Opera: Modernized Ancient Greek Drama

Opera started as an attempt to recreate Greek Drama. All of the characters in early Operas are taken directly from Greek and Roman mythology, and many have the same plots as Ancient Greek Tragedies, although the underlying reasons for portraying the stories was different. Singing, dancing, instrumentals, and even some spoken text are the main characteristics of Opera. These features also were prominent in Ancient Greek Dramas, although Operas had much more spectacle than any Ancient Greek would have approved of. The times had changed, but the people still wanted to hear stories of how their ancestors lived and interacted with the world around them, and so the ancient stories were brought back. This time around the stories did not hold religious significance, but still taught the masses about their history and the world around them.

Greek drama was a continuation of early Greek fertility festivals to Dionysus that included music and dancing. These festivals were a plea to the god to allow life to continue into the next year as well as a chance to honor the god and thank him for everything that he had given. These festivals often included a sacrifice that was sometimes actual, sometimes symbolic. (The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology, 210-211). Greek drama evolved into a more controlled worship with scheduled performances where the participants did not work themselves into a frenzied mob, but they still got the same cathartic effect by merely watching and internalizing what was going on on stage. The plays were performed during festivals and took all day to perform, much like the earlier festivals did. The intent was the same: pay homage to the god and show that it only causes pain to deny him. Festivals and theatre performances contained much spectacle, especially the comedies. They also combined visual, aural, and performing arts into one nice neat package. This is what Opera did as well, although with much more spectacle than the Ancient Greeks would have approved of.

The Greeks paid homage to their gods using stories about their them, tweaking them to teach whenever necessary. Not only did this provide a history to the Greek culture, it helped teach the people about their gods and help them to realize them. By the Renaissance the Ancient Greek gods had not been openly worshiped for a millennium, but there was a resurgence in interest in everything Classical, including the ancient gods and ancient plays. Very little had survived the Christian purge during the first millennium CE, but what had was utterly fascinating to those who were rediscovering it (Western Civilization Since 1300, 406). Opera was created at a time when the Classics were being rediscovered and the arts were beginning to flourish again after a millennium-long suppression by the Christian Church. The Classical world was again having a major impact on the arts, and the ancient gods became prominent figures in painting, sculpture, literature, and music. No good secular work of art seemed complete without at least a reference to the figures of the past.

A major part of the ancient Greek drama was the chorus, who was a character in and of itself. The chorus provided a reflection on what was happening, and was responsible for being the on stage voice of the audience. It was also the character that appealed to the gods and asked them for help and guidance (Living Theatre: A History, 37). Opera retained this chorus. The chorus in Opera represents the common people, their views, and their voice. Both men and women commonly appeared in opera. The very first Opera was called Dafne, with music from Corsi and a libretto by Rinuccini. The chorus in this play represented the shepherds and nymphs of the Greek countryside. They asked Apollo to slay the Python that had been attacking them, and when the god did this for them they gave him praise. (The Development of Western Music, 238-239).

Spoken word was another element important to Greek Drama. In Aristotle’s Poetics he lists Language as the fourth most important element, coming in behind Plot, Characters, and Thought. (Living Theater: A History, 39). Opera did not usually have spoken words, but diction is an important element in good singing. The audience needs to know what is being sung. A special style of singing was developed for Opera that gave the impression of the spoken word by imitating it. This style is called recitative, and it was used in Opera to move the story along and to narrate it (The Development of Western Music, 238-239).

The early Operas were dramas, not comedies. Their plots were often taken directly from the myths written down by Ovid and Virgil. Stories with Apollo in them were the most popular, and even if he was not in the original myth writers of Opera would often insert him in as a major character. The first Opera was called Dafne, and it was about Apollo’s love for the nymph Daphne. He pursued her in love, but she did not love him in return, for she had been cursed by Cupid in revenge for Apollo bragging to him about his love life. Eventually Daphne is turned into a laurel tree to escape Apollo, and he pines for her for the rest of eternity. The reason for the Opera is not to worship the gods, but to show what happens if you go against love (The Development of Western Music, 238-239). Two other popular figures were Orpheus and Eurydice. Many, many, many Operas have been written about them, most of them ending tragically. One of the few that doesn’t end tragically is an early Opera by Monteverdi called La Favola d’Orfeo. In it, Eurydice dies and Orpheus pursues her. He is eventually helped by Apollo, who brings Orpheus and Eurydice up to Mount Olympus to dwell together with the gods for all eternity (The New International Dictionary of Music, 386). In the original myth, Orpheus is the son of Apollo who loses Eurydice, gains her back, but loses her again because he doesn’t trust himself or the gods. Many Operas give this version of the myth, and omit Apollo, who wasn’t in the original myth anyway.

Opera did not evolve independently of other styles of theatre. It was highly influenced by Ancient Greek dramas, and may even be considered a continuation of the style. They share many of the same elements, plots, and ideas, and were just as popular with the common people. They were performed for different reasons, as popular drama was no longer needed to teach religion or have religious significance. That is what the Church was for when Opera was just beginning. The ancient myths were free to entertain and teach new things to a new society for a new time.

  • Morehead, Philip D. The New International Dictionary of Music. Meridian Books: Chicago, 1992.
  • The New American Desk Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
  • Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization Since 1300 (3rd Edition). West Publishing Company: New York, 1997.
  • Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music (3rd Edition). McGraw-Hill: New York, 1998.
  • Tripp, Edward. The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. Meridian: New York, 1970.
  • Wilson, Edwin and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theater: A History. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2000.

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