Ultimate Guide To The Italian Opera

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Opera is a type of theatrical music in which the singers play the roles of the characters in a story. ‘Opera’ is an Italian word that literally translates as ‘work’ in English; instead it refers to the type of work, or collaboration, between a composer and the performers. You must attend an opera in Italy at least once, whether you an expat, tourist or just visiting for business.

Hugely multifaceted, opera not only encompasses composition and singing but it also involves acting, elaborate costumes, scenery and sometimes even elements of ballet and dance. An opera is usually accompanied by a live orchestra or else, as was the case in its early history, a small ensemble of instruments.

The best operas ask a lot from the performers who are required to use acting interpretation and extremely intense vocals; the training for which takes years of training and absolute dedication.

Opera is one of the most important forms of Western classical music and has evolved from something which only the elite members of society could enjoy to a widespread passion of millions of people around the world.

A Brief History Of Opera.

Opera was first conceived in 1598 by the legendary Jacopo Peri in Florence, whose first composition was called ‘Dafne’. The first performance of Dafne was put on at the Carnival in 1598 at the Palazzo Corsi in Florence. Sadly, much of the original notation has been lost although some of its remains have been preserved for posterity.

Another major Italian trailblazer in the early history of Opera was Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi, who composed the L’Orfeo. Claudio Monteverdi was a composer, choirmaster, musician and priest who wrote both religious and secular pieces. He is generally considered one of the most influential early creators of Opera, taking inspiration from the Renaissance and Baroque eras of music. L’Orfeo is an opera that is based on Orpheus, the Ancient Greek legend, and was written for a private court performance at the Carnival of Mantua in 1607.

Following the success of L’Orfeo, opera began to spread throughout the rest of Northern Europe, with leading figures including Heinrich Schutz from Germany, Henry Purcell from England and Jean-Baptiste Lully from France. Opera was initially the domain of the rich and powerful and court performances were used to boost the prestige of princes and noblemen amongst their peers. Thus, opera remained out of sight from most people until the early 20th Century.

In the last century however, opera became far more accessible and now performances often take place in large stadiums and arenas with audiences numbering in the tens of thousands!

Key Italian Opera Composers.

Italian opera encompasses both the opera that is written and created in Italy as well as opera that is written in the Italian language by foreign composers. Italian is the perfect language for opera because of its lyrical qualities and is much more pleasing to listen to when compared to English or German; and this has drawn many foreign composers to create their work in Italian.

Some of the top foreign composers who wrote famous operas in Italian include Handel, Mozart and Gluck. These foreign composers took inspiration from their Italian counterparts and usually worked for wealthy patrons in their own countries.

However, despite the excellent work of these foreign composers the Italians continued to dominate opera right up until the present day. Among the very best Italian composers are Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini and Bellini. Of all the great composers though, Gioachino Antonio Rossini is often considered to be the master of opera, but opinions do vary!

The Top 3 Italian Opera Singers.

There have been many great names in Italian opera but several still stand out from the rest; not only because of their unique talents but also because of their popularity and lasting appeal.

Luciano Pavarotti.

Pavarotti was the greatest opera singer of the 20th Century who did more than anyone else to bring opera to the masses. Luciano Pavarotti was a native of Modena, in Italy, and although as a young man he dreamed of playing football he soon found his passion for opera; to which he dedicated the rest of his life.

As a young singer in vocal training for opera, Pavarotti was inspired by his father, who was an amateur singer, as well as Enrico Caruso. In the early days of his career Pavarotti sang in small regional opera houses throughout Italy until later when he went on to perform in Yugoslavia, the United States and Ireland. Once he hit the international stage his career rapidly flourished as he became famous for sharing the stage with pop stars including Celine Dion, Brian Adams, Bon Jovi and even the Spice Girls!

Pavarotti’s career was a wonderful success and he’s remembered for his incredible versatility, passion and superb tenor voice. One of the most popular periods in Pavarotti’s career was his work with the ‘Three Tenors’; which included himself, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo.

Cecilia Bartoli.

The five time Grammy Award winner, Cecilia Bartoli is one of Italy’s top mezzo-sopranos. She was born into a family of professional singers and unlike most opera singers, she was already famous in her early 20s! Her early blossoming as a singer is particularly unusual because in opera vocal maturity is rarely reached before the age of 30.

Bartoli made her professional debut at the Arena di Verona in 1987 and immediately won great acclaim for her performance in The Barber of Seville; an opera written by Gioachino Rossini. She also went on to perform unforgettable renditions of operas written by Mozart; with some of her best roles including Zerlina and Donna Elvira from the opera Don Giovanni. In 2007 her album, Maria, enjoyed huge commercial success, topping the American Classical Billboard Charts.


Carlo Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, better known as Farinelli, is an Italian opera singer who has stood the test of time, with his legacy surviving several hundred years! He was born in Andria, Italy, in the early 18th Century to a family of musicians, with his father being a composer for the city’s cathedral.

Farinelli was castrated in his early years so that he could become a castrati soprano singer and play female roles; something which was fairly common at the time. His career was an incredible success and it is said that his musical rivals would often faint upon hearing his voice, realizing how superior his abilities were! Farinelli travelled widely during his career, performing in the courts of Italy, Spain and England.

The Spread Of Opera From Italy Through Europe.

