What Language Is Opera Sung In: The Rich Linguistic History of Opera

what language is opera sung in
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Opera isn't quite as popular today as it was 400 years ago. But for those who can understand the depth of meaning behind its words and music, opera is one of the most divine forms of art. Sometimes, though, even the most devoted opera enthusiasts may find themselves puzzled by what's happening on the stage due to language barriers. That brings us to the question, what language is opera sung in?

Hence, we'll discuss many aspects of opera, such as what is it, who invented it, what language people sing it in, and why.

What Is Opera?

For those of you who are new to the exquisite world of operas, knowing a bit more about opera characteristics and its history may help you understand it better. To make it simple, opera is essentially a theatrical play, but there aren't any dialogues or spoken lines.

Instead, singers sing the story in different types of voices and vocal ranges with an orchestra playing in the background and dancers dancing to it.

In short, opera combines music, singing, drama, acting, and dancing into one ambitious and challenging performance. When performed correctly, it can be quite moving and touching for the audience.

The Challenges

All that sounds easier than it actually is. Operas are, in fact, pretty hard to form into a cohesive piece. First, the librettist, who writes the text, decides the subject matter of the opera. They often choose preexisting famous novels and plays that tell stories about love, war, power, and other moving topics.

For instance, Britten was a famous English composer from the 1900s and wrote operas based on Shakespearean plays.

Next, the librettist writes out poetic verses to tell the story. This is what the singers will sing. After this, the composer composes the music that goes along well with those poetic verses. When all of this is ready, the production team casts singers, musicians, dancers, and the conductor, all of whom will bring life to the act.

The History

Who invented the first opera? Many believe that Jacopa Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, and Ottavio Rinuccini came up with the first form of opera in 1597. They were a part of the Florentine Camerata, a group of musicians and intellects during the Renaissance period in Florentine, Italy.

The Beginning

One day, the group decided to do something innovative, which was recreating Greek dramas through music and singing. The audience loved their first performance, Dafne, which they presented in the Royal Court. Hence, opera was born. From here, it changed forms and developed further as time passed.

The Changes

The most significant changes were during the Classical era, from 1730 to 1820. In the mid-1700s, Willibald Christoph Gluck added recitatives to operas.

Recitatives are dialogues that you speak to move the story forward and connect scenes, plus you don't sing these words.

Into the Romantic era during the 19th century, operas became more dramatic. They included bigger orchestras, bigger stages, and many choruses.

Today, there are numerous opera houses worldwide where artists perform famous operas, dating up to 300 years back. The 21st century gave us some beautiful operas, too. For instance, one of the most successful recent operas is "Written on Skin" by George Benjamin, a huge success within contemporary operas.

what language is opera sung in

What Language Is Opera Sung In?

When the question arises, what language is opera sung in, there's no short answer. You can sing operas in virtually any language. There's Italian, German, French, Czech, Russian, and even Chinese operas that are popular in China.

For historical reasons, though, a majority of operas are sung in Italian. That isn't because Italian is the perfect language for singing operas. It's only because most of the early operas are by Italians themselves; Peri, Verdi, and other famous names in the world of opera were all Italian.

However, this doesn't mean that operas in other languages aren't popular. By the end of the 1600s and mid-1700s, opera had spread through Europe like wildfire. Still, most of these operas were sung in Italian, rather than the native language of the country.

For instance, in Germany, Italian operas were the norm for almost a hundred years. It wasn't until in the late 1700s that Mozart came and revolutionized operas in Germany, composing the most famous German operas and gaining international recognition for them.

Similarly, many European countries started to compose beautiful pieces in their native languages throughout the 18th century.

Translating Operas

If the audience doesn't understand the language, why not translate operas? Most opera enthusiasts don't support translating operas, and there's a good reason behind it.

Librettists write and adjust the opera's original text carefully, so it remains in harmony with the music. Translating the opera disrupts that harmony and rhythm. Hence, translators resort to twisting the meaning of the text so that it fits the rhythm of the original music score.

To preserve the meaning of the original text, many people perform operas in the original language. And for those who need translations to keep up with the act, most opera houses today show supertitles to translate what the singer is singing.

That brings us to the next question: why aren't English operas as popular? The English were very late in adopting opera, and they were more into producing literature than music. As such, there weren't many popular English composers up until the 20th century.

You could also argue that the Italian language has a certain musicality to it as compared to English.

Its pure vowels make the language well-suited to singing. On the other hand, English is more adaptive to prose and literature. That doesn't imply, though, that the existing English operas are any less than Italian or German ones.

Consider the work by Henry Purcell, George Gershwin, Benjamin Britten, Phillip Glass, and many more. Most of them are more recent English and American composers, but they have left behind some of the most iconic and legendary operas that are enjoyed globally today.

The "Opera Language"

People sing operas in many languages, and each has its uniqueness and specialty. For instance, French operas sound more melodious because of their vowels. Meanwhile, German operas can add more power and emotion to the verses with their guttural consonants.

You can listen to operas in whatever language you prefer, to each its own. That said, one thing that everybody agrees on is that operas should not undergo translation. The true essence of opera only comes out when you sing it in its original language, whether Italian, German, English, or French, it doesn't matter.

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