German-language opera appeared remarkably quickly after the birth of opera itself in Italy. The first Italian opera was Jacopo Peri's Dafne of 1598. In 1627, Heinrich Schütz provided the music for a German translation of the same libretto. Yet during much of the 17th and 18th centuries German-language opera would struggle to emerge from the shadow of its Italian-language rival, with leading German-born composers such as Handel and Gluck opting to work in foreign traditions such as opera seria.
Some Baroque composers, such as Reinhard Keiser, did try to challenge Italian dominance, and the theatre principal Abel Seyler became an eager promoter of German opera in the 1770s, but it was only with the appearance of Mozart that a lasting tradition of serious German-language opera was established. Mozart took the simple, popular genre of Singspiel and turned it into something far more sophisticated. Beethoven followed his example with the idealistic Fidelio; and with Der Freischütz of 1821, Weber established a uniquely German form of opera under the influence of Romanticism. Weber's innovations were eclipsed by those of Wagner, one of the most revolutionary and controversial figures in musical history. Wagner strove to achieve his ideal of opera as "music drama", eliminating all distinction between aria and recitative, employing a complex web of leitmotifs and vastly increasing the power and richness of the orchestra. Wagner also drew on Germanic mythology in his huge operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.
After Wagner, opera could never be the same again, so great was his influence. The most successful of his followers was Richard Strauss. Opera flourished in German-speaking lands in the early 20th century in the hands of figures such as Hindemith, Busoni and Weill until Adolf Hitler's seizure of power forced many composers into silence or exile. After World War II young opera writers were inspired by the example of Schoenberg and Berg who had pioneered modernist techniques such as atonality and serialism in the earlier decades of the century. Composers at work in the field of opera today include Hans Werner Henze.
As the names of Mozart, Weber, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Berg indicate, Germany and Austria have one of the strongest operatic traditions in European culture. This is also evidenced by the large number of opera houses, particularly in Germany where almost every major city has its own theatre for staging such works, as well as internationally renowned operatic events such as the Salzburg Music Festival.
The world's first opera was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, which appeared in Florence in 1598. Three decades later Heinrich Schütz set the same libretto in a translation by the poet Martin Opitz, thus creating the first ever German-language opera. The music to Schütz's Dafne is now lost and details of the performance are sketchy, but it is known to have been written to celebrate the marriage of Landgrave Georg II of Hessen-Darmstadt to Princess Sophia Eleonora of Saxony in Torgau in 1627. As in Italy, the first patrons of opera in Germany and Austria were royalty and the nobility, and they tended to favour composers and singers from south of the Alps. Antonio Cesti was particularly successful, providing the huge operatic extravaganza Il pomo d'oro for the imperial court in Vienna in 1668. Opera in Italian would continue to exercise a considerable sway over German-speaking lands throughout the Baroque and Classical periods. Nevertheless, native forms were developing too. In Nuremberg in 1644, Sigmund Staden produced the "spiritual pastorale", Seelewig, which foreshadows the Singspiel, a genre of German-language opera in which arias alternate with spoken dialogue. Seelewig was a moral allegory inspired by the example of contemporary school dramas and is the first German opera whose music has survived.