Opera’s roots might lie in Italy, but these days you’ll now find opera librettists writing in a vast range of languages, from Polish and Spanish to Hungarian and Armenian.

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What language is opera?

Although Italian is the first language that springs to mind, essentially, an opera can be written in any language the composer and librettist choose. While opera singers often work with dialect coaches to perfect the nuances of the languages they are performing in, most of them will already have a rudimentary understanding of the sounds heard within the popular operatic languages: Italian, French and German.

Italian-language operas

The first known operas were written in Italy in the final years of the 1500s and into early 1600 in Italy by composers including Monteverdi. The Baroque era saw opera spreading throughout Italy, with Italian libretti remaining dominant into the subsequent Classical period. The word ‘opera’ is itself Italian, translating from the word ‘work’, signalling the fact that the form originally brought together poetry, dance and music. Italian opera has undergone the most stylistic developments over the years, thanks to its dominance on the scene. The big names are easy to remember: Puccini, Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini and Verdi.

German-language operas

After the initial success of Italian operas, the Germans thought they’d give it a go, The first German opera was Dafne, composed by Heinrich Schütz in 1627. It was only later in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that more German composers experimented with opera, with Telemann and Handel leading the pack. Even then, however, these composers chose to write their operas in foreign languages – particularly Italian. The Italian language was still associated with aristocratic sophistication, while German-language operas were composed for the public and tended to feature more simplistic folk-inspired melodies. It was Mozart’s arrival on the scene in the late 18th century that finally led to the widespread popularity of German-language operas. This gave way to operas in German by the likes of Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Wagner and Richard Strauss.

French-language operas

While German-language operas might have taken a while to take off, French opera composers were developing their own tradition alongside the Italians. Lully had a lot to do with this, monopolising the French opera scene from the 1670s. His music influenced Rameau, who helped continue the legacy of French opera, a form which remained unique from that of the Italian form and enjoyed a stronghold in France throughout the 18th century and beyond.

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Russian-language operas

The Russian operatic tradition grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, following the pioneering writing of Mikhail Glinka. After him came operas by Musorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as works by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the 20th century.

Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.