Throughout its history, opera has consistently presented singers with the greatest challenges of any vocal genre. Pertinent steps in the development of opera (conveniently, the longest active span of any musical form) now become the path of choice in tracing the evolution of vocal performance.


1590 - 1680


The time of opera had arrived. What began as a cerebral salon experiment by the Florentine Camerata, quickly became an elaborate and expensive entertainment format that allowed the leisure class--royalty and courtiers--to exhibit their wealth in displays of extravagance and excess and to do so under the guise of art and culture. Composers came to the new form not only because their royal patrons demanded it, but because the theatrical style, stile rappresentativo, let them exercise their expressive skills and find ways to represent varying emotions and dramatic situations with their music. (The long established sacred style had offered little opportunity to make music sound as though it had either emotional content or programmatic meaning.) Singers were drawn to opera for the same reasons: it offered them new challenges and more artistic latitude than had sacred music.

The early years of opera were a time of experimentation. There were no compositional models or performance traditions; everything was new and untried. In assigning performers to roles, for example, no thought was given to which voice type was most appropriate for a particular dramatic role. Instead, Baroque logic dictated that the most important roles be cast with the most skilled singers. The element of virtuosity was so prized in their casting it quite outweighed whether the gender of the performer and the role matched. We must appreciate that at a time when the term soprano could mean a female, a male falsettist or either of two neuters (a boy soprano or a castrato), the concept of a voice type being exclusively linked to a particular gender had not yet developed. Thus a Baroque hero may have looked like, sounded like, and been a female soprano, but the idea that he was any less a hero because of it, never crossed their minds. What was paramount was that the hero was a virtuosic vocalist.

Experiments were made with where the instrumentalists should be located. Various arrangements behind, over, and on the stage were tried (there were no wing areas as yet). It was finally decided that the best place for them was down in front of the stage where, in ancient Greek amphitheaters, there had been a 'dancing place' or orcheisthrai. This was an important decision, as it increased the distance between the stage and the audience, and meant singers would evermore need to sing at intensity levels that could carry across this space. It would also mean that someday, someone positioned here, using gestures that could be seen by all, could establish tempi, signal dynamic instructions and generally control the performance not just of the instrumentalists, but of the on-stage singers as well.


There was a rapidly rising middle class in European society, and the year 1637 saw the opening, in Venice, of the first public opera house. No longer would musical theater be the exclusive domain of royalty and the court: now anyone with the price of admission could attend. The expenses involved in producing opera were great, so when public ticket sales--instead of the royal treasury--were paying for it, a large audience was needed. The necessarily larger public theaters required both expanded orchestras and singers capable of greater projection and volume. In recognition of this, the first great genius of operatic composition, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), suggested in one of his scores that the number of string players could be doubled, if necessary, to suit the hall. As it was inefficient to maintain a large opera house for infrequent performances, singers were expected to appear with increasing frequency and less intervening rest, and one early Venetian opera was so successful it was performed twelve times in seventeen days. For economy, casts were limited to about six or eight singers and the chorus was first reduced in number and then eliminated entirely. As audiences could not be expected to attend the same opera repeatedly, the repertory had to be enlarged, a variety of works performed, and composers commissioned to create new ones.

Between 1637 and the end of the century, 388 operas were produced in Venice itself and probably at least as many more by Venetian composers in other cities. Nine new opera houses were opened in this period; after 1650 never fewer than four were in operation at once, and for the last two decades of the century this city of 125,000 people supported six opera troupes continuously, the usual seasons filling from twelve to thirty weeks of the year. Citizens were admitted on payment of about fifty cents, and wealthy families rented loges by the season. Within a short time the whole typical modern organization of opera, based on a combination of broad popular support and strong prestige appeal to the upper social classes, was in evidence....
---Donald Grout, A Short History of Opera

The early public opera houses were yet another experiment of the times. They were the equivalent of a present-day big screen television lounge, civic center, teen hangout and sports hall all rolled into one. Performances lasted many hours, during which lovers flirted, dinner was eaten in the boxes, gossip was shared, games played, business deals made, the latest fashion in gowns and wigs compared and, occasionally, some of the performance was listened to, if only to hear if the new castrato was as good as everyone was saying.

The lowest-priced tickets admitted patrons to the main floor of the house where there were no seats, so they stood or circulated amongst the crowd. Those who had rented a box could bring in chairs in which to sit and, at their leisure, watch either the performance or the crowd. The candles lighting the auditorium burned undimmed during the performance, the audience talked freely throughout the evening and the high noise level was often complained about in contemporary accounts. This excessive noise would eventually lead to the convention of ending recitatives with loudly sounded cadential chords (coups d'archet   ), to alert the inattentive audience that an important aria was about to begin.

