Opera usually isn’t the first art form we associate with Italy, but it was Italy’s unique conditions in the late 16th century that made the origination and popularization of opera possible. Maybe you’ve never been to an opera (or had any desire to go!), but this art form is a big part of the reason why musicians today can amass the following that they do.
The Origins of Opera
If you know anything about my beloved Florence, it should come as no surprise that opera originated here. Florence was and is a haven for the arts, through and through, which was made possible in no small part by the actions of the Medici family that ruled Florence and the Tuscan region until the 18th century. Florence was primed for new art forms to emerge; the people were accustomed to innovative art and often welcomed it.
There were three main factors that contributed to the creation of opera in Florence: the established Florentine theatrical tradition, the support of humanism, and the Florentine belief in the relation of music to the cosmos.
Before opera came about, Florentines already had intermedi, or interludes, that roughly approximated opera. Between acts in their plays, actors would have large-scale performances that included song, dance, instrumental music, orchestra, staging effects, and costumes. Nobody called this opera, but it made opera’s reception that much warmer, since the people already had some familiarity with its stylistic elements.
Florence, and indeed, many parts of Italy, were also experiencing a desire to revive the humanism of the Greeks. Part of this ideology viewed the arts as a method of teaching people how they should behave, using art forms that went beyond reality to reach a deeper part of the viewer’s soul. No one thinks that opera or theatre exactly represents real life, but the thought was that the combination of different elements (like song, dance, acting) would create something that was hyper-realistic and feel more real than reality as we see it.
Finally, many people in Florence viewed music as being magical. A solo human voice could connect the earthly world to the divine, once again transmitting something that was truer than true and touching the audience’s soul.
Pretty heavy stuff for an art form most people just pass over, huh?
Opera and the Present
The first opera was composed by Jacopo Peri in 1597, but by the mid-1600s, it had spread throughout Italy and was making its way through Europe. Opera became wildly popular in some parts of Italy, including Venice, which opened several public opera houses and helped divorce the art form from the aristocracy alone. Opera became commercialized such that all but the very poorest of the poor Venetians could afford to go and see it.
With opera’s commercialization, the influence of the performers themselves began to rise. This was one of the first instances of artists who were accessible to the general public and it is in many ways the beginning of the modern-day celebrity.
The next time you attend a concert or watch one on TV, maybe you’ll think of Florence and the early days of opera! Perhaps not, but it was worth a shot ;)
If you would like to plan your own visit to Florence or Venice to see where this art form and so many others were developed, contact me. I’d love to help you in creating the art-centered itinerary of your dreams!
Author: Debra Harris
As founder of Life’s Journey Travel, I’m deeply passionate about creating custom travel experiences that allow my clients to truly savor the journey.