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Opera in English

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Title: Opera in English  
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Subject: Opera, Edward Joseph Dent, List of opera topics, Theatre in the United Kingdom, Origins of opera
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Opera in English

The history of opera in the English language commences in the 17th century.


  • Earliest examples 1
  • Purcell and his contemporaries 2
  • 18th and 19th centuries 3
  • 20th century - today 4
  • Audio link 5
  • Notes 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8

Earliest examples

In England, one of opera's antecedents in the 16th century was an afterpiece which came at the end of a play; often scandalous and consisting in the main of dialogue set to music arranged from popular tunes. In this respect such afterpieces anticipate the ballad operas of the 18th century. At the same time, the French masque was gaining a firm hold at the English Court, with lavish splendour and highly realistic scenery. Inigo Jones became the leading designer of these productions, and this style was to dominate the English stage for three centuries. These masques contained songs and dances. In Ben Jonson's Lovers Made Men (1617), "the whole masque was sung after the Italian manner, stilo recitativo".[1]

Purcell and his contemporaries

The approach of the English Commonwealth closed theatres and halted any developments that may have led to the establishment of English opera. However, in 1656, the dramatist Sir William Davenant produced The Siege of Rhodes. Since his theatre was not licensed to produce drama, he asked several of the leading composers (Henry Lawes, Cooke, Locke, Coleman and Hudson) to set sections of it to music. This success was followed by The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658) and The History of Sir Francis Drake (1659). These pieces were encouraged by Oliver Cromwell because they were critical of Spain. With the English Restoration, foreign (especially French) musicians were welcomed back. In 1673, Thomas Shadwell's Psyche, patterned on the 1671 'comédie-ballet' of the same name produced by Molière and Jean-Baptiste Lully. William Davenant produced The Tempest in the same year, which was the first Shakespeare play to be set to music (composed by Locke and Johnson).

About 1683, John Blow composed Venus and Adonis, often thought of as the first true English-language opera. Blow's immediate successor was the better known Henry Purcell. Despite the success of his masterwork Dido and Aeneas (1689), in which the action is furthered by the use of Italian-style recitative, much of Purcell's best work was not involved in the composing of typical opera, but instead he usually worked within the constraints of the semi-opera format, where isolated scenes and masques are contained within the structure of a spoken play, such as Shakespeare in Purcell's The Fairy-Queen (1692) and Beaumont and Fletcher in The Prophetess (1690) and Bonduca (1696). The main characters of the play tend not to be involved in the musical scenes, which means that Purcell was rarely able to develop his characters through song. Despite these hindrances, his aim (and that of his collaborator John Dryden) was to establish serious opera in England, but these hopes ended with Purcell's early death at the age of 36.

18th and 19th centuries

Following Purcell, the popularity of opera in England dwindled. A revived interest in opera occurred in the 1730s, which is largely attributed to Thomas Arne both for his own compositions and for alerting Handel to the commercial possibilities of large-scale works in English. Arne was the first English composer to experiment with Italian-style all-sung comic opera, unsuccessfully in The Temple of Dullness (1745), Henry and Emma (1749) and Don Saverio (1750), but triumphantly in Thomas and Sally (1760). His opera Artaxerxes (1762) was the first attempt to set a full-blown opera seria in English and was a huge success, holding the stage until the 1830s. His modernized ballad opera, Love in a Village (1762), was equally novel and began a vogue for pastiche opera that lasted well into the 19th century. Arne was one of the few English composers of the era who, although imitating many elements of Italian opera, was able to move beyond it to create his own voice. Charles Burney wrote that Arne introduced "a light, airy, original, and pleasing melody, wholly different from that of Purcell or Handel, whom all English composers had either pillaged or imitated".

Besides Arne, the other dominating force in English opera at this time was John Frederick Lampe to write using Italian models in imitation of him. This situation continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, including in the work of Michael Balfe and William Vincent Wallace, and the operas of the great Italian composers, as well as those of Mozart, Beethoven and Meyerbeer, continued to dominate the musical stage in England.

Lithograph from The Mikado

The only exceptions during these centuries were ballad operas, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), musical burlesques, European operettas, and late Victorian era light operas, notably the Savoy Operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, all of which types of musical entertainments frequently spoofed operatic conventions. John Barnett made a serious attempt to follow in the footsteps of Carl Maria von Weber with his opera The Mountain Sylph (1834), often mistakenly claimed as the first Sung-through (i.e. completely sung) English opera, which was a major success in its time (and was later parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in Iolanthe).

Sullivan wrote only one grand opera, Ivanhoe (following the efforts of a number of young English composers beginning about 1876), but he claimed that even his light operas were to be part of an "English" opera school, intended to supplant the French operettas (usually in bad translations) that had dominated the London stage throughout the 19th century into the 1870s. London's Daily Telegraph agreed. Sullivan produced a few light operas in the late 1880s and 1890s that were of a more serious nature than most of the G&S series, including The Yeomen of the Guard, Haddon Hall and The Beauty Stone, but Ivanhoe (which ran for 155 consecutive performances, using alternating casts—a record then and now) survives as his only real grand opera.

20th century - today

In the 20th century, English opera began to assert more independence, with works of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Rutland Boughton and later Benjamin Britten, in a series of works that remain in standard repertory today. Other British composers writing well-received operas in the late 20th century include Richard Rodney Bennett (e.g. The Mines of Sulphur), Harrison Birtwistle (Punch and Judy), Peter Maxwell Davies (Taverner) and Oliver Knussen (Where the Wild Things Are). Today composers such as Thomas Adès continue to export English opera abroad.

Also in the 20th century, American composers like Gian Carlo Menotti, and Carlisle Floyd began to contribute English-language operas, frequently infused with touches of popular musical styles. They were followed by Philip Glass, Mark Adamo, John Adams, and Jake Heggie. Moreover non-native-English speaking composers have occasionally set English libretti (e.g. Hans Werner Henze, We Come to the River).

Audio link

A scene from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The witches' messenger, in the form of Mercury, attempts to convince Aeneas to leave Carthage. Note the use of Italian-style recitative, a rarity in English opera at that time.

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  1. ^ Stanley W. Wells, Literature and drama with special references to Shakespeare and his contemporaries (London: Routledge, 1970), p. 66.

See also


  • Operas in English: A Dictionary. Margeret Ross Griffel. 2 v. revised ed. Scarecrow Press:2013. ISBN 9780810882720 . (vol.1: alphabetic listing; vol.2, Idexes by composer, libbrettist, authors and sources, chronlogy, characters, names, and a bibliography.)
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie (1992). ISBN 0-333-73432-7 and ISBN 1-56159-228-5
  • The Viking Opera Guide (1994), 1,328 pages, ISBN 0-670-81292-7
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker (1994)
  • "Purcell, Henry" in Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th edition, 1986. ISBN 0-85229-434-4.
  • Orrey, Leslie and Rodney Milnes. Opera: A Concise History, World of Art, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20217-6.
  • Basil Walsh's extensive site on the life and work of Michael W. Balfe
  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan, a Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Donald Mitchell, "Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Baron Britten (1913–1976)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 18 October 2004:
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