A Brief History of Italian Opera

Recently added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, Italian opera is a unique art form that combines music, singing, and drama since the 16th century.

Italian Opera Theater San Carlo of Naples
San Carlo Theater, Naples. Photo: Pasquale Matrisciano, public domain, Wikipedia.

In December 2023, on the eve of the premier of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, UNESCO announced that the practice of Italian opera singing had joined its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The UN’s agency described opera singing as “a physiologically controlled way of singing that enhances the carrying power of the voice in acoustic spaces.” It further explained that Italian opera, whose “cultural value is recognized at national and international levels,” fosters “collective cohesion and sociocultural memory.”

Italian opera appeared for the first time in 16th-century Florence at the culturally vibrant Medici court. It soon spread to other Italian and European cities. Since its origins, audiences from all over the world have enjoyed this unique art form. In the 20th century, opera singers were international celebrities venerated by thousands of fans (known in Italy as melomani). Over time, opera became the embodiment of Italian culture.

The Origins of Italian Opera

In the second half of the 16th century, Jacopo Peri, a singer-composer based in Florence, wrote what is commonly considered the first-ever operaDafne. The piece was performed in 1598 in Palazzo Tornabuoni. Peri based his retelling of the myth of Apollo and Daphne on the dramatic text (libretto) penned by Ottavio Rinuccini, a fellow member of the so-called Florentine Camerata, a group of intellectuals seeking to revive ancient Greek drama. 

The custom of combining voices and instrumental music into a stage production already existed in Italy. However, Peri was the first to use recitativo (recitative), a singing style that recreates human speech. The Florentine composers described it as “a harmony surpassing that of ordinary speech but falling so far below the melody of the song as to take an intermediate form.”

At the time, Jacopo Peri’s Dafne was so successful that the Medici family asked the composer to create another opera in musica (work in music). Titled Euridice, the new opera premiered during the 1600 celebrations for the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France. Similar to Orpheus, the mythical poet whose voice moved the gods, the new musical genre soon became noted for its ability to use the combination of music and human voice to convey to its listeners the inner emotions felt by the characters on stage. 

After its first appearance in Florence, opera soon spread to other aristocratic courts of the Italian peninsula. In Mantua, the new musical style caught the attention of Claudio Monteverdi, a prominent composer of madrigals. In 1607, his first opera, La favola d’Orfeo (The Fable of Orpheus), premiered during the Carnival festivities at the court ruled by the Gonzaga family. Monteverdi’s Orfeo is the first opera that is still performed in modern theaters. During his long and successful career, Monteverdi composed several operatic works, including the 1643 L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), the first opera featuring historical figures. 

In his take on the illicit love affair between Roman emperor Nero and the courtesan Poppea, Monteverdi (supported by Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto) masterfully translated the conflict between ethics and romantic passion into music. Because of his nuanced style and ability to display a wide range of human emotions, Monteverdi is generally considered the first prominent opera composer.

The Baroque Era: The “Wow Factor”

In 1637, the Venetian Tron family inaugurated their Teatro San Cassiano with the performance of Francesco Manelli’s L’Andromeda. While the previous operas had been exclusively staged for the aristocracy and the courts, Teatro San Cassiano was the first public opera house. Anyone who could afford an entrance ticket could enjoy its performances. In this sense, it was the economic prototype of the modern opera industry.

At Teatro San Cassiano and other Baroque-era Italian opera houses, the audience favored elaborate performances featuring intricate plots and extravagant visual effects. As a result, the composers wrote operas depicting improbable stories full of intrigue and twists. Scenery also played a crucial role in the Baroque stage production, with sophisticated machinery helping designers amaze the spectators with stunning tricks. Prominent composers of this era included Francesco Cavalli, Monterverdi’s pupil, and Antonio Vivaldi, whose operatic works are now unfortunately lost. 

The Baroque Era marked the appearance of two new important players who would become crucial in the development of opera. As the performances were now available to a larger audience, noblemen were no longer the only patrons of musicians. Across the peninsula, impresarios began to sponsor the production of operas. Besides providing financial support, the impresario chose the singers, stage directors, and composers. 

The performances organized by wealthy sponsors across the Italian peninsula often featured a particular type of singer known as castrato, from the verb castrare (to castrate). The practice of castrating male singers before puberty to preserve the high notes of their boyish voices preceded the Baroque era. However, only in the mid-17th and 18th centuries did the castrati become the undisputed stars of opera. In the territories controlled by the Roman Church, where women were forbidden from performing on stage, castrato singers sang all the female roles. 

In a time where wowing the audience was the main goal of opera stage production, the pure voices of the castrato singers and their ability to reach notes of seemingly superhuman high delighted the theatergoers in Italy and the rest of Europe. Lured by the prospect of increasing their wealth, many families had their most promising sons castrated. However, only a few castrato singers became successful, much less superstars like Farinelli (the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi), the most prominent castrato in music history. Today, the castrato roles are performed by countertenors.

