Birth of Opera Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Set to music and the singing voice, the melodrama Dafne became the first opera. The Florentine Camerata, an informal academy of Humanist intellectuals and musicians, sought to revive and reconstruct the dramas of Greek and Roman antiquity because of their inherent ethical and moral powers.

Summary of Event

Between 1594 and 1598, the Florentine composers Jacopo Corsi and Jacopo Peri set Ottavio Rinuccini’s pastoral play Dafne (c. 1590) to music. Although many dramatic works in sixteenth-century Italy contained musical numbers, Dafne Dafne (Corsi, Peri, and Rinuccini) was the first to be entirely sung. It has earned the distinction as the first opera, if opera is taken to mean a drama whose text is sung throughout. Opera Music;Italy Corsi, Jacopo Peri, Jacopo Rinuccini, Ottavio Bardi, Giovanni Galilei, Vincenzo Caccini, Giulio Corsi, Jacopo Peri, Jacopo Rinuccini, Ottavio Bardi, Giovanni Galilei, Vincenzo Mei, Girolamo Caccini, Giulio Monteverdi, Claudio

The first opera’s musicological origins were complex, growing out of many precedents in late medieval and Renaissance culture, including, among others, musical intermissions between the acts of plays called intermedi, courtly entertainments, liturgical dramas, and the Italian tradition of solo singing. Most closely associated with the provenance of opera, however, were the deliberations of the Florentine Camerata Camerata, Florentine , a private, informal, loosely structured group of aristocratic Humanists and composers founded by Giovanni Bardi around 1580. This unofficial academy met around Bardi, a scion of a wealthy family of bankers and a patron of artists and intellectuals, to ruminate over various aspects of antiquity, including drama and music.

Like other Humanists of the Renaissance, the Camerata revered the culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, emphasized classical rhetorical theory, and hoped to reform modern culture on ancient examples. Convening throughout the last third of the sixteenth century, the Camerata moved deliberately and did not consciously set out to create a new musical form; the discussions and writings that eventuated in the first opera gestated over at least two decades and began as investigations of ancient theater. Early on, Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and one of the group’s aesthetic theorists and the father of the famed mathematician and astronomer Galileo (1564-1642), read the letters of Girolamo Mei (1519-1594), a Florentine philologist and historian of Greek music living in Rome. Mei’s research into Greek music led Galilei to conclude that Greek drama was sung rather than spoken, a dubious thesis that stimulated Galilei to speculate on the idiosyncrasies of Greek music.

In his Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna (1581; Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music (Galilei) , 2003), Galilei argued that Greek music had an almost magical characteristic that modern music lacked. Music of the Greeks had the power to produce ethical effects in audiences, moving hearers to courage, virtue, sorrow, joy, or any other morally beneficial state of mind. Although only a few indecipherable fragments of ancient musical scores survived as evidence for the way Greek music sounded or how composers infused into them ethical components, many classical authors wrote about music, including Plato (c. 427 b.c.e.-347 b.c.e.) in his Timaeus (1793). Galilei combed these references for clues about ancient methods of composition but found it difficult to translate literary allusions into actual musical techniques.

In the end, Galilei calculated that Greek music differed from modern compositions in two fundamental ways. He asserted that it was not polyphonic (that is, it was not sung in several melodically independent parts simultaneously, as was fashionable in sixteenth century madrigals and motets) but was monophonic (sung to a single melodic line). Furthermore, he reasoned that Greek music gained its moral power from its seamless union of poetry and music, a unity in which music was subordinated to text; for ethical effects to take hold, it was imperative that the words be distinctly understood, which was impossible in counterpoint. To re-create morally powerful music, Galilei proposed that composers abandon polyphony and replace it with solo singing.

The Camerata was a diverse and opinionated collection of independent, contentious spirits, and Galilei’s theories were not the last word in musical matters. Thus, it is not clear if Galilei’s ideas actually steered the Camerata in the direction of innovation. By about the late 1580’, though, several of its members had worked out a new of kind of singing that seemed to fit the design suggested in Galilei’s Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music. Sung by a single voice and accompanied by a single instrument sounding slow moving and undistracting chords, it conveyed the meaning of the text in a vivid way and seemed an ideal musical mechanism to replicate theatrical monologue and dialogue. This species of monody (solo singing) was to become the musical vehicle of dramatic narrative and was a direct manifestation of the Humanists’ insistence on clear, expressive rhetoric upon communication in the most direct and cogent manner.

With further refinement, this strikingly expressive singing was brought to its preoperatic pinnacle in the stile rappresentativo (Latin for theatrical style), which was related closely to the stile recitativo (a dramatic recitative) of Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri. Rhythmically flexible and matching the natural inflections of speech, the recitativo (as noted above) was more than mere speech and less than full-on melodic song. Although rivals within the Camerata, Caccini and Peri shared the view that the recitativo was the way to resuscitate the authentic performance practice of Greek drama, for it made rapid musical narration possible, moving dramatic action forward and heightening the emotional and ethical content of key aspects of the libretto. Inasmuch as the recitativo coupled poetic meter to musical rhythm to duplicate the natural cadence of speech, it forged, also, a unity of poetry and music.

