A Short History | Roots of Opera

Opera, with its unique blend of poetry, drama and music, has come a long way from its humble beginnings in ancient Greek theatre. The grandiose, all-encompassing music dramas of Verdi and Wagner may seem a world away from the era of Aristotle and Plato, but this noble civilization, which held music and theatre in high regard as both art forms and means of entertainment, was to play a crucial role in the development of opera.

Sadly, no music from ancient Greece survives today, but we can gain a fairly accurate picture by piecing together information from contemporary writings, surviving plays and depictions on pottery and other artefacts. The great dramas and tragedies of the period were punctuated by musical and lyrical interludes, and it was here that the concept began to emerge of using music and song to convey narratives and reflect characters’ emotions.

In the strictly religious Europe of the Middle Ages, the use of music in drama was mainly restricted to sacred settings. This took one of two forms: the liturgical drama, performed in Latin as part of a church service, or the mystery play, aimed at the general public but retaining a basis in Biblical stories. Meanwhile, in Japan, the Nō theatre combined structured drama with music and song, in performances reminiscent of those of ancient Greece.

However, it was in the Renaissance period that the direct influence of ancient Greek theatre began to take hold. The humanist movement, which flourished in fifteenth-century Florence, revered above all else the works of the classical civilizations. Architects and artists such as Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446 and Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475–1564) took as their inspiration the buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, and so it followed that musicians and composers were similarly inspired.

The intermedi of Renaissance Florence took place between the acts of plays and involved music, singing and elaborate costumes and sets. These became a popular form of court entertainment for the powerful de’ Medici family, and were a precursor to the grandeur of Baroque opera productions. Composers such as Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), Giulio Caccini (c. 1545–1618) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) used Greek and Roman mythology as a basis for their musical dramas, and it was from these early works such as Orfeo that opera as we know it began to emerge.

Styles & Forms | Music in Classical Antiquity | Roots of Opera
Styles & Forms | Music in Medieval Drama | Roots of Opera
Styles & Forms | Music in the Renaissance | Roots of Opera
Performance | Japanese Nō Theatre | Roots of Opera
Performance | The Florentine Intermedi of 1589 | Roots of Opera


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