Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score. Opera is part of the Western classical music tradition. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble.
Opera started in Italy at the end of the 16th century (with Jacopo Peri's lost Dafne, produced in Florence around 1597) and soon spread through the rest of Europe: Schütz in Germany, Lully in France, and Purcell in England all helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. However, in the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe, except France, attracting foreign composers such as Handel. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his "reform" operas in the 1760s. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute, a landmark in the German tradition.
The first third of the 19th century saw the highpoint of the bel canto style, with Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all creating works that are still performed today. It also saw the advent of Grand Opera typified by the works of Meyerbeer. The mid to late 19th century was a "golden age" of opera, led and dominated by Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy. The popularity of opera continued through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French opera through to Puccini and Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel operatic traditions emerged in central and eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia. The 20th century saw many experiments with modern styles, such as atonality and serialism (Schoenberg and Berg), Neoclassicism (Stravinsky), and Minimalism (Philip Glass and John Adams). With the rise of recording technology, singers such as Enrico Caruso became known to audiences beyond the circle of opera fans. Operas were also performed on (and written for) radio and television.
- Some definitions of opera: "dramatic performance or composition of which music is an essential part, branch of art concerned with this" (Concise Oxford English Dictionary); "any dramatic work that can be sung (or at times declaimed or spoken) in a place for performance, set to original music for singers (usually in costume) and instrumentalists" (Amanda Holden, Viking Opera Guide); "musical work for the stage with singing characters, originated in early years of 17th century" (Pears Cyclopaedia, 1983 ed.).
- Comparable art forms from various other parts of the world, many of them ancient in origin, are also sometimes called "opera" by analogy, usually prefaced with an adjective indicating the region (for example, Chinese opera). These independent traditions are not derivative of Western opera, but are rather distinct forms of musical theatre. Opera is also not the only type of Western musical theatre: in the ancient world, Greek drama featured singing and instrumental accompaniment; and in modern times, other forms such as the musical have appeared.