The Beginnings of Opera: Influences and Components

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Opera represents one of the highest levels of performing arts that Western Civilization has created, but where did it come from? In this lesson, we look at the beginning of Opera, starting with the late Middle Ages and then on to the Early Renaissance.

The First Operas

Imagine yourself in a medium sized town at the very beginning of the Renaissance. All your life, the only music you have heard is either the stodgy pipes of the church organ or the stringed instruments of the traveling minstrels. Then a new show comes to town. You take your seat and instantly hear new music, from multiple instruments. This music sounds completely unlike anything else you've ever heard - it's so pretty it's almost ornamental. A curtain opens and you hear singing and see costumes and dancing. This really is something special! You could tell a lot of work went into this - fitting, since this new form's name is Italian for work - opera.

While today we may think that opera has been around since women in horned helmets first learned to sing, it really is a product of the Renaissance. The first works that we can even call real operas only came into being in the last 400 years or so. In this lesson, we'll look at how it all came together and became one of the most refined arts of the Renaissance.

Drama in the Middle Ages

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, drama had been a high art form. However, during the Middle Ages, it was largely forgotten as an elevated form of performance. In fact, drama during the Middle Ages largely took on one of two varieties. It could be what were known as mystery plays, which were meant to teach the tenets of Christianity to a population that was largely illiterate. While these sound harmless enough, the Church loathed the fact that drama could take some of their influence and tried to limit their expansion. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there were much more basic plays. These acts largely appealed to the lowest common denominator and, in many ways, resembled something like a live-action South Park.

It was out of the latter of these two that the great dramas of the early Renaissance, most notably Shakespeare's writings, would evolve. After all, a lot of Shakespeare's work is pretty crass, even if the writing is beautiful. Later, in cases like the ballets de cour and masque, these dramas were combined with significant amounts of dancing, as well as some music. Still, as drama continued to evolve throughout the Renaissance, it was clear that even the best acting and dancing had a natural partner in the new musical abilities of the day.

New Music

In the last few decades, advances in technology have lead to entirely new sounds emerging in music. After all, techno would be largely impossible without the sounds of these new instruments. A similar event happened during the Renaissance, but this time with stringed instruments.

Before, stringed instruments were largely just lyres and fiddles, constructed without real concern for large-scale use. However, with the rise of other arts during the Renaissance came a new interest in the music of stringed instruments. Out of this interested in stringed music came an interest in harpsichords and ultimately pianos. The resulting style of music, Baroque music, was quite unlike anything the world had ever heard. The term 'Baroque' comes from the fact that the music was heavily ornamented in sound.

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