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10 Examples of Opera: From the Middle Ages to Today

Opera, a multifaceted and multidisciplinary art form, has enthralled audiences for centuries with its blend of music, drama, and visual spectacle. Tracing its roots from the liturgical dramas and early forms of sung theatre of the Middle Ages to the innovative contemporary productions of today, the works of the Western classical opera repertoire showcase social/political/technological shifts, changes in tastes and cultural expression, and the possibilities of artistic creativity. Let's explore ten examples that highlight this genre's rich history and enduring appeal.


What is opera?

Opera is a unique form of theatre that combines singing (usually by unamplified voices, trained according to the classical vocal tradition), orchestral music (or other instrumental accompaniment), drama, and often dance to tell a story. What we consider now as opera originated in Italy at the end of the 16th century, with Jacopo Peri's "Dafne", produced in Florence in 1598.

This art form has evolved over the centuries, incorporating various styles and traditions. It is characterised by its use of expressive melodies and harmonies, as well as its emphasis on the capabilities of the human voice. The narratives often explore complex themes, emotions, and stories, making it a deeply immersive experience. Operas are typically performed in an opera house, with sets and costumes that enhance the storytelling. These elements may attempt to recreate the historical time period of the original work/story, or may be reimagined by directors, designers, and other people on the creative team.

The music of an opera is created and orchestrated by a composer, and the text is written by a librettist (who may have written the entire text themselves, or may have reworked an existing story from another form of writing). These two people/roles generally work very closely together, and in some cases one person takes on the role of both librettist and composer - for example, in the works of Wagner.

In the historical context of European society, composers (and librettists) were predominantly men, reflecting prevailing gender roles of the time. However, Francesca Caccini (1587-1646) broke this tradition as the first recorded woman composer to craft an opera. Her pioneering work paved the way for subsequent generations of female composers who have since made significant contributions to the operatic repertoire.

Within a standard "number" opera, there are smaller sections which can be excerpted. Here are a few common ones:

  • Overture/prelude - The opening music, which often features musical themes and motifs which can be heard later in the opera.

  • Recitative/dialogue - A recitative is a sung/spoken text which is used to carry the plot. Some operas and similar works of this genre contain spoken dialogue instead.

  • Aria - A song performed by a solo character, and which usually gives an insight into their inner world.

  • Ensemble (duet/trio/quartet/etc) - A sung section, similar to an aria, where multiple characters perform together. The musical phrases of each character are intricately interwoven, reflecting their relationships and the emotions the composer aims to convey.

  • Chorus - A musical excerpt typically performed by a group of singers who do not have solo roles. Instead, they represent a collective character, such as townspeople or observers, providing general commentary on the action. Choruses are traditionally divided into four vocal parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

More recent operas (from around the late 19th century onwards) are often "through composed", meaning that the work is conceived as an entire piece without these smaller sections which can easily be sung in other contexts.

The principal characters of an opera are performed by soloists, and different voice types are assigned by the composer to each role. Often this involves an element of typecasting; romantic leads and young heroes are most often played by tenors and sopranos, and secondary characters/antagonists are most often played by lower-voiced singers. You can find out more about classical voice types here.


The development of opera

Opera has undergone significant evolution since its inception. Early operas, such as Claudio Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo", were characterised by their emphasis on the dramatic expression of text and the pioneering use of recitative, which allowed for greater fluidity between speech and song.

The Baroque era saw opera flourish with composers like George Frideric Handel and Jean-Baptiste Lully. This period emphasised grandeur and spectacle, with elaborate da capo (repeated section, with "ornaments" (virtuosic embellishments to the vocal line)) arias. The stories often featured mythological or historical themes.

During the Classical era, composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart refined opera with a focus on structural clarity, balance, and the integration of music and drama. Mozart's operas, including "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni", are renowned for their sophisticated character development and the seamless blend of orchestration and vocal lines.

The Romantic era brought a heightened emotional intensity, complex harmonies, and nationalistic elements to opera. Composers like Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner pushed the boundaries of the genre. Verdi's works, such as "La Traviata" and "Aida", are celebrated for their memorable melodies and deep emotional content, while Wagner revolutionised opera with his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art," epitomised in his epic "Ring Cycle."

The 20th century witnessed a diversification of operatic styles, from the expressionism of Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" to the minimalist approach of Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach". This era also saw the incorporation of new compositional and vocal techniques and the exploration of contemporary themes, reflecting the rapidly changing social and cultural landscape.

In the 21st century, opera continues to evolve, embracing new technologies and multimedia elements. Contemporary composers create works that address current issues and experiment with form and presentation. Opera in this era is marked by a blending of traditional elements with innovative approaches, ensuring its relevance and appeal to modern audiences.



  • "Le Jeu de Robin et Marion" by Adam de la Halle (c. 1283): While not considered an opera in its more developed form, this work is considered the earliest surviving secular French play with music, and is an important precursor. It combines elements of pastoral drama (between rural characters, especially involving a shepherd/shepherdess) and musical interludes. The characters of Robin and Marion are not the same as in the tale of Robin Hood, but rather they are a knight and shepherdess.

  • "L'Orfeo" by Claudio Monteverdi (1607): One of the earliest operas, notable for its use of recitative and its dramatic portrayal of the Orpheus myth.

  • "Giulio Cesare" by George Frideric Handel (1724): Known for its virtuosic arias and elaborate orchestration, exemplifying the grandeur of Baroque opera.

  • "The Marriage of Figaro" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1786): Celebrated for its sophisticated character development, intricate ensembles, and the seamless integration of music and drama. It is also notable for its commentary (both in the original story by Beaumarchais and in the opera) on social hierarchies in European society at that time.


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  • "Der Freischütz" by Carl Maria von Weber (1821): An early Romantic opera that incorporates German folklore and supernatural elements, with a strong sense of nationalism.

  • "La Traviata" by Giuseppe Verdi (1853): Known for its emotional depth, memorable melodies, and its portrayal of societal issues and personal tragedy.

  • "Tristan und Isolde" by Richard Wagner (1865): A landmark in Romantic opera, featuring Wagner's revolutionary use of "leitmotifs" (musical motifs to represent specific characters and other features) and his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (a comprehensive artistic creation that synthesises multiple art forms, such as music, drama, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft, into a unified whole).

  • "Salome" by Richard Strauss (1905): Noted for its intense emotional expression and innovative orchestration, based on Oscar Wilde's play (and the Biblical tale of King Herod and John the Baptist).

  • "Peter Grimes" by Benjamin Britten (1945): A cornerstone of 20th-century opera, renowned for its psychological depth, complex characters, and evocative musical depiction of the sea.

  • "Ainadamar" by Osvaldo Golijov (2003): A contemporary opera exploring the life and death of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, blending elements of flamenco, Arabic music, and contemporary classical music.


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