Operas: History and Overview

Opera is an Italian word that means “work” (labor done). Its first usage in artistic context came in 1639 when it was defined as “a composition involving the combination of poetry, dance, and music.”

Opera is one of the oldest entertainment arts. It’s an art form that involves a dramatic work in which singers and musicians perform a performance with the combination of texts and musical score, usually in a theatre. The art includes many of the regular contemporary theatrical works, including acting, scenery, costumes, and even including dance sometimes. Opera exhibitions and performances usually take place in a large, covered arena called an opera house. An orchestra accompanies performances.

Origin of Opera

Opera is an art that has existed for hundreds of years, and its practice took many forms in different cultures and locations. It was initially enjoyed in Western Europe, in Italian and French royal gatherings and courts. The art emerged from the need to entertain distinguished guests and dignitaries or rulers, to project a positive of them. They featured vast, elegant processions and glamorous stage effects that often told stories drawn from classical mythology. A notable thing about these events is that many of them often centered on the wealth and affluence of the elite culture.

The emergence of opera can be traced to the end of the sixteenth century. It started in Italy with the first work (Peri’s lost Dafne) produced in Florence in 1598. The art went on to spread through every major city in Europe. Italian opera dominated most of Europe from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century.


Two Opera forms developed in the eighteenth century, namely; ‘opera seria’ (serious opera) and ‘opera buffa’ (comic opera). The comic opera was a more flexible and less serious version of the ‘opera seria’ which allowed the talented performers to introduce comic relief to the art. Mozart was the most famous opera figure of the late eighteenth century. He was recognized for his humorous opera renditions, producing such acclaimed works as Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute.

Nineteenth Century

Opera came into its ‘golden era’ between the mid to late nineteenth century when Wagner dominated it in Germany and Verdi in Italy. During this period, many European countries were all about Nationalism, and opera was seen as an opportunity and means to show solidarity and patriotism. Several operatic styles and composers developed during this era, featuring notable works like Carmen (Bizet), The Flying Dutchman (Wagner), Parsifal (Wagner), etc.

Twentieth Century

The twentieth-century opera experienced a more individualistic approach. Performers adopted methods and themes best suited for their audiences. This period came with a higher level of sophistication, with lots of money spent on stage setup and equipment. It featured an intensive use of metalworks with the deployment of fabrication tools like angle gliders, which were used to cut metals, though crude and without spindle lock, unlike the ones we have today. Notable acts of the twentieth-century opera include Puccini (Italy), Strauss (Germany), Alban Berg (Austria), etc.

Common Terminologies Used in Opera

Below are some of the standard terms used in opera.

  • Aria: refers to a piece meant for one singer.
  • Baritone: refers to the middle singing tone of a male, and it’s located between tenor and bass ranges.
  • Bass: refers to the lowest male singing tone. It’s used to portray a buffoonish older man in comic opera.
  • Continuo: refers to a harpsichord and a cello.
  • Contralto: refers to the lowest female voice.
  • Diva: refers to an important female or goddess.
  • Countertenor: refers to the highest male voice.
  • Opera buffa: refers to comic opera.
  • Opera serio: refers to serious opera.
  • Dramma giocoso: refers to a sub-category of opera buffa.
  • Mezzo-Soprano: refers to the middle singing voice of a female.
  • Soprano: the most common female singing voice. It’s also the highest.
  • Tenor: the highest singing voice of an adult male.

Top 8 Famous Opera Houses in the World

Here’s a list of eight of the best opera houses in the world.  The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Italy, is regarded as the oldest working opera house.

  • Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia.
  • Glyndebourne Opera House, East Sussex, England.
  • La Scala Opera House, London, England.
  • Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, Italy.
  • Teatro Colon, Bueno Aires, Argentina.
  • Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Russia.
  • Palais Garnier, Paris, France.
  • Vienna State Opera, Vienna, Austria.


While opera is an old art, it has continuously evolved over the years. Technological advancement has also contributed to its growth as it now enjoys a massive coverage that wasn’t available during the pre-digital ages. Many composers and groups are spread worldwide, further improving the works of the pioneers.