Opera is the plural of the Latin word opus, meaning, “work” (each piece written by a composer is called an opus). Opera is often defined as a play in which the words are sung rather than spoken, but this definition is too simplistic. A better definition is drama through music. The music is a partner; it does not merely accompany the drama, it contributes to it. Time stands still at times for the vocal sections in which the characters express their emotions. While opera combines music, plot and the spectacle provided by the sets, costumes and staging, the result is much more than the sum of the parts. It is truly an audio-visual art form.
Although opera as we know it started during the Italian Renaissance, its roots go back to Greek drama. We don't know what it sounded like, but the ancient Greeks never thought of separating the poetry of their drama from music. The Greek plays were accompanied by strings or pipes and the words were sung or chanted. Dance was also part of the drama. The early church gave structure to chants and the accompanying music, supplying scales and notation. At first there were only single-line melodies, but later these were woven together to form polyphony (several different lines of music played or sung at one time) and thus, harmonies. By the end of the fifteenth-century, it was the custom in Italy to perform short musical dramas during intermissions of other plays. Small orchestras accompanied these intermezzi.
Court Masques, or elaborate dramas based on mythology or fables, became a very popular form of entertainment in the royal courts of Europe from the early sixteenth through seventeenth centuries. The stories were played out in pantomime to a background of orchestrated music, and the players were court members who spent lavish amounts of time and money on their costumes. Masques were intended to honor the head of the court where they were produced, and they were used to show the wealth and political power of the royal they honored. At this time, there was no real separation, as we know it, between theatre and opera, or between opera and ballet. These divisions started to become more obvious as musical composition developed.
Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) is credited for the first opera, Dafne, based on the Greek myth. Though famous throughout Europe at the time, it has since been lost. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is the earliest composer whose works are still performed. He blended the music and the poetry of the libretto to create a multi-faceted theatrical form. Such early operas were usually based on history or mythology. This kind of opera is called opera seria, in contrast to opera buffa, or comic opera, which would develop later. During this period, the words were most important, with the small orchestras providing a simple accompaniment. Separate musical lines were not written for the instrumentalists. Instead, they played the singers' lines; this meant that there was also no need for a conductor as we know of them now. Orchestras of the day usually functioned much the way current jazz ensembles often do; they looked to one player, often the keyboardist, to prompt them while playing.
Mozart (1756-1791) was one of the first composers to write not just for, but about the nobility and their servants. A great example of this type of work is The Marriage of Figaro. In the early nineteenth century, with the development of more complex orchestrations and the addition of more flexible woodwind and brass instruments, conductors became necessary to coordinate and mold the sound and tone of the whole.
By the end of the nineteenth century, opera was telling us stories on the steamier side of life among the lower classes, and the singing became more conversational. This type of opera is identified as verismo, or real. Puccini (1858-1924), who wrote his works during this time, gave us such important works as La bohème, Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Opera is still being written today, and new works about historical and colorful figures are being performed throughout the world. Some of the newest works tell the stories of Harvey Milk, Malcom X and Jacqueline Kennedy.