Inevitably a short history of opera is going to leave a lot out. It’s an art form that has existed for over 400 years and taken on many shapes and forms in a great many different cultures and nations. You will however, frequently hear almost every Western opera categorised to a few periods which are definitely a good place to start.
Below, you'll find the core info on the periods with some key operas put in their chronological place. We hope to expand this section enormously, exploring opera's development across Europe and the world, and we've started on that mission with a more expansive history of opera in English.
The first musical theatre work that we might define as an opera today was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, composed in the late 1590s. Unfortunately little of Peri’s score survives so Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607 takes the crown as the earliest work that you are able to hear. Both these composers were working in Italy, and it was Italian opera that would dominate what is now known as the Baroque period spanning from around 1600 to the 1740s. This form of opera came to the fore in wealthy courts across Europe, royalty frequently patrons of composers, but it rapidly became an art form that appealed to all classes, George Friedrich Handel’s work, for example, wildly popular in England.
Some of the major opera composers of this period were Antonio Vivaldi, Handel and Jean-Baptiste Lully. For much of the 20th Century, Baroque works were seldom performed but there has been something of a popularity boom over the last few decades. The H.I.P (Historically Informed Performance) movement pushing many of these works back into the repertory. Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas are two of the most commonly heard works today.
In the mid 1700s Willibald Christoph Gluck took opera in new directions, expanding the structure, harmony and narratives away from the highly formalised forms that had dominated the previous 150 years. He made the orchestra more integral by developing “recitativo accompagnato”, recitative supported by full orchestra rather than just continuo. Opera became steadily more international and varied in style, Italian opera seria mixing with French opera comique and German singspiel amongst many other operatic genres.
Some of the major opera composers were Gluck, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Neither Gluck nor Haydn are all that frequently heard on modern stages but Mozart has an enormous number of works in the standard repertory, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and Cosi Fan Tutte three of many.