What Is an Opera Buffa?

Niki Foster

An opera buffa, also called comic opera or light opera, is an opera that is light or amusing in theme, typically with a happy ending. It is distinguished from opera seria, or opera of a serious nature. An example of opera buffa is La Nozze di Figaro, or the Marriage of Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Some of the foremost composers in its early years were Baldassare Galuppi, Nicola Logroscino, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, and Alessandro Scarlatti, all based in Naples or Venice.

Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" is a famous opera buffa.
Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" is a famous opera buffa.

The term opera buffa arose in Italy in the 18th century, though comic operas had been in existence for about a hundred years prior. Though there are comic operas in many traditions, including the French opera comique and the German singspiel, the term usually refers only to Italian comic opera of the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the differences between Italian comic opera and its counterparts in other traditions is that the Italian variety does not include any spoken parts, but only recitativo secco, a type of singing using the rhythms of natural speech and accompanied by minimal instrumentation.

Some 20th century operas are characterized by their composers as belonging to the opera buffa tradition.
Some 20th century operas are characterized by their composers as belonging to the opera buffa tradition.

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Before opera buffa emerged as a genre in its own right in the 18th century, many opera seria productions included scenes of comic relief, often involving servants. These developed into intermezzi, one-act comic operas performed between the acts of an opera seria. Intermezzi were often farcical in nature, and included the stock characters of the commedia del'arte.

Though short, intermezzi were often substantial works, and some became more popular than the operas themselves. This popularity led to the development of the comic opera as its own genre. By the 1730s, Italian comic opera had spread from its origin in Naples to France and beyond, via Rome and Northern Italy.

When Italian comic opera developed into a separate genre, performances were typically two acts long, as opposed to the three acts of an opera seria. While opera seria often deals with literary or mythological subjects set in an historic era, comic opera typically features a contemporary setting and vernacular language, occasionally even employing dialects or foreign accents. It was intended to appeal more to the common man, while opera seria was considered entertainment for nobles and royalty. The main roles in many opera seria pieces were written for castrati, or male sopranos, while opera buffa used lower male voices, culminating in the very low basso buffo. Italian comic opera declined in the late 19th century, though some 20th century operas are characterized as opera buffa by their composers.

Opera buffa songs are generally light and feature happy endings.
Opera buffa songs are generally light and feature happy endings.

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Discussion Comments

anon174004

this is great. it really helped me with my assignment for music.

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