Opera Basics


Opera started in Florence, Italy at the end of the 16th century. However, its roots can be traced to the use of choruses in ancient Greek tragedy and plays.

A group of Florentine humanists, musicians, poets and the intellectuals, called the Florentine Camerata, gathered to discuss and guide the arts movement, especially music and drama. A member of the group, Jacopo Peri, composed the very first play that featured singing throughout the drama, called Dafne, essentially introducing a new genre to the world.


Though operas have been composed for over 400 years, their themes remain universal. Human emotions are explored in all operatic stories including love, greed, jealousy, anger and revenge.

Stories have centered on mythological characters (Wagner’s Ring Cycle), human relationships, actual historical events (Prokofiev’s War and Peace), and adaptations of fairytales (Massenet’s Cendrillon or Rossini’s La Cenerentola—French and Italian adaptations of Cinderella).

Types of Opera

Not all opera is tragic and contrary to popular belief, not all the heroes and heroines die at the end! Opera can be funny or light-hearted in nature (opera comique or opera buffa) like Rossini’s famous opera The Barber of Seville. Opera can also be serious (opera seria) as in Gluck’s opera Orpheo ed Euridice.

Famous Operas & Composers

There are too many to list but some of the most performed operas are:

  • Madama Butterfly (Puccini)
  • La Bohème (Puccini)
  • La Traviata (Verdi)
  • Carmen (Bizet)
  • The Barber of Seville (Rossini)
  • The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
  • Don Giovanni (Mozart)
  • Tosca (Puccini)
  • Rigoletto (Verdi)
  • The Magic Flute (Mozart)

Clearly some of the musical heavyweights in opera are Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, and Rossini but Wagner, Britten, Donizetti, and other composers have also contributed a significant amount to the art form.

Don’t be fooled that operas were only written long ago. The genre is still living and developing today. Toni Morrison’s acclaimed book Beloved was recently turned into an opera, as was David Cronenberg’s cult classic movie The Fly

Voice Types

All singers have different voice types and colours. “Type” refers to their vocal range and can be broken down to the overall flexibility and quality of the singer.  “Colour” refers to the texture of their sound.

Female Voice Types:

  • Soprano: Highest female voice. Famous sopranos include Maria Callas, Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko and Canadian Adrianne Pieczonka.
  • Mezzo Soprano: Middle female voice. Famous mezzos include Cecilia Bartoli and Canadians Judith Forst and Krisztina Szabó.

Male Voice Types:

  • Tenor: Highest male voice. Famous tenors include Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Rolando Villazon and Canadian Michael Schade.
  • Baritone: Middle male voice. Famous baritones include Canadian Russell Braun and Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel.
  • Bass: Lowest male voice. Famous basses include Canadians Alain Coulombe and Robert Pomakov.
Opera vs. Musical Theatre

There’s a grey area when it comes to distinguishing opera and musical theatre.

Musical theatre generally has spoken dialogue with musical numbers inserted in between.

Opera, instead, uses a style of writing dialogue on specific pitches, called recitative, making the entire piece more sung through.

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