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The Development of Opera

The creation of opera is traced to Italy when it was used as courtlyentertainment. Initial operas comprised of mythological narratives.However, the spectacles were also performed during marriages as wellas different royal entertainments. The entertainments were a mixtureof dance, splendid processions and music mixed with technicaleffects.

Seventeenth century opera

Vocal chamber music

The development of opera music can be traced from the seventeenthcentury following the emergence of different music genres. Anillustration is chamber music, which was mainly secular. It comprisedof instrumental ensembles combined with voices. Performances tookplace in private places, giving rise to opera as a unique event.Composers devised their music for the initial strophe in an aria,which was reworked for following stanzas to emphasis the text. Thesedevelopments in secular music also influenced sacred music resultingin the application of monody as well as the concertato medium tosacred compositions, like oratorio.

Oratorio emerged in Rome during the seventeenth era. It acted as asacred dialogue that merged aspects of plot, dialogue anddeliberation though not meant for performing on stage. The phraseoratorio derives from the fact that the theatrical presentations wereperformed in an oratory, and was a form of religious opera. Importantare G. F Handel’s oratorios, which are a reflection of his prowessand an opera composer. Majority of his oratorios employ biblenarratives converted into librettors.

Luis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Lully

Further development of opera during the seventeenth century isattributed to the contributions of opera composers. Lully convertedopera to a French art under the noble patronage of Louis XIV, who wasa perfect dancer. Lully adopted French opera style in creating a neworiginal style. His operas emphasized on dance, choruses, intricatestage set ups, instrumental breaks, aspects that were merged tocreate lengthy divertissements. With the assistance of Louis XIV,Lully monopolistically created performed opera in France. One of hisfamous operas is Armide, written in 1686, which led to thepervasiveness of Lully’s technique in France.

Eighteenth century opera

As the seventeenth century came to an end, opera was properlyestablished in Italy. Nevertheless, it was going through numerousalterations that resulted in the emergence of different opera forms.These include a comic style and a serious style.

Italian comic opera and intermezzo

The first style of comic opera in the eighteenth was referred to asopera buffa. It derived from historic Roman comedy. Opera buffa wasaimed at entertaining and the narrative was in recitative. Also, theperformance included arias to depict the character’s emotions.Apart from opera buffa, another comic opera style was intermezzo.Intermezzos were short acts produced in the middle of long non-comicopera. A well known illustration of such comic opera was GiovanniBattista Pergolesi’s “La serva padrona”, which were intermezzosperformed together with his “Il prigionier superbo”. However, inthe eighteenth century, intermezzos were long and categorized asopera in its own category. It was no longer incorporated in non-comicperformances. The intermezzo comprised of more than two acts, eachcomprising of arias for every major scene and were concluded using aduet.

Opera seria

Opera seria was the serious opera style. It was a result ofenlightenment. When the enlightenment philosophers promoted theirnotions in opera, they suggested the need to reflect simplicity inopera. Hence, opera seria was meant to be straightforward, have ageneral appeal, rational and able to please audience withoutresulting in mental fatigue.1The musical presentation happened in three acts comprising ofchanging arias as well as recitatives. Occasionally was the additionof duets and different ensemble pieces. The objective of therecitatives was to advance the opera’s drama and facilitateddialogue amid actors. A famous composer of such opera was JohannAdolf Hasse, who composed “Antonio e Cleopatra” comprising ofeight arias.

The aria

Composers such as Mozart made remarkable changes to opera styles.While seventeenth century opera comprised of monody, specific songsand madrigals, the eighteenth century saw the growth indifferentiation amid aria and recitative. The aria referred to asong, which embodies a single state of mind. The development of thearia is because audiences seemed to focus more on aria thanrecitative because the later was tedious.

Nineteenth century opera

Opera progresses to be central in the musical life of Italy, Germanyand France during the nineteenth century. The century saw an increasein opera houses as opera acted as the most popular music source toaudiences of different careers and classes. Themes and settings fornineteenth century opera differed from historical stories, politicsand relationships. Librettos as well as stage effects progressed tobe important aspects in the success of opera, though the music becamethe significant aspect. There was an increase of new operas byleading composers. By 1850, there was a rise in stable repertory ofoperas. At the core of the repertory opera were Ludwig van Beethoven,Gioachino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig was a famous German opera composer. He was a transitionalopera music composer during the transitional era from classic toromantic periods. He has been regarded as great composer whodominated an era of music based on the classic traditions of Mozart.Ludwig revealed the possibility for music to be performed withoutincorporating spoken text. He focused more on emotions in hiscompositions as is evident in one of his works “Sixth Symphony”.Also, Ludwig expanded the scope of concerto, sonata, quartet as wellas symphony. In his “Ninth Symphony” he uniquely merged vocalwith instrumental music, a style that had not been previously tried.

Gioachino Rossini

Rossini was a famous opera composer of the nineteenth century. Mostassociated with the century is his final work “Guillaume Tell”.The subject of the composition was nationalism and freedom. In thecomposition, he focuses more on the music than dialogue.

Gaetano Donizetti

Donizetti was an Italian composer, whose operas were a representationof the change in opera advancement amid Rossini and Verdi. Hecomposed both serious as well as comic operas. Donizetti’s operashave a romantic influence and are remembered for his ability tocompose influential and hard to forget scenes in his music. His workscontinue to be performed to date such as the “Roberto Devereux”,which he wrote in 1837. The opera is a spectacular challenge to thecoloratura soprano apparent in opera. In other works, he managed tomerge romance, comedy as well as pathos. Donizetti played a crucialfunction in advancing Italian opera owing to the rich musicalcatalogue in his compositions.

Grand opera Berlioz

The Italian composers fostered the emergence of grand opera inParis. It was a global technique of mass operatic spectacle employinghistoric librettos. Also, the stage was filled with apparent scenery,ballets, costumes and many supernumeraries. Grand opera can becompared to a Hollywood best-seller movie. The opera employed alarger orchestra as well as significance in drama. There were manycomposers of grand opera. However, Hector Berlioz’s operas areexceptional. The compositions demonstrate orchestral intelligence,which combines opera and symphony. His works “Robert le diable”“La Dame blanche” were so unique that upon their presentationthey failed to please Parisians. As a result, he created another work“Les Troyens” that in addition to comprising of elements of grandopera borrowed from former French operas, for instance by Lully.

Richard Wagner

A different contributor of grand opera is Wagner. One of hiscompositions “The Ring” is a depiction of his deviation fromItalian kind of opera. In the composition, he depicts theself-realization of liberal humankind. The work has been categorizedas music drama signifying the fading away of opera as a form ofentertainment for the elite, instead giving rise to opera whereindividuals express their views. Wagner’s greatest accomplishmentwas the creation of music drama comprising of complex symbolism,which combines drama, music and verbal. Few opera composers aresuccessful in producing similar works to Wagner. However, hiscomposition progresses to be influential in providing progress,cohesion as well as depth to new compositions.


There have been major developments in opera. Historically opera wasa form of entertainment for nobles and elites comprising of a mixtureof dance, song and technical effects among other features. From theseventeenth to the nineteenth century, remarkable changes areapparent in the themes and performance of opera compositions.


Burkholder, Peter J., Grout, Donald J and Palisca, Calude V. AHistory of Western Music. New York: W.W. Norton and Company,2010.

1 Peter, Burkholder J., Donald, Grout J and Claude, Palisca V. A History of Western Music. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010), p. 566.

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