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What is opera?

The Italian term opera actually means “the work”. This reflects the underlying goal of the form, which emerged in the 16th century: to unite all the arts within a single work. During various periods in history, theatre, poetry, dance and video have all been ingredients in this complete spectacle, in addition to two key elements, singing and music. Operas were first written in court circles in Italy, to celebrate the wedding of Marie de' Medici with King Henri IV of France. Although earlier works from around 1600 have survived, the first true opera, Orfeo, was composed in 1607 by Claudio Monteverdi. It is also considered to be the first operatic masterpiece.

This new form of vocal music presented songs and, more importantly, a theatrical text, against a musical background. Opera developed quickly and, in Italy, soon became closely associated with bel canto, the art of singing, and the cult of the solo singer. In France, where the leading opera composers were Lully and, later, Rameau, ballet became an important component in the opera-ballet.

Bel canto (in Italian, fine singing) is the term used to describe the Italian vocal style of brilliant melodies that highlight the beauty of the human voice and the virtuoso ability of the soloist. The summit of the bel canto style was attained in the years 1830 to 1840 in the works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

In the first half of the 18th century, two separate types of opera developed, opera-seria (serious opera) and opera-buffa (comic opera), a more popular and approachable style based on comic, light-hearted plots. The term opera semiseria was used, beginning in the mid 19th century, for a type of opera that combined elements of both opera seria and opera buffa, and often featured a struggle between the twin worlds of the aristocracy and the peasantry. Two operas by Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, are now considered to be semiseria operas although the term had not been coined at the time they were written, when they were described as dramma giocoso.

The French term opéra comique, which covers even operas with tragic story-lines such as Bizet’s Carmen, refers to operas with a large amount of spoken text. Like the German term Singspeil (one example is Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio), it distinguishes these works from “grand opera”, which were entirely set to music in the style of opera seria.

During the Romantic period, arias were based on themes first heard in the Overture that were developed throughout the opera as the drama unfolded. In Italy these works were called melodramma, in Germany German romantic opera, and in France grand opéra, meaning that there was no spoken dialogue, and that the work was serious and featured choruses and ballet.

Realism, or opera verisma, is an Italian style of opera based on “true life”. Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana) and Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) provide the prime examples, even if works by other composers are also based to a certain extent on “true life”.

Operetta is a type of comic opera in a clearly popular vein that is often a parody of serious opera. The plot is carried along by attractive, light-hearted music that alternates with spoken dialogue.

A new form, the musical, emerged in the United States. It is based on jazz and popular music styles, and generally focuses on heroes from the working class or other social strata.

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