Inevitably a short history of opera is going to leave a lot out. It’s an art form that has existed for
over 400 years and taken on many shapes and forms in a great many different cultures and nations. You
will however, frequently hear almost every Western opera categorised to a few periods which are
definitely a good place to start.
Below, you'll find the core info on the periods with some key operas put in their chronological place. For a more composer centric timeline check out the composers
page. We hope to expand this section enormously, exploring opera's development across Europe and
the world, and we've started on that mission with a more expansive history
of opera in English.
The first musical theatre work that we might define as an opera today was Jacopo
Peri’s Dafne, composed in the late 1590s. Unfortunately little of Peri’s score survives so
Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607 takes the crown as the earliest work that you are able to
hear. Both these composers were working in Italy, and it was Italian opera that would dominate
what is now known as the Baroque period spanning from around 1600 to the 1740s. This form of
opera came to the fore in wealthy courts across Europe, royalty frequently patrons of composers,
but it rapidly became an art form that appealed to all classes, George Friedrich Handel’s work,
for example, wildly popular in England.
Some of the major opera composers of this period were Antonio Vivaldi, Handel and Jean-Baptiste
Lully. For much of the 20th Century, Baroque works were seldom performed but there has been
something of a popularity boom over the last few decades. The H.I.P (Historically Informed
Performance) movement pushing many of these works back into the repertory. Handel’s Giulio
Cesare and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas are two of the most commonly heard
In the mid 1700s Willibald Christoph Gluck took opera in new directions, expanding the structure,
harmony and narratives away from the highly formalised forms that had dominated the previous 150
years. He made the orchestra more integral by developing “recitativo accompagnato”, recitative
supported by full orchestra rather than just continuo. Opera became steadily more international
and varied in style, Italian opera seria mixing with French opera comique and German singspiel
amongst many other operatic genres.
Some of the major opera composers were Gluck, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Neither Gluck nor Haydn are all that frequently heard on modern stages but Mozart has an
enormous number of works in the standard repertory, Don Giovanni, The Magic
Flute and Cosi Fan Tutte three of many.
Romantic opera has dominated operatic stages for the better part of two centuries. Emerging
around the turn of the 19th century, Romanticism was the predominant artistic and literary
movement until the 1st World War. As a movement it isn’t easily defined but it was born out of
the French Revolution and Germany’s Sturm und Drang playing heavily towards strong emotions and
a rebellion against the scientific conformity of the enlightenment and latterly the industrial
revolution. Opera became steadily bigger and more dramatic, vast choruses and a swelled
orchestra, to upwards of 100 players, building towards the immense operatic works of Richard
There are too many composers to mention here but Germany was dominated by Wagner, Italy by first
Giuseppe Verdi and then Giacomo Puccini and Russia made its
first real operatic impact with initially Mikhail Glinka and then Modest Mussorgsky and Pyotr
Tchaikovsky amongst many others.
More or less for the first time in operatic history, the 20th Century was dominated not by
contemporary works but by those of the previous three hundred years. Few were writing new
Romantic works but the old ones dominated the modern stage. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom
for lovers of new music though, with sophisticated contemporary music making its way onto the
operatic stages albeit sporadically and seldom popularly. Composers have become more inventive
with the scoring, frequently using fewer orchestral players and creating more intimate dramas
relative to the bombast of the Romantic period.
The first half of the century was dominated by the modernists particularly Arnold Schoenberg and
Alban Berg who developed atonal and then twelve-tone techniques (lots of dissonance used to
chilling dramatic effect). Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich came to the fore through the
middle years of the 20th Century, Britten in particular arguably the most successful opera
composer born after 1900. Minimalism came in full throttle by the 70s, Philip Glass and most
recently John Adams the most successful composers in recent times.