Evolution of Opera: Greek Drama to Baroque Opera

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Donald Grout defines opera in his text, A Short History of Opera, as “a drama in music: a dramatic action, exhibited on stage with scenery by actors in costume, the words conveyed entirely or for the most part by singing, and the whole sustained and amplified by orchestral music” (4). A literal translation of the word opera is simply work, and although the term opera was not coined until 1634, one of the first known operas was performed in 1597 (Grout 1). Grout explains that there are two types of opera. The first type is when the main emphasis is on the music (Grout 6). Examples of this type of opera can be seen in the works of Lully and Wagner (Grout 7). The second type of opera is characterized by the music and other factors being of equal importance (Grout 6). Mozart, Bellini, and Rossini composed operas that belong to this second type of opera (Grout 7). The origins of seventeenth century opera can be traced back to Greek drama, and medieval theatre. Throughout the seventeenth century different forms of opera could be found in various countries including Italy, Germany, France, and England. To have a thorough understanding of opera it is important to locate its roots. Greek drama is said to be “the model on which the creators of modern opera at the end of the sixteenth century based their work on” (Grout 11). There are significant differences between Greek drama and opera. For instance, the casts of Greek dramas consisted of only men (Grout 13). Also Greek dramas were not entirely sung, many parts were spoken with the majority of the singing done by the chorus (Grout 12). The function of the chorus was to convey the audience’s response (Grout 12). By the second century BCE, Greek drama went through significant changes inc... ... middle of paper ... ... England yielded to Italian taste, this is thought to be as a result of the death of Henry Purcell (Grout 135). Henry Purcell was the most important operatic composer in England and it was thought that with his passing came the hopelessness “for the future of English musical drama” (Grout 146). Italian opera maintained its position as leader throughout the Baroque era. Opera that was seen at the end of the Baroque era came a long way from its roots in Greek drama. Even though at the end of the seventeenth century Italian opera was the most popular throughout many parts of Europe, other countries made significant contributions to opera. Opera continues to evolve to this date and Baroque opera was very different from the modern opera we see today. Works Cited Grout, Donald Jay. A Short History of Opera. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Print.

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