An Introduction To Opera

introduction to operaAn Introduction To Opera

Opera was developed in Western Europe in the late 16th century. A combination of mixing music and drama.

The Baroque period developed in the last decades of the 16th century. It is distinguished, above all, by the development of what has become known as dramatic monody. Here a simple form of melody closely follows the rhythms and intonations of speech, accompanied by simple if occasionally startling chords. The new technique of composition made opera possible. Plays with songs and dances were one thing, but works providing a dramatic combination of words and music throughout were something different.

There were three principal elements from the ancient world that influenced the development of opera: Greek and Roman tragedy, ancient rhetoric, and the work of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Interest in classical Greek tragedy brought with it the understanding that music and dance had been essential elements of performance. With the ancient music now lost, a new music was created. At the same time the rules and conventions of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric came to be reflected in drama. The new art of opera could also seek theoretical support from the works of Plato and Aristotle.

From Plato came the idea that certain kinds of music were rightly associated with certain states of mind or soul. In the philosophical dialogue The Republic Plato’s hero Socrates suggests that some kinds of music should be banned, because of the effect they have on character. Others are to be encouraged as fostering bravery or prudence. This was at the basis of what became the Doctrine of the Affections, the association of certain pieces of music with certain states of mind, so that a sad song, for example, might both express the feeling of the singer and arouse a similar feeling in those who heard it. From Aristotle came the now fundamental connection of music with poetry and rhetoric, together with the suggested moral purpose of drama. Through the proper exercise of the emotions of pity and fear, exercised on suitable subjects, an audience would undergo a moral cleansing, a catharsis. Opera, then, had a moral purpose. It was soon, of course, to have a political one.

From the very beginning, opera brought together all the arts. It involved painting, poetry, drama, dance and music, making it the most complex of art forms. It was, as Samuel Johnson later pointed out, exotic and irrational, and, as many have found, remarkably expensive. It remained, nevertheless, of continuing social and political importance.

Opera development around Europe and beyond


Early Opera

There was always argument about who composed the first opera. Some of his contemporaries regarded the Roman composer Cavalieri’s La rappresentatione di anima e di corpo (The Representation of Soul and Body), from 1600, as the first true example. Written for the Oratorian movement of St Philip Neri, and with a dramatic content recalling that of medieval morality plays, combining drama with the new music, the work had some claim to priority. Allegorical figures dispute in a work that seeks to show the superiority of the spiritual. The composer himself claimed to have been the first to unite music and drama in this way, although rivals claimed to have done the same things some years before.

While Cavalieri’s work entertained and edified the entire College of Cardinals in Rome, other early operas were designed as court entertainments of a more secular kind. Such works were staged, notably, for the Medici rulers in Florence and, most memorably of all, at Mantua. It was there that Monteverdi had his Orfeo staged in 1607, followed the next year by Arianna, now lost. The subject of Orfeo (Orpheus) had already been treated in Florence by the composers Peri and by Caccini. The story had an obvious relevance. The legendary musician Orpheus, grieving at the loss of his beloved Eurydice, attempts to save her from the Underworld by the power of his music and is almost successful, thwarted only at the last minute by his own doubts. Orpheus not only demonstrates the importance of music. He is also represented as a shepherd among shepherds, making it possible for the poet and composer to draw on an existing literary and musical tradition. Pastoral poems and romances were set in a conventional Arcadia, where the only troubles that arose came from the thwarted love of amorous shepherds, whose heartache often proved fatal. The Italian madrigal, the part-songs of the 16th century, often set pastoral verses, drawing on another tradition of the ancient world. Here the life of the shepherd was idealised in an urban or court view of the country, a convention that could present the ageing Queen Elizabeth of England as Oriana, Queen of the Shepherds, shortly before her death.

