Opera was first developed in the sixteenth century by a group of scholars in the Italian city of Florence, to recreate early Greek tragedy which combined intoned speech and instrumental music in a dramatic setting. This 'new' form of entertainment spread throughout Europe with each country gradually placing different emphasis on the varying components of opera (music, drama, spectacle) according to that society's own tastes and interests.
Early opera concentrated on music written to fit the text very closely and accompanied lightly by a keyboard instrument in the style of recitative. An early opera demonstrating this style was Dafne composed by Jacopo Peri in 1597.
A major problem in creating an integrated opera is to find a suitable text or libretto. The story must be dramatically effective, have interesting characters, and also lend itself to being set by music. Early composers used plots from mythology as part of their attempt to revive Greek tragedy. This established a tradition which has continued throughout much of the history of opera.
As opera gained in popularity and spread from Florence throughout Italy, the interests of both audiences and composers centred on the voice. Principal singers became popular figures and between them there was often fierce rivalry. By the time of Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) the singers and their public required composers to write arias to show off individual voices to best advantage. Arias had to be distributed among the singers in proportion to each one’s importance in the cast, and there might be as many as 50 arias in one opera. Since the words of the conventional aria of those days consisted of two or three lines of verse repeated as often as necessary, the story-telling part of the text (recitative) was sung rapidly, with a light accompaniment that provided a musical link from one aria to the next. This 'stop-go' manner of arranging the narrative became a constant feature of opera libretti (texts) and has remained so to some extent until recent times.
By the middle of the eighteenth century audiences and composers rejected the rigid pattern that opera had fallen into. Performances had become like concerts and the drama and need to act had been ignored by singers. A German composer Gluck (1714-1787) broke new ground with his opera Orpheus and Eurydice, produced first in Vienna and then revised for Paris. Gluck reintroduced the idea that the music and drama must fit together. He insisted that his singers act and that all elements of the production must work together in harmony to be dramatically effective.
The popular appeal of opera encouraged the development of the serious form (opera seria) and lighter comic form. In Italy, by 1750 comic interludes were being performed with serious operas. These early 'musical comedies' were developed at first as entertainments to be performed as an interlude alongside the serious works. These 'entertainments' soon included basic character types and finally became a separate form which in Italy was called opera buffa.
In Germany this comic form was known as Singspiel (song-play) and was written in the local language. Mozart's The Magic Flute is a famous example of this form, with its use of spoken dialogue.
Mozart (1756-1791) who began writing operas at the time of Gluck's reforms combined the dramatic focus of the German Singspiel with the lyric beauty of the Italian tradition and brought opera to its peak. His most famous librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte who was not only a fine poet but was able to capture the revolutionary spirit of the age (Mozart died in the early years of the French Revolution) and the manners of its people.
In the nineteenth century some composers rejected recitative and wrote opera which were fully scored and accompanied throughout.
In the second half of the nineteenth century opera composition took new directions. Different countries had developed strong national preferences. Divergent ideas and different 'fashions' in opera composition were reflected by this.
One of the most influential of German composers of this period was Richard Wagner (1813-1883) who developed the Music Dramas. He thought of opera as the culmination of all the arts – music, drama, poetry and painting – and worked to combine them. His operas were based on Nordic legends and myths, as in Tristan and Isolde and his Ring Cycle. All were set to libretti by Wagner himself. Wagner used leitmotifs (small musical phrases associated with a particular character or emotion), and used the orchestral accompaniment to depict the dramatic situation on stage. These ideas were adopted by another German composer, Richard Strauss, most of whose operas rely on vast orchestral resources while placing less importance on the chorus.
The French had resisted the introduction of Italian opera until the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) combined it with the new French art form, ballet. From the time of Gluck's innovations to opera, however, Paris accepted opera provided that it combined ballet and spectacle. Although Berlioz (1803-1869), Gounod (1818-1893) and Bizet (1838-1875) all contributed to the operatic form, it was not until Debussy (1862-1918) presented Pelleas and Melisande that French opera fully accepted that music should serve a dramatic purpose.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was one of the greatest of Italian opera composers. With a special understanding for theatrical effect and using an operatic language in which the drama is carried by the melody he created many dramatic masterpieces. Verdi was a great patriot and believed that each composer should create within the idiom natural to his country. He had the ability to sum up in his music and his opera the nationalistic sentiments of the oppressed Italian people fighting for the unification of Italy.
Verdi's finest operas include Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff, Il trovatore, La traviata and Rigoletto. The term 'grand opera', which was spectacular and passionate, came to be applied to nineteenth-century opera without spoken dialogue and was applied to both the Italian and French tradition. Typical of opera of this description was the middle period work of Verdi, Aida.
Verismo was an important development in opera of the latter part of the nineteenth Century which reacted against the music dramas of Wagner and the works of Verdi. The verismo movement tried to recapture a more natural and realistic form of theatre more closely related to everyday life. Composers used libretti about everyday people and situations.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), an Italian composer, wrote a number of works influenced by this movement such as La bohème and Tosca. These and other works such as Turandot and Madama Butterfly have become a major part of the contemporary operatic repertoire.
Other composers of the verismo school were Mascagni (1863-1945) who wrote Cavalleria rusticana, and Leoncavallo (1857-1919) who wrote Pagliacci.
The nationalism displayed in Italian operas was also seen in operas of Spanish, Russian, Czech, Hungarian and Polish composers. These works used the native language and folk-music idiom of the country, with a plot often based on folklore and mythology.
The turn of the twentieth century brought enormous experimentation in all the arts; the established forms seemed to be finished. In a very few years, a variety of movements in literature, art and dance were tried. Operas showed the same sort of experimentation, which is continuing right up to our times. Some composers, like Richard Strauss (1864-1949), continued in the Wagnerian style; others, like Debussy, tried to capture new artistic forms in music. Still others, like Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his disciple Berg (1885-1935), felt that Wagner had brought traditional music to an end and tried to find a new path for music and opera.
The Russian composer, Stravinsky (1882-1976) experimented with various opera styles, for example, the neo-classical style of The Soldier's Tale in which the singers are positioned in the orchestra pit, and the narrator and dancers are on stage.
British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) did much to establish opera in English. His works are in many ways traditional, with distinct musical numbers and recurring themes, and are essentially tonally written. Peter Grimes, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Turn of the Screw are some of his most famous works.
With all the experiments in opera it is increasingly difficult to define the limits of this art form. Commercial successes such as The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, and the works of Stephen Sondheim, approach operatic form where music, singing, drama and spectacle are all blended into an effective dramatic event. Rock operas such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita are a form of entertainment now familiar to the general public.
In recent decades Australian composers have turned increasingly to opera. Opera Australia now boasts a strong repertoire of home-grown opera, including Richard Meale's (1932-2009) and David Malouf's Mer de Glace, Bryan Howard's Whitsunday, Larry Sitsky's The Golem, Alan John's and Dennis Watkins' The Eighth Wonder, Moya Henderson's Lindy, John Haddock's Madeline Lee and Richard Mills' Batavia.
In 2010 Bliss premiered in Sydney and Melbourne. Composed by Brett Dean with a libretto by Amanda Holden, and directed by Neil Armfield, Bliss was truly an all-Australian production, and a strong example of the continuing relevance of opera in the twenty-first century.