What is an opera?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

The broadest definition of an opera is a play in which the actors sing instead of speaking their lines. Opera was developed in late 16th century Italy from myth-based plays by Rinuccini, Peri, and Machiavelli that included songs along with spoken dialogue or used singing as a means to entertain the crowd between acts. Around 1600, spoken dialogue was dispensed with altogether in favor of recitatives and arias. The recitative was a brief, speech-like song that served as an introduction to the longer, melodic aria. One of the most popular examples of this form is Claudio Monteverdi’s setting of "Orfeo". Throughout the 17th century arias became elaborate and challenging showpieces that served primarily to display the singer's talent instead of helping to develop the plot. Opera spread to the rest of Europe by century’s end. While early opera consisted mainly of tragedies, the 18th century gave birth to a variety of operatic sub-genres that employed both serious and comedic elements. Two of the most popular were opera serie and opera buffa. Opera serie were based on heroic or tragic stories such as Gluck's "Alceste". Opera buffa had humorous, loose-knit plots. Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" and "Cosi Fan Tutti" are prime examples of opera buffa. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw more significant changes. Opera maintained much of the earlier elaborateness and spectacle, but it became more plot driven as evidenced by Verdi. Richard Wagner elevated the orchestra from accompanist to melodic vehicle with his "leitmotives", tunes used to announce or allude to a character or concept. However, by the 1940s composers such as Britten reacted to Wagner by introducing stories centered in the natural world that reflect the trials and tribulations of modern life. This is exemplified by Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and John Adams’ 1995 “I was ooking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky”. Today, operas of all styles remain a popular form of entertainment and are performed all over the world.

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submitted by elbartik