In the beginning of opera history, there was silence. In the beginning there were words. In the beginning there was music. The genius of man combined silence, words, and music, and created a magical art form: opera history.
A drama conveys its story through words and action. Opera history is a formal theatrical medium that expresses its dramatic essence by integrating its words and action with music. Like drama, opera history embraces the entire spectrum of theatrical elements: dialogue, acting, costumes, scenery, and action, but it is the sum total of all of these elements (combined with music) that defines the art form called opera in opera history.
In its most ideal and literal form, opera is sung drama, or music drama. Words performed with music can express what language alone has exhausted, a combination that achieves an expressive and emotive intensity that neither words nor music can achieve alone. Opera history unites those two expressive languages into its art form; at times it is sung speech, whose dramatic essence derives from music’s intrinsic power to transcend words and heighten, arouse, and intensify emotions. In its most ideal form, opera is music drama in opera history.
Over the centuries, the opera art form has evolved into a variety of formats. In its ideal form, opera is a wholly sung art form, in which the ultimate goal is to achieve perfect music drama through an integration of words and music. However, the art form has traditionally been spiced with a variety of sub-genres in opera history. There are operas in which there is a continuous flow and integration of words and music, and there are works called operas which have their musical numbers separated by spoken dialogue: opéra comique, singspiel, and operetta in opera history. Nevertheless, all these varieties share one common denominator: their ultimate theatrical presentation combines both words and music to realize and drive their stories.
In every phase of the evulation of opera history over the last four centuries, the focus of its innovators and reformers has been to seek a musico-dramatic ideal. In opera’s infancy, the play and its
action served merely as an excuse for the music, the play’s text serving as a superfluous convenience for the composer to exhibit his vocal and instrumental inventiveness: “Prima la musica e poi le parole” (“First the music, and then the words.”) But during these last four centuries, the conflict and tension has been between the importance (or balance) the history of opera’s words and music: that debate has at times become as dramatic as the opera art form itself. Resolving the question of the balance, weight and importance of opera’s text and music has been the driving force behind the major reform movements in opera history, particularly the reforms of Metastasio, Gluck, and Wagner. In all instances, the objective of these catalysts and innovators has been to realize a musico-dramatic ideal, a unified musical and dramatic theatrical continuity, and a perfect and idealized marriage between text and music in opera history.
Opera history cannot exist without a text; opera cannot exist without its music. In opera, the composer is the dramatist, his musical creations enforcing, enhancing, and realizing the text. Opera history is (by its very unique nature) the sum total of its various artistic components: acting and gesture, action, scenery and design, poetry and prose, and music. Together, these elements provide opera with emotive expressive power.