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What is an Opera?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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An opera is a dramatic work which blends elements of theater, dance and music. Almost all of the dialogue is sung, or at least delivered in a pitched tone. Opera composers generally start with a written script of the storyline called a libretto, or "little book." The libretto may be a completely original story, or an adaptation of an existing literary piece. The words and storyline form the basic structure of an opera.

The composer then decides which lyrics lend themselves to a full musical treatment and which just move the story forward thematically. If the lyrics reveal the true emotions of a character, such as love or fear, the opera's composer may create a fully scored song called an aria. An aria might be sung by any of the main characters, but quite often it works as a showcase for a particularly strong singer. Many arias have become quite familiar worldwide.

An opera also contains numerous moments when the characters are essentially having conversations amongst themselves. For those scenes, the opera's composer may use a musical form called a recitative. A recitative is a piece of dialogue set to music, although the music may not be very interesting to the audience. The performer of a recitative may sing his or her lines without much concern for an actual melody. Some modern composers no longer use recitatives, but allow the actors to speak their lines normally. In the classic form, however, all dialogue is set to some sort of music.

Many musical historians suggest the first opera to be performed was a piece called Dafne, written by Jacopo Peri in 1598. It was not considered a commercial success in its day, and is rarely performed by modern opera companies. The first composer whose work still enjoys popularity in the opera world was an Italian musician named Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi is credited with helping music theory transition from the Renaissance style to the Baroque style exemplified by composers such as J.S. Bach.

Opera has survived as a musical form primarily because it can adapt, or at least be adapted, to whatever form of music is popular at the time. Over the years, it has incorporated folk music, patriotic or nationalistic anthems, jazz, blues and even rock music. The staging of an opera can also be quite creative and breathtaking in scale. Performing the entire Rings of the Nibelung cycle by Richard Wagner, for example, can take several weeks of scheduled productions.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon998536 — On Jun 29, 2017

I've just started to enjoy western opera. It is so fantastic that I want to transport it to my students in high school in China.

By anon336427 — On May 28, 2013

I have never been to an opera performance, thinking that I would not understand the procedure or follow the performers, but after reading the comments on this site I cannot wait for my first visit to an opera. Thank you so much.

By anon252281 — On Mar 05, 2012

who wrote this article and when was it written. I would like to quote them in a university assignment.

By famnfriends — On Feb 16, 2011

@healthnwell--congrats on going to your first opera. Enjoy! Opera etiquette for the first timer is pretty simple, yet can be scary. First of all, you can wear almost anything. I would not recommend jeans, but anything from what you would wear to Sunday church services or to a holiday party, to wearing a ball gown or tuxedo.

After your clothing choice is decided and you are settled in your seat, refrain from humming, singing or tapping along. This is considered rude and you will get stares from those around you.

There are several times when clapping is considered appropriate. Obviously, when those around you are clapping, when the conductor steps out to start the music, and at the end of an act or the end of the opera when the singers are taking their bows.

Sit back relax and have fun!

By healthnwell — On Feb 15, 2011

Interesting, I did not realize that opera could be adapted into all kinds of music. I will be going to my first opera soon and was wondering is there such a thing as opera etiquette?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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