There was also a good deal of noise generated by the complex machinery used for the scenic effects. This was a time when the scenic designer was the most important artist in the theater, and audiences were so entranced by the extraordinary effects these artists could create that new operas were often based primarily on the innovative visual possibilities their plots would allow. Elaborate machines were designed to make clouds appear in the sky, cities sink into oblivion, or enable gods to descend from the heavens--DEUS EX MACHINA . There was frequent mention of the noise such equipment made, and eventually composers wrote instrumental music to be played at critical points to mask these sounds. The mechanical noises combined with the masking music must have made the stage a loud place in which to perform.

Little experimentation was needed in scheduling the opera season. Even today, Italian theaters are uncomfortable in hot weather and both audience and performers suffer in the warm climate. On a hot summer night the discomfiture on stage must have been nearly intolerable, heightened by the heavy Baroque costuming and the heat and glare from the many candles and oil lamps used for stage lighting. The fumes of the oil lamps, blended with the pungent aroma of the crowded, perspiring audience and their spicy food, must have made a remarkable effect. The cool winter months quickly became established as the season (stagione ) for opera.

Composers were commissioned to create operas for a given theater and a given season, which is to say for the specific singers of the company. A composer could not write his opera until he knew precisely which singers would be singing it, for he was expected to shape his music to fit the particular capabilities of the performers, that each might be heard to the best possible advantage. This ability to feature the special skills of the singers, while minimizing their technical weaknesses, was considered a great virtue in a composer. (The practice has continued; Gian-Carlo Menotti often wrote roles expressly for Marie Powers, Benjamin Britten for Peter Pears, and Samuel Barber for Leontyne Price.) The slow accretion of such works--specifically tailored to display the utmost, sometimes freakish, abilities of several centuries of vocal artists--into a basic repertory for the present day, imposes a challenging composite of demands on modern-day singers. There is, for example, an opera in the current repertory with two famous tenor arias: a florid one especially designed for the singer who created the role, and a substitute, legato aria written for a subsequent production in which the new tenor couldn't manage the original florid aria, but specialized instead in a delicate style with superbly sustained line. A modern-day audience expects its tenor to sing them both.

There was no expectation a newly commissioned opera would ever be performed anywhere else or by another cast. Only unusual success would occasion its performance elsewhere, and in such a situation the composer would be expected to rework his score to fit the new singers and theatrical conditions. This assumption of impermanence led to some practices that differ markedly from those of today. Scores were written hurriedly, in a form of musical shorthand (FIGURED BASS), with the expectation that the composer would be playing the harpsichord in the orchestra and could fill in any needed details of harmony or melody. Specific performance suggestions (dynamics, tempi, fermati, etc.) were not needed or given. Such matters were prerogatives of the singers to be changed, from performance to performance, as it suited them. The idea that in future centuries there might be an interest in such performance details was unsuspected, and even if they had wanted to make note of such things, the means were not at hand. The METRONOME wouldn't be invented for another century and a half, and only imprecise methods existed for recording ideas about amplitude (DYNAMICS). So it was that the grandeur of writing for posterity was lost in the scramble to have something ready for next week.

The expressive style of vocalism that was developing was a lyric one. Extreme range was not sought and rarely used and, by today's standards, the dynamic range employed was subdued. An important part of the singer's training was devoted to the development of vocal agility and flexibility and to the art of ornamentation (COLORATURA). Unlike today, dramatic intensity and excitement were not expressed with amplitude or extreme range but with rhythmic motion. Their 'excitement style'--stile concitato ---employed instrumental tremolo (rapid restatements of a pitch), the quick repetition of chords or chordal patterns, heightened tempi, increased rhythmic density in the accompaniment and an agile, pattern-based melodic line for the singer. It was rapidity of musical movement that signaled dramatic intensity in this style, and floridity and bravura (skilled) vocal agility were its ultimate means of expression. Virtuosity was the primary test of a singer's merit, and all voice types, basses and sopranos alike, were expected to be capable of considerable dexterity.

In creating the assortment of contentious city-states that crowded their peninsula, the Italians had long programmed themselves to resist integration and standardization. Each city was a self-sufficient center of activity. There was no compelling reason why one locale should match the musical tuning pitch of another, and old organ pipes and tuning forks confirm they did not. These also tell us the same was true in other European countries and that tuning pitches were generally lower than those of today.

Eventually most of the performance practice experimentation had been done and the needed answers obtained. The scene was set for the next pertinent development in opera and singing--advances in the organization of musical material.

Popular tastes prevailed at the box office. Impresarios moved away from noble, classical stories and sought operas on more interesting historical or dramatic subjects. The formless monodic style evolved into an effective recitative format that, for variety and interest, was mixed with moments of accompanied lyricism and vocal display.


