Opera has been a part of Western music since it, that is, opera, first began in 16th century Italy. It combines orchestral scores with sung lyrics to present a dramatic story, and has produced its share of immortal masterpieces still performed today. Like any other genre, opera breaks down into multiple subgenres, including grand opera, which arose in the early 19th century, and light opera, which arose about 150 years earlier. The differences between them are pronounced.
Grand opera has existed in some form or another since the earliest days of opera. Auber’s “The Mute Girl of Portici” marked the first official appearance of grand opera when it premiered in 1828. Grand opera became largely associated with the Paris Opera House, though it was performed all over the world. Light opera, on the other hand, began in Italy in the late 17th century. Opera buffa, or comic opera, can be traced to Allessandro Stradella’s “Trespolo the Tutor,” which first appeared in 1679.
Grand opera usually follows a four- or five-act structure and involves a very large cast of characters: both of which emphasize a larger-than-life scale. While light opera can adopt these techniques, it often uses a three-act structure, and the overall length is often much shorter. It can also utilize spoken dialogue, which grand opera rarely engages in; and while it may feature a large cast of characters, it can also operate quite efficiently with only two or three characters.
Grand opera often emphasizes tragic or historical circumstances: larger-than-life figures who engaged in epic events and often succumbed to fatal circumstances. Light opera, on the other hand, is almost always comedic in nature, with positive stories; clownish or amusing characters; and happy plot elements, such as romance and marriage. Light opera tends to stress more current ideas and styles, while grand opera concerns itself with more historical subject matter.
Grand opera makes extensive use of theatrical trappings: elaborate costumes, opulent sets and even special effects like smoke and stage magic. While light opera can make use of those trappings, especially if it seeks to parody grand opera, it often makes do with much less. That allows it to be performed in earthier venues such as theater houses or even taverns, without requiring excessive costumes and props.