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Early Opera 1597-1780

Opera is born as Italian philosophers and artists in Florence attempt to revive the combination of poetry, music, and stage visuals that they believe characterized the theater of ancient Greece. They did not have a name for this new art-form—putting all the arts on stage at the same time—so they called it “work”; and the Italian word for “work” is “Opera”. A new multi-media artform was born, rather like the birth of the movies in our own day.

Opera soon spread from Florence to all of Italy and then to the court of Louis XIV in France, as audiences thrilled to the magic of music and poetic drama against the backdrop of beautiful stage-pictures.

The stories are drawn mostly from classical mythology and the history of ancient Greece and Rome. And the poetic theme is almost always Eros—the Joy of Love possessed, the Sorrow of Love lost, and the Glory of singing Love back. The most commonly told of all the opera stories is that of Orpheus and Eurydice: Orpheus and Eurydice are in love: she dies, and Orpheus descends into the underworld to sing her love back to life. This kind of pattern—joy, sorrow, glory—is explored in thousands of operas composed during this period.

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Photo Credit

Tannhäuser, 1984 © Chris Bennion