Although as the leading city in Italy Rome has a long operatic history, its "official" opera house, the Teatro dell'Opera (Rome Opera House) dates only to1928 and has never been the leading company of the country of opera's birth.
Rome's history is, of course, unique. The center of a world empire, it became the site of the ruling body of the Western Catholic Church. For most of the time between the sixth and nineteenth centuries, the Pope and the Church hierarchy in the Vatican personally ruled it. As such, its musical organizations and traditions were always subject to these prelates' varying views concerning music and theater. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) is credited with regularizing church chant and hence laying the foundation for Western music.
Theatrical music in Rome can be traced to a form of sung and acted religious dramas called devozioni in the thirteenth century. In the late fifteenth century, it was the fashion to mount grand theatrical depictions of the Passion on Good Friday. Pope Paul III issued an edict banning such dramatic presentations in 1539. Later in the century, the original form of the oratorio (which included some dramatic depiction) was created in Rome by priests headed by St. Phillip Neri.
As secular music became more important, madrigals, dance music, and ballet were performed in private aristocratic homes. When opera began to develop around 1600, such homes (including the palaces of Cardinals) also saw Rome's first opera productions. The wealthy Barberini family of Rome (which included cardinals and a pope in the seventeenth century) had the most lavish productions. The opposition of Pope Innocent XI to females acting on stage resulted in the institution of the castrato singers, some of whom sung in both the Sistine Chapel and private opera companies.
In 1669, Pope Clement IX, who under his former name of Giulio Rospigliosi had actually been a poet and opera librettist, authorized the building of a public opera theater. Clement's successor closed it five years later. It opened again in 1690, was demolished in 1697, and rebuilt in 1733, its drastic changes in fortune reflecting the Church's views on opera and theater. Rome's operatic history for about the next two centuries is a tale of the rise and fall of numerous theatrical companies. In the eighteenth century the Teatro Tordinona mainly essayed serious opera. So initially did the Teatro Capranica (1711-1747), but after a seven-year closure it reopened in 1754 as the leading comic opera house. Opera seria was given at Teatro Argentina and Teatro delle Dame. In the nineteenth century, the Tordinona became the Apollo; it, the Argentina, and the Teatro delle Vale were, in the first half of that century, considered the equal of the leading houses of Milan and Naples and gave the world premieres of many operas of Rossini, Donizetti, Pacini, and Verdi.
The Teatro Costanzi was opened in 1880 and saw the premieres of Cavalleria rusticana and Tosca. By now, Rome had become the secular capital of a united Italy, and the Church and Pope, whose rule was now limited to the small area of the Vatican itself, had no direct influence on theatrical life in the city.
But as long as operatic companies were run by private impresarios the situation remained unstable. In 1928 the government and the local city authorities took over the Costanzi, redecorated and modernized it, and renamed it the Teatro dell'Opera, which means simply "Opera House." Known internationally as the Rome Opera House, it has taken its place at nearly the high level of the great houses of Milan, Venice, and Naples.