In this lavishly illustrated volume the history and social context of opera is explored by a group of leading British and American scholars, under the editorship of Roger Parker. The core of the book is a historical survey of opera, from its beginnings in Florence four hundred years ago, up to opera in the 1990s. The greatest coverage is given to the nineteenth century, the time during which most of the operas performed today were composed. There are also chapters on the history of staging, on opera singers, on opera as a social occasion through the ages, and a chronology. Although all major composers of opera are mentioned, and their works discussed, the various chapters concentrate less on simple historical narrative and more on the complex development of opera, especially on its relationship with the other arts and its place within the broader world of culture and politics. The numerous illustrations -- nearly three hundred, some thirty of which are in colour -- serve the vital purpose of underlining the richly visual nature of opera: the manner in which it communicates so vividly through staging and costume, and the spectacular way in which it often reflects the cultural concerns of the age. Rather than simply illustrating the text, the pictures work as a kind of parallel history, supplementing and enriching the verbal narrative. The contributors are all experts in their chosen areas, but all of them have remained alive to the basic attraction of opera: its extravagant appeal to both the senses and the intellect, and its seemingly inexhaustible power to move and astonish us.