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Linguistics in Opera and Libretto Exploratory Essay

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Updated: Jun 4th, 2019


Opera is performed using theatrical scenes where the art involves a combination of singing and dramatization. This kind of text is referred to as the libretto. It was a very popular form of art in early Europe. Opera remains popular today in some quarters of the society. The art brings together singing, speaking as well as acting. All these activities are performed in an opera house which is specifically designed for such purposes (Kennedy 62).

Linguistic on the other hand is the exploration of human language and its origin, revolution as well as application of the language. The application encompasses the use of morphology, syntax as well as the phonology in the composition of words.

The meaning of language has been explored by analyzing the meaning of other forms of art in the real world. This is with the view of understanding the origin of opera from different backgrounds. This means that opera can be analyzed from a linguistic perspective.

The opera is characterized by features such as the stage, orchestra pit and an audience area among others. Some operas are designed to accommodate various aspects of linguistic analysis. This is especially so considering the fact that operas were very popular in England and other countries during the early centuries.

A comprehensive analysis of linguistics in opera can be achieved by looking at the origins of this form of art. This is given the fact that linguistics in opera is influenced a great deal by the origins of this art. It is noted that the art originated in Italy towards the end of the 16th century.

It later spread to other parts of the world especially in Europe. To date, the operatic terminologies in these countries are referred to as the libretto (MacNutt 101). This is an indication of linguistics in opera. The origins of opera are evident in today’s compositions where aspects of Italian language are incorporated.

This is given the fact that most of them have retained the original Italian characteristics such as accent and others. Such aspects help in tracing the common origin of today’s opera performances as far as linguistics is concerned.

In this paper, the author is going to look at the use of linguistics in opera. The author will make reference to librettos from operas in English from England and the United States of America. Examples of linguistic operas will be put into perspective in a chronological sequence. The aim here is to depict the link between the two fields of linguistics and opera.

History and Origin of Opera from a Linguistic Perspective

Before embarking on the critical analysis of the link between opera and linguistics, it is important to look at the history and origins of opera as a form of art. This will give the reader an idea of what opera is all about. It will also give the reader an idea of how contemporary opera differs from classical compositions and performances.

The word opera is an Italian word implying “work” when translated. When loosely translated, opera involves the combination of “…….works from acting declamation in opera house stage” (Kennedy 75). Jacopo Peri is considered as the pioneer of this form of art. Dafne is actually a piece of work that was originally produced by Peri and it remains one of his most popular compositions.

A group of Camerata found out that the entire opera was performed by the Greek dramas. So far the idea was to conceive and restore the traditional art. On a sad note, Dafne was lost and Peri was forced to come up with a new composition, the Euridice. This is the only opera that is still performed to date. It is to be noted that singing was an important aspect of opera (Warrack & Ewan 25).


Libretto is an elongated piece in form of music found in many categories of performances such as opera and cantanta. The word in some cases is associated with liturgical works such as the requiem as well as the expression of a story in ballet. Like opera, libretto also has an Italian origin, creating a link between it and linguistics. It literally translates into a book as already indicated in this paper.

Libretto is different when compared to other forms of art like synopsis. In libretto, the distinction is evidenced by the fact that it contains words (linguistics) as well as stage directions. Synopsis on the other hand is used to give a summary of the plot (Smith 31).

Historically, the ballet users have described libretto in different ways. For instance, libretto was recorded in a book of between 15 and 40 pages that contained ballets describing one scene or another.

This was in Paris in the 19th century. To this end, it is noted that the relationship between the composer and the writer of a given piece of music varies from one case to the other. This has varied the outcomes of such compositions for centuries. This is given that the writing criteria adopted as well as the sources used also varied (Simon 23). The language used in the composition varies from one case to the other.

Metastasio is an example of well known librettists in Europe. It was used by a composer and a writer in a practice commonly known as poetry. Poetry is part of linguistics, and at this juncture, the author notes that it is also part of opera. In some cases, libretto has been written before music.

Some composers used this idea in their creations. This is composers such as Mikhali Glinka and Alexander Serov who wrote down passages without accompanying texts. This was later to be modified by composers when vocalizing the lines (Smith 43).

Linguistics in opera is also evident in opera of the 20th century. It is to be noted that opera was widely used in America in the 20th century. Richard Rodgers is an example of a great composer who used this art in collaboration with other librettists.

In other relationships as far as libretto and linguistics are concerned, composers designed their own libretti. Other librettos established a close relationship with composers so that all works of opera could reflect a common origin. The common origin could be deduced from the language that was used.

Ingredients from other traditions were also effective in composition. But the efficiency improved when they were “combined under one work as far as composing and writing is concerned” (MacNutt 20).

In this case, the opera will not clash with the play in attempts to accommodate other linguistics works with different origins. In cases where there was a need to combine works with different origins, it was necessary to put the script down in the presence of all the composers and the writer (Warrack & Ewan 43).

English Language Opera and Linguistics

Opera was first used in England in the 17th century. The piece was performed towards the end of a play. It was frequently characterized by scandalous scenes which depicted a consistence use of the popular tunes phrased in a dialogue. In the same period, French operas were gaining roots in English courts. They had “……..favorite splendors with scenes that were realistic” (Smith 22) in the plays.