Opera as court entertainment continued, often under enlightened patronage. It was in Venice, in 1637, that the first public opera house was opened. Venice was a commercial republic, ruled by an oligarchy, but without a royal court. The commercial aspect of opera could here be exploited, so that by the end of the century there were seven Venetian opera houses, dominated, after the death of Monteverdi in 1643, by the composer Cavalli, followed by Legrenzi. Venetian opera, not uninfluenced at first by the opera of Rome, spread throughout Italy and to other parts of Europe. As a more popular form than early courtly opera, it offered a mixture of the serious and the comic. Monteverdi’s Orfeo had no comic relief, but his two later surviving operas, written for Venice in the early 1640s, include elements of comedy. They also followed a convention now established, that of the happy ending. There was still, as before, a strong element of spectacle, with elaborate stage machinery that allowed transformation scenes and grandiose effects, with a complementary extravagance of costume and decor. Leading composers of the later years of the 17th century and early years of the 18th also include Alessandro Scarlatti in Naples and Rome, father of the keyboard composer Domenico Scarlatti.

Early opera had involved madrigals, dramatic monody and set songs, or a mixture of these. As the 17th century went on, there developed a gradual distinction between recitative and aria. The first of these, lightly accompanied often simply by chords, follows the rhythm and stresses of speech without the formal structure of a melody. Recitative, in fact, is dialogue set to music. The aria is a song, often in a form that frames a middle section in identical outer sections, the second of which might be ornamented by the singer. While the plot may be carried forward by the recitative, the aria tends to embody one state of mind. Both had an important part to play in what followed, although audiences tended to pay more attention to arias and much less to recitative, which seemed tedious.

Opera Seria

The later years of the 17th century brought the beginnings of operatic reform. This came about partly as a result of French criticism that opera libretti were not based on the Aristotelian principles that dominated French classical tragedy, according to which the ‘dramatic unities’ of time, place and plot were to be observed. These demanded a closer connection between time in the drama and time on stage, some limit on the changes of place possible, since in Greek tragedy no change of scene was allowed, and a final unity of plot, without primitive diversion into unconnected sub-plots. Under the leadership of the librettist Apostolo Zeno in Venice, the art was purged of its comic elements. The new form, later known as opera seria, followed clear principles of classical propriety and led to a certain stylisation. There were clear categories of major and minor roles, usually for six or seven solo singers, and of the number and type of arias to be allocated to each. Subjects tended now to be historical rather than mythological. Opera seria held a central position in repertoire for three-quarters of the 18th century. It brought the rise to prominence of the castrato, now cast in the principal male roles, and allowed a similar importance and scale of fees to the prima donna, the first lady. Each would expect a similar number of arias of varied mood, sad, angry, brave or meditative, irrespective of the demands of the plot, while the secondary singers would have their own demands to make.

After Zeno the principal librettist was Metastasio, regarded as the most outstanding dramatist and poet of his time. The new libretti, the operatic texts, were set again and again by major composers of the day, including Vivaldi. The music, in fact, became relatively expendable. It was often a case of first the words, then the music. In England Handel had opera seria libretti adapted for the varied requirements of London audiences. He was followed in London, later in the century, by another German composer, Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of old Johann Sebastian, but the art remained essentially an Italian one.

Opera Buffa

In the 18th century there was a parallel development of what was later known as opera buffa (comic opera). This had its roots in the ancient Roman comedy of Plautus and Terence and this in turn had been derived from ancient Greek New Comedy. Features of these were stock characters, comic and cunning servants, angry and parsimonious fathers, passionate lovers, amorous daughters and bragging soldiers. With them came a preoccupation with what was recognisable as ordinary life, however simplified. Another source of Italian comedy was found in the associated improvised theatre of the commedia dell’arte, with its similar array of stock characters. Opera buffa corresponded to contemporary spoken drama and opera texts owed a great deal to the work of the playwright Goldoni. Oddly enough, the earlier historical process was now reversed. In the 17th century tragedy had acquired comic elements. Now serious characters began to find a place in comic opera, which became less comic and more realistic. These more dramatically credible plots found a place in Italian operas such as those written in Vienna by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and their contemporaries.

Reform Opera

Serious Italian opera, again at first in Vienna, underwent a marked reform with the work of Gluck and the librettist Calzabigi. Between them they succeeded, largely under French influence, in introducing simplifications. The formal requirements of the old opera seria were reduced, allowing a greater degree of realism. Gluck, in fact, claimed that he made music the servant of poetry, never introducing novelties or distractions from the dramatic situation. He explained his principles clearly in his introduction to the opera Alceste, published in 1768. These had already been put into practice in 1762 with his version of the story of Orpheus, Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice).

