A Brief History of Italian Opera
Italian opera has enthralled audiences for over 400 years. Learn how Italian Opera got its start and find out more about some of the most famous Italian Opera Composers.
Why is Italian Opera so Popular?
The simplest reason for Italian opera’s 400-year reign is that it’s an exquisite way to express pure emotion and to tell a layered, multisensory story. But you already knew that.
The rich (and juicy!) history behind how Italian opera came to dominate the genre goes hand in hand with why. But let’s be clear, we’re talking about the Italian opera style here, which can be written in any language. More on that later.
What makes opera “Italian?”
In short, Italian opera combines recitative (a type of speak-singing that imitates the rhythm and delivery of ordinary speech to move the plot forward) with arias, duets, trios, etc.
How did Italian opera start?
Around the late 1500s (toward the end of the Renaissance), in Florence, Italy, an all-male who’s-who of intellectual and artistic society gathered to discuss how to improve popular music of the day. They were called the Florentine Camerata.
The Camerata unanimously believed that for every phrase of poetry, the lyrics, there could only be one unique melody that perfectly expressed it. They declared a war on polyphony, which refers generally to music consisting of two or more distinct melodic lines performed simultaneously. To that end, the Camerata was inspired to recreate Greek tragedy by setting drama to music, which they called “dramma per musica.”
The first operas
Unfortunately, not one of the Camerata members could pull off anything worth producing. Enter Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), who composed what many consider to be the first opera, Dafne (1597). While there is no surviving manuscript, we do have Peri’s Eurydice, which premiered at a nobleman’s wedding in 1600.
Eurydice, based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, tells the story of his descent to the underworld to bring his dead bride back to the living world. He fails, and she is forever trapped in the Underworld.
This tragic ending, however, would not do. Peri’s wealthy patrons demanded a sunnier ending, which soon became a common practice in all operatic writing.
Claudio Monteverdi, “Father of Opera”
Peri’s operas, though novel, were still a bit tedious and disjointed. It wasn’t until Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) gave us La favola d’Orfeo, his take on the Orpheus story, in 1607 that opera started taking the shape we all know and love.
L’Orfeo was the first attempt to combine the full resources of music and art, which became the burgeoning genre of opera. And it worked so well that it is still performed today.
Monteverdi bent the rules of polyphony well beyond what previous composers (like Palestrina) had previously considered sacrosanct. Even though only six of Monteverdi’s operas still exist, it is clear why his contributions earned him the title “Father of opera.”
Opera, now available to (almost) everyone
Another reason early opera grew in popularity is that it was presented exclusively to the cultural change-makers, i.e the rich. But that began to shift during the Baroque period (1600–1750), with the advent of the opera house.
When Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano opened to the public in 1637, an appetite for opera was ignited in the masses. By the end of the century, Venice had built more than a dozen.
Soon, Italian opera had taken Europe by storm and the opera house was not only a visually spectacular place to see and be seen but a feast for the ears as well.
Now that tickets were being sold, the pressure to produce next-level productions was on. Performers (males only, even in the female roles) required virtuosic abilities, which gave rise to the castrati—male singers who were castrated as boys to keep their voices from changing. Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.
Few castrati survived, but those who did and made it to the top were the superstars of the 17th and 18th centuries, earning four times as much as any composer!
Opera seria, opera buffa, and the Classical period
Less than 100 years after Dafne’s premiere, critics argued that Italian opera had wandered too far from its classical roots. Composers were encouraged to use restraint in their works, to focus on tales from antiquity with themes of virtue, love, and valor.
This resulted in the development of opera seria throughout the 18th century, with its serious, usually classical or mythological themes. Handel’s Giulio Cesare is a masterful example of this style.
While composers were swayed to use more classical stories, operas were anything but vocally or visually restrained.
During the Classical period (1750–1830), opera buffa was born as a way to attract the wealthy middle class. This style used comedy to tell stories of regular people in everyday situations, even featuring slang.
Wait, but Mozart isn’t even Italian!
One of the most famous opera buffas of all time, The Marriage of Figaro (“Le nozze de Figaro”), was written by Austria-born Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)—a name synonymous with Italian opera.
Although it may seem strange that some of Mozart’s most famous operas were written in Italian, instead of his native German, he was simply following the path his Baroque predecessors (like Handel) forged.
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) and the bel canto style
Around the mid-to-late 1700s, the lines between opera seria and opera buffa began to blur. A new style of singing also grew out of this period called bel canto (“beautiful singing”). This style required agile and precise vocal technique and stressed ease, purity, and evenness of tone.
Bel canto singing can be best observed in the funny yet moving operas of Gioachino Rossini, including his famous 1816 bel canto masterpiece The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia).
The Romantic period (1830–1900): bigger, louder, and longer
The Romantic period brought about massive changes to Italian opera. In short, it got bigger, louder, and longer. The emphasis was on raw, human emotion. The more suffering, the better! In fact, those previously required happy endings were thrown out the window and replaced with far gloomier conclusions.
Verdi, Puccini, and the verismo style
There are only two more composers left who help answer the question, “why is Italian opera so popular”—Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini. Together, they share five of the ten spots on our list of the 10 all-time most popular operas.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Verdi was a trailblazer, who singlehandedly changed the face of 19th-century Italian opera by broadening the dramatic complexity and creating deeper, more emotionally sophisticated characters. His most popular contribution is La Traviata (1853), which tells the gripping tale of a beautiful, but fatally ill courtesan. But don’t miss Rigoletto, Il trovatore, Don Carlo, or Aïda.
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Puccini wrote several of the most popular works in the Italian grand opera tradition. While both Verdi and Puccini wrote in the verismo style, which emphasized realism, Puccini fully embraced it in all 12 of his operas, seven of which are still wildly popular.
Puccini’s operas featured super-charged emotions and heightened vocal power and focused on the rawness of life. His most popular operas are La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot.
Knowing the history of opera in Italy—the birthplace of opera itself—can help us understand why Italian opera is, and probably always will be, the most popular style of all.