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The Form of Opera

operatic performance, opera seria, opera buffa, Singspiel, grand manner

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Singing is at the heart of opera. In grand opera, the type of opera most commonly performed today, the entire text is sung. What makes it opera in the grand manner is the spectacle—lavish sets and costumes, huge choruses, brilliant vocal displays and dance numbers (usually ballet). In comic opera, however, singing generally alternates with passages that are half-sung and half-spoken and usually accompanied by a keyboard instrument. Comic operas are not necessarily humorous, however. The term comic opera (opera comique in French, opera buffa in Italian, and Singspiel in German) was intended to distinguish operas that were lighter in style from opera seria (serious opera). Comic operas generally deal with ordinary people and places and end happily, whereas opera seria treats mythological or historical subjects and typically ends tragically. The most famous examples of comic opera are Carmen (1875) by French composer Georges Bizet and Fidelio (1805; revised 1806, 1814) by German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. A form of light, sentimental comic opera that flourished in Paris and Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to be called operetta. Imported to the United States, it evolved into the musical, a play that includes songs, choruses, and dances in its narrative.

All of these types of opera rest on the shared belief that music—and especially singing—intensifies dramatic effect. This was not always so. In opera’s early days, singing was often subordinated to ballet spectacles. And some opera composers, especially those of France and 19th-century Russia, emphasized extravagant scenic effects and extended dance episodes. Many of the later German composers made the orchestra a partner rather than an accompanist of the singer. But throughout the history of opera, the human voice has remained dominant.

The Orchestra

If the singers provide the foundation of an operatic performance, the orchestra supplies the framework, the background, and the underpinning. Its instrumental preludes and thematic references prepare the audience for the evolution of the drama and provide dramatic context throughout the opera. The orchestra also supports the singers and underscores the climaxes. Its interludes cover changes of scenery or mood, and its coda (conclusion) provides the opera’s final statement.

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