Opera, a European art form

Opera’s European Heritage


Opera’s history goes back 2,500 years to the birth of democracy in ancient Greece. The Athenians of the 5th century BC celebrated their identity as a community with festive performances which brought together music, song, speech, dance and spectacle. It was the precursor and inspiration for opera.


The rebirth of opera in the courts of Renaissance Italy benefited from the rivalry of sovereign princes and independent cities. Visitors from all over Europe liked what they saw and took it home with them. Catherine the Great imported Italian opera to St Petersburg, where its presence stimulated a rival national school. Germany especially, with its profusion of independent courts, created a network of opera and a habit which survives to this day. Now Wiesbaden is the home of Camerata Nuova, the independent sponsor and Opera Europa’s partner in sustaining the European Opera-directing Prize.


The growth of National Opera was a phenomenon of the 19th century. It was housed in great public buildings which dominated their surroundings. The public subscription collected to build the National Theatre in Prague (and then to rebuild it after it had been destroyed by fire) was a statement about the emerging Czech nation. In many European countries, the national opera house became a symbol of a country’s aspirations. It was a performance on the stage of La Monnaie in Brussels in 1830, of Auber’s La muette de Portici with its refrain of ‘Amour sacré de la patrie’, which gave the signal for the Belgian revolution which led to the country’s independence.


Public subsidy during the 20th century secured opera’s place at the centre of European culture, and made its performances accessible to a much wider audience. At the same time, the growth of recordings and radio helped its further dissemination. The appetite for opera now reaches far beyond the traditional centres. Opera festivals abound in the most unlikely and remote locations. The Nordic countries have built themselves magnificent new opera houses to inaugurate the 21st century. Opera in Spain is now enjoying its own creative renaissance and popularity.


The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed the establishment of opera on the European model by the New National Theatre Tokyo; and one of Opera Europa’s latest recruits is the new National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.


Opera has become the art form which speaks, or rather sings, across the boundaries of language and nationhood. It is a part of European society which unites the continent, yet reaches beyond it. Through opera, Europe talks to the world.


Nicholas Payne

Opera Europa