Opera Facts
Opera Facts

53 Interesting Opera Facts

Karin Lehnardt
By Karin Lehnardt, Senior Writer
Published January 7, 2017Updated August 15, 2019
  • The term “opera” comes from the Latin opus, or “work.” The term “soap opera” was first recorded in 1939 as a derogatory term for daytime radio shows that were sponsored by soap manufacturers.[7]
  • When the notorious soprano Francesca Cuzzoni refused to sing the aria “Falsa immagine” from Handel’s Ottone, Handel grabbed her by the waist and swore he would throw her out the window if she did not agree.[4]
  • In eighteenth-century opera seria (serious opera), the main singers would stand in ballet’s third position, with bent, bowlegged knees and heels together, with one ankle in front of the other. They remained in that position the entire song.[11]
  • During the seventeenth century, women were not allowed to sing onstage, not even in a chorus. Castrated males, or castrati, would sing the soprano/mezzo/alto parts. The first of the great castrati was Baldassare Ferri (1610-1680). He was so famous that the town’s people met him three miles outside the city and filled his carriage with flowers.[6]
  • After hearing of scandalous behavior at the Tor di Nona in 1697, Pope Innocent XII (1615-1700) decreed the opera house immoral and ordered it to be burned to the ground.[4]
  • Interesting Opera Fact
    Amalie Materna, who played Brünnhilde during Wagner's lifetime (1876), may be the first proverbial "fat lady"
  • The famous proverb “the opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings” in reference to buxom Brunhilde’s 10-minute aria at the end of Wagner’s Ring cycle operas is usually attributed to pro basketball coach Dick Motta, who in turn attributes it to San Antonio sportswriter/broadcaster Dan Cook, who says he overheard a friend say it.[2]
  • Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is considered the father of French opera, though he was actually born in Italy. He pioneered the concept of the conducting stick but, unfortunately, he hit his own foot with a heavy conducting staff. His foot became gangrenous, ultimately killing him.[4]
  • When Charles Gounod’s (1818-1893) opera Faust wasn’t selling tickets, the producer gave away tickets for the first three performances to people out of town and declared the performances were sold out. Wondering what all the fuss was about, the public began buying tickets, and Faust became a hit.[11]
  • The founder of German opera is Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) who was a major force in moving opera away from unnatural and dramatic practices to more realistic performances. He influenced greats such as Mozart and Wagner.[10]
  • Mozart wrote his first opera, Bastien und Bastienne, a parody of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s operatic intermezzo Le devin du village (The Village Soothsayer), when he was only 12 years old.[13]
  • Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, a fiercely humanistic opera. He worked on it for 11 years, revising it over and over again. It was produced in 1805, just as his deafness was plunging him into depression.[11]
  • Richard Wagner’s “Walkürenritt“ (“Ride of the Valkyries”) from Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), which debuted in 1870, is extremely popular in movies and TV shows, most notably in Apocalypse Now when U.S. soldiers blast this music from their helicopters to terrify the Vietnamese.[4]
  • Interesting Ride of the Valkyries Fact
    I love the smell of opera in the morning

