Opera, as an art form didn't get its start until around 1600 when the Florentine Camerata decided to recreate Ancient Greek drama in a musical form. A collection of Italian aristocrats including such families as the Sforzas, the Viscontis, the Gonzagas, the d'Estes and the de Medicis decided to abandon the earlier complexities of polyphony and counterpoint in favor of new harmonic structures. They lead to one of the most important achievements of the Baroque period: the opera.
The advent of the continuo, combined with the abandonment of the interweaving of voices in counterpoint form (made popular during the Renaissance) provided a framework for musical improvisation that hadn't been seen in many years. Likewise, without complexities of polyphony to deal with, major and minor keys came to the forefront, as the each chord assumed function relative to the tonic (first) and dominant (fifth) notes.
Resitatives are the part of the opera used to advance the plot. They usually consist of a monologue or dialogue sung with the natural inflections of human speech. As such, they rarely present a musical line and are usually characterized by fast-paced chatter in a monotone, aside question and answer dialogue to build dramatic tension. The two main types of recitatives are secco (that which is accompanied by continuo) and accompagnato (that which is accompanied by a full orchestra)
Arias are the more lyric, musical pieces of an opera. They release dramatic tension through an emotional melody, and are usually the ones audiences applaud and remember. Because of their inherent musicality, arias can effectively be sung and enjoyed outside the context of the operas they're written in, becoming familiar to people who perhaps have never heard the opera they're from. The most common form of aria is the da capo aria in the form A-B-A, meaning the solist sings one section, then a second, then returns to a variation on the first.
An overture is a mainly instrumental section heard at the beginning of an opera. Sometimes they are used to introduce melodies from the arias to follow. Generally, every act of an opera is opened with an overture, sometimes having interludes between scenes (called "sinfonias" in the Baroque era.)
The libretto is the actual text of an opera, written by a librettist, creating characters and a plot to justify the theme of the music. It is divided in such a manner as to allow the composer to write various arias, recitatives, and overtures for the piece.
A not-so-brief history
- 1600 - Jacopo Peri, in conjunction with the Camerata of Florence writes the first opera, Dafne for King Henry IV's wedding.
- 1642 - Claudio Monteverdi (considered Opera's first genius) writes L'Incoronazione di Poppaea.
- 1684 - Jean-Baptiste Lully helps boost opera's popularity in France by writing Amadis, earning him an appointment to Court Composer for King Louis XIV.
- 1689 - Henry Purcell authors Dido and Aeneas, paving the way for English opera.
- 1711 - George Fredric Handel writes Rinaldo, continuing opera's newfound vogue in England.
- 1728 - John Gay's The Beggar's Opera becomes the first 'popular' opera, lays foundation for the modern musical comedy.
- 1774 - Christopher Gluck concentrates on music/drama dichotomy, abandoning conventions and effects with Orpheus and Euridice.
- 1782 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (considered opera's greatest genius) brought opera to the masses in Germany with The Abduction from the Seraglio.
- 1786 - Mozart pens The Marriage of Figaro, called "A towering achievement in humanity and a melody that still resonates with lessons for us all" by PBS.
- 1791 - Mozart, after a hiatus from writing operas, returns with The Magic Flute, his final work.
- 1813 - Rossini writes L'Italiana in Algeri, masters comedic grand opera and becomes "an operatic God" (PBS).
- 1814 - Ludwig von Beethoven writes his one and only opera, Fidelio.
- 1821 - Weber writes Die Freischutz, establishes school stressing German culture and tradition.
- 1829 - Rossini's William Tell, his greatest and final opera, began era of Grand Opera in France.
- 1836 - Meyerbeer writes Les Huguenots, the greatest of French Grand Opera.
- 1836 - Glinka's A Life for the Tsar establishes opera in Russia
- 1842 - Wagner explores psychology and monologue with Die Fliegende Hollaender, considered his first masterpiece.
- 1847 - Verdi publishes Macbeth, his first multi-dimensional score, one that thrusts him into the limelight for decades.
- 1865 - Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is one of the first to give the orchestra a major role, lays foundation for the modern opera.
- 1871 - Verdi writes one of the most popular Italian operas of all time, Aida.
- 1874 - Johann Strauss paves the way for the Broadway Musical with Die Fledermaus.
- 1876 - Wagner writes Das Ring der Nibelungen, considered one of the supreme achievements of Western culture"(PBS).
- 1882 - Wagner finishes his career with Parsifal, a most visionary achievement.
- 1884 - Massenet writes Manon, creating a sort of Soap Opera set to music.
- 1892 - Leoncavallo portrayed real life with his first opera, Pagliacci. It was the first italian opera to do so.
- 1893 - Puccini meets his first success with Manon Lescaut
- 1893 - Verdi farewells with Falstaff, his only comedy.
- 1902 - Debussy adds a surreal dimension to French opera with Pellas et Melisande, a delicate fairy tale.
- 1905 - Richard Strauss extends the role of the orchestra with Salome
- 1925 - Alban Berg write's the century's first atonal masterpiece, Wozzeck
- 1926 - Puccini's final opera, Turandot, is released.
- 1928 - Kurt Weill writes The Threepenny Opera, hailed as a modern Beggar's Opera, described as "biting" and "cynically contemporary".(PBS)
- 1935 - George Gershwin, in his own unique style writes Porgy and Bess, a bridge between Grand Opera and Broadway.
- 1950 - Gian Carlo Menotti writes The Consul, earning him a Pulitzer Prize and a long run on Broadway.
- 1951 - Igor Stravinsky writes The Rake's Progress, nostalgic of the 18th century, set to a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
- 1955 - Michael Tippett writes The Midsummer Marriage, exploring the heart and mind.
- 1971 - Leonard Bernstein authors Mass, "part theatre, part opera, part musical, and entirely moving." .(PBS)
- 1991 - John Corigliano's exciting commission The Ghosts of Versailles proves that opera's alive and well moving to the new century.
"The Enjoyment of Music" (ISBN 0393972992)
Class notes from MUSI 1300 at the University of Texas at Arlington