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Opera is one of the most respected art forms in Western music, but there are several types of opera. Discover some of the well known opera genres, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Opera

Oh, hi there. I’m just preparing for a night at the opera. Opera, a type of theatrical drama told entirely through music and singing, is very popular in many parts of the world. And it’s not hard to see why. Women in Viking helmets, singing in pitches that make glass shatter…that’s opera, right? Actually, as it turns out, there are many different kinds of opera. And the Viking lady only appears in one of them.

Opera Buffa and Opera Seria

Let’s start by looking back at some of the original types of opera back in Italy, where opera was first really developed.

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A lot of us think of opera as a very serious art form, and it is. That’s the idea behind opera seria, an 18th-century style of opera characterized by serious, often historical, themes. Opera seria generally follows an A-B-A pattern, in which the first section presents a musical theme, the second section presents a new one, and the third section repeats the first theme. The most important singer in the opera seria was generally a castrati, an especially talented male singer castrated before puberty to maintain a high voice. This person was usually cast as the heroic male character, and his opposite was the leading lady, the prima donna.

Opera seria was almost always performed in royal courts for nobles and royals. After all, royals are serious people, so they need serious opera. That’s also the reason why these operas were generally built on historic themes; royalty liked to see their own power reflected in the kings, emperors, and heroes of the past.Opera is a very serious art form.

Unless, of course, it’s not. The opposite of the opera seria is the opera buffa, a comedic opera that was popular in the 18th century. The opera buffa featured comedic, almost vaudevillian, topics with themes from daily life.

Originally, the comic opera was just a short, one-act skit performed during the intermission of serious operas. But, they eventually became popular enough to merit their own genre. They featured subjects and scenes from daily life, and very often from peasant life, which made a pretty strong contrast to the historical opera seria. To make this contrast all the more evident, the opera buffa rejected the castrati and instead used a very low male vocal lead called the basso buffo.

Mozart and Wagner

Sometimes, operas are defined by a style, like the opera seria or buffa.

But other times, operas are defined by their composers. Some composers were so good at what they did that they were a genre in and of themselves. And perhaps no one is a better example of this than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the 18th-century Austrian composer.

Mozart was not only one of the greatest composers in history, but also one of the most versatile. He wrote masterpieces in both opera seria and opera buffa, as well as other genres like the singspiel. In this genre, comedic or romantic plots are told partly through traditional opera music, but also through folk music and spoken dialogue. The most famous of these is Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which shook up the opera world in 1791. Mozart’s personal style was characterized by dramatic characters with deeply personal issues, characters that were heroic but relatable, tragic but understandable.

Mozart’s operas can really only be labeled as being Mozart’s operas. This distinction is given to few composers, but amongst them is the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. Unlike most composers, Wagner wrote both the lyrics and music for his operas, which he characterized through the concept of gesamtkunstwerk. This was a revolutionary idea that translates literally to total work of art, but practically means the combination of poetry, music, drama, and visual arts into one work of art. That’s what the opera meant to Wagner, the chance to explore all of the arts in one form.

The other trait that characterizes a Wagnerian opera is leitmotifs, musical themes associated with a specific character, place, or plot element.Imagine that the hero walks on stage: suddenly his musical theme plays, but then the villain enters and the music changes, first to the villain’s theme, then to the theme of the conflict that drives the plot. A lot of movies do this today, really starting with John Williams’ score for Star Wars, but the idea goes back to Wagner and is one of the most notable aspects of his operas. Oh, and the other thing you can find in a Wagnerian opera? This is where the Viking-helmet-wearing female lead first made her debut. Now that’s an opera!

Lesson Summary

Opera is a type of theatrical drama told entirely through music and singing.

It’s one of the traditional Western art forms, and there are several different genres. Two of the traditional ones, dating back to the 18th century, are the opera seria and opera buffa. Opera seria is characterized by serious, historical dramas, a high vocal male lead, and a noble audience.

Opera buffa, on the other hand, are comedic operas with a low vocal male lead that feature subjects of daily life.These are two common genres, but some composers were so distinctive that their operas were genres all their own. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Austrian composer of the 18th century, was one of such person. His operas featured emotional, human stories and characters with complex music that drew from several genres. Another great composer was Richard Wagner, the German 19th-century composer who introduced the idea of unifying all of the arts together through opera, called gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner also developed the leitmotif, a musical theme unique to certain characters or plot points.

Plus, his operas were unique, because they weren’t over when the fat lady sang. They were just getting started!

Opera Types and Terminology

Terms Definitions
Opera seria serious or historical operas
Opera buffa comedic opera
Castrati male tenor castrated before puberty to keep high pitch
Prima donna the leading lady
Basso buffo deep-voiced male lead
Wolfgang Mozart Austrian composer who created distinctive operas that made up their own their own genre
Singspiel genre combining traditional opera music, folk music and dialogue
Richard Wagner German composer who believed that all art forms could be stressed within the opera
Gesamtkunstwerk unification of art forms in a composition
Leitmotif a musical theme associated with a specific character, plot element or setting

Learning Outcomes

The goal after completing this video is to be able to:

  • Identify the two major types of operas and their qualities
  • Describe how Mozart and Wagner created distinct operas
  • Define the various terminology pertaining to the opera genres

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