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The first ever operas were written around 1600 by Baroque composers including Monteverdi and Cavalieri, and the genre quickly took off. Early operas used dramatic text and music to express their stories, which were often based on Classical Greek and Roman mythology.
In the early 1600s, intellectuals thought the music of their day was trivial, so they took their inspiration from an era when drama and academia flourished in Ancient Greece. Emotion in Greek drama was portrayed through song or dramatic speech, and musicians in the 1600s attempted to capture this.
In sowing the seeds of early opera, composers wrote emotive words with elaborate musical embellishments or clashing harmonies to highlight the text. A lute or harpsichord provided the accompaniment.
An example of early opera include the 1598 work 'Dafne' by Jacopo Peri. This is the first continuously sung pastoral work, but the music is now lost.
Jacopo Peri and rival composer Giulio Caccini each wrote a version of the Orpheus legend, 'Euridice', writing music to the text by the court poet. When Peri’s version was performed in 1600, Caccini insisted in writing the lines his own pupils were singing.
Features of these early operas included a happy ending, uses of choruses and songs, a simple plot, and a small group of instrumentalists.
Monteverdi’s version of the Orpheus story, 'Orfeo', written in 1607, is the first example of an early opera that is still popular today. Interesting music, dancing, and dramatic ornaments to highlight important words in the libretto by Alessandro Striggio.
After Orfeo, Monteverdi wrote another opera the following year, 'Arianna'. He then took a break from the genre for almost 20 years, writing his next operatic work, 'Licori finta pazza', in 1627 – but this was never staged and the music is now lost.
Monteverdi’s pupil Cavalli carried on the operatic tradition, and wrote around 32 operas between 1639-73. He used the recitative to propel the story and made use of a new form of aria, a ‘da capo’ aria in two sections, where the first section is repeated at the end of the song.
By the 1670s, opera’s popularity had spread all over Italy, and with it, the rise of the diva. The public favoured longer songs and preferred listening to upper voices, particularly the male castrato singers.
Scarlatti was a prolific opera composer in the late 1600s and early 1700s. His music marks an important transition between the Italian Baroque vocal techniques used by earlier composers, and the music of the early Classical period.
Handel composed an impressive 42 operas between 1705 and 1741, including 'Giulio Cesare' from 1724. Some of his most famous operas were originally oratorios, including 'Semele' from 1743.
Or so he claimed. As it happens, fewer than 50 titles have been identified, and more than half of these scores are now lost. Some of his most famous operas are 'Orlando furioso' from 1727 and 'L'Olimpiade' from 1734, although the composer is best-known for his concertos.
While opera took hold in Italy in the late 1600s, composers like Perrin and Lully developed the genre in France. Lully’s style was quite different from the Italian styles, with simple plot lines and music based on recitative rather than arias.
By 1714, light-hearted pieces were being called ‘opéras comiques’ in France. These were so successful that the Comédie-Française had them banned in Paris, for fear of competition. These comic operas like paved the way for the often amusing ‘opera buffa’ style of the mid 1700s. The Opéra-Comique in Paris still hosts performances to this day, after being set up in 1793.