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Classical Era Opera: Mozart and Popular Operas

Classical Era Opera: Mozart and Popular Operas
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  • 0:04 Classical Era Opera
  • 1:46 Opera Seria
  • 4:32 Opera Buffa
  • 7:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

Classical era opera offers a dramatic reflection of the society of its time. Read on to learn about opera seria and opera buffa, the two popular styles of Classical era opera.

Classical Era Opera

If I asked you to name musicians who wrote songs protesting the establishment, my guess is you'd think of the bands like The Rolling Stones before you'd think of Mozart. But during music's Classical era, which lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century, big social changes were happening, and composers were there to portray every step of the story. Some of the era's most outspoken statements about society appeared in the dramatic stories of opera.

The Classical era came at a time when people were questioning the power of aristocrats who had ruled Europe for centuries. A contemporary philosophical movement called the The Enlightenment fueled this discussion. Enlightenment thinkers believed in class equality, and they thought that reason and natural human expression could bring about goodness and justice. Upheavals like the American Revolution and the French Revolution resulted from Enlightenment thinking.

There were two popular styles of Classical opera. Taken together, they're a great illustration of the Enlightenment-era struggle between upper and lower classes. One style was opera seria, an older variety of opera with plots that celebrated the power of the aristocracy'. The other was opera buffa, a new style with plots that questioned authority and featured everyday characters.

Opera Seria

Opera seria is Italian for serious opera. This solemn style was old-school from a Classical perspective: it had been around since the mid-17th century. The plot of an opera seria usually concerns a noble protagonist who faces a tough moral decision. The characters are exalted types, like monarchs or Greek gods, and the settings are mythological or historical, with extravagant, high-budget stage sets. Opera seria was popular with the ruling classes. It portrayed the aristocracy as they liked to see themselves: noble, profound, and intimidating people with their epic costumes.

One famous Classical-era opera seria is Orfeo ed Euridice, (that means Orpheus and Eurydice) composed in 1762 by the German composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787).

This opera was based on an ancient Greek myth about the god Orpheus, who visits the underworld hoping to free his dead bride Euridice through the power of song.

Gluck was interested in the Enlightenment's ideas about naturalness, and it shows in his music. He portrayed Orpheus's heartbreak with elegant, simple melodies that were solemn enough to express the characters' nobility, but simple enough that anybody could relate to the characters' feelings. It was a gentle statement against the elitism of traditional opera seria.

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is the most famous of Classical era opera composers. His operas are known for powerful music and psychologically realistic characters. His best-known opera seria is his mythological masterwork Idomeneo, written in 1781.

Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, the story concerns Idomeneo, King of Crete. Idomeneo faces a terrible choice: he must sacrifice his son to the god Neptune, or his kingdom will be destroyed. Idomeneo contains the classic ingredients of opera seria: a mythological plot, a tough moral decision, and a powerful but benevolent monarch. Here's a picture of the original star of Idomeneo, looking quite noble and idealistic.

Idomeneo character from opera seria by Mozart
Mozart opera Idomeneo

Opera Buffa

If you're thinking that opera seria sounds a bit boring, you're not alone. Even in the Classical era, not everybody wanted to sit through three hours of Greek gods making profound moral choices. To add a little comic relief, producers started to insert comic mini-operas called intermezzos between the acts of serious operas, like a halftime show in the middle of a football game.

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