Opera History: 400 years of Opera


One of the first ever operas is written and performed in Venice

Title page of Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo; Published in Venice in 1609

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The first performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is given as a carnival entertainment in Mantua’s ducal palace.

Monteverdi is the first universally acknowledged ‘great’ opera composer, whose other two surviving operas, both composed and publicly performed in Venice when opera moved away from court entertainment to public theatres, are Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643).


Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is first performed in London

Oil painting of British Baroque composer Henry Purcell

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First performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas presented in a girls’ boarding school in London. While this is his only true opera, Purcell wrote several ‘semi-operas’ (spoken dramas with extensive musical contributions), which include King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692).


Handel visits London for the first time

The Chandos Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel; circa 1720

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Handel makes his first visit to London and the following year composes and performs Rinaldo, his first opera for the London stage. He settles in the city, and develops the public’s growing taste for Italian opera seria.

For 20 years from 1720 he wrote and staged more than 30 operas based on classical or historical subjects, which employed the finest singers of the day.

In the 1740s when the public’s enthusiasm for Italian opera waned, Handel developed English-language oratorio.


French baroque composer Rameau launches his career in opera

Oil on canvas portrait of French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau

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Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie launches the French baroque composer’s late-flowering career in opera, with 30 works following, culminating in Les Boréades (1763).


The Reformation of opera seria

Joseph Duplessis’ 1775 painting of Gluck can be found in Vienna’s Museum of Art History

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In the preface to his Alceste, Gluck outlines his vision for reforming opera seria, with the intention of revitalising its dramatic potential.

The effects of Gluck’s reforms can be discerned in works such as Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779).


Beethoven’s Fidelio is premiered in Vienna

The final version of Beethoven’s Fidelio is premiered in Vienna. Influenced by post-Revolutionary France’s penchant for ‘rescue’ opera, Fidelio exerted its influence on figures such as Weber, Berlioz and Wagner.


Verdi is established as the leading Italian opera composer of the time

Rigoletto, Verdi’s opera derived from Victor Hugo, is premiered in Venice. It is followed by Il trovatore and La traviata (both 1853).

These works establish Verdi as the leading Italian opera composer of the second half of the 19th century, a position he consolidated in Un ballo in maschera (1859), Don Carlos (1867) and Aida (1871).


Berlioz completes his most ambitious work

Hector Berlioz casually poses for photographer Pierre Petit in 1863

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Berlioz completes his five-act epic, Les Troyens, based on Virgil’s Aeneid. Influenced by Gluck and Beethoven, as well as Meyerbeer’s French grand operas, Les Troyens is Berlioz’s most ambitious work.


Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is premiered

The premiere of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is given in Munich. Based on the ancient legend, probably of Celtic origins, Tristan remains a highpoint of Wagner’s output, and is not only a key moment in the history of opera but also the development of Western art music.

Its musical language is distinguished by an extension of the Classical tonal system that had far-reaching consequences, influencing figures such as Schoenberg, Berg and Richard Strauss in the early 20th century.


Bizet’s Carmen is performed for the first time in Paris

Bizet’s Carmen receives its first performance at the Opéra-Comique, Paris.

Though it failed to bring Bizet immediate acclaim, Carmen is now one of the most enduringly popular of all operas. Its searing depiction of passion, obsession and jealousy, together with its colourful evocation of Spain, has never lost its hold on audiences.


Wagner’s Ring Cycle has its first complete performance

Richard Wagner in 1871

The first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner’s epic 16-hour tetralogy of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, takes place at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theatre specially constructed to present his music dramas and promote his dramaturgical ideas.

The annual Bayreuth Festival, still devoted to Wagner’s output, is continues to be held each summer.


Wagner’s Parsifal is premiered in Bayreuth, Germany

Excerpt from Wagner’s Parsifal – Act 2 “I saw the child”

Wagner’s Parsifal, described as a ‘sacred stage festival play’, is premiered at Bayreuth.


Verdi’s Otello, inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy, is premiered

Verdi’s Otello, after Shakespeare’s tragedy, is premiered at La Scala, Milan.

Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, follow Otello with a final Shakespeare-inspired work in 1893 – Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.


Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème receives its first performance

La bohème by Puccini, the most successful composer of Italian opera in the generation after Verdi, receives its first performance.

Puccini followed Bohème’s success with a string of operas that remain popular to this day: Tosca (1900); Madama Butterfly (1904); and Turandot (1924).


Debussy’s only completed opera is first performed in Paris

Claude Debussy in around 1908

Debussy’s setting of Maeterlinck’s symbolist play, Pelléas et Mélisande, is premiered in Paris. Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas displays a strong debt to Wagnerian elements.


Jenůfa, Janáček’s most notable opera is premiered

ENO’s production of Jenůfa

Premiere of Janáček’s Jenůfa, the first of the composer’s most admired operas.


Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal begin their opera collaboration

Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal initiate their close collaboration with Salome (after Oscar Wilde’s play), which they follow with Elektra (1909, after Sophocles’ tragedy).

Both works achieve scandalous notoriety because of their subject matter and their lush, often extremely dissonant, post-Wagnerian musical language.

Want to know more about the Greek legend which inspired Strauss’s Elektra? Read more about opera’s based on myth and legend.


Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s most frequently performed opera, Der Rosenkavalier is premiered

Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s third collaboration, is premiered in Dresden. It remains Strauss’s most frequently performed opera.


Janáček’s final decade of composing operas

The premiere of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová heralds the important sequence of operas from the composer’s final decade: The Cunning Little Vixen (1924); The Makropulos Case (1926); From the House of the Dead (1928).


Berg’s Wozzeck is first performed in Berlin

Berg’s Wozzeck (1914–22), based on Büchner’s play, is premiered in Berlin.

The opera’s unique dramatic and musical design proves influential on many later composers, including Shostakovich and Britten.


Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is banned from the Soviet Union

The premier of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Stockholm Opera

On the orders of Stalin, criticism in Pravda effectively banishes Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (successfully premiered in 1934) within the Soviet Union, and the composer withdraws the work.

It was not until 1963 that the opera was heard again, in a revised version entitled Katerina Ismailova.

Want to know more about this controversial opera? Read up on the operas that shook society.


Sadler’s Wells Opera (later ENO) premieres Britten’s Peter Grimes

Less than a month after VE Day, Sadler’s Wells Opera (the forerunner of ENO) gives the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes. The opera is an overnight sensation and launches Britten on his international career as the most significant opera composer of the middle of the 20th century.

He would go on to composer a further 15 operas, including Billy Budd (1951), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) and Death in Venice (1973).

The success of Grimes paved the way for a flourishing of opera in Britain, with new stage works from other contemporary British composers such as Walton and Tippett.


The Venice premiere of The Rake’s Progress

William Hogarth’s oil on canvas painting, The Rakes Progress, can be found in London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum

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Stravinksy’s neoclassical The Rake’s Progress, to a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman based on Hogarth’s paintings, is premiered in Venice.


US minimalist Philip Glass‘s Einstein on the Beach, receives its first performance. Lasting five hours without any intervals, it is the first of Glass’s ‘portrait’ trilogy of operas, the others being Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1984).


The premiere of Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus is given by ENO. Subsequent significant large-scale stage works include Gawain (1990) and The Minotaur (2008).


The first ever performance of Adams’s Nixon in China

The first performance of Adams’s Nixon in China takes place in Houston. The opera has established itself as a contemporary classic.

Adams’s subsequent stage works include The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), Doctor Atomic (2005), The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013) and Girls of the Golden West (2017).

Find out more about the event which inspired Adams’s opera and more operas based on real people and events.


British composer Thomas Ades premieres Powder Her Face

Overture from Ades Powder Her Face

Adès’s Powder Her Face is premiered at the Cheltenham Festival. It has become one of the most successful of all contemporary chamber operas.

Adès has followed this with two more operas: The Tempest (2004) and The Exterminating Angel (2016).


San Francisco Opera commissions Adams’s Girls of the Golden West

A woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush in 1850

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Composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars’s Girls of the Golden West is commissioned by the San Francisco Opera. Inspired by the 1852 letters of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, who lived in a mining settlement during the Californian gold rush, the opera is premiered in San Francisco in November 2017.