German Opera

German Opera quickly developed after the birth of Opera itself in Italy, the first known German Opera was played at Torgau in 1627.

Vienna state Opera House. photo.

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Still popular among classical music lovers today, opera is a genre combining music and drama – sort of like upscale  musical theater. Operas  are  primarily  sung, sometimes  including  spoken word, and typically accompanied by an  orchestra  or  instrumental ensemble. Opera began in Italy at the end of the 16th century. It is thought that the first opera performance in Germany was Italian composer Ottavio Rinuccini‘s Dafne at the Landgrave of Hesse’s wedding in 1627.

Development and Growing Popularity

Throughout the 17th century, German opera grew in popularity. The first commercial opera venture was in Hamburg in 1678, with the Theater am Gänsemarkt. The central figure of the Hamburg opera scene was Reinhard Keiser; not only was he the principal composer, writing over 100 operas in 1694-1734, but he also directed and managed the theater. Needless to say, Keiser was a busy guy! The establishment of the national theater in 1778 encouraged more composers to become involved in writing opera.

Decoration during a festival in honour of George I of Great Britain in Hamburg’s ”Oper am Gänsemarkt”.

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Reinhard composed operas mostly to German texts, of which only 19 survive. He was highly regarded by both his peers and his public, who were attracted by his uncomplicated lyrical arias, many with colourful and varied instrumentation. Keiser also introduced into his German operas arias with Italian texts, sometimes by other composers, and even incorporated comic characters. He was particularly adept at depicting nature and at portraying suffering heroines, as in Iphigenia (1699), which is now lost, and Ariadne (1722).

Heinrich Schütz, c. 1650–60 (Leipzig), by Christoph Spetner.

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Heinrich Schütz composed a setting of Dafne (now lost), the first known opera with a German text, and heard it played at Torgau in 1627.

A remarkable Venetian composer-diplomatist-ecclesiastic, Agostino Steffani, carried much of his native city’s early operatic manner to Munich, Hanover, and other German centres. He began his operatic production in Munich with Marco Aurelio (1681), and thereafter he continued to compose operas for 28 years. In his use of both Italian and French procedures, particularly in handling overture and recitative, Steffani evolved  a sort of  international Italian style that was adopted by other “transplanted”  composers.

For the next 100 years, the influence of Italian opera was so pervasive that even native German composers adopted the Italian operatic style and used texts in Italian. 

The German word Singspiel was originally used for all sorts of opera.

The earliest known entertainments so designated were composed by a pupil of Schütz, Johann Theile. One of them, “Adam und Eva”, inaugurated Germany’s first public opera house, in Hamburg, in 1678.

Hannover opera house.

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During the mid-18th century the term singspiel came to be reserved for what the English called “ballad opera” and what the French called opéra comique: light, usually comic operas that incorporated spoken dialogue.

The comic singspiel of the 18th century was born in London with “The Devil to Pay” (1731) and its sequel, “The Merry Cobbler (1735), both English ballad operas with texts by Charles Coffey.

In German translation, the Coffey texts attracted the attention of German composers, most notably Johann Adam Hiller, who also  composed  several  other  singspiels  and  brought to fruition a style that came to be known as the Leipzig school.

Both Berlin and Vienna inevitably took up the singspiel, and the genre held the interest of major composers well into the 19th century.

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19th Century German Opera 

Opera in Germany presented two significant styles:

  • German Romantic opera;
  • Music drama, the latter conceived and developed by Richard Wagner.

In German Romantic opera, the  libretti  were often  based on  German legends and folklore, with the mystery of nature and supernatural forces serving to intensify dramatic expression.  The recitatives and arias in German Romantic operas were distinct forms and were sometimes based on folk song or melodies in folk style.  “Melodrama” (instrumentally  accompanied  speech),  sometimes  an independent form, was used for special effects. Two other traits of the music drama were exhibited to some degree in the  German  romantic  opera.  The  orchestra  became  a  powerful  instrument in creating atmospheremoods, and even bits of realism.  There was also a prototype of the music dramas’ “leitmotif,” in which particular instruments and melodies are used to identify and characterize individuals.

The ideal of music-drama, or the art of the future as it was called by Wagner, was that of an art  form  in  which  all the  arts were  woven  into one cohesive and continuous line of dramatic expression.

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Potrait of Richard Strauss, 1918.

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Most important german opera composers for each period. 

Classical era:

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart;
  • Ludwig van Beethoven;

Romantic era:

  • Louis Spohr;
  • Carl Maria von Weber;
  • Richard Wagner
  • Richard Strauss;


  •  Arnold Schoenberg and his acolyte Alban Berg.

German opera after World War II

Composers writing after World War II had to find a way of coming to terms with the destruction caused by the Third Reich. The modernism of Schoenberg and Berg proved attractive to young composers, since their works had been banned by the Nazis and were free of any taint of the former regime.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann looked to the example of Berg’s Wozzeck for his only opera “Die Soldaten” (1965), and Aribert Reimann continued the tradition of expressionism with his  “Shakespearean Lear” (1978).

Perhaps the most versatile and internationally famous post-war  German  opera  composer  is  Hans  Werner  Henze,  who has  produced  a series of  works which mix Bergian  influences  with those  of Italian  composers  such as Verdi. Examples of his operas are “Boulevard Solitude”, “The Bassarids”  (to a libretto by W. H. Auden) and “Das verratene Meer”.

Karlheinz Stockhausen set off in an even more avant-garde  direction  with his  enormous  operatic cycle based on the seven days of the week,  Licht (1977–2003). Giselher Klebe created an extensive body of work in the operatic genre based on literary works. Other  leading  composers  still producing operas today include Wolfgang Rihm and Olga Neuwirth.

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