Opera history – a short introduction

Do you like opera? This question is sure to split people into two groups – those who love it and those who… do not. However, it’s a fact that knowing more about the history of opera can increase your appreciation for it. That’s why we’ll take a look at the most important moments in opera history.

The Baroque: opera takes its first steps

It was during the Baroque era that opera was born. Just like a baby, the opera was something young with the potential to become something great. But it wasn’t quite there yet.

And very much like a baby that sleeps, eats, and repeats the cycle, the very first operas were kind of boring (but cute!). They were full of monody, which means singing the words on one note. There wasn’t much variation going on.

Opera didn’t start to figuratively run before Monteverdi composed his opera L’Orfeo in 1607. People consider it the first really good opera ever composed. Just like many other operas, it is based on Greek mythology.

The Classic era: opera continues to grow

During the classic era, lots of very famous operas saw the light of day. These include Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte and The Marriage of Figaro.

Of course, the music of these operas was different from the baroque era. The themes were oftentimes about regular, everyday heroes, not just kings and gods.

The political ideas popular at the time also became apparent in the operas. The Enlightenment meant that people valued logic and reason, and the operas became more down-to-earth.

The Romantic period: the teenage years of opera

Just like a moody teenager with lots of emotions, opera was all about feelings during the Romantic era.

There is one composer who dominated the opera scene in the 19th century – Richard Wagner. He definitely knew how to write an opera. Just look at Tristan and Isolde, or The Flying Dutchman.

There was one problem, though – Wagner wasn’t a very nice person. In fact, had he been born a hundred years later, he would have probably been one of Hitler’s buddies. He especially didn’t care for Jews, and the Nazis actually used some of his music to promote their horrible cause.

Other famous composers during this time were Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi.

1939-1945: opera goes to war

During WW2, operas were composed and performed in the concentration camp Theresienstadt. It was a camp that was specially designed to trick the world into thinking the Jews weren’t treated badly after all. Jewish musicians in the camp were able to practice music and perform.

Two famous operas were written in this camp. Both of them have a very bad person as the main character, very similar to Hitler. One of the operas, The Emperor of Atlantis, features an emperor that declares war where everybody is against everybody. Even death itself is fed up with him!

The other opera, Brundibár, is for children. It took an entire summer to rehearse it because kids were replaced very often, i.e. they were transported to other concentration camps.

Modern time: opera keeps evolving

Opera is not dead, even though many would argue that its glory days will never return. Over the past few decades, operas have tried to break free from conventional techniques (just like other music). Political themes are popular, and the aim is to get a reaction from the audience, make people think and question everything they know.

Some contemporary operas are Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, The Mask of Orpheus by Harrison Birtwistle, and Nixon in China by John Adams.

If you want to learn more, you can read our book on opera history. It will introduce you to many more fascinating facts, as well as suggest operas you should check out.

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