classical period. Composers like Mozart and Gluck achieved lasting fame for their operatic compositions. Mozart wrote more than twenty operas including famous works like Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro. At the end of the eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, opera entered its Bel Canto period. This form focused heavily on showcasing the range and talent of the singers. Famous operas like Rossini’s Barber of Seville date to this period.
During the mid-nineteenth century, opera entered its grand phase characterized by the works of composers like Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Verdi’s operas were grand in scale and involved large casts and elaborate sets. Some of his most famous works include Aida and La Traviato and Rigoletto. Wagner infused opera with Germanic and Nordic influences; his operas were typically based on legends and myths.
By the late nineteenth century, operas characterized by realism and violent passion also came into vogue. Works like Carmen, Madama Butterfly, and La Boheme typify the “Verismo” or realism period. These works continue to be produced today. During the early twentieth century, opera increased in popularity in America supported by composers like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Through its history, opera has supported the careers of many performers as well as composers. Many cities have also constructed illustrious opera houses dedicated to this art form.