An Overview of Italian Opera

Since its birth in Italy over 400 years ago, opera has flourished as a beautiful, ever-changing art form. Let’s explore the history of Italian opera and some of the events that define the genre.

Who Wrote The First Opera?

The history of opera began in Florence in 1597 with the premiere of Jacopo Peri’s Dafne. Peri called his retelling of the mythological story of Daphne and Apollo an “opera,” which literally means “piece of work.”

While Peri typically gets credit for opera’s creation, the ideas behind it actually came from a whole group of poets, musicians, and philosophers called the Florentine Camerata. They sought to recreate ancient Greek drama as it was originally performed. They believed, as some modern scholars still do, that these dramas were entirely sung through. That thinking gave birth to the opera we have known and loved for over 400 years.

The next transformative event in the history of opera occurred in Italy as well, this time in Venice instead of Florence. That event was the 1637 opening of the first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano. The theater could only seat around 400 audience members, but it allowed for a  greater cross-section of the population to experience opera.

Before the Teatro San Cassiano, opera was only for royalty and intellectuals celebrating special events. But with Teatro di San Cassiano’s opening, Italian opera became available to anyone who could pay. Soon, the concept of a theatrical season supported by ticket sales had taken hold.

With Venice joining Florence as a center for opera in the Baroque era (1600–1750), the influence of Italian opera began to spread even wider. Opera companies toured across Italy, and by 1650 Italian operas were being performed in France, German-speaking lands, and other European cultural centers.

One important player in the development of Italian opera was the wealthy sponsor or “impresario.” These sponsors could choose singers, composers, and even stage designers whose artistic endeavors they would financially support. The result was that, as opera companies traveled around Europe, many of their members hoped to attract the attention of local impresarios to gain the work, fame, and fortune they longed for.

Opera Seria, Opera Buffa, and the Classical Period

As opera spread across Europe in the 17th century, the art form was changing fast. By 1690—less than 100 years after Dafne’s premiere—the Arcadian Academy in Rome argued that Italian opera had strayed too far from its classical roots and now needed to return. They advocated for Italian opera composers to use restraint in their works and to focus on tales from antiquity with pastoral themes.

The academy’s reforms eventually shaped the development of opera seria, a category of opera that rose to popularity in the 18th century. Opera seria told tales of ancient heroes, classical myths, and values like virtue and sovereignty, with a heavy emphasis on the conflict between love and duty—but it was anything but restrained. There was a heavy emphasis on extravagance in opera seria, both through spectacular scenic effects and vocal embellishments like coloratura.

By the early 18th century, a new form of opera was gaining ground, this time in Naples. In order to attract audiences of the newly wealthy merchant class, as opposed to the aristocrats who largely made up the audiences of old, Italian opera composers began to intersperse comedic scenes throughout their works called “intermezzi.”

The characters in these intermezzi came from the Italian stock-character acting style known as “commedia dell’arte.” As intermezzi grew in popularity during the Classical period (1750–1830), they developed into full productions of a new genre: opera buffa. These comic operas depicted regular people in everyday situations and the librettos featured common dialect and even slang.

Some of the most famous examples of opera buffa came from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer whose name often feels synonymous with Italian opera despite his Austrian origins. Although Mozart premiered his works in Vienna, many of his comedic operas, like The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze de Figaro), Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, were in Italian and followed numerous traditions of Italian opera.

It may seem odd that some of Mozart's most famous operas were in Italian instead of his native German, but he was hardly alone. His predecessors in the Baroque period, like fellow German speaker George Frideric Handel, often wrote their music around Italian librettos. That tradition continued into Mozart's time, with the Italian-language operas of the German-born composer Christoph Willibald Gluck.

It was during this period that the two central genres of opera—opera seria and opera buffa—started to blur. They were combined for the first time in 1760 with Niccolò Piccini’s The Accomplished Maid (La Buona Figliuola). While Piccini’s work made him a pioneer in the emerging genre of “opera semiseria,” Giachino Rossini is a standard-bearer for the form today with his funny yet moving operas including his famous 1816 masterpiece The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia).

The Romantic Period

Thanks to the work of Piccini, Rossini, and others, by the Romantic period (1830–1900), the once-distinct lines between opera seria and opera buffa had dissolved. So had some of the norms that had previously defined opera. One major shift was the move away from the happy ending, which had been a staple of every opera—seria or buffa—during the 17th century. Following the French Revolution the aesthetic changed, and the tragic ending became the norm in non-comic opera.

That was just one of the changes that marked the Romantic period of opera. As the name suggests, romantic Italian opera emphasized human emotion and imagination. Italian composers looked to push boundaries with less rigid genres of opera. And in the meantime, they created some of the most beautiful and iconic operas of all time.

The Romantic period also saw the inclusion of more overt political views in operatic works, something that is perhaps most evident in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. By the mid 1850s, Verdi’s La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Il Trovatore had made him the uncontested superstar of Italian opera. His soaring music and three-dimensional characters—who went beyond the classic stereotypes that had defined much of opera to that point—helped him stand out. So did the fact that each of these works hinted at Verdi’s nationalistic views as a supporter of the Risorgimento, or Italy’s movement towards unification.

Italian Opera in the 20th Century

By the turn of the 20th century, Italian opera was again experiencing a shift. The change was driven by a group of young Italian opera artists—Giacomo Puccini among them—who created the Giovane Scuola or “Young School.” Their work, whose super-charged emotion and heightened vocal power focused on the rawness of life and the effects of poverty, helped fuel a trend towards realism or “verismo.” Puccini played a particularly significant role in the growth of verismo opera with works like La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca.

Sadly, the verismo trend was short-lived. When Benito Mussolini took control of fascist Italy in the early 1920s, he brought his “Romanità” ideals to opera and insisted upon works that glorified ancient Rome, losing all sense of verismo.

Luckily, by mid-century, Italian opera composers were able to break free from the restraints implemented by Mussolini. Instead of focusing on the past, they began to take inspiration from the broader avant-garde art movement of the present. Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio were two Italian opera composers at the forefront of this change. Instead of simply relying on classical orchestras, they used folk music, electronic music, and amplified ensemble voices alongside instruments in their orchestrations.

But even as Italian composers looked toward the future with their work, they were equally in dialogue with the past. A great example is Luigi Nono’s “stage-actions” (he refused to call them “operas”) from the 1960s and '70s. These pieces, which were deeply critical of capitalism, were likely inspired by the verismo themes of poverty and hardship that marked many operas from the turn of the century.

The Future of Italian Opera

Now, as we march forward through the 21st century, there is no doubt that Italian opera composers, singers, and artists will continue to influence opera worldwide. Knowing the history of opera in Italy—the birthplace of opera itself—can help us understand this art form as a whole.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating history and life of opera, check out our blogs, like our Brief History of Opera or our Top 5 Opera Fun Facts. And you can find out more about what’s happening at San Francisco Opera right now by heading over to our website!