  • Wagner revolutionized opera by disposing of existing operatic rules and structures. He also created the “Leitmotif” (or leading theme), which is a musical theme that is associated with a main character. For example, in Star Wars, there is a different musical theme associated with Princess Leia, with Luke Skywalker, with Obi-Wan Kenobi, and with Yoda.[5]
  • After an opera, it is appropriate to yell bravo for a man and brava for a woman. If you want to cheer for two or more singers, use the plural form, which is bravi. If the group consists only of women, yell brave (BRAH-vay).[12]
  • In 1994, Warner Brother’s 1957 classic “What’s Opera, Doc?” featuring Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny in a parody of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle operas, was voted #1 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons. It was also deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.[4]
  • Whistling at many European operas actually means “boo!”[12]
  • The La Scala Opera House (inaugurated in 1778) in Milan, Italy, is famous for having the hardest-to-please audience in opera. The audience has been known to make a performer keep singing until he or she “gets it right.”[4]
  • Interesting Madame Butterfly Fact
    Madama Butterfly is now a staple of the operatic repertoire around the world and is ranked 6th by Operabase
  • The first performance of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly was one of opera’s all-time worst flops. The audience made bird, cow, and goat calls and booed. Madama Butterfly, however, became one of the best-loved operas in history.[11]
  • Opera’s origins are typically traced to the dramas of ancient Greece, though the Egyptians had been performing the Heb-Sed (or Feast of the Tail) for 2,000 years previously. The Heb-Sed evolved into Passion Plays in which the Egyptians acted out stories from Egypt’s glorious past set to music and singing.[9]
  • Medieval Easter and Christmas plays, which were performed to music, are considered precursors to opera. The most famous of these pre-operatic church dramas is the Quem Queritis (“Whom do you seek?”) play about a group of women who go to Christ’s tomb to anoint his body. As these plays evolved, they became more theatrical and less religious.[9]
  • Jacopo Peri’s (1561-1633) Dafne (1597) with a libretto (words) by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621) is considered the first “modern” opera and was an instant success. Though the music is lost, music was most likely secondary to the story in the early years of opera.[10]
  • The earliest surviving opera (written by Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini) is Euridice which was performed in Florence in 1600. Opera quickly spread from Florence to Rome, Venice, and all other major cities in Italy.[10]
  • Mozart joined the Freemasons in 1784 and wrote several cantatas for their ceremonies. In The Magic Flute, he incorporated many of their ideals of wisdom, friendship, nature, and sacrifice. His librettist was also a former mason. Mozart died nine weeks after the opera’s premier, and some say he was killed because his opera revealed the society’s secrets.[5]
  • Interesting Magic Flute Fact
    The arrival of Sarastro on a chariot in Mozart's The Magic Flute. In the background are the temples of Wisdom, Reason, and Nature

  • Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote one of opera’s most famous insanity scenes in Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor. He himself later went mad due to syphilis and spent the last years of his life in an insane asylum.[4]
  • Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), arguably the greatest opera singer of all time, was the 18th of 21 children, only three of whom lived beyond infancy. As a boy, he worked in a machine shop to help his family and sang on street corners to make money. He was the first opera singer to perform without dynamic modulation, which is to sing almost exclusively forte (loud).[9]
  • Della Reese’s hit “Don’t You Know” is based on “Quando m’en vo” (“Musetta’s Waltz”) from Puccini’s La bohème. Jackie Wilson’s hit “Night” is based on “Mon cur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice”) from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila.[13]
  • In 1727, the Italian sopranos and rivals Faustina Bordoni (1697-1781) and Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778) broke into fisticuffs while singing on stage in London.[9]
  • The first public opera house (San Cassiano) opened in Venice in 1637 where “the father of opera,” Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), shifted the emphasis from a more dialogue-based opera to a more musical opera. Monteverdi helped place Venice as the opera capital of the world.[11]
  • Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.

