WHAT IS OPERA?
George Hall explains the origins of this grandest of art forms
WHEN IT WAS invented in Florence in the 1590s, opera – which means ‘works’ in Italian – involved an attempt by a group of leading artists and intellectuals to revive the theatre of ancient Greece, which they understood to be sung rather than spoken.
This inspired leap of the imagination was the final great artistic creation of the Renaissance, yet at the same time opera was able to benefit from the novel gestures of what we now refer to as the Baroque period, especially what came to be known as ‘recitar cantando’ – the art of speaking and acting in song.
What distinguished opera from such closely related predecessors as the Italian intermedi, the French ballet de cour or the English masque – all of which brought the arts together in a unified theatrical spectacle – was that the text was through-composed utilising this newly invented recitative, giving music an expressive primacy over all the other arts involved in what, centuries later, one of the genre’s greatest practitioners would label a ‘total art work’, or to use Wagner’s term: ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’.
Within a decade of the first example, Jacopo Peri’s Dafne (1597), opera had found its first creative genius in Claudio Monteverdi (below), who gave the form its first masterpiece with Orfeo (1607). Monteverdi would be the first to popularise opera when he moved to Venice, producing his final works for the city’s public opera houses, the first of which opened in 1637.
From Venice, opera would expand, within a few decades, all over Italy and subsequently all over Europe: its later travels would eventually see it flourish across the continents in a wide variety of national traditions. Today, opera is continuing to win new fans through recordings, films and videos, as well as in the cinema and online.
Yet through more than 400 years of history and counting, it retains its essential quality of a drama that is sung, usually throughout – one of the characteristics that broadly separates it from operetta and musicals – and which draws upon all the other arts to achieve its unique synthesis, held together by the communicative range and expressive power of music.
Opera was the Renaissance’s final great artistic creation