Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2011
The affinities between opera and lyric are longstanding. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France, non-comic opera was distinguished from spoken drama by the term tragédie-lyrique. In Italian the word lirico is appended as an adjective to opera to form the generic term opera lirica, for the word opera can refer to a variety of things such as work or action. The term lyric has been preserved in the names of opera houses such as the Théâtre-Lyrique, which functioned in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, and in such present-day institutions as the Boston Lyric Opera and the Chicago Lyric Opera.
The word lyric derives from that ancient instrument, the lyre, which accompanied the recitation of poems. During the early modern period the word was revived to define shorter poems accompanied by plucked instruments supposedly descending from the lyre. In its early manifestations, opera demonstrated its affinity to lyric through the dominant role that these instruments – baroque harp, chitarrone, theorbo, and lute – played in the small chamber ensembles accompanying the singers. When we hear a performance of, say, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria or La Calisto, we are constantly aware of how conspicuously the various plucked instruments define the rhythms and the harmonies of the declamations uttered by the characters.