England had to use this kind of opera on the stage. Inigo Jones is credited as the pioneer of this art. He later became a quintessential specialist in all the productions (MacMurray & Franzetti 26). The opera contained both songs and dances.

Linguistic aspects were borrowed from different backgrounds for instance Italian and French which was taking hold in England. Opera revolution instigated the rise of linguistic elements from different artists. One such artist was Henry Purcell who also incorporated aspects of Italian language in his compositions.

This is for example in his first work Dido and Aeneas. He centered his work on the semi opera type of format. The Fairy Queen is also one of the most famous works produced by Purcell. In this text, he was targeting the use of English in all versions of opera as an art.

Dido and Aeneas Opera

This is one of the English opera composed by Purcell. It was a libretto from Nahum Tate in the 17th century. This was the only work that had started to use English traditions after the inception of the Shakespearian linguistics. It is noted that the desire to use the English language in opera was common among emerging artists during the century (Apel 47).

Opera Seria

Long English compositions emerged later and the first English composer to venture here was Thomas Arne (Smith 24). He did this by experimenting with the Italian style, a process known as comic opera. This art became a huge success with many other pieces incorporated into the opera seria in Italian and English (MacMurray & Franzetti 51).

Opera seria dominated the stages till late 1830s and by then he was the only English composer to have gone beyond the Italian composition to produce a unique English composition with aspects of the Italian language. Linguistics was also evident in Balla opera where the composers incorporated some aspects of the English language.

This is for example in The Love In Village (MacMurray & Franzetti 58). As a result of this many native operas developed by incorporating aspects of the Italian language. Linguistics here was evident as the composers combined aspects of two different languages.

The Yeomen of the Guard

The 19th century English opera has been greatly influenced by linguistics elements. Many operatic conventions dominated London stages with emerging English composers taking the center stage. One English opera of this time was The Yeomen Of The Guard which was greatly recognized.

It is a savoy opera that originated in Victorian England. The contributors to this art included Gilbert and Sullivan who came up with compositions from scratch.

Punch and Judy

In the 20th century English opera was characterized by independent works from contributors such as Ralph Williams and Benjamin Britten. The two have greatly influenced contemporary theatre operas. This is after it emerged that English opera was being used in many parts of the world. For example the work of Sir Harrison The Punch and the Judy is not only Britain’s important opera art but also globally recognized (Silke 24).

This work was evident in the 20th century and was performed in the American theatres. It was an indication that linguistics in opera was a common phenomenon across the globe. Using of puppets was an indication of how human behavior is linguistically transformed from one discipline to another (Silke 43)

In the early 21st century, Harrison concentrated with the composition of other popular pieces such as “Facing the Goya”. English opera has therefore become a significant ingredient of today’s opera world. For example, the National Lyric Stage involves the use of operas composed in the English language (Cooke 15).

American Opera

American opera became profound during the 20th century. The pioneers in American opera include Leonard Bernstein and Douglas Moor among others. Their works include The Porgy and Bess. They greatly influenced English opera as they performed music encrypted in English.

It was characterized by folklores and American music comedies. They are the ones who popularized this form of art in America. On their part, they were influenced by composers and performers in operas found in other parts of the world (Kennedy 28).

An American in Paris

This is one of the compositions from America done by George Gershwin. It is a well defined opera incorporating aspects of the French language in 1922. In this art, French was used together with American English with the aim of using linguistics to depict the experience of an American visitor in Paris (Smith 39).

Other Contributions

Still in the 20th century, other prominent opera arts include the Dead Man Walking which was successfully delivered through movie theaters. Another aspect of linguistics in opera can be discerned from the works of Italian opera composer Gian Carlo.

The composer produced several librettos from America and became a great figure in American operas in this century. One of his works includes The Medium and The Consul. Some of his works featured in television performances (Kennedy 49).


In this paper, the author sought to look at the application of linguistics in opera. The aim was to study the link between linguistics and opera. All these involve the use of different languages hence linguistics in opera. The author used librettos from operas in English from England and the United States of America in identifying the link between the two fields.

To this end, the researcher identified the link or the relationship between opera and linguistics. The author also looked at some of the key figures in English opera both in England and the United States of America. The origin of opera was also looked at.

The paper found that the origin of opera can be used to analyze the link between opera and linguistics. This is given that there are some aspects of the original opera language that are evident in today’s opera. For example, some aspects of the Italian language are evident in today’s works of opera.

Works Cited

Apel, William. Harvard Dictionary of Music, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

Cooke, Mervyn. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Kennedy, Michael. The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

MacMurray, Jessica, and A. Franzetti. The Book of 101 Opera Librettos: Complete Original Language Texts with English Translations, London: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009. Print.

MacNutt, Richard. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, London: Prentice Hall Publishers, 2009. Print.

Silke, Leopold. The Idea of National Opera c. 1800: United and Diversity in European Culture c. 1800, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Simon, Henry. A Treasury of Grand Opera, New York: MacGrill Publishers, 2008. Print.

Smith, Marian. Ballet and Opera in the Middle Age, Boston: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.

Warrack, John, and W. Ewan.The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, London: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

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