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Opera: How did this theatrical form emerge?

By Tania Bagwan,

From its emergence in Florence to its types, here is all you need to know about opera.

Opera is a theatrical form with music at its core, surrounded by dramatic roles taken up by singers.

When it comes to different forms of theatre wherein music is a fundamental component, opera is easily the one that stands out. A seminal part of Western classical music, opera is a popular theatrical art even today, with different groups existing around the world. Some traditional, while others are more contemporary with their own twist. Opera also has different interpretations in Asia, mainly in China, with Chinese operas such as chuanqi, jingxi, kunqu, etc. being very popular. Performing an opera takes months, and sometimes, years of practice involving a dedicated group of skilled musicians and performers. This is one of the main reasons why it is acclaimed to be a highly respectable art form. Read on to learn all about the history of opera. 

What is opera? 
Opera is a theatrical form with music at its core, surrounded by dramatic roles taken up by singers. It is a combination of both vocal and orchestral music and visual arts. The difference between opera and musical theatre is that the later follows a plot-based narrative which is the key component, whereas in an opera, the main aspect of the performance is strictly the music and not the story. An opera performance brings together acting, dance, costumes, scenery and evidently, singing and is accompanied by an orchestra.  

The origin of opera 
This performing art originated in Italy towards the end of the 16th century during the Italian Renaissance. Specifically, northern Italy was responsible for the development of opera, as it was performed in the courts under the rule of the Medici family in the city of Florence. The word opera in Italian refers to work, in the sense of the actual labour done as well as the final product or result.  

The first opera performance 
It is believed that the very first opera performance took place in the Italian city of Florence. There, a group of artists, writers, humanists, intellectuals, musicians and statesmen were together known as the Florentine Camerata. This competent cohort of individuals decided to create their own interpretation of the storytelling of Greek drama through the use of music. One of the members of this group was Jacopo Peri who composed, for this recreation of Greek stories, what is believed to be the very first opera in 1597 called “Dafne.” 

After this, the operas which emerged went on to be categorised as either opera seria or opera buffa, the former being more stately and dignified and performed for the royalty, the later being less formal and more comedy-oriented.