Introduction to opera

The evolution of opera

Explore our opera timeline

In this timeline we chart the development of opera from 16th century Italy to the present day

1598

The first opera

Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, widely considered the very first opera, is performed in Florence.

1607

L’Orfeo is first staged

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.

1637

The first public opera house

Opera becomes accessible to a paying public as the Teatro San Cassiano, the first public opera house in Venice, opens.

1639

Cavalli’s first opera premieres

Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo premieres at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice.

1735

Opera spreads across Europe

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.

1762

Reform

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.

1791

Mozart dies

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.

Early 1800s

Bel canto thrives

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.

1842

Verdi’s Nabucco premieres

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.

1876

Wagner’s Ring Cycle is first staged

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 influence defines opera

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.

21st century

Opera in the 21st century

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.

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