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Opera History, until 1800


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Bang, Sojung
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007



Table of Contents


I. Definitions
II. The Beginnings of Opera History
III. Opera in the Seventeenth Century
III.1 In Italy
III.1.1 Rome and Venice
III.1.2 Napoli
III.2 In France
III.3 In Germany
IV. Opera in the Eighteenth Century
IV.1 In Italy until 1750
IV.1.1 Venice
IV.1.2 Napoli
V. Omen of Revolution, Appearance of Intermezzo and Opera Buffa
VI. Revolution
VI.1 Revolution of Gluck
VI.2 Drama Giocoso and Opera Semiseria
VII. Development of the English Opera
VIII. Conclusion
IX. Notes
X. References



I. Definitions
            Opera is "a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes". (1) Opera is a complex art which combines music with poetry, play, dance, fine arts, and other artistic sources. That is, opera is a tragic or farcical drama with songs which are coherently played by orchestra. (2)

II. The Beginnings of Opera History
            There are few types of western music that have as certain beginning as opera. Opera started in 1597, the late Renaissance. As Renaissance means 'the rebirth of Greek culture', imitating Greek works was regarded as the most intelligent and beautiful in every field of art. Therefore there existed many movements of imitation. In Florence, Count Vardi and his friends established a camerata (society), a group of scholars, philosophers, and amateur musicians which discuss about the imitating art. This camerata included the librettist Ottavio Rinuccini and the composers Vincenzo Galilei, Emilio del Cavaliere, Jacopo Peri, and Giulio Caccini.(3). Finally in 1597, J. Peri and G. Caccini made a musical play called 'Dafne' which dramatized an ancient Greek myth.
            Based on the ideology of Renaissance, the early opera mostly based on the ancient Greek myths. Also, the early opera was composed with a vocal solo and instruments' accompaniment. Since only some parts of 'Dafne' still exists, the oldest opera existing in the world is 'Euridice' (1600) composed by Peri with Rinoccini's libretto. (4)
            The characteristics and meaning of the early opera can be described as :
      1. The opera was based on a vocal solo. This was the same period as the monody in that period started to gain authority.
      2. Since the pieces ware composed by the people who represents new-style tendency in Renaissance period, the contents were quite new-fashioned and mundane.
      3. The works had many theoretical components

III. Opera in the Seventeenth Century

III.1 In Italy

            The development of the Italian Opera in 17th century can be differentiated by urban centers - Rome, Venice, and Napoli. This classification is based on the change of the center of opera in Italy. Rome had been the center from 1619 to 1643. Venice had been the center from 1660 to 1685, and Napoli had been the center since 1650. In other cities such and Torino, Bologna, and Parma, opera became popular. More than one hundred theatres for opera were opened in all parts of Italy.

III.1.1 Rome and Venice

            The type of opera in Rome and Venice can be classified as Baroque opera.

(a) Rome
      The work that established Roman opera, Sant' Alessio, by Stefano Landi and libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, appeared in 1632. Landi modified the strict declamatory style of the Florentines with formal devices: the recitative and aria became clearly differentiated. Also more prominent use was made of choruses and instrumental form. The libretto included comic scenes, which had no part in earlier operas. (5)
            Although there are not many existing opera pieces of Rome, it is obvious that the opera of Rome was full of creativity. The reason is that more than 100 pieces of works which didn't stick to the mere imitation of Greek myth were performed for royalty and public. Composers in Rome also tried the new technique to use dialects in opera. Then, they tried a new genre that converted the characters of myth, history, and commedia dell'arte into the real figures in that period. As this parodic genre developed, the role of music in opera decreased and the role of recitativo was enlarged. For example, Landi's piece, 'the death of Orfeo' consists of only three arias, and Vitali's Aretusa as only one. Recitativo became more melodious arioso.

