The Early History and Development of Opera

The origins of opera

Engraving of a court ballet, Vlasislav Hall, Prague Castle, Czech Republic, 1617

Engraving of a court ballet, Vlasislav Hall, Prague Castle, Czech Republic, 1617

Ballet and opera were born out of royal entertainments in 17th-century Italy and France. These were spectacular productions celebrating marriages or political visits used by kings or nobles to show off their wealth and power. They were unashamed propaganda aimed at impressing foreign dignitaries and other royals.

These entertainments mixed music, dance, and magnificent processions with spectacular technical effects and extravagant costumes. The stories or themes were taken from classical mythology (the ancient stories and myths of the Greeks and Romans), drawing parallels between the ruler and the mythological gods or heroes.

This print shows a court ballet performed before Maxmilian, Duke of Bavaria, in Vlasislav Hall, Prague Castle, in 1617. Spending vast sums on such lavish, ephemeral spectacles was quite usual in 16th and 17th century Europe.

Their purpose was often to impress visiting dignitaries and present a positive image of a ruler and his court. They included vast processions, dances, sung episodes, and acted interludes, all sumptuously costumed with elaborate coaches and chariots and stage effects. From these spectacles evolved ballet and opera. In this production, the dancers form geometric patterns on the floor of the theatre before what we would now think of as the proscenium arch, which is 'designed' as a rocky archway.

Charles Nicolas Cochin, Ballet at Versailles in 1745, Engraving, 1745

Charles Nicolas Cochin, Ballet at Versailles in 1745, Engraving, 1745

It helps to give the perspective illusion to the scenery behind it, as well as helping to mask the ropes, pulleys and counterweights that worked the cloud machine and the god descending in his chariot.

This engraving shows a comedy-ballet called the Princess of Navarre being performed at the French Royal Palace of Versailles, just outside Paris. It was produced as part of the celebrations of a royal marriage: the King's son, the Dauphin, had become engaged to Maria Theresa of Spain.

The composer Jean Philippe Rameau was asked to write the ballet in partnership with the author Voltaire (now best known for his satirical novels such as Candide). Voltaire found the commission a trial. He had to write to a precise specification, and everything he wrote was constantly checked by a number of officials. To make matters worse, he and the official in charge of the entertainment  disagreed about everything. The magnificent decorations were arranged by Charles Nicolas Cochin who also made this engraving of the event.

The ballet La Princesse d'Elide was part of a seven day fête held in May 1664 at the Palace of Versailles. The festivities celebrated the birth of a son to Louise de La Vallière, mistress of the French king Louis XIV. Versailles had no theatre, so temporary stages were set up around the palace and in the gardens.

Engraving of the ballet La Princess d'Elide, Palace of Versailles, Paris, published in 'Les Plaisirs de L'Isle', Paris, 1673-4

Engraving of the ballet La Princess d'Elide, Palace of Versailles, Paris, published in 'Les Plaisirs de L'Isle', Paris, 1673-4

Here the stage has been set up in the grounds with the palace itself visible in the background. Such lavish celebrations helped impress foreign dignitaries and reinforced Louis' image as absolute ruler.

Louis and his courtiers often took part and Louis' nickname, The Sun King came from his performance as Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, in the Ballet de la Nuit in 1653. In some ways Louis' whole life was a performance, played out on the stage of Versailles - people even watched him get up in a morning and go to bed.


Newspaper review of Monteverdi's Orfeo, 29 December 1929

Newspaper review of Monteverdi's Orfeo, 29 December 1929

The first opera in the UK

Monteverdi was the first composer to write what we now think of as a recognisable opera, with the story told through song and music.

Orfeo was first performed in Mantua in Italy in 1607. It retells the Greek myth of the musician Orpheus, who descends into Hades to bring back his dead wife Euridice. Orfeus then tames the fiends of hell with his music.

Opera quickly became very popular in Italy and throughout Europe in the early 17th century. In 1636 William Davenant secured a royal patent from Charles I to build an opera house in London but because of the Civil War and subsequent closure of the theatres in 1642 this never materialized.

The first English opera is generally regarded as Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes which was performed in 1656 at Rutland House. In 1661 Davenant converted a covered tennis court into Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre and presented an expanded version of The Siege of Rhodes. This was also the first theatrical production to use perspective scenery.

This review is for the first London production of Monteverdi's Orfeo, which took place more than 300 years after the opera was written in 1607. Although Orfeo remains the earliest opera still regularly performed today, it was not heard outside Italy until the 20th century, and then usually only in concert versions.

The first staged performance in England was given by a band of early music enthusiasts at Oxford in 1925, and given in London in 1929. Its austerity and formality would have seemed very strange to audiences used to the full-blooded musical sound of the 19th century, but the reviewer notes how the music remained as fresh and charming as it had been when it was written.

 

The cast included the great bass, Norman Allin, as Charon, the ferryman of the dead, who should have had a major international opera career, but the established opera houses of Italy and Germany still thought that English singers were unsuited to operatic roles.

