Where Did Opera Originate?

Interior of State Opera House, Budapest, Hungary. David Ball/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The origins of opera, unfortunately, are not cut and dry. There are a variety of factors that may have lead to the creation of opera; perhaps the earliest contributor being the plays from Ancient Greece where music was inserted.

During the renaissance period, intermedi (musical works often sang to the accompaniment of staged actions or dance) closed each act. As time progressed, intermedi became more elaborate. The most famous intermedi was performed between the acts of Girolamo Bargagli’s comedy La pellegrina for the Medici wedding of 1589. It consisted of six intermedi, all of which were sung entirely. Three of the six intermedi portrayed the story of Apollo and the Python, which subsequently influenced the creation of the first opera ten years later. Although, musically speaking, the intermdi had no influence over the operatic style of dramatic dialogue.

In the second half of the 16th century, entertainers hired to perform during courtly banquets or high-class parties, commonly known as Mascherate, slowly gained popularity. The polyphonic madrigal comedies belong to this type of entertainment; many of which were staged in private rooms and residences.

The origins of opera can also be linked to the commedia dell’arte (improvised drama). The actors in these plays had to be intelligent according to Mantzius, who wrote History of the Theatrical Art. “The actors had to find the proper words to make the tears flow or the laughter ring; they had to catch the sallies of their fellow-actors on the wing, and return them with prompt repartee. The dialogue must go like a merry game of ball or spirited sword-play, with ease and without a pause.” Commediea dell’arte mainly influenced the formation of many librettos from the mid-17th century.