The lights dim. The overture begins. The curtain rises. The scenery and costumes combine to transport the audience, sometimes to a place and time far distant from its own: the ancient Egypt of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda, or the mysterious China of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, the tsarist Russia of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, or the mythical dwellings of the Norse gods in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The singers take the stage, and their voices soar in expressions of love or hate, triumph or defeat, elation or despair. A magical concoction of theater, music, and dance, opera has ignited the imaginations of audiences for more than four hundred years.
For most of opera’s first two centuries, opera meant Italian opera. The first operas were composed in Florence around 1600 in an attempt to imitate ancient Greek theatrical practice. Their plots were based chiefly on Greek tragedy, with texts delivered in a “recitative” style, somewhere between speech and song.
As opera gained popularity over the next few decades, composers interspersed songs and choruses into the recitative to add musical variety to the evening’s entertainment. Venetian opera productions were noted for their theatrical spectacles and fantastical plots; recitatives were reduced in favor of elaborately ornamented solo pieces that became vehicles for famous singers of the day. Italian opera was soon championed by many of the leading composers across Europe, regardless of their nationalities. By the turn of the nineteenth century, a variety of distinct national operatic traditions had begun to take their places alongside the Italian models. As those traditions developed, the operatic experience widened to include theatrical, dance, traditional folk, and instrumental styles that represented each country’s unique musical culture to create an art form that was truly multinational.
Today, major opera houses present works chosen from a wide range of musical styles and periods, relying heavily on masterpieces written between the latter-eighteenth century and the first part of the twentieth for their standard repertoire. The works featured in this exhibition are drawn from this “long nineteenth century,” a time when many operagoers think opera reached its zenith. The Music Division of the Library of Congress is home to a vast collection of opera scores, libretti, set and costume designs, photographs, and production materials representing the full span of operatic history. Drawing on these treasures, and in observance of the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) and Richard Wagner (1813–1883), this exhibit invites viewers to enjoy a night at the opera.