Introduction to opera
The evolution of opera
Explore our opera timeline
The first opera
Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, widely considered the very first opera, is performed in Florence.
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the oldest opera still regularly performed at opera houses around the world, is staged at the Carnival in Mantua for the first time.
Opera becomes accessible to a paying public as the Teatro San Cassiano, the first public opera house in Venice, opens.
Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo premieres at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice.
Lully and Purcell help to establish the new art form in France and Great Britain, respectively, paving the way for Handel, whose first season of operas begins in London in 1735.
German composer Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice premieres. Gluck, along with many, felt opera had become predictable and static and this, his first ‘reform opera’, aimed to free opera from its shackles of tradition.
Mozart, in many ways influenced by Gluck, dies, having raised opera to a new level both dramatically and musically. His comic and tragic operas remain firm favourites to this day.
Bel canto, the Italian school of ‘beautiful singing’ famous for its elaborate ornamentation and effortless shifts between high and low registers, defines the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, which dominate European opera houses during the early 1800s.
His breakthrough success Nabucco premieres in 1842, and by the end of the decade, Verdi has revolutionised Italian opera and paved the way for verismo (‘reality’) opera, which revolves around the plight of ordinary people and which is further developed and brought to perfection by Puccini.
Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, totalling 15 hours, is staged for the first time. Wagner revolutionised opera by creating a ‘complete work of art’, in which music and words are equally important.
Late 1800s and 20th century
Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, through its revolutionary absence of traditional tonality and its novel use of musical colour, changes people’s expectations and paves the way for modernist opera such as Alban Berg’s 1925 work Wozzeck.
Opera continues to be an important art form, dealing with current affairs and historical subjects alike, such as John Adam’s Doctor Atomic (2005), George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012) and Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet.