Comic opera—slapstick, satirical, often bawdy, and irreverent—has had a very different history than that of serious opera or what we call opera seria.
Italian opera buffa came to dominate the serious and stuffy opera seriae of the Baroque era due to many changes, including the shift in wealth and status for 17th- and 18th- century audiences, daring vision by progressive philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Italian composers hemmed in by strict styles of musical composition.
Since the Middle Ages, traveling musicians like minstrels, troubadours, trouvères, and minnesingers provided comic musical entertainments for the lower classes. In Italy in the 16th century, these developed into more elaborate traveling companies and productions, which were called the commedia dell’arte.
During the second half of the 17th century, opera in Italy became a generally popular entertainment. Comic interludes and scenes were introduced between the larger and more dramatic acts of Italian opera seriae called intermezzi. These comic interludes adopted many of the stock archetypal characters drawn from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Out of this mixture, Italian opera buffa came into being.
This is a transcript from the video series How to Listen to and Understand Opera. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The term opera buffa is used very loosely. It is a general distinction for Italian operas of the middle- and late-18th century that don’t come under the heading of opera seria. In an opera buffa production, it doesn’t mean the audience is laughing in the aisles in every scene. The performance is not a large-scale, highly dramatic, aristocratic, or formulaic opera seriae.
How Opera Buffa Rose to Prominence
By the end of the 18th century, the once lowbrow opera buffa dominated the stage. This statement begs the question: how did a lowbrow entertainment completely supplant and overpower a highbrow one within a century?
The how and why behind opera buffa’s rise from lowbrow, throwaway entertainment to high art has much to do with the historical, societal, and cultural conditions in the 18th century in Europe. The Enlightenment, c. 1730 to 1780, was the great revolution of the individual. It was a period that saw the institutions of Europe—religious, political, social, educational, industrial, financial and artistic—slowly but inexorably lower their focus from the ruling aristocratic and clerical classes to a new class of people. This new and rising class of people were called the middle class. The Enlightenment marks their entrance into the mainstream of European society.
How does a lowbrow entertainment completely supplant and overpower a highbrow one within a century?
Because of the weight, the financial buying power, and the growing importance of this new class of people, a basic new philosophy emerged called Universal Humanism. Universal Humanism took into account this new, growing class of moneyed and increasingly educated people, recognizing the essential importance of every human being, whether they were born an aristocrat or not. Music and entertainment of the era reflected these changes in the growing demand by the new middle class for art that resonated with Universal Humanism’s philosophy and the spirit of the times.
Learn more about the main features of early opera
A Musical Comparison
First, consider Antonio Vivaldi’s aria “Siam navi all’onde algenti” from his opera L’Olimpiade of 1734. The work can be considered a complicated, ornamental melody, and a stiff, formal, over-fussy set of words. “We are like ships on the silver waves, drifting out of control; like capricious winds are our affections, every pleasure is a rock, the whole of life a sea.” The language did not reflect common speech. The aria, written for a male soprano, features an unnatural use of the voice. It is music meant to show off the voice in its most extreme acrobatics and its most extreme display of virtuosity.
For comparison, consider a piece of music written in 1786, 52 years after Vivaldi’s aria. It comes from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and it is an aria Figaro sings, known as “Non più andrai,” or “You’ll go no more.” Figaro is talking to the very sexually promiscuous Cherubino, a 13-year-old boy who seems unable to control himself. Figaro attempts to frighten him to make him realize that if he has to go into the army, life will be more difficult than flouncing around in women’s boudoirs.
“You’ll go no more, amorous butterfly, flitting about, night and day, disturbing ladies’ rest, little Narcissus, Adonis of love. You’ll wear no more these plumes, that smart and jaunty cap, those curls, that dashing air, that pink, effeminate complexion!” he says.
After listening to Mozart’s aria, the Enlightenment person would likely say, “That’s tuneful, that’s memorable, it’s engaging, it’s accessible, and that seems to resonate more with the spirit of our time, with its emphasis on a kind of idealized common person.” This is common music for everyone that also well-reflects a specific dramatic moment: Figaro trying to impress upon the 13-year-old Cherubino his fate if he doesn’t clean up his act.
