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The history of opera began at the end of the 16th century in Italy and soon spread throughout the rest of Europe. Jacopo Peri’s Dafne was the earliest operatic composition, produced in Florence around 1597. Dafne, by Peri, is believed to have been an attempt to revive the classical Greek dramas. The elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the Camerata de Bardi, considered the “chorus” parts of Greek dramas were originally sung, and perhaps even the entire text of all the roles. Therefore, they conceived opera as a way to restore these antique dramas. Unfortunately, Dafne was lost. Later, a work by Peri called Euridice, which dates from 1600, is the first opera to have survived to present day.

The very first opera composition that is still regularly performed today, is Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which was composted for the court of Mantua in 1607. The Mantua court of the Gonzagas, employers of Monteverdi, played a significant role in the origin of opera, employing court singers of the concerto delle donne and also one of the first actual "opera singers"; Madama Europa. Lully in France, Schütz in Germany, and Purcell in England all helped to establish opera traditions in their own countries in the 17th century. However, in the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until the 1760s, when Christoph Willibald Gluck reacted against its artificiality and created his "reform" operas. Today the most renowned operatic figure of late 1700s is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In the first third of the 19th century, the most popular form of opera was the bel canto style. Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all created works of this style that are still performed today. The first half of the 19th century also saw the rise of Grand Opera, which was typified by the works of Meyerbeer. Then came was is known as the “Golden Age of Opera,” in the mid-to-late 19th century. The golden age was dominated by Wagner of Germany and Verdi in Italy. The popularity of opera continued in the early 20th century with Puccini and Strauss. The 20th century also saw many experiments with modern styles of opera. Later in the century, with the advance of recording technology, opera became known to audiences outside the traditional “circle” of opera fans. Singers such as Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti performed on radio and television, creating an even wider audience.


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