The developing SECCO   (dry) RECITATIVE format allowed for a good deal of expressive rhythmic freedom. Its specialized form of accompaniment was extremely flexible and accommodating and, because the singers used reduced dynamic levels as they recited, it was designed to be transparent and delicate in amplitude. For these recitations, the orchestra stopped playing, and the composer, at the keyboard (eliminating the need to rehearse an ensemble), played a simple harmonic foundation of sustained chords. The fewer harmonic changes involved--verticalities requiring coordination with the singers--the easier. The light, clear timbre of the harpsichord let the voices cut through easily. Several conventions were soon added: Chords were often broadly arpeggiated to firmly establish a harmonic change in the singer's ear and cadential chords were often delayed until the singer had finished delivering all the text. Because harpsichord tone decayed rather quickly, a 'cello was often used to sustain an ongoing bass-line presence.


The idea of the aria--a refreshing melodic oasis in the midst of an otherwise featureless desert of recitative--was very much to the public taste. The singers, looking for more opportunities for expressivity and virtuosic display, welcomed it, as did composers, who saw it as a useful formal device and an opportunity to be forthcoming rather than constantly subordinating their music to the text. Early aria forms were usually either strophic or had several sections of contrasting material arranged in such patterns as A A' B B'  or A B B'. Librettists were quick to supply the needed texts--a few lines of lyric poetry, complete with meter and rhyme scheme--offering a pause in the storytelling as the character turned inward to reflect on his condition and emotions. The basic formula involved an initial forthright statement, followed by a brief elaboration or explanation:

  1. : I feel sweet love's emotion.
  2. : Like Cupid's darts, her bright glances have pierced my heart.
  1. : My cause is just.
  2. : The foe must bow before the strength of my resolve!

As this kind of material could be rearranged and repeated in about any configuration a composer's whim might dictate, it would not be long before the first clear examples of the DA CAPO ARIA (A B A'  ) were forthcoming.


A third formalistic unit, the arioso, also emerged. It was a formless, metered recitative performed with orchestral accompaniment. Statements of relatively intense emotion and the dramatic peaks of a work were usually expressed in these ariosos, and it was here the boldest harmonies and widest vocal gamuts were used. The development of these three basic forms--recitative, aria and arioso--gave composers distinctive formats for their narrative, lyric and dramatic expressions, and they were so employed in the composite vocal forms of the time: opera, CANTATA and oratorio.

Other formal units within the opera were being developed, and the orchestra was beginning to be used in its own right, not merely as an accompanist. With their penchant for ballet, the French required the inclusion of dance in the operas of their great court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). Lully, who had devised a manner by which the essentially nonmetric French language could be successfully set in recitative, was also responsible for the creation of such purely instrumental items as the overture and the instrumental interludes played when scenery noises needed to be covered. Soon some instruments would be used in obbligato or duet passages with the singers. In such incidental music were the seeds being sown that would eventually lead to the full flowering of the orchestra.

GLOSSARY of terms capitalized in the text.

A relatively diminutive composite vocal form that developed early in the Baroque era. It was based on a continuous text, with a lyric, dramatic or religious subject. The Italian cantata would parallel the course of opera seria   and degenerate into a vehicle for virtuoso display. In Germany it took a more serious and dramatic bent and ultimately merged with the sacred oratorio.

The term refers to the filling in of the long (white) notes of a musical line with briefer (black) notes, thus darkening or 'coloring' it. The Baroque aesthetic viewed the unadorned as vulgar and common and, in its quest for fantasy and symbolism, it favored the ornate and the artifice of floridity. Those interested in learning more about this should read The History of Bel Canto by Rodolfo Celletti.

Da capo   meaning to return 'to the head'. By about 1650 the binary aria form was being extended by a repetition of the A section after the B section was completed. This created the musically satisfying (though dramatically problematic) form, A B A'. In the eighteenth century such arias would become a superb vehicle for vocal display.

Literally, 'god from a machine'. This was a convention in ancient Greek and Roman drama that allowed a diety, brought in by stage machinery, to intervene in a difficult dramatic situation.

Although the harpsichord and early organs could not significantly change amplitude, singers and the other instruments could and did. By 1638 the symbols F, P, E   and t   were used to mean loud, soft, echo and trill. It is important to note that before 1750 crescendi   and decrescendi   were chiefly for the vocal performance of single sustained tones (messa di voce ).

Also called basso continuo, thorough bass or through bass. This is a stenographic means of indicating the accompanying part by the bass notes only, using figures to show the harmonies to be played above the bass line.

The first successful apparatus to show the precise tempo of a piece was not invented until 1816. Beethoven was the first noted composer to use it.

Simple harmonies supporting a rapid, syllabic, parlando   vocal mode mark this style. The vocal line is more direct and less ornamental than in the earliest opera, and the use of melodic and harmonic formulae everpresent.

Continue on to Next Section

Return to Table of Contents

Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633.