Types of Operas

Opera Performance of A Masked Ball by Verdi, Pafos Aphrodite Festival, Verdi Opera Un Ballo in Maschera, by The Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, Pafos castle, Cyprus
Juergen Richter / LOOK-foto / Getty Images

An opera is generally referred to as "a stage presentation or work that combines music, costumes, and scenery to relay a story. Most operas are sung, with no spoken lines." The word "opera" is actually a shortened word for opera in musica.

In 1573, a group of musicians and intellectuals came together to discuss various subjects, especially the desire to revive Greek drama. This group of individuals is known as the Florentine Camerata; they wanted lines to be sung instead of simply being spoken. From this came the opera which existed in Italy around 1600. At first, the opera was only for the upper class or aristocrats, but soon even the general public patronized it. Venice became the center of musical activity; in 1637, a public opera house was built there.

It takes a lot of time, people, and effort before an opera finally makes its premiere. Writers, librettists (dramatist who writes the libretto or text), composers, costume and stage designers, conductors, singers (coloratura, lyric and dramatic soprano, lyric and dramatic tenor, basso buffo and basso profundo, etc.) dancers, musicians, prompters (person who gives cues), producers, and directors are some of the people who work closely together in order for an opera to take shape.

Different singing styles were developed for the opera, such as:

  • recitative - imitating the pattern and rhythm of speech
  • aria - when a character expresses feelings through a flowing melody
  • bel canto - Italian for "beautiful singing."
  • castrato - During the Baroque period, young boys were castrated before they reached puberty to avoid the deepening of the voice. Main roles of the opera were written for the castrato.

Types of Operas

  • Comic Opera - Also known as light opera, this type of opera often tackles light, not so delicate subject matter where the ending often has a happy resolution. Other forms of this opera are opera buffa and operetta, to name a few. In this type of opera, the dialogue is often spoken and not sung. An example of this opera is La serva padrona (The Maid as Mistress) by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
  • Serious Opera - In Italian, it's opera seria, also referred to as Neopolitan opera mainly due to the volume of composers who were from Naples who contributed to this type of opera. Often, the story revolves around heroes and myths. Emphasis is also given to the solo voice and bel canto style. Bel canto is Italian for "beautiful singing;" the vocal style used by operatic singers in Italy which emerged during the 17th century. An example of this opera is Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel.
  • Opera Semiseria - This type of opera has a serious story but has a happy ending. This is why some loosely define it as a combination of the elements of both comic and serious opera. An example of this is La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie} by Gioachino Rossini
  • Opera Cornique - Is a type of French opera wherein instead of singing, the lines are spoken. In its early form, it was satirical but would, later on, have serious storylines such as Carmen by Georges Bizet.
  • Grand Opera - Refers to the type of opera which emerged in Paris during the 19th century. It's an opera of a larger scale, from the flamboyant costumes to the choruses; it also includes ballet. An example of this type is Robert le Diable by Giacomo Meyerbeer.
  • Opera Verismo - Verismo is Italian for "realism;" it's a type of opera that emerged during the later part of the 19th century. Characters were often based on everyday people you may meet in real life, and the plot is often melodramatic. An example is Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo.

Most operas are written in French, German, and Italian. Euridice by Jacopo Peri is known as the earliest opera that's been preserved. One great composer who wrote operas was Claudio Monteverdi, specifically his La favola d'Orfeo (The Fable of Orpheus) which premiered in 1607 and thus known as the first grand opera. Another famous opera composer was Francesco Cavalli especially noted for his opera Giasone (Jason) which premiered in 1649.

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