Mozart’s aria is also entirely natural-sounding music. Natural was a buzzword coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is natural use of the voice. The composition is not asking the voice to do anything that it doesn’t want to do, and it’s naturally dramatic. The artistic vision of the times was that music that was accessible to the greatest number must be good. The Enlightenment saw, as a result, a whole new musical language evolve.
Learn more about vocal expression in music
A New Musical Style for the Enlightenment
The spirit of originality of every person and natural humanism that characterized the Enlightenment demanded a musical style that would appeal to an idealized, average listener. It demanded a style which stressed beautiful melody and charm above everything and avoided unnecessary complexity. The Enlightenment rejected what it considered the elitist, overblown, melodically complex music of the Baroque. This new, accessible, melody-dominated musical style was named the Classical style.
Classical style harkens back to Greek Classical art for which it was named. Greek art celebrates, above all, clarity of line, balance and proportion, and aesthetic purity. Classical music strove to celebrate clarity of melody with direct, accessible tunes; carefully wrought musical phrases with clear forms, emotional restraint, and elegance; and greater realism and naturalism in opera.
Around 1740, at the beginning of what is now considered the Enlightenment, Baroque opera seria was anything but Classical. Productions were formulaic, grandiose, and expensive, with libretti based on bastardized versions of ancient history and mythology. Stiff, exaggerated, often overblown characters suffered great emotional extremes. Often there were few ensembles and almost no choruses. Musical interest is carried by arias, which were abused profoundly by the singers, in particular the castrati.
The relevance of opera seria to the age of the Enlightenment was increasingly questioned by many contemporary artists, writers, philosophers, and composers. It lead inevitably to the political, aesthetic, and musical rejection of Baroque opera seria by progressive philosophers and composers.
Rousseau and the Critique of Opera Seria
Chief among the critics of Baroque opera seria was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau lived from 1712 to 1778. He was an anti-establishment French intellectual. An author, philosopher, and a composer, whatever the topic, Rousseau blasted the establishment. He believed the natural man was born pure, but was corrupted by civilization.
He had a major hand in writing the great French Encyclopedia, a virtual handbook of the Enlightenment, which was assembled between 1751 and 1765. For this Encyclopedia, Rousseau wrote two articles, which modern readers think of as mutually exclusive. However, he thought of them as being related. He wrote the article on politics and the article on music.
One of the greatest thinkers and authors of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau launched a devastating attack on the aristocratic opera seria of the late Baroque. In attacking opera seria, the most important, substantial, and glamorous musical genre of its time, Rousseau called into question the basic aesthetic assumptions of the Baroque. He attacked the aristocracy, which in France supported Baroque opera. Rousseau felt that Baroque opera seria plots and characters were as artificial as their complicated music. He suggested that only an operatic genre that portrayed real people in actual life could be relevant to the humanistic spirit of the Enlightenment. For Rousseau, music equaled politics, social structure, and opera.
Rousseau’s influence and attitude sparked a huge controversy. His critical opposition to the old-fashioned, state-subsidized French opera erupted in 1752 in a pamphlet battle. One group wrote a tract and circulated it around to the public. In response, the opposition wrote theirs and circulated it around as well. This pamphlet battle was known as the guerre des buffons, the war of the buffoonists or the war of the comic actors, so-called because its immediate occasion was the presence in Paris of an Italian opera company. For two seasons the company had enjoyed sensational success in Paris performing new Italian comic operas or, opera buffe.
Rousseau was the leader of the pro-Italian faction, and he published an article, among the many published, in which he went so far as to argue that the French language was inherently unsuitable for operatic singing.
Practically every intellectual or would-be intellectual in Paris, took part in the debate; partisans of the Italian opera buffa on one side, and the friends of traditional French and opera seria on the other. Rousseau was the leader of the pro-Italian faction. He published an article, among the many published, in which he went so far as to argue that the French language was inherently unsuitable for operatic singing. These tracts, pamphlets, and verbal arguments went to wild extremes in their desire to make their points. Rousseau and his friends represented progressive and advanced opinion in Paris. As a result of their campaign, traditional opera seria soon lost favor among French audiences. Rousseau and his followers embraced a new genre of opera, then emerging from Italy, particularly from the city of Naples, as the artistic solution for opera in the Enlightenment. Specifically, Rousseau and his clique embraced an opera entitled La serva padrona (The Maid as Mistress), composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. They celebrated this particular opera as the new ideal.
