The roots of opera may lie in Italy, but nowadays you will now find opera librettists writing in a huge range of languages, from Polish and Spanish to Hungarian and Armenian.
In what language is the opera?
Although Italian is the first language that comes to mind, an opera can be written in any language chosen by the composer and librettist. While opera singers often work with dialect coaches to hone the nuances of the languages they perform in, most will already have a rudimentary understanding of the sounds heard in popular operatic languages: Italian, French and German.
Operas in Italian language
The first known operas were written in Italy in the late 1500s and early 1600s in Italy by composers including Monteverdi. The Baroque era saw opera spread throughout Italy, with Italian librettos remaining dominant in the following Classical period. The word ‘opera’ is itself Italian, a translation of the word ‘work’, indicating that the form originally brought together poetry, dance and music. Italian opera has seen the most stylistic developments over the years, thanks to its dominance on the stage. Big names are easy to remember: Puccini, Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini and Verdi.
After the initial success of Italian operas, the Germans decided to give it a shot. The first German opera was Dafne, composed by Heinrich Schütz in 1627. It was not until later, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, that more German composers experimented with opera, Telemann and Handel leading the way. Even then, however, these composers chose to write their operas in foreign languages – especially Italian. The Italian language was always associated with aristocratic sophistication, while German-language operas were composed for the public and tended to feature more simplistic folk-inspired melodies. It was mozart‘s arrival on the scene at the end of the 18th century which eventually led to the widespread popularity of German-language operas. This gave rise to operas in German by people like BeethovenWeber, Schubert, wagner and Richard Strauss.
While German-language opera may have been slow to take off, French opera composers were developing their own tradition alongside the Italians. Lully had a lot to do with it, monopolizing the French opera scene from the 1670s. His music influenced Branch, who helped carry on the legacy of French opera, a form which remained unique from the Italian form and which enjoyed a stronghold in France throughout the 18th century and beyond.
Operas in Russian language
The Russian operatic tradition developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, following the pioneering writing of Mikhail Glinka. After him came the operas of Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakovas well as works by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the 20th century.