Imagine you are in a darkened theater and on stage are the actors. Behind the actors you can see the scenery. Down in front of the stage, in what is called the pit, is an orchestra and a conductor. As the orchestra plays, the actors on stage do not speak their lines they sing them! Opera is the combination of drama and music. Like drama, opera embraces the entire spectrum of theatrical elements: dialogue, acting, costumes, scenery and action, but it is the sum of all these elements, combined with music, which defines the art form called opera.

Operatic dramas are usually serious, but there are several comic operas and funny scenes in tragic operas. The music is usually complicated and difficult to sing well. Only the most skillful singers can handle it. The cast is usually made up of main characters (the soloists) and a chorus (a group of singers who act as a crowd of people involved in the action of the plot).

Some operas have scenes in which dancing is performed by a small ballet group. Operas usually begin with an overture - an introduction played by the orchestra alone. Once the curtain goes up, the soloists and chorus sing throughout most of the drama. Arias (songs sung by soloists) are the important points in an opera.

In an aria, a character sings about his or her feelings and thoughts, or about what he or she is going to do. Between arias, the soloists may sing back and fourth to each other in a kind of musical discussion called recitatives. Besides singing arias, soloists often join together to sing duets, trios, quartets, quintets, or sextets at various points in the opera. The chorus usually has several songs to sing, either alone or with the soloists. The music follows the action and mood of the plot. Operas are usually performed in special buildings called opera houses.

A choreographer creates the dances, and the chorus master rehearses the singers. The conductor leads the entire opera performance from his or her place in the pit. The soloists, chorus members and the dancers follow the directions of the conductor. The ancient Greeks blended drama and music, but opera as we know it today developed in Italy in the late 1500 s. At first, the music was used mainly for background. However, by the end of the century, the drama and the music were equally important.

The opera innovation inspired some of the biggest composers known today. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully produced a model for courtly opera that influenced French opera through the mid-18 th century. Jean-Philippe Rameau, George Frederic Handel, and Christoph Willi bald Gluck were the most significant opera composers of the first two-thirds of the 18 th century. However, their works were surpassed by the brilliant operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the early 19 th century, Gioacchino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti dominated Italian opera. In the later 19 th century the greatest works were those of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.

Wagner, with his bold innovations, became the most influential operatic figure since Monteverdi. Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini wrote the most popular late 19 th- and early 20 th-century operas. Though the death of Puccini in 1924 is often cited as the end of grand opera, new and often experimental works-by composers such as Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti, John Adams, and Philip Glass-continued to be produced to critical acclaim. Opera entered the 21 st century as a vibrant and global art form. The first roots of modern opera first appeared in Italy in the 17 th century from the Camerata (an academy of Florentine poets, musicians, and scholars).

The Camerata, inspired by ancient Greek drama, sung dialogues and choruses which were accompanied by musical instruments. The Camerata developed the "stile recitative," in order to integrate drama, action, dialogue and narration. In this "sung speech," a singer delivered a recitative melody with an actor's dramatic and oratorical skills, achieving the goal of providing emotional impact to the text through the support of music. The primary focus of Italian opera at this time was the human voice. This instrument was capable of expressing human emotions and passions, aspirations, and desires. Since no actual Greek music was known, composers had considerable freedom in preconceiving it.

Imitations of Greek pastoral poetry became the basis for early opera libretto. The first operas, Dane by Jacopo Peri in 1598 and by Giulio Cacc ini about the same time, are now lost; the earliest surviving opera is Peri's Eurydice from the 1600's. They consisted of lightly accompanied vocal melody closely imitating inflected speech. The musical style of Western Europe music between 1600 and 1750 was called the Baroque era. Typically, Baroque music was homophonic in texture, its melody concentrated on one voice or part that was accompanied.

Following the principles established by the Camerata, Claudio Monteverdi became the first great figure in opera. Monteverdi was a master at polyphony who wanted to experiment with monophony. He decided to set the drama to music and choose the myth of Orpheus. His opera, L'Orfeo premiered in Mantua in 1607. Monteverdi composed much of the dialogue of Orpheus as arioso, a mixture of recitative and metrical song. With this work, recitative began to be clearly distinguished from aria, an achievement that would prove decisive for opera's future success.

Monteverdi moved to Venice and made this city the center of opera in Italy. With the opening of the Teatro di San Cassia no in Venice in 1637, opera became accessible to the general public. Opera became the most popular art form of public entertainment because it was no longer exclusively for the nobility. Perhaps the focal point of opera at this time was arias.

It was in arias that Italian castrato singers rose in popularity. The castrate were singers whose voices had been altered at puberty to preserve and develop their soprano and alto vocal range. In the late 1600 s, opera became extravagant, with magnificent scenery and huge casts of people. Arias were written into plots, and the dramas demanded more acting. Women were trained to sing the female roles.

Some composers began writing full length comic operas. Before 1750, comic operas were short, funny little scenes performed for audiences as entertainment between the acts of serious opera. English 18 th-century comic operas contained songs and musical interludes, usually consisting of existing popular tunes or opera melodies with new words, which are combined with spoken dialogue. The first ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera (1728), by John Gay and J. C. Pepusch, was a sharply satirical work that became wildly popular and led to numerous similar works.

