BA Music and Drama

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Early Opera

Course unit fact file
Unit code MUSC30932
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The course examines the development of early opera, from its origins to the end of the seventeenth century, focusing on the cultural and social contexts that gave rise to different forms of music drama across Europe. We will think about our own preconceptions of what opera is by studying the wide variety of forms of early music drama, the array of contemporary terms used to describe such works, and the musical genres that contributed to opera’s development in the seventeenth century, including the intermedio, masque and ballet. We will explore the background to the earliest examples of opera through the humanist activities of the Florentine Camerata as well as through the context of sixteenth-century Italian stage music. The philosophical background to and poetic roots of early opera will also be used to help you learn about the way in which inner meanings (allegory and symbolism) were incorporated into early opera, and how these could be used to serve political ends in some contexts. Detailed investigation of the repertory will take place through six case studies, highlighting the earliest operas (seen through Peri’s Euridice and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo); the commercialisation of Italian opera (seen through L’Incoronazione di Poppea); the development of a French national style of opera (seen through one of Lully’s tragédies en musique, Armide); and the English resistance to the all-sung form (seen through comparison of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with his dramatick opera King Arthur).


Available as Free Choice (UG) or to other programmes (PG)?    Yes, note prerequisite of A Level Music or Grade VIII Theory or equivalent


  • To provide an introduction to the cultural, social and philosophical contexts in which opera developed, from its origins to the end of the seventeenth century;
  • To encourage critical assessment of the definitions of opera in both the early Baroque period and in modern times;
  • To present an overview of the different structural forms taken by music drama in the period, and the genres that contributed to its development, through detailed exploration of several case studies;
  • To assess early opera as a multimedia experience, involving music, drama and spectacle;
  • To provide an introduction to the ways in which outer representations can evoke inner meanings in early opera.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of the cultural, social and philosophical issues that led to the development of opera;
  • Describe, analyse and assess the different structural forms of music drama in the early Baroque period, and the genres that contributed to the development of opera;
  • Demonstrate familiarity with the musical repertoire relevant to this course and analytical skills appropriate for understanding such repertoire;
  • Locate and assess the music of early opera within the broader context of the dramatic and visual spectacle of which it formed part;
  • Demonstrate a critical awareness of the use of allegory and other types of hidden meaning in early opera, the purposes for which such techniques could be employed, and an understanding of the complexities underlying modern interpretation of hidden meanings in early opera.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Engage critically with definitions of opera used in the early Baroque period and in modern times, and employed seventeenth-century terminology accurately.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Show developing abilities in argumentation and interpretation, and the ability to work with a broad range of sources.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate the ability to synthesize and evaluate material systematically to produce arguments and solutions that are communicated clearly in both written and verbal form;
  • Show an ability to produce good-quality work independently with developing critical self-awareness and within an increasingly self-directed environment;
  • Demonstrate the ability to communicate ideas and information clearly in written and verbal form;
  • Demonstrate developing team-working and collaboration skills.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
demonstrate the ability to analyse critically, evaluate and understand ideas from across disciplines (music, drama, dance)
Group/team working
demonstrate advanced skills in teamwork and collaboration with peers in preparation for and execution of presentations
Oral communication
demonstrate the ability to communicate ideas and information clearly in verbal and visual form (presentation)
Written communication
demonstrate the ability to communicate ideas and information clearly in written and form (coursework and examination)
carry out in-depth research independently.

Assessment methods

Group Presentation 0%

Coursework essay 50%

Examination 50%

Feedback methods

Written feedback on group presentation using SALC presentations feedback form 
Written feedback is provided for essay using Turnitin 
Informal oral feedback will be provided for seminar participation
Additional one-to-one feedback is available during the consultation hour or by making an appointment    
Written feedback is provided for exam questions  (available on request from Programmes Administrators)   

Recommended reading

Burden, Michael (ed.), Performing the Music of Henry Purcell (Oxford, 1996). 
Carter, Tim, Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (New Haven, Ct, 2002).
Cowart, Georgia, The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle (Chicago, 2008).
Harris, Ellen T., Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ (2nd edition, Oxford, 2018).
Hume, Robert D., The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1990).
Pirrotta, Nino, and Povoledo, Elena, Music and Theatre from Poliziano to Monteverdi, trans. Karen Eales (Cambridge, 1984).
Powell, John S., Music and Theatre in France, 1600–1800 (Oxford, 2000).
Rosand, Ellen, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: the Creation of a Genre (Berkeley, 1991).
Walkling, Andrew, English Dramatick Opera, 1661–1706, Ashgate Interdisciplinary Studies in Opera (Abingdon, 2019)
Whenham, John (ed.), Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo, Cambridge Opera Handbooks (Cambridge and New York, 1986).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 1
Practical classes & workshops 3
Seminars 1
Tutorials 1
Independent study hours
Independent study 194

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rebecca Herissone-Kelly Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Course documentation and bibliographies online, together with a wide range of other resources on Blackboard (lecture handouts, scores, librettos, articles, links to multimedia resources).

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