From Rossini to Verdi

The 19th century in Italy brought some of the best-known operas of all. These are found first of all in Rossini, a master of comedy, as in Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), in which the barber Figaro abets his master Count Almaviva in his wooing of Rosina and the gulling of her guardian, old Doctor Bartolo. Rossini also tackled more serious subjects, as in his heroic melodrama Tancredi, with its ingredients of love, jealousy, misunderstanding and final resolution either, as in the first version, in a conventional happy ending, or, as in the revised version, in the hero’s death. Tancredi provides a demanding title role characteristic of the so-called bel canto style that Rossini so much admired. This involved a fine voice and the flexibility and evenness of tone to cope with elaborately florid vocal writing.

In Italian opera Rossini was followed by Bellini and Donizetti. The former had a mastery of extended lyrical melodies, shown in the intense romanticism of operas like Norma, with its story of love and heroic self-sacrifice by the Druid priestess of the title. Donizetti showed an equally marked dramatic sense, exemplified in Lucia di Lammermoor (Lucy of Lammermoor), based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott and including what became a popular operatic element, a mad scene for the heroine. His sense of comedy is evident in L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), with its quack doctor and forlorn lover, and in Don Pasquale, the fooling of the elderly bachelor of the title by a pair of young lovers, anxious to be united. Stock characters of Italian comedy occur in both.

The 1840s brought to prominence one of the greatest of all operatic composers. Verdi held a leading position in Italian opera for some half a century and continues to dominate operatic repertoire. From Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) in 1842 to Falstaff in 1893 he served, as he claimed, in the galley, to produce masterpiece after masterpiece. In these he created a very personal amalgamation of current trends of increased dramatic power and cogency, influenced at times by France and at times by Germany, but always essentially Italian in his own idiom. His career coincided with the rise of Italian nationalism and often his operas suggested a contemporary relevance. This is found, for example, in the chorus of Hebrew slaves in Nabucco and in the chorus of the oppressed people of Scotland in his Shakespearian Macbeth. It was Shakespeare, whose work had a new appeal in a period of relative freedom from earlier classical convention, who inspired Verdi’s last two operas, the tragedy Otello and the fine comedy of Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Verismo and Puccini

The later years of the century brought verismo (realism), a reflection of current literary trends, in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), a down-to-earth story of love and jealousy in a village, peasant setting, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Actors). This last brought to the opera a police-court murder case, in which a jealous actor had killed his faithless wife on the stage. Pagliacci provides a famous example of the dramatic treatment of drama itself, a contrast between the actor himself and the part he is forced to play.

Realism of this kind had its effect on Puccini, whose operas form a major part of modern repertoire, from Manon Lescaut and Tosca to Turandot. While he might seek the exotic in the Japanese setting of Madama Butterfly or the China of Turandot, in

Tosca, in spite of its historical setting, he presented a story of political intrigue, murder and deception of contemporary relevance. Like Verdi, Puccini too was able to provide a successful synthesis of current musical and dramatic trends.

20th Century and Beyond

Opera has, of course, continued in Italy, both in its more traditional form and in modern experiment. The story has not ended. The later 20th century and the new millennium offer obvious difficulties of succinct summary, with the general musical eclecticism that has characterised music and the other arts.


France has had its own dramatic and operatic tradition. While Italian opera has had some influence, affected itself by its contact with the principles of French classical drama, French opera has remained true to its own cultural and linguistic traditions.

Comédie-ballet and Tragédie lyrique

Paradoxically French opera owes its origin to a composer of Italian origin. Jean-Baptiste Lully was brought to France as a boy and as time went on established himself in a leading position in the musical life of his adopted country. In collaboration with Molière he contributed to the art of the comédie-ballet and with the poet Quinault he created the French five-act tragédie lyrique, itself indebted both to earlier French forms of ballet and drama and to Italy. Lully came to hold a dominant position, with a royal monopoly that gave him control over music in the theatre. While it is now usual to perform Molière’s comedies without their music or their ballet, the plays were originally conceived with a closely related element of dance and music. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, for example, which has had other more recent musical offshoots, finds a natural place for music as Monsieur Jourdain, the nouveau riche of the title, tries to acquire the arts of a gentleman. In addition to the comic musical episodes of his singing lesson and the scene in which he is supposedly ennobled by a Turkish Mufti, there is a final comic ballet for a mixture of French, Spanish, Italian and other dancers and singers. The form was stifled when Lully claimed ownership not only of the music but of the texts and succeeded in exercising intolerable control over Molière’s collaboration with another composer.

The tragédie lyrique created by Lully and the poet Quinault was not necessarily tragic but it was, at least, serious in its treatment of subjects usually drawn from mythology. The tradition was continued by composers such as Campra and Charpentier and resumed with signal success by Rameau from the 1730s onwards. These operas, however, have never found a place in international repertoire. They belonged essentially to the French court of the ancien régime and often had political relevance in prologues that praised the King and plots that reflected recent royal successes.

Opéra Comique

As in Italy, comic opera itself developed from more popular sources in the 18th century, notably from the Paris Fair Theatres, the Foires. Here existing tunes were often used for new words, as they were to be in The Beggar’s Opera in England. Travelling companies of players and the actors of the Italian theatre played an important part in the development of a form that mixed speech and music and closely involved a popular audience. As the century went on, what had often been a coarse form of entertainment developed into something much more acceptable to the educated. Writers like Favart and the social philosopher Rousseau turned to simple country life for their plots, although the picture they offer is highly idealised.

The 1750s brought the famous quarrel between those who favoured the Italian opera and those who held to older French traditions. This revived a deep-seated opposition between the French and the Italian that had occurred 100 years before, when the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin was blamed by politicians for the high cost of Italian opera that he had had staged in Paris and was forced into exile. Now, in 1752, an Italian company presented a series of Italian shorter, lighter-hearted intermezzos in Paris with reasonable success. The literary war that arose, known as the Querelle des Bouffons, was initiated by the German diplomat and critic, Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, at one time a friend of the Mozarts. He had harsh comments to make on French opera and was later joined in his strictures by Rousseau. Their attacks led to a series of pamphlets, espousing one side or the other. While the Italian troupe engaged at the Opéra duly left Paris in 1754, Italian influence remained, to lead to a new form of French comic opera of greater musical and dramatic interest.

Reform and Revolution

In the 1770s Gluck’s reformed opera was introduced to Paris, treating very differently the kind of subjects that had been the substance of the tragédie lyrique. French versions of his earlier Italian operas, already staged in Vienna, were now mounted in Paris. Gluck was able, in fact, to show a new compromise. The subjects of his operas might be drawn from classical mythology and legend, like the subjects chosen by Lully, but these were treated in a modern way. The operas were less stylised and very much more dramatic in their effect. At the same time the form of so-called opéra comique could also turn its attention to more serious subjects, as comic opera had in Italy, catering largely for a new middle-class audience. The period before the Revolution also brought the building of provincial opera houses, where such works would provide the general repertoire.

The Revolution brought obvious changes. French serious opera, in the form of the tragédie lyrique, was essentially associated with the monarchy, and had, in any case, been affected by the Paris operas of Gluck, with their new element of dramatic realism. The 1790s, however, demanded work of revolutionary relevance. This trend lasted only a short time. The new century brought a reorganisation of opera throughout the country under Napoleon, who instituted reforms in the opera in Paris itself, exercising a limiting control over all theatres. Under the restored Bourbon monarchy opera flourished. The period saw the success in Paris of Rossini and his operas written for the French stage. At the same time there was a continuation of the opéra comique by composers like Auber, Halévy, Berlioz and Bizet. Subjects varied from the light-hearted to the tragically serious, with productions at the Opéra-Comique, the company established in 1714, distinguished from those at the Opéra, the leading official company, by their less formal requirements. French opéra comique, in the 19th century at least, does not have to be comic; the descriptive term indicates a much wider category of work.