At the height of the Baroque period, the most successful opera composer was George Frederic Handel. He wrote many opera seri a which was intended to represent music-drama recreations of Greek tragedy, myth and ancient history. His most famous Italian opera seri a, Julius Caesar, was the sixth of a series of operas he wrote for the Royal Academy of Music. Handel proved himself an extraordinary musical dramatist in Julius Caesar, its story containing many explosive dramatic moments. Most of the arias in Handel's operas, like those of other Baroque composers of his time, are accompanied just by the string instruments: often the violins are in unison and accompanied by a basso continuo line with the wind instruments sometimes used to strengthen the sound of the strings.

However, in Julius Caesar, Handel adds flutes, recorder, and horns. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart changed the perspective for opera. He conveyed mood, situation, and character through his musical inventions. Most of Mozart's operas were written in Italian. He followed Gluck's guidelines but strive d for more profound dramatic integrity. He created a greater combination between recitatives and arias, he established accompanied recitatives, many ensembles and provided greater use of the orchestra.

In Mozart's time, the opera buff a became a favorite genre. Opera buff a provided a means of portraying the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and humanism in art. Mozart liked portraying themes dealing with these ideals of the Enlightenment. He was living at a time in which the common man struggled for his rights against the tyranny and oppression of the nobility. His opera, The Marriage of Figaro, contains all of the era's social and political conflicts and tensions. It is a satirical portrayal of the political and social conflicts existing within society.

The primary theme is its portrayal of servants who are cleverer than their selfish, arrogant masters. Mozart's music for The Marriage of Figaro thunders for social reform, equality, and leaves the audience aspiring freedom and justice. In total Mozart wrote over 18 operas, among them: Bastien and Bastien ne (1768); La Finta Semplice (1768); La Finta Giardini era (1774); Idomeneio, R'e di Cret a (1781); Le Nozze di Figaro (1786); Don Giovanni (1787); and Die Zauberfl " one (1791). The influential composers in the French Baroque era were Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Lully became the founder and first major figure of French opera, introducing a transformed style of Italian opera to the court of Louis XIV during the 18 th century. Lully established specific traditions that departed significantly from the existing Italian styles of the opera seri a: he placed greater emphasis on complex stage settings, developed the ballet, and utilized choruses extensively.

On the other hand, Rameau is recognized as a master whose innovations in harmony and orchestration, and his synthesizing of the textual dramaturgy with music. These innovations became significant advances in operas's earch for musical-dramatic integrity, and became the basis for the evolution of the French opera. In Germany, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Romanticism combined music, drama, philosophy and stagecraft. One of the most important figures of this era is Carl Weber.

Weber gave birth to German Romanticism; his operas dealt with popular German legend, medieval superstition, and elements of magic. His opera, Der Freisch"u tz, became one of the most significant works in the history of German opera, influencing Wagner, who surpassed him in the development of leitmotiv techniques, dramatic recitative, and the symphonic use of orchestra. Der Freisch"u tz is a singspiel - a series of musical numbers connected by spoken dialogue - that represents a combination of Gluck's earlier works and the more mature works of Wagner. Another great composer of the first half of the nineteenth century is Gioacchino Antonio Rossini. Rossini was the most important Italian opera composer during that time, and a master of the opera buff a genre.

Though he is best known for his comic and satiric operas, he also composed operas with serious themes. The best of his serious operas have power and passion, and his best comic operas are spontaneous. In the comic operas, he mastered the art of mixing humor with grief. Rossini's opera buff a masterpiece was The Barber of Seville. Today, it is considered the greatest comic masterpiece. During the 1800 s, grand opera developed in France.

Grand operas are gigantic productions, full of powerful singing. They are serious works based on historical events, in four or five acts with chorus and ballet, and its text is fully set to music. The vocal parts are extremely difficult to sing and are a real test of a vocal musician's skill. They also require a wonderful voice.

Giuseppe Verdi was one of the great composers of grand opera, composing 28 operas during his time. The theme behind his early operas concerned his patriotic mission for the liberation of Italy. At that time Italy was suffering under the rule of France and Austria. Each of his early operas advocated Italy's independence as well as individual freedom. For instance, in Giovanna d'Arco, the French patriot Joan confronts the oppressive English and is killed. The year 1851 was the beginning of Verdi's peak period.

During this time he composed some of his best operas of all time: Rigoletto (1851); Il Trova tore (1853); La Traviata (1853); I Ve spri Sicilian i (1855); Simon Bocca negra (1857); Aro ldo (1857); Un Ball in Masc hera (1859); La Forza del Destino (1862); Don Carlo (1867); and Aida (1871). In his final works he composed what is considered his greatest masterpieces: Othello (1887), and Falstaff (1893). During the second half of the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner revolutionized opera with his conceptions of music drama, eliminating the structures of recitatives and arias, resulting in the combination of music and text. Richard Wagner, who was composing at about the same time as Verdi, had his own ideas about opera. He thought the music, the words, and the acting should all work together as a music-drama. Wagner wrote his own libretto, the story and words of an opera, unlike most composers who used words from plays of hired poets to create the lines.

