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Opera

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Performance of Lully's Armide at the Palais-Royal in 1761.
The galop from the operetta Geneviève de Brabant by Jacques Offenbach.

An opera is a work for the stage that unites music and drama. An opera is completely sung from beginning to end. Operas are written for orchestra, vocal soloists, and chorus.

Origins[edit | edit source]

Opera had its origin in Renaissance Italy. It was an attempt to recreate the dramas of ancient Greece and Rome in the manner in which they were believed to have been first performed. All operas consist of recitatives and arias, duets, trios, and other vocal combinations. Originally, operas were entertainments for the court.

Renaissance era[edit | edit source]

Dafne by Jacobo Peri is considered the first opera, though much of the music is lost. It was first performed in 1598. Other early operas are L'Orfeo (1607), Ulysses Returns to the Fatherland (1639), and The Coronation of Poppea (1643). All three operas were written by Claudio Monteverdi, and are the earliest operas still performed today.

Baroque opera[edit | edit source]

Statue of Handel by Louis-François Roubiliac, 1738

Opera was opened to the general public in Venice, Italy, during the 1637 Carnival season.

In England, Henry Purcell wrote the first English opera, Dido and Aeneas. It was first performed in 1688. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote many operas. Operas of the Baroque period were based on Greek and Roman mythology.

In England, Handel wrote Italian operas like Xerxes, Alcina, and Ariodante. These failed to capture the interest of the English public. He turned to writing oratorios—his greatest being Messiah.

Classical opera[edit | edit source]

Christoph Willibald von Gluck by Joseph Duplessis

Many operas were written in the Classical period (1750-1800), but for modern audiences the classical opera is best represented by Christophe Willibald von Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Gluck thought opera had strayed from its purpose. He reformed opera, with his focus on drama and vocal expression of that drama. His greatest operas include Orpheus and Euridice and Alceste.

Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

For many, Mozart is the perfect representative of 18th century opera. His best known operas—The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte, and the German comic opera, The Magic Flute (1791)—are standards in the modern operatic repertory.

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