The linguistic origin of the name for this art form provides a good clue to its birthplace. Opera is the Italian word for "work," so it's not surprising that the first examples of operatic performance were created in Italy. Indeed, Italian is the language of choice for many of the more famous operas. The emergence of this art form stems from the entertainment of princes and boredom with traditional plays.

The Popular Intermezzi

Italy was a country consisting of dukedoms and principalities. Courtly life demanded entertainment and in the 16th century, this often took the form of a rather heavy-going Roman play. To keep guests entertained between acts, musicians, singers and dancers performed more lighthearted scenes. These "intermezzi" used colorful stage props, elaborate costumes and consisted mostly of singing and dancing. In 1502, the Duchess of Ferrara gave her seal of approval when she announced that she much preferred the intermezzi to the play. The fashion for intermezzi flourished in aristocratic Italian circles, and in 1589 an intermezzi performed at a wedding held at the great Florentine court of the Medici family is the first to have its scenes preserved in the form of etchings for further performance.


Opera gripped the Florentine nobles. The city had already contributed much to the development of visual art forms during the Renaissance and opera added to its reputation as a cultural center. In 1600, the first complete opera -- "Euridice" by Jacopo Peri -- is performed at the Pitti Palace at the royal wedding of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV of France. In 1597, Peri had produced an operatic performance of the story of Daphne and Apollo, which formed part of the carnival celebrations before Lent, but the music to this has been lost.


In 1607, one of the first great Italian opera composers, Claudio Monteverdi, staged "Orfeo" at the court of the Duke of Mantua. Like Peri, he used a story from classical Greek mythology as the basis of his work. "Orfeo" uses a "castrato" in the lead role of Orpheus. The tradition of using castrati -- male singers who were castrated before puberty to keep the voice artificially high -- lasted for two centuries. Monteverdi became Master of Music for the Venetian republic in 1612, and the emergence of opera in this city is traceable to him. Venice also opens the first ever opera house in 1637 called Teatro San Cassiano.

Beyond Italy

By 1647, four years after the performance of Monteverdi's final opera in Venice, opera made its debut at the French royal court. It was written by an Italian but it included adaptations to French preferences, such as a ballet scene. In 1674 an opera by the French composer Lully premieres at the Paris Opera and in the 1680s, opera spread to London. The 18th and 19th centuries produced the major operas that still form the programs of opera houses globally. Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, Puccini and Wagner are just some of the composers who created an operatic legacy. In the 20th century, American composers George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland have made significant contributions to modern opera.

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