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The drama is presented using the typical elements of theater, such as scenery, costumes, and acting. However, the words of the opera (collectively referred to as the libretto) are sung rather than spoken. The singers are accompanied by a musical ensemble, which in some operas can be as large as a full symphonic orchestra.
In the most traditional type of opera, there are two modes of singing: recitative[?], which is similar to ordinary declamation, and aria, which refers to sung solo passages. Short sung passages are also referred to as ariosos. Each type of singing is accompanied by musical instruments.
Singers, and the roles which they play, are classified depending on their respective pitches. Male singers are classified, in increasing pitch, as bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor, alto or countertenor. Female singers are classified, in increasing pitch, as contralto, mezzo-soprano, or soprano.
Opera draws from many other art forms. Its backbone is certainly music, but since it is performed with dialogue, it also has elements of drama. The visual arts, such as painting, are employed to create the visual "spectacle" on the stage, which is considered an important part of the performance. Finally, dancing is often part of an opera performance. For this reason, the famous opera composer Richard Wagner referred to the genre as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total art work".
The word opera means simply "work" in the Italian language. However, the earliest known work that is thought of as an opera today dates from around 1597. It is Dafne by Jacopo Peri, and although it has been lost, it is known that it was written as an attempt to revive the classical Greek theater[?]. A later work by Peri, Euridice, dating from 1600, is the first opera to have survived to the present day.
Another musical work which is known to be older than Dafne but has survived to the present day is Philotea[?], a religious work, by a priest called Silberman. Not everyone would consider Philotea to be an opera; nonetheless opera director Johannes Reithmeier, former general manager of the opera houses of Passau and Landshut (Bavaria, Germany), brought it to stage in Munich, Germany, in the mid 1990s.
Although Peri is often considered the inventor of opera, it is Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo[?] (premiered in 1607) which is the earliest opera still performed today. Monteverdi's later Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria[?] (1640) is also seen as a very important work of early opera.
For centuries, Italian opera was the standard form of opera, and many operas were written in Italian even though their composers spoke primarily English or German. The operas of Mozart are an example, although he also wrote an opera in German, The Magic Flute (a type of opera with spoken dialogs known as a singspiel in German). Weber also wrote operas in German (Der Freischütz), Oberon, Euryanthe,) as did Beethoven (Fidelio).
A separate French tradition, sung in French, was founded by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Well into the middle of the nineteenth century, operas performed in France were usually written or translated into French. Spain also produced its own distinctive form of opera, known as zarzuela. Several Russian composers also wrote important operas, including Glinka, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky.
The evolution of opera reached its height in the 19th century, first in the age of Bel Canto (literally beautiful singing) with the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, later with the greatest opera composers of the century, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.
Wagner rejected the format of traditional opera, which consisted of relatively quiet recitatives accompanied by basso continuo, interspersed with aria pieces accompanied by the full orchestra - with a pause after each aria to accommodate enthusiastic applause by the audience. Instead, Wagner pioneered a through-singing style in which recitative and aria blend into one another, and are constantly accompanied by the orchestra, with applause taking place only between acts. Wagner also made copious use of the leitmotif (Weber had used a similar device earlier), a musical device which associates a musical line with each character or idea in the story.
Throughout the twentieth century, opera enjoyed tremendous appeal, and was performed in many cities around the world, but only a very small handful of operas written in this century joined the standard repertoire (Debussy's Peleas et Melisande, Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes).