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Sunday, 13 November 2016


Opera is a dramatic work in which singing takes the place of speech.

The Atlanta Opera sing the finale of Lucia di Lammermoor. By TheAtlantaOpera 

In 1580 Count Giovanni de Bardi gathered a group of Florentine poets, musicians and philosophers (known as the Camerata). At their meetings they discussed problems concerning art and, more specifically, how to revive the tragic drama of the ancient Greeks. Among the circle of Florentines were the famed composers Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini, and Vincenzo Galilei.

In the 1590s Peri was part of a similar circle based around Jacopo Corsi. At some time in these meetings the idea came up of staging a drama told entirely through music, in contrast to the then fashionable entertainments called intermedi, which consisted of drama with musical interludes. In 1598 Peri and Corsi set Ottavio Rinuccini's pastoral Dafne to music.

Dafne was first performed during Carnival of 1598 at the Palazzo Corsi. (Peri himself sang the role of Apollo at the first performance).

Dafne is generally accepted as the first opera in the modern style, with solo voices or combinations of soloists supported by instruments.

The few fragments that remain of Dafne are  inferior in achievement compared with Peri and Giulio Caccini's Euridice, which was staged at Florence's Pitti Palace on October 6, 1600 in honor of the marriage between of Maria de Medici and Henry IV of France. The work was played by a small group of strings and flutes and was nearly all recitative, but nonetheless made a grand impression. At the time of its premiere Euridice was considered revolutionary, and its success established opera as an art form of its own.

Peri Euridice Prologo

Claudio Monteverdi is considered the first opera composer to make it into a cohesive art-form. Monteverdi saw that opera had the possibilities of putting poetry, music, scenery and acting all together. His first opera, L'Orfeo composed for the court of Mantua in 1607, was dramatically more sophisticated than Peri's work. It used recitative but supplemented it with instrumental interludes, choruses, arias and duets, thus enlisting a much greater variety of musical resources in the expression of drama.

Francesca Caccini (1587 – 1641) finished the opera-ballet La Liberazione di Ruggiero in 1625, which was performed at a reception for Wladyslaw IV of Poland. It is widely considered the first opera by a female composer.

Italian opera was imported into Germany in 1627, when the libretto to Dafne by Ottavio Rinuccini was set to music by Heinrich Schutz.

At first opera remained confined to court audiences. However in 1637, the idea of a season of publicly attended operas in theaters supported by ticket sales emerged in Venice.

Although Monteverdi was now in his 70s, he wrote four new operas within about three years for Venice. Soon lots of theatres in Italy were producing operas.

The first comic opera, Chi Soffre Speri by Virgilio Mazzocchi and Marco Marazzoli, premiered in Rome in 1639.

By the later 17th century, the elaborately conventional aria, designed to display the virtuosity of the singer, had become predominant, overshadowing the dramatic element.

Matthew Locke's Psyche is the oldest surviving English opera. It was first performed at Dorset Garden Theatre, London on February 27, 1675 by the Duke's Company with choreography by the French dancing-master Saint-André.

After the sensation caused by John Gay's 1728 ballad opera, Beggar's Opera (which used popular tunes and spoken dialogue), opera in the Italian style went into decline in England. Another reason for its decline was the impatience of the English with a form of entertainment in an unintelligible language sung by artists of whose morals they disapproved.

The first musical stage performance seen in the United States was a ballad opera known as either Flora or Hob in the Well, which was presented in Charleston, South Carolina in 1735.

Opera had become by the 18th century merely a sophisticated kind of variety show. It generally consisted of disorganized presentations of arias, choral singing, ballets, and orchestral music. Christoph Willibald Glück set out to restore opera to what the original composers intended it to be—an art form marked by high drama, few recitatives and orchestral set-pieces. The German composer increased the importance of the orchestra and permitted the choruses to summarize the events of the story.

Gluck's first work expressing his new opera ideas was Orfeo ed Euridice, based on the myth of Orpheus, which was first performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna on October 5, 1762

Gluck's new opera form was adopted by most opera composers of his time as well as later composers. Weber, Mozart, and Wagner, in particular, were influenced by his ideals.

Peking opera was born on September 25, 1790 when the Four Great Anhui Troupes introduced Anhui opera to Beijing in honor of the Qianlong Emperor's eightieth birthday.  It was originally staged for the court and only made available to the public later.

A male Peking opera performer. By Saad Akhtar from New Delhi, India 

From the 19th century, composers such as Wagner wanted to get away from operas which had lots of separate arias in which the singers showed off, with the audience clapping loudly after each one. He wanted continuous music so that the mood would not be broken.

The first public radio broadcast to take place was on January 13, 1910. It was a live performance of the opera Cavalleria rusticana sent out over the airwaves from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

1910 New York Times advertisement for the wireless radio

The first opera to be broadcast over a national radio network was presented in Chicago in 1927. Listeners heard selections from Faust by Charles Gounod.

The origins of the phrase "It ain't over until the fat lady sings", meaning a reassurance there is still time for something good to happen dates back to 1976. It comes from a report on a basketball game by Ralph Carpenter on The Dallas Morning News in March of that year:  He compared the Aggies rally for a 72-72 tie late in the SWC tournament finals to an opera with a usual closing aria: "The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings."

Sources Compton's Encyclopedia, Europress Family Encyclopedia

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