Grand Opéra

From the later 1820s Paris saw the creation of operas of greater pretensions in the grand opéra staged by the Opéra itself. These operas, which reach a height of grandeur and spectacle in the work of Meyerbeer, were held in the highest esteem. The first grand opéra, in 1828, was Auber’s La Muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici), followed in 1829 by Rossini’s last opera Guillaume Tell (William Tell). From Meyerbeer came Le Prophète (The Prophet), Les Huguenots (The Huguenots) and L’Africaine (The African Maid). These involved elaborate and complex spectacle. The scenery offered a degree of realism and often of grandeur. Crowd scenes allowed the chorus to act, rather than stand in formal poses, while music added to general effect. Examples of grand opéra retain in themselves their own place in operatic history but also deserve attention for the effect they had on other opera on a similarly grand and spectacular scale, works by Verdi and by Wagner. Socially the Opéra was important. Its magnificence reflected the growing wealth and prosperity of the country and of its upper classes.

The Opéra-Comique

French opera continued in the 19th century with the official company known as the Opéra-Comique, itself derived from the tradition of the same name and allowing more freedom in choice of subject and treatment. The company had been established early in the preceding century, derived from the performances of the Paris Fairs. It had amalgamated with the Paris Italian Theatre and then with other establishments offering similar repertoire. In particular, the Opéra-Comique, in the various theatres in which it performed, allowed some spoken dialogue. Outstanding examples of works staged by the Opéra-Comique include Gounod’s Faust and Bizet’s Carmen. Neither of these, of course, is a comedy. In Gounod’s opera Faust sells his soul to the Devil, a bargain from which he is finally rescued by the intervention of the spirit of the girl he has seduced. Carmen is a story of low life in Spain, a tale of criminals, jealousy and murder that has much in common with Italian verismo. The tradition continued with some of the operas of Massenet, a composer of importance in the last part of the 19th century. His Manon, in which the heroine is convicted of immorality and transported, to die in the American desert, was staged by the Opéra-Comique, as was his treatment of the story of Cinderella, Cendrillon.

Opéra Bouffe

It would be impossible to leave Paris without mention, at least, of the genre of French opéra bouffe in the second half of the 19th century. This owes its name to Jacques Offenbach and is very much lighter in style than the comedies of opéra comique, which, by comparison, grew in seriousness of purpose. Best known of Offenbach’s works in this form is Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). This mocks the serious legend tackled earlier by Monteverdi and by Gluck, among many others. Now Orpheus is glad to be rid of Eurydice, while she is quite happy to enjoy herself in the Underworld, where the Blessed Spirits have greeted her with a spirited can-can. Opéra bouffe is light-hearted operetta, designed to satirise and to entertain. As such it seems typical of the French Second Empire, the period of Napoleon III, brought to a disastrous end in the defeat at Sedan in 1870.

20th Century and Beyond

The new century brought various changes. The traditional form of opéra comique had come to involve itself in more serious subjects, and composers understandably preferred other descriptive titles for works that lacked any trace of comedy. The early years brought Debussy’s remarkable Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, set in an impressionistic pre-Raphaelite world. Other French operas reflected the interests and trends of the day. Ravel collaborated, after the First World War, with the writer Colette in his delightful L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells), in which a naughty child is tormented by his victims. Darius Milhaud collaborated with Paul Claudel in Christophe Colomb (Christopher Columbus) and Francis Poulenc with the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire in Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias). Later in life he was to tackle the weightier subject of religious martyrdom in Dialogues des Carmélites (Carmelite Dialogues), while Olivier Messiaen turned to the life of St Francis for a subject.


The many courts of Germany and of the Habsburg Empire and its capital Vienna were open to influence from both Italy and France. It was, indeed, one of the achievements of great German composers of the late Baroque period to bring about their own synthesis of Italian, French and German. This is heard in one form in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and in another in the music of Handel. While Hamburg, even in Handel’s brief time there, found a place for German-language opera, it was, in general, Italian opera that predominated. In Vienna the Emperor Joseph II attempted, principally in the 1780s, to establish a German opera, the National-Singspiel. It was to this that Mozart contributed his successful Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), but the Emperor’s early attempts were unsuccessful.


