Did you know that opera was invented by mistake?
Over four centuries ago in the Italian city of Florence there was a custom for enlightened lovers of the arts and literature to meet in order to discuss all that was beautiful and to listen to music. These meetings of lovers of everything refined and noble were known as cameratas, an Italian word meaning “commonwealth” or “academy.” (Just like our own Academy of Young Theatre-Goers!)
The educated classes of Florence were very interested in the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome, whose poets, artists and sculptors brought glory to mankind. They even depicted their gods as beautiful women and handsome men.
In the 16th century, Italians were fascinated by Ancient Greek tragedies, the monumental scale of the temples of Ancient Greece and the art through which early sculptors depicted the beauty and harmony of the human form. That’s why Italians studied sculpture from the Greeks, why architects took the magnificent proportions of ancient temples as their inspiration and why poets and playwrights developed the traditions of ancient authors.
This renewed interest in ancient times also gave its name to that selfsame epoch in history – the Renaissance era.
It was hardest of all for musicians to follow the examples of Ancient Greece and Rome. On the one hand, there were myriad descriptions of the music of ancient times, learned treaties and images of musicians; all of this indicated that for Ancient Greeks and Romans music was an adored and incredibly important form of art. On the other hand, the Ancient Greeks used a tremendously complex notation system to record their music, known only to themselves, and which to this day defies decoding.
What could Renaissance-era musicians do?
They found a clue in manuscripts of Ancient Greek plays. Having discovered indecipherable symbols above the texts of the characters, the Italians came to the conclusion that in ancient theatre roles were sung as well as spoken. Musicians of the Renaissance era realised that they had to learn to compose such music that would convey every emotion felt by the characters on the stage – joy and fury, pain and love, doubt and determination – and then write plays set entirely to music.
There were many talented poets and musicians who assembled at the Florence camerata at the home of Giovanni Bardi, the Conte di Vernio. They all went down in history as the creators of the first dramas set entirely to music.
Very few of their works have survived to this day, but we do know the names of several authors. Among them are the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the composer Jacopo Peri.
The word “opera” means “creation” or “work”, and it was not initially used to describe this musical genre – the phrase “musical drama” was used instead.
Contemporaries found great pleasure and enjoyment in this new form of theatrical performance with music, and opera soon came to be staged in towns throughout Italy before conquering Europe. Dozens and even hundreds of composers have dedicated their talents to the art of opera. Outstanding musicians have emerged as stars of opera. Beautiful opera houses adorn many of the world’s great public squares.
“What was the mistake made by the Italians in the 16th century?” you ask. It transpires that most contemporary researchers believe that the Ancient Greeks never sang at theatre performances at all. The mysterious symbols probably merely indicated to the actors where they should speak more loudly or more softly.
But that doesn’t change anything today. Opera was created and opera is alive and well – long live opera!