What Is Opera Music? With 7 Top Examples and History
Chances are you know a little about opera music. But what is it exactly? What are some of the best opera songs and musicians, and how did opera music come about? We answer all of this and more today.
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Definition: What Is Opera Music?
So, what is opera?
Traditionally, operas are fully-orchestrated musical compositions. They have several moving parts, including:
Many comprise several acts, but that’s not guaranteed. Several composers wrote one-act operas. At the other end of the spectrum are operas so long and dense you need to block off whole weekends to perform them.
What’s difficult about conjuring a single, cogent definition of opera music is the genre’s sheer variety.
When people think of opera, they think of serious, somber pieces. Those operas certainly exist and are called “Opera Seria.”
Opera Seria is almost always sung in Italian and showcases the bel canto technique. It uses long, sustained phrases designed to give the impression the singer never takes a breath. In the wrong hands, it risks turning the soloists cyanotic. Done well, it’s music to die for.
But there are also comic operas. And while initially, that’s a phrase that conjures mad Gilbert and Sullivan capers, those Victorian gentlemen don’t have a monopoly on the genre. Comic opera is as expansive a genre as Opera Seria and includes compositions by:
Crucially and confusingly, especially to the novice opera-goer, comic operas are not the same as Opera Comique.
Instead, Opera Comique refers to a genre of opera that typically includes French libretto and spoken dialogue.
The rule of thumb is that Opera Comique was the kind of opera a newly-engaged couple could clandestinely attend at the turn of the century.
However, the rule isn’t hard and fast because the most famous example of Opera Comique is Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” Between the cigarette girls, the smugglers, and the seduction, it’s hardly what High Society calls respectable.
Opera Music Characteristics
So, that’s the definition of opera, or rather, several different definitions. But what makes opera operatic?
Unsurprisingly, because there are so many different types of opera, finding two the same is a bit like finding a pair of identical twins. It’s extremely challenging. That said, some characteristics transcend musical style and opera type.
Here are some of its essential characteristics.
Whether it’s a rock opera, a folk opera, or a traditional opera, one thing you can be sure of is that it opens with an overture.
Overtures are a bit like musical crash courses in the performance you are about to see. They’re also an excuse for the composer to show off a good overture, take several disparate musical ideas from the opera, and combine them.
Famous examples of overtures include:
- The William Tell Overture
- Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro”
- Overture to “The Barber of Seville”
Another staple characteristic of opera is the leitmotif. Unlike overtures, leitmotif wasn’t around from the beginning. Instead, it was a concept that developed as opera evolved.
Leitmotifs are musical bars or phrases with specific associations. Sometimes, they are character-specific, and the introduction of a leitmotif signifies a particular person entering the stage.
Other times, they are thematic. A composer wanting to convey sadness might link the emotion to a leitmotif and repeat it whenever anything upsetting happens. This can be extremely useful because it allows for a bit of musical misdirection.
That means that you can have a character sing one thing, even while the leitmotif in the orchestration tells you the opposite is true.
Mozart’s comic opera “Cosi Fan Tutti” is an excellent example. In it, two men masquerade as strangers to see if their sweethearts will be loyal to them. The audience knows the suitors' identities because of the leitmotifs attached to them, but the young women don’t. The comedy here comes as much from the musical joke between composer and audience as from the ensuing merry-mix-ups.
The most famous composer to use leitmotif was Richard Wagner. His “Ring Cycle” is rife with themes. Every character has a leitmotif, the much-contested ring has a leitmotif, and so does Valhalla, home of the gods.
Each opera in “The Ring Cycle” builds on these leitmotifs, combining them and recombining them as the situation escalates. When it reaches a climax, all these musical building blocks come together to create a new theme heralding the apocalypse.
Listeners well-versed in Wagner enjoy spotting the leitmotifs. However, a novice opera listener benefits from a crib sheet.
Moreover, Wagner doesn’t have a monopoly on leitmotifs. He may have perfected the concept, but other composers to employ leitmotif in opera include:
- Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- Richard Strauss
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Another characteristic of opera is the cadenza.
Cadenzas are long, ornamented pieces of music that give the soloists a chance to showcase their talents.
