Opera Origins

Opera’s Origins

A short history of the art form

In the simplest terms, opera is a story told with music.  Narrowly defined, it is a drama in which actors and actresses sing, but its growth and development include many sub-genres that use spoken dialogue as well.  Different centuries and countries created variations such as opera seria, opera buffa, opera comique, operetta, madrigals, masques, pastorals and commedia dell’arte plays. 

Opera, an Italian word meaning ‘work,’ is often considered the most complex of all art forms, combining both creative and performance arts, literature and theatrical elements of sets, costumes, lighting, make-up and spectacle.  Its roots in music drama go back to prehistoric times, to rituals, religious chants and incantations as a form of worship.  In the early 10th century, medieval churches with largely illiterate congregations performed liturgical plays to convey religious beliefs. These plays used music, costumes, action and scenery – all elements of opera. 

Opera, as we know it today began more than 400 years ago in Florence, Italy. The Camerata, a group of writer, scholars, composers and poets, believed that their new works should reflect ancient Greek drama and incorporate music into the drama.  Claudio Monteverdi, a member of the Camerata, made music an equal partner and put it in the center of his drama/opera, L’Orfeo – first performed in 1607.

-- Abby Gibson, Glimmerglass Guild Education Committee Chair