The traditional German Singspiel had had a longer history, parallel to the popular comedy of Italy and France. As in those countries, the division between the purely popular and the more formal and literary comedy diminished. This led to a form of German-language comic opera, with some spoken dialogue, on a variety of subjects. In some, like Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), elements of earlier popular comedy continue. The comic bird-catcher Papageno is one of a long line of such characters, an ordinary man set in the most extraordinary surroundings. Comedy lies, as always, in the inappropriate situation and the down-to-earth reaction to it.

Singspiel continued also in a serious vein, reflecting the parallel developments in Italy and France, as well as in German theatre, with its middle-class drama, if one may so translate the word bürgerlich (bourgeois), without giving it a pejorative meaning. Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, first staged in Vienna in 1805, deals in generally serious terms with a loyal wife’s attempt to rescue her imprisoned husband. Carl Maria von Weber’s work Der Freischütz (The Marksman), still a Singspiel in its language and elements of spoken dialogue, includes all the elements of German romanticism and leads the way forward to full-blown German Romantic opera.

German Romantic Opera

Vienna brought together Italian opera and German Singspiel. Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi had brought about a reform, influenced, in some respects, by French theatre and in some works by the opéra comique. Here, as in the major cities in Germany, two forms of opera co-existed, the Italian and the German. The 19th century, however, with all its political and cultural changes, gave a new impetus to German opera, not only to Beethoven and to Weber, but to composers like Marschner, Spohr and Lortzing.

Richard Wagner

Towering over his contemporaries in ambition and achievement, Richard Wagner introduced, from the 1840s onwards, new musical and dramatic conceptions of the art of opera or music drama. At first he added to the existing Romantic tradition in Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. The first of these tells of the ghostly Dutch sea-captain, fated to sail with his phantom crew until redeemed by a woman’s disinterested love. Tannhäuser turns to the medieval poet of that name and his temptation by the worldly pleasures offered by the Mount of Venus, while Lohengrin offers a story derived from the legends of the Knights of the Grail. It was, however, with his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), ParsifalTristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) that he created a new and comprehensive art form. While the last of these praises true German art in a plot based on the activities of the Mastersingers of the 16th century, The Ring is a massive conception dealing with the superhuman. The four works, to be performed on successive nights in the theatre Wagner built in Bayreuth, are closely interwoven, related by recurrent themes and fragments of themes associated with ideas and characters in the drama. The plot of this massive operatic cycle is derived from Teutonic legend, stories of the old gods and the final destruction of their Valhalla.


Operetta seems typical of Vienna in the later 19th century, exemplified by the music of Johann Strauss, in works such as Die Fledermaus (The Bat), with its light-hearted intrigue and attempted marital deception. The tradition of operetta found other champions in composers like Franz von Suppé, and then, leading into the new century, in Franz Lehár and his contemporaries, with parallel success in Berlin. By the 1920s, however, the formula had worn thin, gradually to be replaced by musical comedy.

After Wagner

While Wagner may overshadow his immediate successors, his influence was enormous, reflected in the operas of Humperdinck and even, however reluctantly, of his pupil, Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner. Humperdinck’s operas continue to explore a German world, but rather one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy-tales than of gods and heroes. In 1893 Humperdinck won his first success with his opera Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel), following this with other fairy-tale operas. Siegfried Wagner turns to weightier German legends in a series of operas that are only now finding an audience.

Richard Strauss

The true successor of Wagner is Richard Strauss, particularly in the remarkable series of operas in which he collaborated with the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after the earlier success of Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s play of that name. Wilde’s work had been banned in England, and Salome as an opera suggested new realms of sensuality to be explored, both dramatically and musically. Elektra in 1909 was followed by the moving nostalgia of Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), a work of comedy and poignancy, an autumnal reflection of a mood of the time, set in the age of Mozart. Strauss continued after Hofmannsthal’s death in collaboration with Stefan Zweig and others. His last opera, Capriccio, was first staged in Munich in 1942. His debt to Wagner may be seen as musical rather than dramatic, reflected in orchestration and harmony.

