How Did Opera Buffa Rise to Prominence?

From the Lecture Series: How to Listen to and Understand Opera

By Robert Greenberg, Ph. D., San Francisco Performances

Comic opera—slapstick, satirical, often bawdy, and almost always irreverent—has had a very different history than that of serious opera or what we call opera seria.

Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy  (Image: Catarina Belova/Shutterstock)

Since the Middle Ages, traveling musicians like the minstrels and the troubadours and the trouvères and the 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.

Commedia dell’Arte is a form of comic theater characterized by broad humor and the use of masked “types.” (Image: Claude Gillot/Public domain)

During the second half of the 17th century, the period during which opera became, in Italy, a generally popular entertainment, comic interludes were introduced between the acts of Italian opera seriae. These were called intermezzi, and they were actually comic interludes and scenes introduced within the acts of the larger and more dramatic opera seriae. These comic interludes adopted many of the stock archetypal characters drawn from the Italian commedia dell’arte; and 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’s a general distinction for Italian operas of the middle- and late-18th century that don’t come under the heading of opera seria. So, when we call something an opera buffa, it doesn’t mean we’re laughing in the aisles like idiots during every scene. It simply means that it’s not one of these big, aristocratic, overblown, overly serious, 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?” and the question, “Why?” How does 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. For want of a better term, we call this new and rising class of people the middle class, and 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 and the financial buying power and the growing importance of this new class of people, a basic new philosophy emerges called Universal Humanism. Universal Humanism takes into account this new and growing class of moneyed and increasingly educated people and recognizes the essential importance of every human being, whether they be born an aristocrat or not. What sort of vocal music will our new aristocratic and nonaristocratic Enlightenment listeners prefer? Let’s say you are one of these new middle-class burghers, who is now starting to consume music in a very large way. Which of these pieces that I will describe for you is going to be more relevant to you? Which one are you likely to like more and for what reasons—and which one seems to resonate more with the spirit of every person that is rampant during the 18th century?

Learn more about the main features of early opera

A Musical Comparison

Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi by an unidentified painter (Image: Public Domain)

First, consider Antonio Vivaldi’s aria Siam navi all’onde algenti from his opera L’Olimpiade of 1734. We’ve got an incredibly complicated, ornamental, over-fussy melody, and a stiff, formal, over-fussy, metaphorical, allegorical 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.” Do people talk like that? This aria, written for a male soprano, also features a very unnatural sort of use of the voice. Whether we find the male soprano unnatural-sounding or not, this is music of great artifice. It’s music meant to show off the voice in its most extreme acrobatics and its most extreme display of virtuosity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Image: International museum and library of music/Public domain)

For comparison, let’s 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 for Figaro known as Non più andrai,” or “You’ll go no more.” Figaro is talking to the very, very sexually promiscuous Cherubino, a 13-year-old boy who seems unable to control himself. Figaro is trying to frighten him to make him realize that if he has to go into the army, life’s not going to be as easy as it’s been 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!” Ha, ha! “You’ll wear no more,” and so forth.

After listening to Mozart’s aria, I would guess that our Enlightenment person is going to say, “That’s really nice. 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, music for everyone. It’s music 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 very quickly.

Also, Mozart’s aria is entirely natural-sounding music, and natural is a buzzword coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It’s natural use of the voice. We’re not asking the voice to do anything that it really doesn’t want to do, and it’s naturally dramatic. The artistic vision of the times is that music that is accessible to the greatest number must be good. The Enlightenment sees, 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 which avoided unnecessary complexity. The Enlightenment rejected what it considered the elitist, overblown, melodically complex music of the Baroque. We call this new, accessible, melody-dominated musical style the Classical style. As this new style was brought to its state of highest development in and around the city of Vienna, c. 1770 to 1800, it’s often referred to as the Viennese Classical style.

Classical style harkens back to Greek Classical art for which it was named. Greek art celebrates, above all, clarity of line. Classical music celebrates clarity of melody—direct, accessible tunes. Greek art celebrates balance and proportion. Classical era music celebrates carefully wrought musical phrases and clear forms. Greek art celebrates aesthetic purity. Classical era music celebrates emotional restraint and elegance, and, for our purposes, greater realism and naturalism in opera.

