‘Opera’ is one of these big words that seem to encompass a whole universe. Otello by Giuseppe Verdi and Carmen by Georges Bizet are operas, and so are The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Cardillac by Paul Hindemith. Though they are described as ‘operas’, they could not be more different from one another. This is because each of them belongs to a distinct genre. Indeed, there are many different types of operas based on their subject matter, length, compositional and vocal style, or the national tradition, in which they were created.
Just like ‘film’ is a general category to describe a wide artistic spectrum of creations, so is opera an all-encompassing term that can have various specifications. In this piece, we will cover the most common different opera types and provide characteristic examples of each of them. Apart from a crash course in opera nomenclature, this guide will help you pick the right opera for any occasion and recognise the different styles and elements of a subgenre on your next visit to the performance hall.
Before we dive in, keep in mind that all operas trace their origins back to Ancient Greece where theatre plays, both comedies and dramas, were always accompanied by music. The Italian Renaissance’s natural interest in ancient art and philosophy led 16th-century composers and dramaturgists to revive that performance tradition, and this is how what we today call ‘opera’ came to be. The list of different opera types below is certainly not exhaustive, but it provides you with a great start in your operatic education!
Different types of opera by their content
The stories operas tell are one way to differentiate their genres. One of the most popular types of opera is opera buffa, or comic opera. It is characterised by playful and engaging melodies paired with funny storylines that often include physical comedy or magical elements. It developed in Naples during the 18th century and quickly spread throughout the rest of Italy and then Europe. Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is a classic example of opera buffa. Similar types of operas evolved in different geographical locations, such as the Singspiel in Austria-Hungary or the opera-comique in France – and who could ever compete with the singspiel king himself, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
The natural counterpart to the light-hearted gait and pace of the comic opera was the opera seria, also a product of the early 18th century. It was the dominant opera genre at the time, and its popularity extended far beyond Italy. Composers from all over Europe tried their hand at the dramatic libretti by Metastasio, Benedetto Pamphili, Antonio Salvi, and the other leading dramatists of the era. Opera seria elevated castrati and prima donnas to international stardom, starting the long tradition of adoration for technically skilled singers with big personalities.
Another distinct genre that evolved in the latter part of the 19th century is verismo, or realistic opera. The master of this opera type was the incomparable Giacomo Puccini. With its fast-paced, nearly real-time action and intense melodramatic twists, his masterpiece Tosca is verismo in the flesh. Other signature verismo works include Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo.
Different types of operas by their musical quality
Another token, by which we can differentiate opera genres, focuses on their musical qualities. The type that immediately springs to mind is the belcanto. The term literally means “beautiful singing” in Italian and describes the full, highly controlled, dynamic way of singing that many people associate with opera as a whole. Gaetano Donizetti’s comedic and dramatic works such as L’elisir d’amore or Lucia di Lammermoor, respectively, rely on bel canto for their distinct sound and flowing musical phrases. Bel canto gradually fell out of fashion in the 19th century when opera’s dramaturgical needs required more forceful vocal delivery.
The 20th century brought further innovation and flexibility into music in general and opera in particular. Experimental approaches, such as dodecaphony (or ’12-tone technique’), made their way onto the stage and impressed with their equal emphasis on all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Votre Faust by Henri Pousseur is a shining example of this outlandish yet strangely appealing movement in music – don’t dismiss it before you have sat through it!
However we define opera – buffa, seria, vera, grand, or dodecaphonic – one thing never changes: its ability to transport us into different worlds and touch our hearts with the emotional charge of its music and its text. Knowing the different types of opera will help you choose the performances you like best, but remember to keep an open mind and to explore different types as you go along. After all, the magic of opera transcends any classifications!