Learn more about how opera buffa was championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
La Serva Padrona as a prototype of Opera Buffa
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi lived a short life, born in 1710 and died in 1736 at only 26-years-old. La serva padrona was written when he was 23, in 1733. La serva began its life as one of the comic Italian intermezzi. It was originally written by Pergolesi to be performed along with his own opera seria, Il prigioniero superbo, and was premiered with Il prigioniero on September 5,1733, in Naples.
La serva padrona was performed in Paris as an opera unto itself, not as an intermezzo, and it represented the new attempt by young Italian composers and librettists to change the operatic language. Around 1730, certain young Italian composers began seriously trying to bring opera into harmony with the Enlightenment’s changing ideals of music. Specifically, their efforts were directed towards making the entire design more natural—more flexible in structure, more deeply expressive in content, less laden with coloratura, and more varied in other musical resources. Duets, trios, and choruses were included. Composers used what they had to be less formulaic and to make the drama work. The production was natural in all things, especially the music. Music was cleaned up and composed to be more direct and tuneful.
Typical of these early Enlightenment opera buffe was La serva padrona. It features music that is lively and catchy. No formulas, the music follows the necessities of the text. La serva padrona features a small portable cast, typical of opera buffa with only three singers. Pergolesi used a soprano, named Serpina, a bass named Uberto, and a third character named Vespone. However, Vespone is a mute. He doesn’t have to sing, which kept production expenses low.
La serva padrona is about a simple ruse by which a servant girl, Serpina (the serpent), tricks an old bachelor into marriage. The opera is an opera buffa because it is less serious and lighter in plot content than an opera seria. The characters are familiar rather than heroic or mythological ones, people based in a common experience. Finally, with modest resources, a piece like this is one step removed from commedia dell’arte. A piece with three players of which only two sing, could be played almost anywhere a stage could be found.
The story resonated with Enlightenment audiences because of the universality of its theme and setting. Uberto is an older, aging bachelor, financially well off. Serpina is his young, attractive maid who wants to become his wife. To make Uberto jealous and force him into asking for her hand, she claims to be engaged to Vespone, the mute. Uberto has been left with this information from Serpina. Of course, Uberto can’t believe she intends to marry the mute. Serpina leaves, knowing Uberto is going to be mulling and thinking this over in his mind and work himself into a frenzy. Indeed, he is confused.
Here is the recitative that he sings at this moment of confusion:
Now I can guess who it will be! Perhaps this will be her penance. He will do to her what she’s done to me. If what she told me is true, a husband like him will keep her between the earth and a stick. Poor thing, she is! Otherwise I might think of … but she is a servant … but I wouldn’t be the first … Would you marry her then? Enough … Oh no, no, it can’t be. Irresponsible thoughts, get lost! Control yourself, I raised her myself. I know how she was born … Oh, Oh! How crazy you are! Easy now, easy now, please, please, think no more about it. Still, I feel a passion for her … that rotten creature … And yet, and yet, and yet … Oh God … here I go again … Oh … what confusion!”
The audience can identify with Uberto. Enlightenment audiences didn’t have to have gone through his particular position to understand his feelings, because this is a common man dealing with common issues of love, lust, resistance, and everything else that people deal with in the reality of their everyday struggles.
Common Questions About Opera Buffa
The first example of opera buffa which people still perform today is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (1733; The Maid as Mistress).
Opera seria differs from opera buffa in that opera seria (as the name suggests) typically dealt with more serious subject matter, while opera buffa was more comical.
Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801), Federico Ricci (1809 –1877), and Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792 – 1868) were all major composers of the comic opera form known as opera buffa.
The opera buffa was inspired by the intermezzi, which was a comic intermission appearing in more serious plays and operas in order to break up the tension.