A Short History | High Romantic | Opera

In 1891, when the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) wrote his famous words ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life’, he had somehow managed to overlook the artistic realities of the late nineteenth century. By that time, after some 50 years of the High Romantic era, music and opera had brought real life on stage and had presented it in the raw, with all its disappointments, tragedies, insecurities, injustice and grief.

In a foretaste of the Italian verismo, or ‘reality’ opera, that crystallized after 1880, opera audiences were confronted with uncomfortable truths as they affected characters not unlike themselves. There were the agonies of jealousy endured by Verdi’s Otello or by Canio, the betrayed husband, in Pagliacci (‘Clowns’, 1892) by Leoncavallo. Verdi’s Rigoletto struggled to preserve his daughter from would-be rapists, the consumptive Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata (‘The Fallen Woman’, 1853) was doomed to early death from a then-incurable disease. In Carmen by Georges Bizet, the soldier, Don José, was ruined by a fascinating but promiscuous gypsy.

In real life, these situations were nothing new. They and many others like them had been there for the suffering for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. What was new was a fundamental change of emphasis that was set in train by the French Revolution of 1789 and reverberated through the nineteenth century. The focus of attention shifted to ordinary people of no particular eminence or achievement, wealth or favoured status. Previously, their concerns had been subsumed in the priorities of their privileged rulers. Now, they had been brought to the fore by unprecedented events and, through those events, had recast the action on the opera stage.

Key Events

1846 Irish potato famine
1848 Uprisings throughout Europe; abdication of Ferdinand I of Austria and succession of Franz Joseph; abdication of Louis Philippe in France and French Republic proclaimed with Louis-Napoleon as president
1861 Friedrich Wilhelm I becomes Prussian Kaiser
1862 Bismarck made prime minister of Prussia
1865 American Civil War ends with the surrender of the Confederate Army
1868 The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is founded in Britain
1869 Tolstoy finishes War and Peace
1871 France loses the Franco–Prussian War; riots and commune follow in Paris
1874 First Impressionist exhibition is held in Paris, including Monet’s Impression: Sunrise
1876 The Bayreuth Festspielhaus opens with the first performance of Wagner’s Ring
1881 Tsar Alexander II is assassinated; Dostoyevsky completes The Brothers Karamazov
1886 German philosopher Karl Marx finishes Das Kapital
1887 First performance of Verdi’s Otello

Introduction | High Romantic | Opera
Styles & Forms | High Romantic | Opera
Houses & Companies | King Ludwig & the Festspielhaus | High Romantic | Opera
Techniques | Realism, Naturalisme & Verismo | High Romantic | Opera
Techniques | Verismo | Turn of the Century | Opera


An extensive music information resource, bringing together the talents and expertise of a wide range of editors and musicologists, including Stanley Sadie, Charles Wilson, Paul Du Noyer, Tony Byworth, Bob Allen, Howard Mandel, Cliff Douse, William Schafer, John Wilson...


Classical, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country and more. Flame Tree has been making encyclopaedias and guides about music for over 20 years. Now Flame Tree Pro brings together a huge canon of carefully curated information on genres, styles, artists and instruments. It's a perfect tool for study, and entertaining too, a great companion to our music books.

Rock, A Life Story

Rock, A Life Story

The ultimate story of a life of rock music, from the 1950s to the present day.

David Bowie

David Bowie

Fantastic new, unofficial biography covers his life, music, art and movies, with a sweep of incredible photographs.