[Scene during opera "Rigoletto" in Berlin theatre, ca. 1930]. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-43455.
Since its grand beginnings as Italian court entertainment at the turn of the seventeenth century, opera has been an art form that strives to portray a heightened reality, transporting the audience to a time and place beyond its own. Opera is a seemingly magical concoction of theater, music, and dance that has ignited the imaginations of young and old, rich and poor, for over 400 years.
Opera was initially conceived as an imitation of the theatrical practice of Ancient Greece. Girolamo Mei (1519-1594), the foremost Italian scholar of his day studying the music of Ancient Greece, believed that Greek dramas were performed in a style somewhere between speech and song which led to the Italian style known as monody, a precursor of operatic recitative. This was the musical basis of the first operas composed in Florence in 1600, but as opera gained popularity over the next few decades in the courts of Mantua and Rome, composers quickly began to intersperse song forms and choruses into the recitative-style of declamation to add musical variety to a long evening's entertainment.
Opera took an important turn from the courtly to the commercial when the first public opera house was opened in Venice in 1637. Venetian opera concentrated on theatrical spectacle, cutting down the amount of recitative in favor of elaborately decorated arias and trading in the austerity of Greek drama for fantastical plots and stage machinery.
By the mid-seventeenth century, Italian opera composers were in demand in courts across Europe. In 1647, Roman composer Luigi Rossi (1597-1653) brought the first Italian opera company to France adding a ballet scene to his opera Orfeo in keeping with their theatrical tradition. Although it was not until the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) took control of the Paris Opéra in 1672 that a native French opera tradition was firmly established.
Antonio Cesti (1623-1669) brought Italian opera to the Habsburg Court in Vienna in 1668. His success was such that it began the dominance of the Italian opera style in German speaking countries and most of Europe until the second half of the 18th century. During this period, Italian opera became an international style championed by the leading composers of the day, regardless of their country of birth. The only exception was in France, where the style cultivated by Jean-Baptiste Lully remained dominant until the opera reforms of German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) in the 1770s.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, the dominance of Italian opera was waning in favor of distinct national traditions. As those traditions developed, the Italian style was appropriated and combined with theatrical, dance, folk music and instrumental music styles that represented each country's unique musical culture creating the multifaceted art form that 21st century audiences know as opera. Today, opera companies in the United States and abroad rely heavily on works written between the latter-eighteenth century and the first part of the twentieth for their standard repertoire. The works featured on the Songs of America web site are drawn primarily from this "long nineteenth century" in which opera is thought by many to have reached its zenith.