The Italian word opera translates literally as “work.” Opera dates back to the 17th century and this one short word helps define what an opera actually does—it brings all the arts together in a single work. The two key elements of an opera are voice and music, but over the years, it has embraced drama, poetry, dance, and even video.
Western opera was born in Italy. Although an opera written in 1600 is the earliest surviving work, the first operatic masterpiece is considered to be Orfeo, composed by Claudio Monteverdi in 1607.
In this new form of vocal performance, songs and dialogue were set to music. Opera quickly took off. In Italy, opera was developed around the art of singing (bel canto) and around a soloist. In France, with Lully and then Rameau, the emphasis was on dance in a form known as the opéra-ballet.
Bel canto (Italian for beautiful singing) is the term used for the Italian style of singing in which the beauty of the voice and the singer’s vocal agility were highlighted in deftly composed melodies. Bel canto style reached its peak around 1830–1840 in works by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.
The two main opera genres emerged in the first half of the 18th century. Opera seria (serious opera) contrasted with opera buffa, a more popular and more accessible style created by the Italians based on farce and high spirits.
The term opera semiseria is used to describe a type of opera that combines opera seria and opera buffa (mid 19th century). In these works, composers contrast aristocratic society with the life of peasants. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are typical of the semiseria genre but were not labelled as such at the time. The more common term in those days was dramma giocoso (joyful drama).
The opéra-comique genre grew from opera buffa. Despite the name, opéra-comique can tell dramatic stories (Bizet’s Carmen). Like singspiel (Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio), these works feature spoken dialogue and are therefore quite different from grand opéra, an extension of opera seria.
In romantic opera, arias take up themes that are generally introduced early on in the performance and are developed more fully as the opera progresses and the intrigue builds. In Italy, the term used is melodramma, in Germany, German Romantic opera, and in France, grand opéra with no spoken dialogue. It is used to describe serious works that rely heavily on choruses and ballets.
Realism, or vérisme, is an Italian genre that tells real-life stories. Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana) and Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) are undisputed examples, but certain works by other composers were also written in the spirit of realism.
An operetta is a comic opera that is light-hearted and often a parody, where intrigue is expressed through light, captivating music interspersed with spoken dialogue.
America gave birth to an entirely new genre—the musical comedy. This type of work is based on jazz and popular music, but can also draw inspiration from a variety of sources. The heroes in musical comedies usually personify commoners or members of the bourgeoisie.