Baroque opera seria, around 1740, at the beginning of what we would now consider the Enlightenment, was anything but Classical. It had formulaic, grandiose, and expensive productions, with libretti based on bastardized versions of ancient history and mythology. Stiff, exaggerated, often overblown characters suffered great emotional extremes, and there were very few ensembles and almost no choruses. Basically, the musical interest is carried by arias, which were abused profoundly by the singers, particularly the castrati.

The relevance of this opera seria to the age of the Enlightenment was increasingly questioned by many contemporary artists, writers, philosophers, and composers, which led inevitably to the political and aesthetic and musical rejection of Baroque opera seria by the real progressive philosophers and composers.

Rousseau and the Critique of Opera Seria

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Image: Allan Ramsay/Public domain)

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. He was an author, a philosopher, and a composer. Whatever the topic, he blasted the establishment. He believed that the natural man was born pure, but was corrupted by civilization.

He had a major hand in writing the great French Encyclopedia, this virtual handbook of the Enlightenment, which was assembled between 1751 and 1765. For this Encyclopedia, Rousseau wrote two articles, which we might think of as being mutually exclusive but, of course, he thought of them as being absolutely related. He wrote the article on politics and he wrote 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 was calling into question the basic aesthetic assumptions of the Baroque as well as attacking the aristocracy, which in France supported Baroque opera. Rousseau felt that Baroque opera seria plots and characters were as hopelessly 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, equaled social structure, equaled 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 verbal battle. It was actually a pamphlet battle, as one group wrote a tract and circulated it around and then the opposition wrote theirs and circulated it around. 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, which for two seasons 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, which means everyone, my friends, between the age of two and 102, had taken part in this 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, 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. These tracts and these pamphlets and these verbal arguments went to some wild extremes in their desires to make their points. Bottom line, Rousseau and his friends represented progressive and advanced opinion in Paris, and 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, and 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, the Italian composer (Image: Unknown Artist, Public Domain)

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi lived a very short life, born in 1710, died in 1736, only 26 years; and La serva padrona was written when he was 23, in 1733. La serva began its life as one of these 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 of 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 or so, 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—and there’s that word “natural” again—that is, more flexible in structure, more deeply expressive in content, less laden with all that coloratura stuff, and more varied in other musical resources, such as duets, trios, and choruses if you could use them, and so forth. Don’t be formulaic. Use what you have to use to make the drama work. Natural, natural, natural. Natural in all things, especially the music. Clean up the music and make it more direct and tuneful.

Typical of these early Enlightenment opera buffe was La serva padrona. La serva padrona features music that is lively and catchy. No formulas, the music follows the necessities of the text. We have a small portable cast in La serva padrona—typical of opera buffa—of only three singers, of which only two are singing parts. We have a soprano named Serpina. We have a bass named Uberto and then we have a third character named Vespone. But Vespone is a mute. He doesn’t have to sing, so that will keep the payroll down.

This opera, La serva padrona, is about a simple ruse by which a servant girl, Serpina (the serpent), tricks an old bachelor into marriage. We call this opera an opera buffa because it is less serious and lighter in plot content than an opera seria; we have familiar characters rather than heroic or mythological ones, people based in a common experience; thirdly, modest performing resources. A piece like this is only 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.

Let me set the scene for you. Uberto is an old, or at least a rapidly aging, bachelor, financially well off. Serpina is his young, attractive maid who wants to become his wife. She wants to become the mistress of the casa. In order 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, “Oh, I’d love you to meet my husband-to-be.” Of course, Uberto can’t believe she intends to marry this guy. She leaves, knowing that when she leaves, he’s going to be mulling and thinking this over, and some endless feedback loop in his mind is going to work him up into a frenzy. Indeed, he is confused as all get-go.

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!”

Can we identify with this guy? Well, of course we can. We don’t have to have gone through his particular position to understand what he’s feeling, because this is a common person dealing with common issues of love, lust, resistance, and everything else that we deal with in the reality of our everyday.

Common Questions About Opera Buffa

Q: What was the first 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).

Q: How is opera seria different from opera buffa?

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.

Q: Which major composers wrote opera buffa?

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.

Q: What influenced the 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.

This article was updated on 7/4/2019

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