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date: 15 December 2018


The Florentine Camerata—a group of humanists, musicians and intellectuals—invented opera, which was to become a major western art form, at the end of the 16th cent. ce. Its members believed that Greek tragedy was sung throughout, and sought to devise a new medium which would equal its perceived excellence. The first operas (e.g. Peri's Eurydice, 1600) largely consisted of declamatory recitative, and it was only with Monteverdi's Venetian operas—Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642)—that a true expressive power began to be achieved. Monteverdi established an alternation and dialogue between different musical forms, which was a true recreation in Renaissance terms of the structural principles of Greek tragedy. This innovation was to affect almost all subsequent operas based on classical texts, epic, tragic or comic, as opposed to those based simply on a classical theme or myth.

Except in France, where Lully's Alceste (1674) and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1733, after Racine) are important, the significant operas of the Baroque turned largely to Rome for subject matter. Neoplatonism and Stoicism dominate the outstanding operas of this period, which include Handel's Guilio Cesare in Egitto (1724) and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito (1791). By contrast baroque operas on Greek themes tended to trivialize or sensationalize the stories until the advent of Gluck, whose reformist operas, in particular Iphigénie en Tauride (1778), brought back a seriousness of intent and firmly focused emotion. Gluck's new direction was developed further in Cherubini's powerful, forward-looking Medée of 1797, in which Euripides' anguished and often sympathetic heroine is restored after many treatments in which she had been demonized, following Seneca (the Younger), as a witch.

The 19th cent. was a relatively barren time for classical reception into opera, with the outstanding exception of Berlioz's highly individualistic masterpiece, Les Troyens (1860), which is based on books 2 and 4 of the Aeneid, and culminates with Dido's death on her funeral pyre.

In Germany, Wagner thoroughly rethought his own art after 1849, in the light of the example of the Greek festival theatre, and in particular of Aeschylus' use of myth to create a trilogy in the Oresteia. This led to the creation of The Nibelung's Ring (first performed complete in 1876), a cycle of three very substantial operas with a ‘preliminary evening’, based on German and Norse mythology. Wagner propounded the concept of a tension between intellectual, ‘Apolline’ aspects of Greek tragedy and Dionysian, instinctual and emotional elements, which was taken up by Nietzsche.

Wagner, Nietzsche and above all Freud influenced the single most successful 20th-cent. opera on a classical theme: Richard Strauss’ Elektra (1909), based on the ‘Tragedy after Sophocles’ by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Here the rigorously shaped tonal architecture of the one-act opera and the detailed use of Wagnerian Leitmotive (leading melodies) barely contain the intense violence which Strauss unleashed in response to von Hofmannsthal's vivid imagery and the stage action, which culminates with Elektra dancing like a maenad (Dionysus again) to celebrate the deaths of Klytemnästra and Aigisth—and falling dead at the climax of her dance.

Two other notable post-Wagnerian operas raise a significant issue. Taneyev in Oresteia (1895) and Enescu in Oedipe (first performed in 1936) attempt to graft Christian elements of forgiveness and redemption onto the endings of their respective Greek tragic stories, whose successful resolution had been achieved in Aeschylus’ Eumenides and Sophocles(1)'s Oedipus at Colonus on much more pragmatic terms. The consequent juxtapositions jar, though in both operas the sublime music of the closing pages does much to create an illusion of dramatic unity.

In the 20th and 21st cents. opera has continued to draw its inspiration more from Greek myth than from the Romans. Two pre-eminent post-war operas are Tippett's fatalistic Cold War reworking of the Iliad (King Priam, 1962) and Henze's The Bassarids (1966). Auden and Kallman, in their libretto based on The Bacchae, attempted to denounce Dionysus from a Christian perspective, but Henze overwhelmingly opposed this with his musical portrait of the warmth and beauty of the god, contrasted with the ascetic severity of Pentheus. Notable among many more recent operas based on the classics are Mark-Antony Turnage's Greek (1988) and Mikos Theodorakis’ Medea (1991).


M. Ewans, Wagner and Aeschylus (1982).Find this resource:

P. Burian, ‘Tragedy adapted for stages and screens’ in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (ed. P. Easterling) (1997).Find this resource:

M. McDonald, Sing Sorrow (2001).Find this resource:

M. Ewans, Opera from the Greek (2007).Find this resource:

R. Ketterer, Ancient Rome in Early Opera (2009).Find this resource:

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