Opera originated during the Renaissance in Florence. Jacopo Peri's Dafne, dating from just before the turn of the 17th century, is regarded by musicologists as the earliest example of opera. The genre soon spread throughout Europe. In Germany, Schutz was one of the earliest opera composers; in France, Lully made a name for himself with Cadmus et Hermionie and other gems at Louis XIV's court; in England, Purcell was the most eminent opera composer of his day. All these important figures helped to establish each of their national traditions in opera.

In the 18th century Italian opera continued to dominate as an art form in many countries in Europe. Opera seria was the most prestigious form and opera buffa, or comic opera, had a more widespread following from various strata in society. This changed when the German composer Gluck called for a reform, considering opera seria to be too artificial. Today, some of the most widely-performed operas from the classical period are by Mozart, famed for both opera seria and opera buffa. His most prized operas are The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and Cosi Fan Tutte.

The mid-to-late 19th century was dominated by Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Der Ring des Nibelungen show great expressiveness and a somewhat seamless flow of endless melody. Verdi’s operas resonated with the nationalist sentiments in Italy in the wake of the post-Napoleonic era. His three most popular operas are Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata.

The 20th century saw many experimental styles which made their way into opera, such as the atonality and serialism of Schoenberg, the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and the minimalism of Philip Glass.

The internet has begun to change how opera-goers experience opera. Many opera companies have been presenting their performances in cinemas throughout the world: most notably the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which began a series of high-definition video transmissions to cinemas in 2006.