Typically, a cadenza is improvised, but that doesn’t mean the singer makes it up as they go. A professional opera singer will rehearse several different ornamentations and work with the orchestra and conductor to agree upon a combination that works effectively.
Another important aspect of the cadenza is that it is rhythmically more fluid than the rest of the aria. The structure relaxes, allowing the singer to stretch or lengthen phrases.
They are particularly common in “de capo” arias because the recapitulation of familiar sections can make guessing when the aria will end challenging. The cadenza is the musical stoplight that comes on to signal the performance is winding down.
Some of the most famous examples of cadenzas come from soprano arias, but sopranos don’t have a monopoly on this technique. Tenors, basses, and altos all get their turn in the spotlight.
Yet another aspect of opera is the orchestra. We all remember the singers, and arguably, theirs is the most important job.
But the orchestra is the glue that keeps an opera together. These days, houses use a full symphony orchestra. But that’s a modern development and goes hand in hand with the increased size of opera houses.
Because opera began as something you could stage in your parlor, the baroque working definition of “full orchestra” differed significantly from ours and featured fewer instruments.
One of the most common misconceptions about opera is that it lacks dialogue. This is how many people distinguish it from musical theater.
But, as discussed earlier, operas do sometimes use dialogue to give the singers a rest from singing.
The real difference between musical theater and opera is the technique behind the singers’ training. And that leads naturally to the final characteristic of opera. There are no microphones involved.
These days, that can be challenging, given the scale of some of the operatic houses. But a professional opera singer is trained to project over the orchestra and fill the house.
7 Examples Of Opera Music
So, now you have a working definition of opera and discussed the characteristics that make opera different from other types of music.
Here are some examples of opera music to build on your knowledge of what opera is.
“When I Am Laid in Earth” by Jessye Norman
“When I Am Laid in Earth” is an aria from Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas.” Purcell wrote the opera in 1689 for his friend John Blow’s girls’ school.
Consequently, as with lots of baroque music, the opera was designed to be accessible to amateur or student musicians.
Sometimes called “Dido’s Lament,” this aria uses a ground bass formula. Like much baroque music, it relies upon a basso continuo to provide support for the singer.
These bass lines were seldom recorded. Instead, Purcell indicates what chord combinations he thinks make sense using a series of numbers in the bass clef. This is called figured bass, and an accomplished continuo player not only interprets the figures but fleshes the accompaniment out to help the singer as much as possible.
Another element of “When I Am Laid in Earth” is its use of ostinati. These are phrases that repeat throughout the baseline. In “When I Am Laid in Earth,” they help contribute to the funereal feel of the piece.
That’s appropriate because, first and foremost, “When I Am Laid in Earth” is Dido’s death lament. Dido sings it while igniting her funeral pyre.
It’s the last aria of Purcell’s opera, and Jessye Norman gives it a somber gravitas that perfectly encapsulates the feelings of doomed Dido.
“Largo al Factotum” by Tito Gobbi
“Largo al Factotum” offers a very different answer to the question “What is opera?”
The aria comes from Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera “Il Barbieri de Siviglia,” better known to many as “The Barber of Seville.”
It’s much faster than “When I Am Laid In Earth,” to start with. It’s so fast it’s what opera devotees call a patter song. The challenge with patter songs is to spit the words out as clearly as possible while singing as quickly as possible. Gobbi rises to the challenge ably.
The other thing that distinguishes Rossini’s famous patter song from Purcell’s death lament is that it’s funny. In this aria, Figaro boasts about his considerable skill as a barber.
Of course, the other thing that put “Largo al Factotum” on the map was its turn as an operatic highlight on Looney Tunes, where Bugs Bunny does a version of the song.
“Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” by The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
It’s impossible to answer “What is opera?” without discussing the chorus.
Chorus sizes vary, but we challenge opera-goers to name an opera that doesn’t feature at least one song for the choir. As the voice of the people, they can step outside the high-stakes action and comment on it.
Verdi’s opera choruses are especially famous because he takes the time to ensure everyone has an interesting harmonic line.
“The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” comes from Verdi’s opera “Nabucco,” which tells the story of king Nebuchadnezzar.
The chorus takes psalm 137 as its inspirational text, and it’s the operatic chorus that made Verdi’s contemporaries start paying attention to him.
