The Beginnings of Opera

In the Modern Library’s 1940 Edition of The Metropolitan Opera Guide opera is defined as “the musical form of drama, composed of airs, recitatives and choruses, etc., with accompaniment of orchestra, scenery, and acting.“

On the website of Opera Europa, the professional association of opera houses and festivals in Europe, opera is defined as “the art of emotion.”  The definition continues: “Opera is a total art form which joins music, singing, drama, poetry, plastic arts and sometimes dance.”

When we think of early opera, we should consider it to be evolutionary, not revolutionary.  In fact, drama was by 1600 a sophisticated art form; symphonic music was already in existence, as was vocal music and dance.  What was new was the fusing of so many, different art forms into one art form.

The earliest opera (that has survived according to musicologists) is Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600).  

In the American repertoire of performed operas, the oldest existing opera is Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (first performed in 1608).  

Claudio Monteverdi, Italian Opera Composer

Claudio Monteverdi

Opera Europa tells us that the first opera still performed today is La favola d’Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus, composed by Monteverdi in 1607).  We think that Europe and America are referring to the same opera but by a different name.

Both Peri’s Euridice and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo try to tell the story contained in Greek myth of Orpheus’ descent to Hades to bring back his dead bride Eurydice to the living world.  

There is a third opera dealing with the same subject, and it is performed on a regular basis in America and Europe–Orfeo ed Euridice.  This opera was composed by Christoph Willibald von Gluck, a German composer who wrote operas in Italian for the Northern Italian audiences.  

Joseph Siffred Duplessis Portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald von Gluck

Gluck’s opera was first performed in 1762 and “strove for a union of music, drama and ballet.”  Gluck’s vision of full integration seems to be reflected in the more modern definitions of opera.