    - Robert Benchley

  • Opera was the fruit of the Italian Renaissance. In the final decade of the sixteenth century, a group of artists, musicians, and poets who called themselves the Florentine Camerata met there to revive Greek drama and developed an opera in musica: a work in music. Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei was reportedly a member.[12]
  • Mozart inherited the legacy of opera seria and opera buffa as well as the German Singspiel, but he transformed them and incorporated music of rare inspiration. Opera history is often divided into pre-Mozart and post-Mozart.[10]
  • Opera music has been incorporated into many popular movies and commercials. For example, Léo Delibes’ “The Flower Duet” (“Sous le dôme épais”) from Lakmé can be heard in The American President, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Superman Returns, and Meet the Parents (as well as in numerous TV shows and commercials). Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia) has been featured in Babe: The Pig in the City, Deep Impact, Jumanji, Space Jam, Under the Tuscan Sun, and in an award-winning Nike commercial starring Charles Barkley. Other commercials that have incorporated opera include Handel’s Xerxes for AT&T, Wagner’s Lohengrin for Du Pont, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) for Kraft, and Bizet’s Carmen for Pepsi.[8]
  • Amazing Opera Fact
    Salome's traditional Christian biblical themes coupled with erotic and murderous elements shocked opera audiences
  • Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera Salome (“zahl-oh-may”) about Salome and John the Baptist was so graphically violent that it was banned at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for decades. It includes incest, nudity, murder, and a dramatic scene where Salome kisses the lips of John the Baptist’s severed head.[9]
  • Early opera houses were often boisterous and unruly. They were also lit by candles which—when combined with perspiration, perfume, and little ventilation—made opera night fairly ripe.[9]
  • Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegried, and Göotterdämmurung). They are usually performed individually, but Wagner intended they be performed in a series as a coherent whole. When an opera company dares to take on that herculean task, the The Ring becomes the world’s longest opera at over 14 hours (and close to 18 hours, including intermissions). Wagner wrote it over a 30-year span. It is based loosely on a Norse legend of the Nibelungenlied and has many parallels with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.[6]
  • Wagner had a special opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Festival Theatre), to house his Ring cycle. To “Wagnerians,” Bayreuth is a holy place where every year they make a pilgrimage to see and hear Wagner’s music.[13]
  • After Plácido Domingo performed the title role in Verdi’s Otello in Vienna on July 30, 1991, the audience clapped for one hour and 20 minutes (and 101 curtain calls), setting a new world record for the longest applause ever.[6]
  • Luciano Pavarotti received 165 curtain calls on February 24, 1988, after singing in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in Berlin.[6]
  • Nixon in China is an opera composed by John Adams (1947- ) about President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. It is considered an important milestone in American minimalist music.[13]
  • The first opera by a woman, Francesca Caccini (1587-1641), was the 1625 La liberazione di Ruggiero.[9]
  • Interesting Facts about Opera
    A professional French claqueur 
  • Opera composers would sometimes hire a group of people to cheer their works or boo the works of their rivals. This group was called a claque (clapping) and was common at European opera performances.[9]
  • The shortest opera is only seven minutes long and is Darius Milhaud’s The Deliverance of Theseus.[6]
  • The National Endowment for the Arts reports that in 2002, 6.6 million adults attended at least one opera performance.[6]
  • The most frequently performed operas in the 2007-2008 season were La bohème, Tosca, La traviata, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Carmen, Don Giovanni, L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Aida, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.[6]
  • Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival, was rumored to “confess” to murdering Mozart before his own death in 1825. In 1897, Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote an opera called Mozart and Salieri.[10]
  • Many great operas derived from literary sources, such as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Nathanial Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.[13]
  • In 1859, Wagner wrote an essay titled “Jewry in Music” that decried the work of Jewish composers, which Hitler later admired. Yet Wagner hired Hermann Levi (1839-1900), a Jew, to conduct Parsifal.[13]
  • Later in life, Wagner considered writing operas about Jesus Christ and Buddha.[13]
  • Interesting Rossini Fact
    Rossini's Barber is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of comedy within opera
  • Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote one of the most famous operas, The Barber of Seville, in just two weeks.[4]
  • Beethoven originally called his opera Fidelio Leonore, which is why there are three Leonore overtures and one for Fidelio. Fidelio’s subtitle is “Die eheliche Liebe” or “Married Love.”[13]
  • Contraltos are the lowest and most rare female voice category. They were often assigned roles originally written for castrati, or male singers who were castrated before puberty.[12]
  • In September 2009, Pensacola (Florida) Opera conductor David Ott fell 14 feet into the orchestra pit after the first performance of The Widow’s Lantern, which he also composed. He broke nine vertebrae, dislocated his shoulder, and injured an ankle. He is 95% sure he will be able to conduct operas again.[3]
  • When six-foot-four, 330-pound basso Luigi Lablache (1794-1854) was cast as prisoner wasting away in a dungeon, the audience burst into laughter at the first words he sang: “I’m starving.”[12]
  • Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a mini-opera about coffee addiction.[1]

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