The Classical Period: Opera Seria vs Opera Buffa

In the 18th century, as the Neoclassical movement began to gain momentum, replacing the exuberant style of the Baroque era with a more restrained aesthetics, Italian opera composers favored simple plots and more linear melodies. They also generally excluded the comic scenes earlier musicians interspersed their pieces with. The result was the development of the so-called opera seria (serious opera), a musical genre featuring graceful vocal solos and linear melodies. The composers of opera seria draw their inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman mythology and history, writing operatic works based on heroes facing inner conflicts between love and duty. These musicians often collaborated with Italian poet Metastasio, who became the most prominent librettist of the 18th century, with about four hundred composers electing to translate his literary genius into music. 

The acts of the opera seria were divided by witty intermezzos and short comic scenes with their own plots and characters. In 1733, for example, Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi authored the famous intermezzo titled La serva padrona (The Maid Mistress), a piece still performed today. Over time, the intermezzo developed into the genre known as opera buffa. The new operatic style featured the colorful characters of the commedia dell’arte (a comic theatrical form developed in the 18th century) and focused on telling more realistic stories from everyday life. With less rigid rules to follow, the composers of comic operas were free to experiment and innovate the operatic traditions. Similarly, the librettists regularly used dialect, slang, and even rude witticism.

The Romantic Period: Between Bel Canto and Patriotism

At the beginning of the 19th century, a newcomer to the Italian opera world began to blur the previous rigid divide between opera seria and opera buffa: Giacomo Rossini. Born in 1792 in Pesaro, a town in modern Emilia-Romagna, Rossini made his operatic debut with La cambiale di matrimonio (The Bill of Marriage). A prolific composer, Rossini wrote 39 operas, including Il Barbiere di SivigliaL’Italiana in Algeri, and Guglielmo Tell. While earlier works alternated between recitatives and arias, Rossini introduced a more flexible structure, combining lyric scenes and fast-paced solos. 

Rossini’s genius dominated the first half of the 19th century. Only Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti managed to rise to fame alongside him. In particular, Bellini became the major exponent of the so-called bel canto (beautiful singing), a style of opera singing that showcased the singers’ vocal agility, wide range, and exact control over their voices. While bel canto turned opera performers into celebrities, its technique was so challenging that only some singers were able to master it. 

In the second half of the 19th century, the scene of Italian opera underwent a series of fundamental changes linked to the appearance of a new composer destined to dominate the operatic world: Giuseppe Verdi. Born in Roncole, a small town near Busseto (Parma) in 1813, Verdi’s works became synonymous with Italian opera. 

After his first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio (1839), Verdi began to write a series of works rivaled only by those of Richard Wagner, the German composer who dominated the 19th-century musical scene. While Wagner sought to achieve what he called Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), Verdi was mainly interested “in the expression of human passions in song.” The result was “a musical structure of sensuous beauty and emotional power … with an appeal so profound, so elemental, that it can hardly be conveyed … in any other language than that of music itself.” 

Verdi’s vigorous arias and orchestration-filled operas played a crucial role in the Risorgimento, the 19th-century Italian movement of unification and independence from foreign control. While he never included direct references to contemporary events in his works, his audience could not fail to understand that the Va, pensiero, the melancholic chorus sung by the Hebrew slaves in Nabucco, alluded to Italy’s patriotic movement. As a result, Verdi became a political icon during the Risorgimento. His name even became the acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia. After opera performances, patriots allegedly shouted Viva Verdi, a secret slogan meaning Long Live Victor Emmanuel, king of Italy.

Italian opera in the 20th Century: Passionate Heroines and Experimentation

In the 20th century, Verismo, Italy’s realism movement, changed the opera world. Composers like Amilcare Ponchielli, Pietro Mascagni, and Ruggero Leoncavallo placed raw, powerful emotions at the heart of their operas. In Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), two staples of operatic Verismo, the protagonists’ turbulent passions and desires led to a violent and dramatic climax. Colorful orchestration and intense arias helped convey the rawness of the emotions felt by the characters to the audience.

The power of human emotions is also the key feature of the operas written by Giacomo Puccini, the most prominent Italian composer of the 20th century. While Verdi, drawing inspiration from Shakespeare, urged his audience to reflect on the nature of power and tyranny, Puccini focussed on tragic love stories with passionate and unlucky heroines. 

In Tosca (1900), the protagonist, after discovering that the sadistic chief of police has betrayed her and executed her lover, throws herself off the battlements of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo. “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio,” sings Tosca. The dramatic melody of the orchestra emphasizes her desperate cry of desperation and vengeance. Similarly, Madama Butterfly, upon discovering that her marriage with the American officer Pinkerton was a sham, commits suicide, dying in her young son’s arms. 

Madama Butterfly and Turandot, Puccini’s past and unfinished opera, foreshadowed the developments that would transform the opera world in the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, the combination of emotional orchestration with a more exotic style inspired the next generations of composers of musical scores for film and television. 

In the mid-20th century, Italian opera composers began to look to the future. Influenced by the avant-garde movement, Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio incorporated elements of folk and electronic music into their works. Similarly, Luigi Nono relied on multimedia tools to write his scores.

Today, the emotion-charged world of opera is often seen as the embodiment of Italian people. However, the appeal of operatic works transcends the peninsula’s national boundaries. Franco Zeffirelli, a famous Italian film and stage director, wrote in his autobiography: “[operas] reveal to us the confusions of emotion and loyalty, the nature of power and pity, that could not be so movingly expressed in any other way.”