What Is Opera?

by Daniel Francis
Operas are often performed in theaters.

Operas are often performed in theaters.

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Opera is a narrative, theatrical musical art form. The word opera means "work" in Italian, which comes from the Latin "opus." The use of the word "work" refers to the fact that an opera combines the work of several artists. A composer scores music, a writer pens the lyrics, known as libretto, musicians perform the instrumental portions of the score and singers perform the roles in the story.


Opera is an invention of the Italian Renaissance, a time of revival for classical Greek theater, philosophy and art. The first known opera is the lost "Dafne" by Jacopo Peri, written at the end of the 16th century in Florence, Italy. The first surviving opera score is also by Peri -- 1600's "Euridice." Peri's operas are no longer produced. Opera as an art form and as entertainment quickly became popular with the Italian noble class, and its audience rapidly grew throughout the European royal courts.


An opera consists of a libretto and music. Libretto includes lyrics, stage directions and descriptions of the set. In contemporary theater, an opera is known as a "sing through," meaning there are no spoken lines in an opera. Operas highlights vocals for baritone, tenor, alto and soprano, and make purposeful use of choirs and harmonic choruses as well. Voice parts in opera often correlate to particular theatrical types. For example, an ingénue is a soprano, heroes or comedic troublemakers are tenors, while conflicted characters or antagonists are frequently written for bass and baritone voices.

Famous Operas and Composers

In the 17th century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart rose to fame as one of the greatest composers of opera, especially comic operas, composing 22 of them. His works include "The Marriage of Figaro," "Figaro" and "The Magic Flute." Other operas considered to be the top of the form are Bizet's "Carmen," Verdi's "La Traviata" and Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Beethoven wrote one opera called "Fidelio." German composer Richard Wagner wrote four connected operas in the 19th century, commonly referred to as "Wagner's Ring" or "The Ring Cycle."

20th Century

In the 20th century, opera lost much of its popular appeal as cinema came on the scene. However, many 20th-century composers still wrote operas, some incorporating popular musical styles to breath fresh life and popularity in to the art form. George Gershwin, whose songs were hugely popular, wrote the opera "Porgy and Bess." Minimalist composer John Adams wrote "Nixon in China." "Jesus Christ Superstar" took popular song writing and used it to form a "sing-through" or opera.


  • The New Penguin Opera Guide; Amanda Holden; 2002

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