(b)Venice
      Baroque opera reached its peak when Claudio Monteverdi appeared in Venice, and the operas which were previously played a role as the entertainment for the aristocracy became available to popular audiences. In 1637 the first public opera house in the world opened in Venice, and by 1700 at least 16 more theaters were built. In Venice, two of Monteverdi's best-known works, 'The Tale of Orpheus', and 'The Coronation of Poppea' were performed. Monteverdi is said to be responsible for the appearance of bel canto and buffo styles. He also reflected the moods and dramatic vividness of the libretto in his music, and his work became a model for the operatic composers who followed. (6)
            Operas in Venice tended to be more abstract than those in Rome. Castratos sang the songs no matter what role they got. (7) With the next generation of Venetian composers, including Marcantonio Cesti and Pietro Francesco Cavalli, and international style developed and local schools disappeared. The recitative diminished in musical interest in favor of the aria, the chorus gave way to the virtuoso soloist, and the comedy and parody became popular.

III.1.2 Napoli

            Composers of Italy gathered in Napoli because of two reasons. First, there was an inclination to restrict opera in Rome. Secondly, opera became too banal in Venice. Moreover Napoli had more population than the sum of Venice and Milano's population, and had confirmed cultural tradition of language and plays. Also Napoli was flourishing as the only city that has an academy of music under the rule of Spain.
            Although the opera was popularized by Francesco Provenzale, there was no own style of opera in this city. Most of the operas were ones using dialects, descendants of Spain plays, ones that came from Comedia dell'arte, and religious operas.

III.2 In France

            Opera in France was not a inevitable cultural result. Born in the border of France aristocracy, France Opera had purpose to praise the greatness of Louis XIV. However, actually this meant the reunion of poem and music. Poem and music of France each reached the step of completion. (8)
            Italian opera, the pastoral, French classical tragedy, and the ballet de cour were the antecedents of French opera. French opera began in 1669 with the establishment of the Academie royale de Musique, which was taken over by Jean Baptiste Lully in 1672. Lully introduced his audience to grand-scale entertainment: lavish stage settings and scenery in addition to ballets, choruses, and long disquisitions on love and glory. Jean Philippe Rameau followed the tradition of Lully, but were not as well received. (9)

III.3 Germany

            In spite of religious conflicts German countries had tradition to perform an educational play which is similar to sacre rappresentazione. However, the actual beginning of the German opera is after Schütz studied abroad in Venice. Then, Heinrich Albert, J.J. Lowe, Ph. Stolle, and Johann Phillipp Krieger attempted various styles of opera. However, their attempts ended with mere connection of arias from France and Italy.
            Händel composed 'Almira' and 'Nero'. These two was just mere imitation of Ceaser, but this experience spread to other cities and the works performed in Hamburg were performed again and other works were also newly performed. However, this ended with the closure of the theatre of Hamburg.
            Then appears Telemann. He included the play of middle ages, translation of French play, Italian Intermezzo, and other genres. Also, he focused on his style of opera even when Italian opera dominated whole Germany. This led to the creation of the Singspiel (10).

IV. Opera in the Eighteenth Century


            IV.1 Opera in Italy before 1750.
            In the beginning of 18th century Italian opera started won popularity in Napoli and London, Bologna and Venice, and from Vienna to St. Petersburg. However, Bin was the actual place where many musicians gathered.

(1) Venice
      In Venice, where four musical academies were competing with Napoli's academy, castrato did not have an absolute authority. Opera in Venice had great harmony of voice and instrument in the pleasurable atmosphere of sight and hearing. In Venice, opera was composed and performed in the old form. It was because the city, regarding its location, was available to trade with northern cities
            Gasparini, Antonio Rotti, Albinoni, and Vivaldi were the most famous musician in Venice. They, not restricted by form, made sweet sounds with great ability of expression.

(2) Napoli
      Opera, spread through whole Italy, had common ethic and aesthetic principles. Unlike operas in Venice, castrato played a key role in the operas of Napoli like those in many other cities of Italy. Napoli's operas are also called as metastasio's opera which was the form made before the changes in eighteenth century. However, metastasio was only a merely simple form, so many musician didn't want to use this form.
            Sarro of Napoli, played a significant role in the opera history of Napoli. He rejected Baroque form, and emphasized emotion of the opera. In addition, arrival of revolutionists, and trend of opera buffa made new way of opera.

V. Omen of Revolution; Birth of Intermezzo and Opera Buffa
            Although intermezzo and opera buffa have very different origin, these two have similarity in that they gave back the farcical factors which were denied by opera seria, the prevailing form. The catalyst of this purpose was the farcical use of dialects. At first, music was only an assistant of this. Later, musicians became able to add all the musical full use of coloratura or castrato. Then begins the new era of Italian opera.