Throughout the chorus, the enslaved Hebrews long for freedom, even as they declare their love of their country. It was a wildly successful piece of music, so much so that it remains Italy’s unofficial national anthem.
“Polonaise From Eugene Onegin” by Ukrainian National Opera Company
Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin or Seven Lyric Scenes” is fascinating to dissect because it’s perfectly symmetrical. Among other things, each of its three acts opens with a dance.
Act I features the peasants’ dance and uses a variety of Russian folk melodies. Act II opens with a Mazurka. The Polonaise heard here comes from the beginning of Act III.
The Polonaise is the stateliest dance in “Onegin” and deliberately so. It reflects protagonist Tatiana’s newly-acquired grandeur and offers a contrast with her upbringing in the Russian countryside.
Tchaikovsky based the opera on Alexander Pushkin’s famous verse novel and trusted his audience would be familiar enough with the story that he could gloss over some details. But even as he glosses the text, he uses dance to fill in the missing pieces.
Dance is also a frequent staple of opera and a vital part of discussing what opera is. That’s because, especially in the days before technological advancements, scene changes were slow and complicated.
Incorporating dances into an opera effectively kept the audience entertained. It also allowed the people backstage to change the scene furniture.
Tchaikovsky was famous for his dance music, and the dance numbers of “Eugene Onegin” are no exception. They are more than a distraction from the changing sets. They are integral to telling the story.
“Song to the Moon” by Lucia Popp
Czech Composer Antonin Dvorak wrote his opera “Rusalka” after being inspired by Hans-Christian Anderson’s story The Little Mermaid.
Here, Lucia Popp plays the part of the eponymous water nymph, Rusalka. Her aria, “Song to the Moon” occurs in the first 20 minutes of the opera. As she sings, Rusalka tells the moon of her love for a human and her desperate wish to join him.
In contrast to some of the other arias and opera pieces we have examined, “Song to the Moon” has a scaled-back accompaniment. It’s composed for a soprano voice and harp.
It’s also an excellent example of a leitmotif. In the opening bars of “Song to the Moon,” the harp plays a two-bar phrase that becomes Rusalka’s leitmotif.
It is heard throughout the second act, even when Rusalka can’t sing. When she returns to the water, condemned to doom unsuspecting men to watery deaths, it darkens. It reappears bright, light, and hopeful when her love comes searching for her in Act III.
It’s a beautiful example of lingering musical romanticism.
“It Ain’t Necessarily So” by Reggie Whitehead
Proving that the definition of opera is as fluid as water, here is Reggie Whitehead singing, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from Gershwin’s jazz opera “Porgy and Bess.”
In the context of the opera, Sportin’ Life sings “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to shock his God-fearing neighbors.
It’s full of jazz rhythms and characteristics, like:
- Blue notes
These days, you’re more likely to hear the aria as a jazz standard. There are many excellent renditions, but what gets lost in those capable jazz performances is the operatic hallmark of the chorus.
As written, Sportin’ Life’s verses are virtuoso opportunities intended to showcase the singer’s talent. But in between, there is an incredibly demanding chorus part. The job of the chorus is to echo Sportin’ Life. And on paper, that sounds easy. But what they are echoing is his high-flying improvisations. The more technical they are, the more skilled the chorus needs to be.
“Batter My Heart” by Gerald Finley
Young people might worry opera is too stuffy, but mature audiences are almost always wary of anything purporting to be “modern” opera.
But opera isn’t a museum piece, and John Adam’s opera, “Doctor Atomic,” proves that modern opera is as emotionally affecting as anything written hundreds of years ago.
“Batter My Heart” uses lyrics from John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets.”
As it opens, listen to the pulse of the orchestra. Percussive instrumentation makes it sound like a ticking bomb, which is appropriate for an opera wrestling with the ramifications of the atom bomb.
There’s also tense violin orchestration that mirrors the racing of a heart.
In contrast to this is the baritone’s vocal line. It’s anguished, heartfelt, and powerfully still. It moves not in whole tones, but semitones and the cumulative effect of these things are breathtaking.
5 Top Opera Musicians
It’s impossible to discuss what opera is without talking in detail about the musicians who make these performances possible.
