By the age of eighteen, after several more years of intensive study, Salieri composed his first opera, although the work, La vestale, was unimpressive and his since been lost. The next year he completed his first surviving opera, Le donne letterate, which greatly impressed his friend, fellow composer and master of German opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck. This surviving opera, a highlight in the genre of opera buffa, or comic opera, was actually set to a libretto intended for his teacher and mentor Gassman, but Gassman’s temporary absence from Vienna provided an opportunity for Salieri to prove himself to his fellow composers as well as the Viennese nobility.
In 1771 Salieri completed his first serious opera Armida, which won extensive praise for its successful incorporation of elements of Parisian opera, the specialty of his friend Gluck. Armida precipitated Salieri’s rise to the upper echelon of European composers. After the death of his mentor, Gassman, in 1774 Salieri was chosen to replace him in the role of music director and chief composer for the court of Emperor Joseph II. Around the same time he was selected to lead Vienna’s Italian opera company. With these two appointments he became one of the most important and influential musicians in Europe.
Enlisting the help of Gluck to appeal to French audiences, Salieri completed Les Danaïdes in 1784, which was eagerly received in Paris. It was during this time that he began working extensively with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who is perhaps best known for writing the libretti to many of Mozart’s greatest works, including Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Da Ponte would also write the Italian libretto to what would become Salieri’s masterpiece, Axur, re d’Ormus (1787), which was itself a translated adaption from his original work Tarare, which featured a French libretto by Pierre Beaumarchais. Released in the same year as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Tarare was actually the better-received of the two works in Vienna, and remains Salieri’s most enduring artistic achievement.