While the recitativo developed privately and contentiously (both Caccini and Peri claimed exclusive credit for its genesis and disliked one another intensely), Bardi accepted a position in Rome in 1592, and the Camerata reconstituted itself under the auspices of Jacopo Corsi, at whose palace it met. Like Bardi, Corsi was heavily involved in producing musical extravaganzas for the entertainment of the ruling Medici family and for the glorification of the family’s public image. The gradual process of evolution toward fully realized opera culminated at Corsi’s palazzo. In 1594, Peri, Corsi, and the poet Ottavio Rinuccini began a pastorale called Dafne. Taking its subject from innocuous love stories in bucolic settings, the pastorale usually had a simple plot with a happy ending and was, along with tragedy and comedy, one of the three most important classes of Italian drama in the sixteenth century. Ironically, for all the desire the Florentine Humanists had for the restoration of the Greek stage, Rinuccini took his inspiration from the rendition of Apollo and the python in Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid (43 b.c.e.-17 c.e.) rather than from Greek tragedy.

Completed in 1598, Dafne far transcended its traditional theatrical materials and literary conventions. Peri, the principal composer, added narrative recitatives in the recitativo and other numbers, and thereby set the whole play to music, giving birth to opera. Unpublished, most of it has been lost. Originally performed at Corsi’s residence with Peri singing Apollo and performed later at the Medici court and at several other locations, Dafne was such a success that it encouraged Peri and Rinuccini to cooperate on another opera in 1600. Euridice Euridice (Peri and Rinuccini) premiered at the Palazzo Pitti, attendant on the wedding of Maria de’ Medici (1573-1642) and King Henry IV (r. 1589-1610) of France. There soon followed a version of the same opera by Peri’s nemesis, Caccini, whose own Euridice Euridice (Caccini) (1602) derived its poetry also from Rinuccini, the librettist for all three inaugural operas.

The first operas, then, owed their existence to Renaissance Humanism’s adoration of all things ancient. Not only were the opera’s plots rephrased, venerable classical myths (which would remain the staple of opera libretti for almost two centuries), their distinctive musical innovation, the dramatic recitative, was conceived not as something new but rather as a reflection of how Bardi’s group imagined that Greek musico-dramatic declamation must have sounded.


Less than a decade after the debut of Dafne and the two Euridici, opera spread to Mantua. The Orpheo Orpheo (Monteverdi) (1607) of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) owed much to its Florentine predecessors, but it far surpassed them in musical complexity and dramatic interest. In Rome, too, opera flourished. After 1623 it was nourished by the patronage of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) and his Barberini kin.

Within forty years of Daphne, about twenty-five operas appeared in Florence, Mantua, and Rome, as court entertainments, mostly, presented to fairly small aristocratic audiences and designed in large measure to magnify the image of patrons who were politically powerful. When opera arrived in republican Venice, however, it became more socially inclusive and commercialized. In 1637, musical entrepreneurs (the first impresarios) financed the production of Andromeda by Francesco Manelli (1594-1667), rented a hall, sold tickets to the public, and made enough money to continue its performance.

Other enterprising businessmen saw the benefits of expanding the audience. Between 1637 and 1650, fifty new operas, many of them staged and costumed with great and elaborate spectacle, competed for the Venetian public’s attention. Thereafter, as opera drifted away from its socially elitist and intellectually esoteric origins, it became what it remains to this day, the profitable high end of Italian popular culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Tim. Jacopo Peri, 1561-1633: His Life and Works. New York: Garland, 1989. The first modern, full-length study of Peri and his operatic and nonoperatic compositions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Tim. Music, Patronage, and Printing in Late Renaissance Florence. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000. Twenty-five scholarly essays reevaluate the complex web of influences among musicians, patrons, and businessmen in Florentine musical culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galilei, Vincenzo. Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music. Translated by Claude V. Palisca. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A complete translation of Galilei’s influential work. Includes an introduction and notes by the translator, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Ruth. Divining the Powers of Music: Aesthetic Theory and the Origins of Opera. New York: Pendragon Press, 1986. Analyzes the ancient philosophical underpinning of opera, and is especially strong on Mei’s role as a historical musicologist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Roger, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Contains rare illustrations and a lucid text for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sonneck, O. G. “Dafne, the First Opera: A Chronological Study.” Sammelband der Internationalen Musik-Gesellschaft 15 (1913/1914): 102-110. A still-valuable resource for the study of opera and its flowering. Examines the birth of opera chronologically, setting the stage for readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sternfeld, Frederick William. The Birth of Opera. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. Describes technical problems associated with the singing of drama and analyzes the popularity of the Orpheus myth as an operatic subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, D. P. “Musical Humanism in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries.” Music Review 2 (1941): 1-14, 111-121, 220-227, 288-308; and Music Review 3 (1942): 55-71. A two-part classic study of Humanism’s influence on Renaissance musical thought.

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Categories: History