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Giasone, orchestral composition, city deep, Manaus, musical forms

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Opera, drama in which the text is set to music and staged. The texts of operas are sung, with singing and stage action nearly always given instrumental accompaniment. Many operas also feature instrumental interludes (called intermezzi) and dance scenes, even extended ballets that interrupt the action.

Opera began as an entertainment at the courts of the Italian aristocracy, with outdoor terraces and even enclosed tennis courts being adapted for performances. It had its origins in the last years of the 16th century, and eventually this new form of entertainment caught on with the public. Giasone (1649) by Italian composer Pietro Francesco Cavalli held the stage for some 50 years. Opera as a popular entertainment attained its zenith in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after which the disruptive effects of two world wars and far-reaching developments in music itself left opera in a state of fairly arrested development.

In its heyday, opera was a prolific entertainment. Many of Europe’s greatest composers wrote operas by the dozen, and operas that took hold (many closed on opening night) were taken up by the feverishly adulated stars of the period. These stars held court in the sumptuous opera houses of Saint Petersburg, Naples, Rome, Venice, Milan, Vienna, Paris, and Berlin, and in such emerging outposts of opera as New York City and New Orleans, the last a stronghold of French opera in the 19th century. One wealthy eccentric even built an opera house in Manaus, a city deep in the Brazilian jungle, where Italian tenor Enrico Caruso made guest appearances.

Throughout its history opera has exerted great influence on other forms of music—and vice versa. The symphony, for example, began as an instrumental introduction (called a sinfonia) to 18th-century Italian opera. The glittering runs and cadenzas (extended virtuosic solos) of violin and piano concertos stem, in large part, from an attempt to replicate some of opera’s vocal brilliance for these instruments. The innovations in harmony and orchestration (assigning parts in an orchestral composition to different instruments) that 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner developed for his sprawling operas shaped the subsequent course of many musical forms. Indeed, many modern musicians regard the effort to emerge from the gigantic shadow of Wagner as the principal struggle of classical music after the 19th century.


Kupferberg, Herbert, M.A., M.S.

Senior Editor, "Parade". Author of "Opera, The book of Classical Music Lists", and other books.

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