VI. Era of Revolution

VI.1 Revolution of Gluck
            Educated in Milan, a German by the name of Christoph Willibald Gluck gained the attention of people. However, he soon got severe reproach because he maintained his 'loud individuality'. He got used to the Italian opera, but he immediately shows interest in orchestra, castrato, and coloratura. He moved to other countries and composed many satirical works. Also, he wrote essays lauding metastasio. He composed 'Orfeo ed Euridice' which included choruses, solos, and visual effects with Calzabigi. Gluck can be regarded as a revolutionist in opera history, because he rejected opera seria and tried to keep his own form and style with creative expression.

VI.2 Flourishing of Drama Giocoso and Opera Semiseria
            Opera buffa's triumph against opera seria is very significant in opera history. The new form of opera was more compatible with citizens rather than heroes. The more important thing was that the flexibility and variety of the new form won over the old confirmed form opera seria. Finally nobles also started to be interested in the more attractive new form. Later this opera buffa was called as drama giocoso or opera semiseria.

VII. The Development of the English Opera
            The first English opera was The Siege of Rhodes, with a text by poet laureate Sir William D'Avenant, in 1656. The masque was the true antecedent of English opera, and John Blow 's Venus and Adonis (c.1685) was actually an opera. The one great English opera of the 17th century was Dido and Aeneas (1689) by Henry Purcell, after whose death England succumbed completely to Italian opera.
            The reigning "English" composer was a German who had completely absorbed the Neapolitan Italian style, Georg Fridrich Händel. Although best known as the composer of the oratorio Messiah, Händel spent most of his musical energy between 1705 and 1738 in composing operas. His first opera in England was Rinaldo (1711), an instant success, and among the many other operas he composed are Giulio Cesare (1724), Rodelinda (1725), and Alcina (1735). H?ndel's operas featured castrati (see castrato ), who had great popularity, and who dominated this period and type of opera, sometimes forcing composers to write around them, adding music that had little or nothing to do with the plot.
            Coincident with Händel's efforts at establishing Italian opera in England were the attempts of native talent to produce an English musical theatrical form. The result was The Beggar's Opera (1728), with a libretto by the poet John Gay and music composed partly by John Christopher Pepusch. The Beggar's Opera inaugurated the form of ballad opera that satirized Italian opera and contemporary politics. VIII. Conclusion
            Like this paper covered above, opera, born in Italy, was spread to other countries of Europe. Opera history is significant because it briefly shows the development of western music history. Also, almost all artists who are said to be the most famous ones in history were involved in opera works. Furthermore, the feature of the society in that period was reflected by the operas such as opera buffa. Operas in 17th and 18th century made fundamental form of opera. Since there existed such artists devoted themselves in opera, many people can enjoy opera in their leisure these days.


IX. Notes

(1)      Article Opera, in : Encyclopedia Britannica
(2)      Opera Cake
(3)      Article Opera, in : Columbia Encyclopedia
(4)      Foart's Music Column
(5)      Article Opera, in : Columbia Encyclopedia
(6)      ibid.
(7)      Origin and Birth of the Opera, from Usoc's Homepage
(8)      ibid.
(9)      Article Opera, in : Columbia Encyclopedia
(10)      Origin and Birth of the Opera, from Usoc's Homepage
(11)      Article Opera, in : Columbia Encyclopedia

X. Bibliography

Note : websites listed below were visited between Nov. 30th and Dec. 2nd 2007.
1.      Article Opera, in: Encyclopedia of Britannica, 15th Edition, Volume
2.      In-depth Opera Story, by Park Jiwoon, Monthly Magazine : Daegu Culture, 2007.07
3.      Opera Cake, http://myhome.naver.com/foolkang/
4.      Foart's Music Column , http://column.daum.net/musicastory
5.      Article Opera, in : The Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th Edition.
6.      Article Origin and Birth of Opera, by Seo Woo Seok, in: Hompage of Usoc http:// usoc.snu.ac.kr, based on Grand Larousse Encyclopedique

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