Opera was not an art form that grew organically from a long tradition. Rather, it was deliberately invented by a group of scholars, who named among its members none other than Vincenzo Galileo, the father of the famous astronomer.
The group was formed in the city of Florence during the 1590s, and they were known as the Camerata. They sought to revive the power of Greek drama, incorporating musical features, just as the Greeks did, to enhance the emotion of the story. These experiments led to the development of the stile recitativo, which became a precursor of opera lirica, the opera that we know today.
Around the same time in the same city was another group called Accademia della Crusca. Their main objective was to define and preserve the vulgar Florentine tongue as a model for a standardized Italian language. Within this larger goal was a stated objective to create a language that sounded as beautiful as possible; a language that lent itself to music, even when spoken in daily conversation.
All the pieces were in place for opera to be conceived. It wasn’t long after that when it was officially born.
A Brief History of Opera
In 1597, a composer named Jacopo Peri wrote the first opera, titled Dafine, based on a story from Greek mythology. Claudio Monteverdi took the opera concept to the next level, solidifying the art form and propelling the genre into the future. He was the first opera composer whose works, which include Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea, are still performed today.
An opera was originally called “un’opera in musica,” or “a work in music,” meaning that it was different from a play or poem in that the characters sang their lines in order to add a healthy dose of emotional drama to an otherwise common storyline.
So from the onset, this was considered a genre of dramatic acting rather than a musical style, per se. Since it was conceived by the intellectual elite of Florence during the late Renaissance, it remained a form of entertainment for members of high-society for about two generations before it was eventually brought to the general public.
During the 1600s, opera took root and flourished all over Italy. Attending an opera performance in those days was like attending a rock concert today. The singers were incredibly famous and the crowds could be quite rowdy!
While the high-society sat (and ate and drank and “entertained each other”) in the comfortable, curtained box seats, the commoners crowded onto the floor where they stood for the duration of the performance, usually at or somewhat below stage level, making it difficult to see all of the action.
During the recitative parts—the speech-like sections that advance the plot—the crowd would often chat, and laugh, and generally not pay attention to the stage performers. Then when an aria would begin—an emotional reflection on the characters’ circumstances—the crowd would fall silent and listen to the lilting voices with deep admiration.
For several hundred years, audiences were entertained by the operatic works of composers such as Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini, and Verdi. Operagoers were spellbound, not only by the exceptional skills of the singers but by the sheer spectacle of the grand performances, with their ornate sets and lavish costumes.
The common man’s vantage point eventually improved somewhat. They moved from below stage level to way up in the rafters; to the “piccionaia,” the pigeons’ roost (or the “nosebleed section,” as we call it now in English).
These days, many believe that the true aficionados actually prefer these seats, in some measure as a protest against the elitist perception of opera enthusiasts. They also claim that you can see and hear the performance better from this lofty vantage point.
In many Italian opera houses today, these tifosi (fans) up in the “cheap seats” are boisterous in their fervor; cheering wildly for exceptional performances, and heckling even more vigorously when the lead tenor doesn’t measure up to their high standards.
So where is opera now at this point in its history? Which classic works are still being performed and what are some of the modern operas that will eventually join their ranks?
It’s not an easy question, and it certainly depends on geography and demographics; what works for one company’s audience might not work for another’s. A current artistic trend is to represent classic operas in modern settings, such as Palm Beach Opera’s upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is set in the era of film noir. This gives the opera a present-day feel while still preserving the story and music of the original composition.
Opera isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In our era of technological advancements and the impersonal nature of our Information Age, perhaps more than ever people are eager for the spontaneity of genuine human interaction. Music, theater, and highly trained voices provide a transformational experience that is found nowhere else.