Engraved frontispiece in 'The Works of Sir William Davenant', 1673

Engraved frontispiece in 'The Works of Sir William Davenant', 1673

According to legend, Davenant was the illegitimate son of William Shakespeare. He contributed to the last of the Stuart masques and was a fervent Royalist.

After Charles II was restored to the throne, Davenant and Thomas Killigrew were granted royal patents, which gave them virtual monopoly over presenting drama in London. These monopolies were not revoked until the 19th century.

Davenant opened the Duke’s Theatre where he presented adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays with music, forerunners of the semi-operas of Purcell. Most scholars consider that Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes was the first English opera. It was performed in 1656 at Rutland House in London. Davenant  wrote the text but the score was the work of several different musicians. At this time, the theatres were closed and plays forbidden by law, although music was still played. It is possible that the entertainment was rather a way of getting round the law than an attempt to write a true opera.


Newspaper cutting showing a performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo, 29 December 1929

Newspaper cutting showing a performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo, 29 December 1929

Purcell and English semi-opera

Henry Purcell developed a peculiarly English form of opera, the half-sung and half-spoken semi-opera. This strange English hybrid flourished in the 1670s and lasted into the 18th century. It combined spoken dialogue with elaborate costumes, scenery and effects, dancing and music. Singing was rarely required from the professional actors who took the lead roles.

Purcell's most famous opera, Dido and Aeneas, based on Greek mythology, was written in 1689 for the Young Gentlewomen of Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding School at Chelsey. Unusually for the time this was an all-sung opera and designed for private performance.

This engraving of the composer Henry Purcell is after a portrait by Sir Geoffrey Kneller, the leading portrait painter of the late 17th century.

Engraving of Henry Purcell from portrait by Sir Geoffrey Kneller, November 1798

Engraving of Henry Purcell from portrait by Sir Geoffrey Kneller, November 1798

Purcell was one of the greatest composers of his day. As Court composer to Charles II, James II, and William and Mary, he wrote songs and instrumental music, but the public knew him best for his incidental music for the theatre.

In his lifetime, people had tried to introduce opera into England from France and Italy, but without much success. In the last five years of his life, Purcell devised the semi-opera, a peculiarly English form, which combined singing and spoken dialogue, with elaborate costumes, scenery and effects, dancing and music.

The mixture horrified the French and Italians, for whom opera was very formal, and one French traveller of the time described it as a 'Hotch Potch'. All-sung opera in English was not established for another 200 years.

The Fairy Queen, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was the most lavish of Purcell’s semi-operas. It was barely performed after Purcell’s death in 1695 until the 20th century, and then only rarely.

English National Opera, who mounted it in 1995, have probably given more performances of it than all other 20th-century performances put together.

Typically, ENO’s approach was to try to make the opera accessible to as wide a public as possible. Producer David Pountney eliminated the actors and transformed it into a dance drama centered on Oberon and Titania.

Even Bottom was eliminated. Puck wore a bra, and a huge tenor appeared in a leopard skin ballgown. Other characters wore designer underwear with wellington boots. Oberon had to sing while working out on the parallel bars.

Scene from the English National Opera's The Fairy Queen, 1998. Museum no. TM.10317-2/19

Scene from the English National Opera's The Fairy Queen, 1998. Museum no. TM.10317-2/19

In 1946, when the Royal Opera House re-opened after World War II, The Fairy Queen was the showcase for the newly formed opera company and resident ballet company, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

The actors included the multi-talented Robert Helpmann, principal dancer of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, who also happened to be a notable actor. It was an ambitious and lavish production which seemingly pleased nobody. The opera audience was bored by the dancing, the dance audience was bored by the singing and the drama audience did not come at all.

The Fairy Queen, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was the most lavish of Purcell’s semi-operas. He did not use any of Shakespeare’s words in the songs, but inserted five self contained ‘masques’ into the play.

After Purcell’s death in 1695, it was not performed until 1911, when it was staged by the students of Morley College under Gustav Holst. As only one copy of the score existed, the students spent a year copying out the 1,500 pages of manuscript.


Clayton's Arsinoe

John Rich staged Clayton's Opera Arsinoe at Drury Lane in 1705. It was the first full length English opera in the Italian style. There was considerable prejudice against English opera composers and English singers - the fashionable audiences preferred ‘exotic' foreign singers. Indeed it was thought that the English singers' voices were too light for serious opera.

James Thornhill's designs for Arsinoe are amongst the very earliest designs to survive in British Theatre.

Click on the images below for larger version.

Sir James Thornhill, Set design for Arsinoe - Act 1 Scene 1, Early 18th century. Museum no. D.26-1891
Sir James Thornhill, set design for Arsinoe - Act 1 Scene 1, early 18th century. Museum no. D.26-1891
Sir James Thornhill, Set design for Arsinoe - Act 1 Scene 3, Early 18th century. Museum no. D.28-1891
Sir James Thornhill, set design for Arsinoe - Act 1 Scene 3, early 18th century. Museum no. D.28-1891
Sir James Thornhill, Set design for Arsinoe - Act 2 Scene 1, Early 18th century. Musuem no. D.27-1891
Sir James Thornhill, set design for Arsinoe - Act 2 Scene 1, early 18th century. Museum no. D.27-1891

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