Born in 1927, Leontyne Price was the first soprano of color to receive international renown. Her signature role was “Aida,” and she had a High C, which was envied by sopranos everywhere.
Despite her facility as Aida, Price didn’t initially accept the Met’s invitation to sing the part. She and her agent felt it was important she makes her debut as something more than a racially complicated Egyptian princess. Instead, Price deferred until 1961, when the Met signed her on for several roles.
In time, the Met became her home. She formally retired from opera in 1997 but gave the occasional concert and offered advice and masterclasses to aspiring opera singers.
Born in 1935, Luciano Pavarotti was a famous lyric tenor.
He began his career in 1961 when he sang Rodolfo from Puccini’s “La Boheme” at Reggio Emilia in Italy.
After performing across several European opera houses, Pavarotti became a regular singer at the Met from 1971 onwards.
He performed many roles capably but is most famous for his rendition of “Nessum Dorma,” from Puccini’s opera, “Turandot.”
Joyce DiDonato is a mezzo-soprano. Born in 1969, she embarked on a graduate study of music in 1993 and subsequently joined Santa Fe’s Apprentice Singer program.
These days she is an internationally-renowned singer best known for her interpretation of Romantic music, especially Donizetti, but also Handel and Mozart.
DiDonato has been heavily involved in rediscovering lesser-known operas, like Donizetti’s “Donna del Lago.” She is also a passionate activist and works hard to make opera as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
Sir Bryn Terfel is a Welsh bass-baritone of international acclaim. He is best known for his musical dexterity in navigating Wagner. But when he began his career in 1990, it was as Gugliemo in “Cosi Fan Tutti.”
His international break came while singing the part of The Speaker in Mozart’s singspiel “Der Zauberflöte.”
While best-known for his Wagnerian roles, Terfel’s repertoire varies. He has sung everything from “Handel” to “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”
Born in 1948, Kathleen Battle is an operatic soprano renowned for her coloratura singing.
She studied voice on a scholarship but afterward spent several years teaching. Her first role was as the soprano soloist in Brahms’ “German Requiem.”
Eventually, Battle met James Levine, and through him, Battle became familiar with the Met. She sang various roles, among them is Strauss’s Zerbinetta, famous for her 12-minute aria full of high-flying coloratura passages.
Battle took a 22-year absence from performing but returned to the Met in 2016.
The History Of Opera Music
For a long time, the only acceptable music was sacred or church music. The first operas emerged from Italy in the 1500s, and at the time, they weren’t for public consumption. These were private compositions to be put on by friends and family.
Then, the Venice Carnival decided it would include a public opera, and the genre took off.
The baroque era refined operatic technique, introducing light orchestration and recitatives to bridge the gaps between arias and the rest of the plot.
Baroque music was famously florid. That changed with the advent of the classical era of music. The most famous composer of the time was Mozart, and his operas reflect the cultural shift, as the lower classes gleefully outwit the upper ones.
Singers still ornament arias, but not as frequently and with a much lighter touch.
But genius as Mozart’s music was, it wasn’t true to life, and not everyone appreciated that. In the late 1800s, composers changed direction and began composing what they called “Verismo.”
These were operas that took true-to-life subjects and turned them into musical masterpieces. The most famous composers to use Verismo are Puccini and Verdi. They took significant inspiration from the texts of the time. You see that in their choice of subjects, many of which come from novels, like:
- Manon Lescaut
- La Boheme
By the 20th century, music changed again. Dissonance became popular, and you hear that in compositions like Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring.”
Minimalism also became popular and was instrumental in operas by John Adams.
What the 20th century did was break whatever barriers were left on what constituted opera. There were jazz operas and rock operas. A recent opera even included step dance.
And where once performances were rarefied and expensive, many people now watch opera from the comfort of the cinema.
What Is Opera Music? Final Thoughts
So, what is opera music?
It’s a complicated question that requires a complex answer. At the end of the day, opera is an art form that changes constantly. It spans a variety of styles, vocal techniques, and genres.
But whatever the story, what keeps people engaged in this wonderful art form is its ability to explore humanity and its many foibles. It puts them to music and reminds us that however far back you go in time, there has always been love and loss. Not only that, the people who suffer these things have always seemed just a little bit absurd.
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