Imagine you are in a darkened theater and on stage are the actors. Behind the actors you can see the scenery. Down in front of the stage, in what is called the pit, is an orchestra and a conductor. As the orchestra plays, the actors on stage do not speak their lines they sing them!
Opera is the combination of drama and music. Like drama, opera embraces the entire spectrum of theatrical elements: dialogue, acting, costumes, scenery and action, but it is the sum of all these elements, combined with music, which defines the art form called opera.
Operatic dramas are usually serious, but there are several comic operas and funny scenes in tragic operas. The music is usually complicated and difficult to sing well. Only the most skillful singers can handle it. The cast is usually made up of main characters (the soloists) and a chorus (a group of singers who act as a crowd of people involved in the action of the plot). Some operas have scenes in which dancing is performed by a small ballet group.
Operas usually begin with an overture - an introduction played by the orchestra alone. Once the curtain goes up, the soloists and chorus sing throughout most of the drama. Arias (songs sung by soloists) are the important points in an opera. In an aria, a character sings about his or her feelings and thoughts, or about what he or she is going to do.
Between arias, the soloists may sing back and fourth to each other in a kind of musical discussion called recitatives. Besides singing arias, soloists often join together to sing duets, trios, quartets, quintets, or sextets at various points in the opera. The chorus usually has several songs to sing, either alone or with the soloists. The music follows the action and mood of the plot.
Operas are usually performed in special buildings called opera houses. A choreographer creates the dances, and the chorus master rehearses the singers. The conductor leads the entire opera performance from his or her place in the pit. The soloists, chorus members and the dancers follow the directions of the conductor.
The ancient Greeks blended drama and music, but opera as we know it today developed in Italy in the late 1500s. At first, the music was used mainly for background. However, by the end of the century, the drama and the music were equally important.
The opera innovation inspired some of the biggest composers known today. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully produced a model for courtly opera that influenced French opera through the mid-18th century. Jean-Philippe Rameau, George Frederic Handel, and Christoph Willibald Gluck were the most significant opera composers of the first two-thirds of the 18th century. However, their works were surpassed by the brilliant operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the early 19th century, Gioacchino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti dominated Italian opera. In the later 19th century the greatest works were those of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Wagner, with his bold innovations, became the most...