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The Invention of Opera

Who invented opera? Around 1580, scholars met in Florence and created a new art form with the opera. However, there was a misunderstanding…

The Most Important in a Nutshell

For those in a hurry: the most important facts about the invention of opera in short form.

When and Where was Opera Invented?

The opera was invented around 1580 in Florence (Italy).

Who Invented Opera?

Opera was invented by Italian scholars in a discussion circle. This discussion circle was called “Florentine Camerata”.

Why was Opera created?

The members of the Florentine Camerata actually wanted to revive the ancient dramas. In doing so, however, they made false historical assumptions and thus created – more or less by mistake – a completely new art form: opera.

Which one was the First Opera?

The first opera was La Dafne by Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini. The opera was premiered in 1598 and is preserved today only in fragments.

You would like to know more? Please read on…

The Florentine Camerata

Around 1580, poets, musicians, philosophers and other scholars came together in Florence, Italy. There they formed an academic discussion circle, which was later called the “Florentine Camerata”.

Famous people were members of the Florentine Camerata, for example:

  • Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo Galilei’s father)
  • Jacopo Peri (composer)
  • Ottavio Rinuccini (poet)

The scholars exchanged ideas mainly about Greek antiquity. They found ancient drama particularly interesting. However, there were some misunderstandings here…

Opera Arises from a Misunderstanding

Actually, the members of the Florentine Camerata had set themselves the goal of performing the ancient dramas as faithfully as possible. So the question arose as to how the dramas had been performed in antiquity?

Scholars made the following two assumptions about this:

  • They assumed that the text of the ancient dramas had been sung.
  • They assumed that vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra had been involved in the ancient dramas.

Both assumptions – as we know today – were wrong.

Rarely is a misunderstanding likely to have advanced music so much. Based on their two assumptions, the members of the Florentine Camerata created an entirely new type of spoken song: the monody.

Monody

In the monody, a vocal soloist is accompanied only very sparingly (with “chords”) by instruments. Thus, singing and instruments do not compete with each other. The singing with the text to be sung is in the first place, the instrumental accompaniment has a supporting effect.

The monody was the basis for the new art form that the members of the Florentine Camerata created in their discussion groups.

The following points were most important to the scholars:

  • Text comprehensibility
  • Clear, simple vocal line
  • Sparse instrumental accompaniment
  • Recitative singing (recitar cantando)
  • Clear representation of the affect

Monody was thus in competition with polyphony, which was predominant at the time. In polyphony, many musical lines were layered on top of each other, so that the text was hardly understandable. The members of the Florentine Camerata wanted to change that.

The First Opera: La Dafne by Jacopo Peri

The first artistic product of the academic discussions was the work La Dafne. The music was by Jacopo Peri and the text by Ottavio Rinuccini, both of whom were members of the Florentine Camerata (see above). The work was first performed in 1598 and is considered the first opera. Unfortunately, only fragments of it have survived.

Opera Becomes Popular: Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi is much better known today than Jacopo Peri and is even often called the first opera composer (that this is not true, you now know 😉). In fact, Monteverdi treated the rather rigid specifications of the Florentine Camerata with artistic freedom, thereby shaping a style all his own. Monteverdi’s further developments include:

  • a larger instrumental accompaniment,
  • an expanded harmony,
  • an even more sharply delineated presentation of affect, and
  • instrumentation that reflects the character of the opera characters (e.g. trombones for the underworld).

Monteverdi’s personal style is clearly evident in his first opera L’Orfeo (1607) as well as in his later works Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643).

The increasing popularity of the new art form was accompanied by the construction of the first opera houses. Here, too, the development began in Italy, where famous opera houses such as the Teatro La Fenice were built in the coming decades. The golden age of opera could begin.

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