Opera was created in Italy but other nobles in the European continent were so impressed that they wanted to have their operatic performances in their own countries. The quality of an opera performance was seen as a sign of the wealth and prestige of the singer’s patron, who was often a prince, wealthy merchant or aristocrat. Opera performances were lavish affairs on which huge amounts of money were spent; not only for the singers and musicians, but also for elaborate stage designs, scenery and costumes. Consequently, opera initially remained closed to the general public despite its rapid spread across Europe.

The first public operas took place in Venice. The city of Venice was a Republic with a large merchant class. Seeing the rise of this new art form, opera, and its growing popularity, a group of entrepreneurs opened the first public opera house in 1637, to which admission required the payment of a fee instead of a private invitation as was the case before. This started the process of introducing opera to a wider audience; and given that Venice was a must see on the tourist route for wealthy Europeans, opera quickly became famous throughout the continent. In fact, its popularity grew exponentially, and by the end of the 17th Century, there were already 7 opera houses in Venice!

The first opera house in England was commissioned in 1636 however the English Civil War delayed its first performance by more than 20 years! In 1658, following the death of Cromwell, the opera house in London put on its first performances of The Siege of Rhodes.

The first German opera was created by Heinrich Schutz and was a translation of Dafne, the original operatic piece. It was performed in Torgau in 1627 however, unfortunately, the music has since been lost.

The first opera in France was meant to be performed at the wedding of Louis XIV but the theater wasn’t built in time; and so it was performed in 1662, instead of 1660 as planned. Nonetheless, it was a great success and opera became a mainstay of the French court.

By the 18th Century, most of the major cities in Europe had opera houses that performed both Italian operas and locally written operas as well. Although these opera houses were open to all, the lower classes did not have the disposable income to pay the entrance fees and there was still a good deal of snobbery amongst the audiences of opera who tended to be wealthy merchants or aristocrats.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that opera was truly embraced by the masses, with figures such as Pavarotti overcoming all class boundaries; and so it took more than 400 years for opera to go from the exclusive domain of princes and aristocrats to being performed in stadiums and arenas for the masses.

What Are The Best Places To Experience Opera In Italy?

As the home of opera you might be surprised that Italy also has some of the best places in the world to see a performance. No trip to Italy would be complete without seeing an opera; and if you do so, then you should try to visit one of the top venues in the world!

Teatro La Scala.

The Teatro La Scala, sometimes simply called ‘La Scala’, was originally opened in 1778 but it was bombed during World War II. Fortunately it was rebuilt and then once again renovated in the early 2000s. The venue has hosted all the great performers including Pavarotti and Maria Calla and with more than 2000 seats the atmosphere is electric. La Scala is one of Milan’s top venues and is a must see if you’re ever in the city.

Teatro La Fenice.

Located in Venice, the theater was originally opened in 1792 and is one of the most famous venues in Europe. La Fenice, or ‘The Phoenix’, was nearly destroyed twice by fire but was rebuilt and renovated in the 1990s with help from its top patrons, including the American actor Woody Allen. The top annual event at La Fenice is the New Year’s concert although every performance is worth attending, whether you are an opera fan or not!

Teatro San Carlo.

Founded in 1737, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples is the longest continuously running venue in Europe and one of the oldest opera houses in Italy. With more than 3000 seats, the theater was the home of some of Italy’s opera legends including Rossini and Donizetti. Located right next to the Royal Palace, the venue hosts opera as well as world class ballets.

Teatro Massimo.

Located in Sicily, in Palermo, the Teatro Massimo is the 3rd largest opera venue in Europe. The beautiful domed structure is not only an architectural wonder but it’s acoustical qualities are perfect for opera. The venue puts on frequent operas, as well as films and music concerts.

Teatro Regio Torino.

The Teatro Regio Torino, in Torino, was built as a theater in 1740 and was rebuilt in 1973 following a fire. The theater has seen some extremely famous guests amongst its audiences, including Napoleon Bonaparte and many royalties over the years. It’s a fantastic venue for opera that puts on as many as 10 different operas each year as well as hosting an annual ballet season.

Arena di Verona.

One of the most stunning opera venues in the world, this outdoor amphitheater in Verona is the perfect place to experience the true magic of operatic vocals and music! The arena has superb acoustics so no matter where you are in the crowd you’ll hear every note perfectly. As a result of being an outdoor setting most of the performances are during the summer, but the pink marble arena is one of the most romantic venues you can visit in the world.

What Should You Wear At The Opera?

Traditionally, the dress code for opera is extremely formal; with men in ‘black tie’, or wearing 3 piece suits, and women wearing ball gowns or dresses. This is still the case in many venues so you should always check with the box office before you arrive for the show!

However, in other venues, particularly large, outdoor locations such as the Arena di Verona, the dress code is less strict although many people do still put on their finest clothes for the occasion.

Opera – An Italian Gift To The World.

From its lofty beginnings in the royal courts of Italy, opera quickly spread throughout Europe becoming a prestige symbol and sign of a patron’s wealth. Over the next few centuries opera became a firm fixture in the cultural calendar of Europe and in recent years the artform has continued its meteoric rise, gaining fans in all walks of life.

While you’re in Italy, as an Expat or a tourist, you simply must see a live performance of opera at one of the country’s top venues. There’s nothing quite like seeing a performance live, and although listening on a sound system is enjoyable, you’ll never get the full experience. If you’ve never seen an opera, or have never been interested in the artform, then don’t be put off and give it a try because once you see it performed on stage you may well realize what you’ve been missing out on!

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