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Talk Like An Opera Geek: The Birth Of Opera

Orpheus makes his way through the underworld, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of one of the first operas, Monteverdi's <em>L'Orfeo</em>, from 1607.
Deutsche Grammophon
Orpheus makes his way through the underworld, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of one of the first operas, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, from 1607.

(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)

We've tackled terms, vocal ranges and some tricks of the opera trade in this series so far. But now it's time for a little history. We'll track some of opera's evolution over the past 400 years, beginning with its creation.

Those opera adversaries who slam the music for its elitist and Eurocentric associations are actually pretty close to getting the birth of opera right. Intellectuals, scholars and amateur musicians from Florence, Italy dreamt up the idea of opera in the last decade of the 16th century.

Unlike some art forms that took generations to morph into the next big thing, opera was invented in one place, at one time by a specific group (or two) of people. The Camerata, which included Galileo Galilei's father, held meetings at the salon of a Florentine count. The group argued over and experimented with new combinations of drama, song and music based on their study of the ancient Greeks.

It's a common mistake to attribute opera's invention solely to the Camerata, when a rival group's pursuits actually led directly to the very first operatic production. Dafne was a collaboration between composer and patron Jacopo Corsi, composer Jacopo Peri and poet Ottavio Rinuccini. It was first produced in 1598 but subsequently lost. The first opera to survive intact, Euridice, came two years later and Peri was again the composer.

In the early years, operas were relegated to special state occasions, such as the wedding of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV, which prompted Euridice. The newfangled music drama began spreading to other Italian courts after the next important milestone — the appearance of Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo, which debuted in Mantua in 1607 and ushered in opera's first truly important composer.

Gradually, more courts began producing opera, which got an additional boost when Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII in 1623. The new Pope's nephews were keen on opera and became a source of funding and commissions for new works. Still, these operas were exclusive to the ruling classes. It would take more than a decade, until 1637, before the city of Venice would introduce the first public opera house. From there, the flood gates opened — more houses were quickly built and by 1700 roughly 400 different productions had been mounted in Venice alone. Meanwhile, opera had begun to cross Italian borders to Paris (possibly as early as the 1640s) and Vienna. And it wouldn't be long before the new art form would sweep throughout Europe.

Below are a few excerpts from important composers of opera's early years.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.