Opera 101

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Origins of Opera

Considered the most complex of all art forms, opera comes from the Italian word meaning “work.” Opera is often defined as a play in which the words are sung rather than spoken. However, a better definition is drama through music.

The intricacy of each performance lies in the combination of both creative and performance arts, literature and theatrical elements of sets, costumes, lighting, make-up and spectacle. Opera began more than 400 years ago in Florence, Italy, and its roots in music drama go back to prehistoric times, to rituals, and religious chants. There are numerous variations of operas based on the century or country of origin such as opera seria, opera buffa, opera comique, operetta, madrigals, masques, pastorals and commedia dell’arte plays.

The Composers

From Monteverdi to Philip Glass, learn about historical opera compositions with this composer timeline featuring some of the most notable composers in opera history.

The Conductor

The conductor or maestro is crucial to any opera production. In addition to bringing to life the composer’s intentions for each opera, the maestro’s role is to balance the orchestra and vocalists. A big part of this balance is the tempo, or speed of the music, providing cues for both the musicians and the singers as they perform throughout the piece.

The Orchestra

When most people think of opera, they think of opera singers. In an opera, the orchestra plays an equal role. An opera orchestra is very similar to that of a symphony orchestra with four instrumental families and various instruments, including violin, viola, flute, cello, bass, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and more.