The word opera literally translates as the word “work;” it’s the plural of the noun opus. The dramatic form of opera has its roots deep within the aristocratic culture of early 16th Century Florence, Italy.
The renaissance was marked by a revival of ancient Roman or Greek mythology and art. The restaging of Greek plays was a common entertainment for the aristocracy. Apparently though, these Dukes and Duchesses found these plays to be rather long and difficult. So in the courts of Florence, they began to experiment with entertainments called intermezzi. These were lavish stories presented between the acts of larger works that incorporated elaborate sets, lighting, costumes, special effects, as well as singing and dancing. As early as 1502 we see the writings of aristocrats who much prefer an intermedio to an actual play.
In 1589, in the Medici court of Florence, a particularly lavish intermedio was staged for the wedding of the Grand Duke. It told the story of the Greek god Apollo’s slaying of the Pythian dragon. A few years later, during carnival in 1597, this work was expanded by the composer Jacopo Peri. This full-length drama, entitled “Dafne”, featured singing and music throughout. Although most of the music is lost to us, this work is generally referred to as the first opera.
In 1607, the composer Claudio Monteverdi tried his hand at this new dramatic form. His work “Orfeo” is one the earliest and most enduring operas of all time; still being performed today, over 400 years after it was first written. It tells the fitting tale of the golden voiced Orpheus who bravely faces the underworld to win back his lost love, Eurydice.
As the years progressed this new form began to take root around Italy. The republic of Venice saw no reason for opera to only be an entertainment of the aristocracy. In 1637 they built the first public opera house. Monteverdi, who was 70 years old at the time, wrote two more operas for that new venue, including his 1642 work “The Coronation of Poppea”. Opera became a popular genre with the public and the city of Venice soon had as many as seven opera houses.
Opera spread throughout Europe, becoming an extremely important form of drama and music for the rest of the Baroque and well beyond.