How Opera Changed Theater Forever

Inside the Theater

Live performances offer rare thrills of stunning scenery, vibrant dialogue and electrifying music — all of which The Smith Center looks forward to delivering again when it reopens in the future.

In the meantime, the center offers a glimpse at how theater’s dazzling elements came to be, in an ongoing blog series.

Explore below how eye-popping visuals and captivating music became intertwined with theater.


The Spartan Stage of Shakespeare

Drama on stage didn’t always mean a visual spectacle.

While audiences today delight in colossal and mesmerizing set pieces, all of this would have baffled audiences from the age of William Shakespeare in the late 1500s.

Performances in this theatrical golden era featured spartan stages, with no sets and often no props.

This served a simple purpose: to keep the focus on the dialogue and the unfolding story.

Unsurprising, considering playwrights such as Shakespeare provided rich dialogue that required audiences’ rapt attention.

“(Shakespeare’s) great achievements included the perfection of the verse form and language that captures the spirt of ordinary speech, yet gives a special dignity to its characters and situations,” says historian Elizabeth Jewell with PBS LearningMedia.

Playwrights like Shakespeare strategically inserted lines to help audiences imagine where the action was taking place, with no sets needed.

This gave plays endless flexibility in their setting — from a storm-ravaged ship in “The Tempest” to a raging battlefield in “Henry V.”

“The actor becomes the centerpiece,” Jewell adds. “(This points) us in the direction of modern theater.”


A New Kind of Performance

Opera changed everything.

It began with a group of Italian artists who dared to reimagine dramatic storytelling in the late 1500s.

Known as the Florentine Camerata, they spent 20 years applying their collective expertise in poetry, drama, art and music to fashion a kind of production rivaling ancient Greece.

“What got them really excited was the possibility of a new type of musical drama,” says Howard Goodall, composer and broadcaster. “They talked of the creation of an ultimate artform that combined music, poetry, dance, drama and design.”

They specifically crafted a performance sung all the way through, with even simple conversations expressed in melody.

“Making the transition between speech and song and back to speech again is extremely difficult to do,” Goodall explains. “If you write the whole thing so it’s sung, it gives stylish unity and cohesion.”


Opera Thinks Big

After the premiere of the group’s first opera in 1598 — the now lost “Dafne” — their new creation quickly led to opera performances spreading throughout Europe.

“Opera burst explosively onto the scene,” Goodall says.

This new art form transformed live performances with its grandiose style.

Reversing the trends from Shakespeare’s era, cities built ornate theaters housing lavish productions, rife with immense set pieces to match the productions’ epic themes.

All of this fulfilled its creators’ vision of an “ultimate art form,” Goodall says.

“It is the art form in which music interfaces with the real world — with love, death and politics,” he says.