The Italian term opera literally means “the work.” This alone explains the ambition of this art form, which originated in the sixteenth century: unite all forms of art in one work. According to the time period, theatre, poetry, dance and/or video are part of this total performance based on two key elements: voice and music. It was born in Italy, in the court of Marie de Médicis and Henri IV, on the occasion of their wedding. Although a first work dating back to 1600 has been passed down to us, opera became part of history in 1607 with l’Orféo by Claudio Monteverdi, which is considered the first operatic masterpiece.
In this new vocal form, singing and above all words are alternated accompanied by music. Opera developed rapidly. In Italy, it is built around the art of singing, or bel canto and the soloist. In France, with Lully puis Rameau, ballet is preferred, as in the opéra-ballet.
Bel canto (or beautiful singing) designates the Italian style of singing, where in brilliantly composed melodies, the accent is placed on the beauty of the sound and the execution of the virtuoso. The peak of the bel canto style was attained around 1830–1840 the time of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.
During the first half of the 18th century that the two major types of opera came into being. Opera-seria or serious opera and its opposite opera-buffa, a more popular, easier, with happy, light singing reflecting the Italian character. The term opera semiseria is used to signify a type of opera that has characteristics of both opera seria and opera buffa (middle of 19th century). In it, two worlds are generally in opposition, usually that of the aristocrats and peasants. The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni by Mozart reflects the semiseria spirit without having been designated as such during the period. At the time, the expression dramma giocoso was used.
Comic opera was born from opera-buffa; despite its name, dramatic subjects can be presented (Carmen by Bizet). Like Singspiel (The Abduction from the Seraglio by Mozart), it contains spoken dialogue that clearly distinguishes it from “grand opera,” a continuation of the opera-seria style.
In romantic opera, musical phrases are used as themes that are generally found in the Overture and then developed during the opera’s plot. In Italy, it is named melodrama; in Germany German romantic opera; and in France grand opéra which does not contain spoken recitatives. It refers to a serious work where choirs and ballet dominate.
Realism or verismo is a type of Italian opera that deals with “real life.” Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana) and Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) are uncontested examples of this, even if certain other works by different composers are written in the same spirit.
Operetta is comic opera with much lighter and often parodic content, where the intrigue is expressed by light, captivating music interspersed with spoken dialogue.
The Americans created a new type: the musical. It was born from jazz and the music is accessible. Generally the heroes embody the common or bourgeois class.