Wagner also used a short melody, a leitmotiv, to stand for each important character, idea or object in the drama. When a particular character came on stage or was mentioned in the lines, that character's leitmotiv could usually be heard in the music. Wagner was a specialist in writing operas and thus his greatest works all fall into this category. His greatest works include Die Meistersinger von N"u rnberg (The Mastersinger of Nuremberg), Tanh"a user, and Der Holl " and er (The Flying Dutchman). Another of Wagner's greatest works is Der Ring des Nibelung en (The Nibelung's Ring) which is a huge 18 hour as semblance of 4 operas which are all combined. Perhaps the 'Ring operas' are the closest Wagner ever got to achieving his lifelong dream of combining art, literature, and music.

He took opera so far forward that every composer who was his contemporary had to respond to the challenge of "Wagner ism", for or against. During the lifetimes of composers up to Meyerbeer there was no 'repertory' of operas. Composers like Bellini were expected to come up with fresh material, season after season, even if they had to use parts of their own works for material that had not been offered to that city's audience. One common strategy was to imitate the work of other composers, especially when such work had achieved considerable success.

The idea of an opera repertory originated with Richard Wagner, in his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Verismo is an opera genre that evolved in Italy during the late nineteenth century. Verismo began as a literary movement, represented in Italy by the novels and plays of Giovanni Versa. Veristic operas depict real life conflicts and tensions; its primary focus was to present reality. Therefore, the plots deal with intensive passions involving sex, seduction, revenge, betrayal, jealousy, murder and death.

Giacomo Pussi ni was the successor of Italy's opera icon, Giuseppe Verdi. Through his career, Puccini identified himself with verismo. He liked the ideals of verismo: no subject was too harsh. Swift, dramatic action and brutal, sadistic passions can be seen in Verdi's Tosca and Il Ta barro. In other operas, such as Manon L escaut, La Boh'e me and Madame Butterfly, verismo elements are expressed in the problems and conflicts of characters in everyday situations.

The romantic era ended with World War I (1914-1918); the era's ideal of heightened emotion, already showing signs of decay, could not survive such a shock. The patterns of operatic composition began to break down, giving way to a period of uncertainty and experimentation. Richard Strauss was the primary German Romantic composer during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the true successor to Wagner. His first successful opera was Salome, composed in 1905. After the production of this opera, Strauss formed a partnership with the Austrian poet and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with whom he produced his finest operas, including Elektra (1909); Der Rosenkavalier (1911); Ariadne auf Naxos (1912); Die Frau Ohne S chatten (1919); Die Aegyptische Helena (1928); and Arabella (1933).

After Hofmannsthal's death, Strauss produced operas with other librettists, though none so successfully. These include Die Schweigsame Frau (1935), Daphne (1938), and Capriccio (1942). In the middle of the 1800 s a rich art form sprung up: operettas. Operettas - stage play with songs and dance combined with dialogue - are sometimes called 'light operas'. They are like operas but are lighthearted. They also include some speaking dialogue.

The settings are often making believe, with colorful scenery and elegant costumes. The plot of an operetta is always based on romance, in which the good characters win and the evil characters are happy tunes, and the dancing is light and cheerful. Franz Von Suppe was probably the first composer to create real operettas. He made romance the main part of the plot, with the waltz an important part of the music. After Von Suppe, most operettas had a big waltz scene that was an important part of the plot. Some of the most successful Europeans operettas were written by Franz team of Gilbert and Sullivan.

In the United States, operettas included both comedy and romance. Victor Herbert was one of the composers that made his greatest contribution to American music as a composer and writer of operettas. Some of his operettas, As Babes in Toyland (1903) and a Naughty Marietta (1910) have been performed all over the world. Since the 1850 s, many operas have been based on true life stories or experiences. Today, operas are being staged in many different ways. The Italian born U.

S. composer Gian Carlo Menotti has written operas especially for radio and television. Menotti's opera Am ahl and The Night Visitors are usually broadcast ed at Christmastime. To conclude, some of the most famous popular operas include Mozart's The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni (1780 s); Rossini's The Barber of Seville (1816); Verdi's Aida, La Traviata, Othello and Rigoletto (1850 s- 1870 s); and Puccini's Madame Butterfly (1904); to list just a few.

Famous recording opera stars include Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, Dame Kiri Te Kana wa, Pl " aci do Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jos'e Carreras. During the 400-year history of modern opera, there have been many improvements in the art of music drama. Throughout its history opera has exerted great influence on other forms of music. The symphony, for example, began as an instrumental introduction to 18 th-century Italian opera.

The cadenzas of violin and piano concertos emerged, in large part, from an attempt to replicate some of opera's vocal intensity. Opera will continue to be a dynamic art form. Bibliography Boy nick, Matt. "Richard Wagner -List of Works by Genre and Title." Richard Wagner.

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New York, NY: 2004 Okuda, Michael, and Denise Okuda. Greatest Composers. New York: Pocket, 1993. Sturgeon, Theodore.

'Opera.' The Encyclopedia Americana. International ed. 1995.