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Musical drama made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment, overtures, and interludes. Opera was invented at the end of the 16th century in an attempt by the Camerata (an academy of Florentine poets, musicians, and scholars) to imitate ancient Greek drama, which was known to have been largely sung or chanted. Since no actual Greek music was known, composers had considerable freedom in reconceiving it. Imitations of Greek pastoral poetry became the basis for early opera libretti. The first operas, Dafne by Jacopo Peri (1561–1633) in 1598 and by Giulio Caccini about the same time, are now lost; the earliest surviving opera is Peri's Euridice (1600). They consisted of lightly accompanied vocal melody closely imitating inflected speech. Claudio Monteverdi, the greatest early operatic figure, composed the first masterpiece, Orfeo, in 1607; unlike its predecessors, it is scored for a small orchestra. With this work, recitative began to be clearly distinguished from aria, an achievement that would prove decisive for opera's future success. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully produced a prototype for courtly opera that influenced French opera through the mid-18th century. Jean-Philippe Rameau, George Frideric Handel, and Christoph Willibald Gluck were the most significant opera composers of the first two-thirds of the 18th century; their works were surpassed by the brilliant operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the early 19th century, Gioacchino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti dominated Italian opera. In the later 19th century the greatest works were those of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner; the latter, with his bold innovations, became the most influential operatic figure since Monteverdi. Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini wrote the most popular late 19th- and early 20th-century operas. Though the death of Puccini in 1924 is often cited as the end of grand opera, new and often experimental worksby composers such as Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti, John Adams, and Philip Glasscontinued to be produced to critical acclaim. Opera entered the 21st century as a vibrant and global art form. See alsoballad opera; operetta.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on opera, visit Britannica.com.