The Weimar Republic and National Socialism

The intervention of National Socialism had, in opera as elsewhere, an immensely damaging effect on the general creativity of German opera. The 1920s had brought a period of experiment, often outrageous enough in its defiance of tradition. Composers like Franz Schreker had explored the exotic world opened by Strauss’s Salome. He was dismissed from his position in Berlin and died in 1934. Other younger composers like Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Weill, Goldschmidt and Hindemith were driven into exile and often, therefore, into other forms of musical activity. America, where some took refuge, lacked the traditions of the German opera house. Kurt Weill, who had collaborated with Bertolt Brecht in Berlin in Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), a modernised and political version of The Beggar’s Opera, turned to the American musical. Schoenberg left his great opera Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron) unfinished. Zemlinsky did the same, never completing his last opera. Goldschmidt in England found almost as little opportunity as Hindemith in America, both having suffered from official censorship before their forced or chosen emigration. Schoenberg’s pupil Berg, however, had added his own very distinctive contribution to German opera in Wozzeck, a study of madness and murder. At the time of his death in Vienna in 1935 he left his second opera, Lulu, unfinished.

Contemporary German Opera

Germany and Austria continue to offer a fertile ground for new opera. This is encouraged by the existence of a large number of efficient provincial opera houses and a measure of enlightened public support. There have been notable new operas from composers such as Hans Werner Henze and remarkable experiment from Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others, expanding the possibilities of music theatre.


England, like other European countries apart from Germany, France and Italy, lacked an established national tradition of opera until the 20th century. Henry Purcell, in the later 17th century, wrote a wealth of incidental music and contributed to a genre that recent scholars have called semi-opera, an amalgamation of spoken drama and a strong and often supernatural musical element. It was Italian opera, however, that entertained the fashionable world in the 18th century, in spite of the damaging effect of the anti-opera of John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera. This last began a new form, the English ballad opera, with its use of popular melodies. The musical borrowings, at least, must recall the practice of the Paris Fair Theatres.

19th Century

While there were English, Scottish and Irish composers of opera, there is relatively little trace of their work in continuing repertoire. Two Irish composers, however, Balfe and Wallace, are remembered, respectively, for The Bohemian Girl and Maritana, staged in London in the 1840s. Another composer of paternal Irish origin, Arthur Sullivan, survives triumphantly in his operettas, collaborations with W.S. Gilbert.

National Opera

The 20th century brought an element of national opera through Vaughan Williams, Holst and others. Their work in this form was largely for local audiences. A more markedly international school of English opera started with Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in 1945. The subject was local but its implications, as a study of an outsider in a closed community, were much wider. This was followed by a remarkable series of works, chamber operas and operas for the larger stage, culminating in Death in Venice, based on the novella by Thomas Mann.


In those parts of the Habsburg Empire that were later subsumed for much of the 20th century in Czechoslovakia there arose, with the general nationalism of the mid-19th century, national opera. This is represented in Prague by Smetana and Dvořák. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, in its Czech village setting, is a comedy that continues in international repertoire. Dvořák’s Czech operas have travelled less satisfactorily, with language an obvious barrier. It was primarily in the second and third decades of the 20th century that the Moravian composer Janáček came to wider notice with operas that depend, in their vocal lines, on the intonations and rhythms of speech. National traditions of Czech, Slovak and Moravian opera continue.


Italian opera was brought to Russia in the 18th century and Italian composers were also involved in the setting of Russian libretti. This may be seen as part of the westernising policies of Peter the Great, much as Kemal Atatürk in Turkey in the 20th century saw the introduction of opera as a concomitant part of his programme of modernisation.

Russian Nationalism

A true Russian tradition of art music was established in the 19th century. This was started by Glinka with the supposedly historical opera A Life for the Tsar, followed by Ruslan and Lyudmila, based on Pushkin and exploring more exotic, oriental elements, as Russian composers were to continue to do. Three, at least, of the five nationalist composers who made up what became known as The Five (or The Mighty Handful) made notable contributions to Russian opera. Mussorgsky achieved this, in particular, in his historical Boris Godunov and Borodin in his exotic Prince Igor. Rimsky-Korsakov may be better known abroad for his orchestral works, but he also wrote a series of important operas, ending with the exoticism of The Golden Cockerel, which, after trouble with the censors, was only staged after his death. Tchaikovsky, not one of The Five, but thoroughly Russian in his music, is known in international repertoire for two operas based on Pushkin, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.

Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky

Russian opera continued in the 20th century, particularly in the work of Shostakovich, whose Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District won official condemnation. Its subject might have seemed quite acceptable to a Communist regime that believed in the social and political purpose of the arts. The opera is based on a story by Nikolay Leskov in which a young wife murders her father-in-law and, with the help of her lover, her husband, crimes for which she and her lover are punished. This certainly follows political teaching in showing the degeneracy of the capitalists at the heart of the drama. For Stalin, however, the score was chaos instead of music.

Prokofiev left Russia in 1917 and spent a number of years abroad, before finally returning home in 1936, in time for the official attack on Shostakovich. For Chicago he had written the opera The Love for Three Oranges, but his next opera, The Fiery Angel, was not performed until after the composer’s death in 1953. His most ambitious opera in Russia was the monumental War and Peace, based on Tolstoy. This was completed in 1948 but not staged until 1960.

Stravinsky, in exile from Russia, contributed to the genre in very Russian style in his earlier period, but his later opera The Rake’s Progress, however characteristic in musical idiom, belongs rather to English and American repertoire in subject and language. With a plot based on Hogarth’s series of engravings, the work is neoclassical in form and texture, combining the Rake’s progress to disaster with the legend of Faust.


It may seem cavalier to include the rest of the operatic world in a geographical ragbag. South America at first inherited operatic traditions from its colonial past, from Spain and Portugal. The United States also relied on European tradition but, in the 20th century in particular, went on to develop its own musical idiom. In opera this is reflected in the work of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and others. Most characteristic, although with no direct successors, is Gershwin’s black opera Porgy and Bess, while the expatriate Italian composer Menotti added his own very personal contribution in operas like The Medium and The Consul. Although many composers, forced into exile from Germany and German-dominated countries in Europe, found a place in the United States, there was little scope for opera. Some were able to work in Hollywood, while others, like Kurt Weill, made a dramatic contribution to the American musical in music that often had its basis in earlier operatic experience.

In Europe Spain and Portugal shared in the earlier developments of Italian opera and provided inspiration for other countries in choice of setting. The popular Spanish zarzuela, with its song, dance and spoken dialogue, has a long history, but flourished particularly in the second half of the 19th century. Composers who wrote operas drawing on national sources of inspiration include Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla and Roberto Gerhard.

Countries of Eastern Europe have again built on national musical and cultural traditions. In Hungary Kodály offered what has been described as a Singspiel in the very Hungarian Háry János, dealing with the comic exaggerations of a boastful old soldier. His contemporary Bartók left only one opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, a work that makes greater demands on an audience. In Poland Szymanowski made his own distinctive contribution to operatic repertoire with King Roger, a medieval drama based on the Bacchae of Euripides, echoing the conflict that the philosopher Nietzsche had seen again between Apollo and Dionysus, the serenely rational and the passionately irrational. While the talents of these composers may not have been primarily operatic, all three contributed to the genre in characteristic ways.


The three great streams that have come together in European opera have flowed from Italy, in the first place, then from France and from Germany. The same might be said of the great body of Western art music. It was that mixture of Italian melody, French dance and German intellect and technique that created Western music as it is now known and the genre of opera that came from it. To this amalgam have been added the colours and cultural flavouring provided by other countries, with the later development of their own individual operatic traditions. Opera itself is essentially a synthesis of the arts. Its music remains a synthesis of different national cultures, absorbed and then diffused once more. Since its early development it has had its enemies, cynics who can find nothing but the ridiculous in stage performances where characters, often in extreme circumstances, sing rather than speak or scream. Yet it is arguably the highest of all arts, the sum and summit of them all, the art, as an early composer remarked, of princes.

This is just a brief summary of opera tradition and is used as a guide only.  An in-depth guide about composers and their works can be found in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, the most comprehensive publication on the subject.