Among others, opera’s origins began with Galileo’s father

This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


Like most great works of art, opera has its roots in Florence.

Opera, as we have come to know it, was literally “invented” in Florence at the turn of the 17th century. Working to recreate classical Greek tragedy, which was believed to be sung rather than spoken, members of the Florentine Camerata—a group of musicians, poets and intellectuals, which included Galileo’s father—attempted to recreate Greek tragedy by setting drama to music. This they named dramma per musica.

In short order, composer Jacopo Peri’s turned Ottavio Rinuccini’s Dafne libretto to music. This was performed in 1597 before fellow Camerata members, and opera was born. Sad to report, none of the music survives, so the honor of being the first surviving opera goes to the same team’s Euridice. This was performed at the marriage of Maria de’ Medici to France’s Henry IV in 1600. A curious wedding choice, indeed, since in the myth Orpheus actually loses his new bride forever. Told not to look back at her, Orpheus cannot resist Eurydice’s pleas and turns; but Rinuccini deleted that awkward detail to save the loving couple, and librettists have been fiddling with traditional plots ever since.

Though gifted amateurs, the Camerata composers were too wedded to theory and resisted introducing the lyricism needed to lift the drama to musical heights. Their experiments lacked expressiveness and were frequently little more than endless, dull recitatives. The changes necessary to raise dramma per musica to lyric heights had to await a composer of true genius, and that came with Claudio Monteverdi, a professional musician whose La favola d’Orfeo (1607) showed the way.

Claudio Monteverdi

With a libretto faithful to the Orpheus myth, Monteverdi created operatic tragedy using musical recitatives to move the story forward and lyric expressions (what we now call arias) to reflect the characters’ innermost thoughts and emotions. Of his many operas composed for aristocratic houses in Parma, Mantua and Venice, only six survive, but in these we see dramma per musica’s real development. Still employing subjects from myth and classical history, Monteverdi created the operatic form that would dominate European opera for two centuries. In addition, he broke with Camerata tradition by introducing comic characters and subplots to relieve the dramatic tension.

An important aspect of early dramma per musica to keep in mind is that it was an exclusive aristocratic toy, performed only at Royal Courts and aristocratic houses. Not until 1637, with the opening of Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano, did the public get in on the act. And when they did, they could not get enough opera. Almost immediately in Venice three more opera houses opened, and by century’s end Venice had over a dozen, playing new operas every Carnival season!

Italy’s new dramma per musica sensation spread rapidly, first to Austria, with Italian companies performing as early as 1618 in Salzburg and before the Viennese Royal Court in 1626. For the next century and a half Italian opera would dominate Viennese Court opera. The same invasion took place in the German-speaking kingdoms of Bavaria and Saxony where Italian opera began to appear regularly: in Munich in 1652 and in Dresden and Hanover by the late 1680s. These and the other independent German-speaking provinces did not develop their own opera forms until the late 18th century, and even these were largely based on Italian models. As for the rest of the German-speaking world—at this time consisting of over 1500 kingdoms, independent states, and lesser principalities, all of which were not united until 1871, when Otto von Bismarck invented Germany—these fragmented and often poor states simply could not support this new, expensive entertainment.

In France, the situation was somewhat different. Though Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s Chief Minister of State, was a devoted dramma per musica exponent who tried to import it, Italian opera did not win immediate favor among Court members and hangers-on. Seventeenth century France already had a theater well stocked with playwrights—Moliere, Corneille, and Racine—and showed little interest in sung drama. Then along came Jean-Baptiste Lully, the Court’s dancing master, who co-opted the new Italian art form, making it uniquely French by downplaying voice and elevating spectacle, especially dance, a feature that still holds center stage in modern French opera.

All of which brings us to the English experience with opera. The traditional English masque was the logical starting point for its growth into dramma per musica, as these had been written and performed for many years, including those by such worthies as Ben Jonson and John Milton. Their storytelling included song, dance, costumes and brilliant sets, and became the basis of William D’Avenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1656), England’s first opera. This opera might have led the way to an indigenous English opera development had not Charles II been restored to the throne four years later, bringing with him and his Court a taste for Italian dramma per musica. Thus, the works of composers John Blow and Henry Purcell were overshadowed, and by the early 18th century, Handel’s arrival with the new Hanoverian king, brought Italian opera to stay.

As for Russia, Spain, Greece and the rest of Europe, they all fell under the sway of traveling Italian opera companies. By the beginning of the 18th century, Italian composers, singers, and musicians had fanned out over Europe, bringing their exotic dramma per musica to adoring aristocratic audiences wherever they performed. And to this day we still consider opera an Italian art form and why not? After all, they invented dramma per musica.


by Gilbert R. Davis

Dr. Davis has contributed notes for Opera Grand Rapids’ productions for over 35 years.

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