The origin of the word is Italian, and means little book. This is not inappropriate. After all, the words for operas often appear in little books.
It appears for the first time in Pamela a major English novel by Samuel Richardson. The story in the form of letters appeared in 1740. Libretto appears in a discussion about the greatness of the English language and the wonders of Italian opera (and this was well before Rossini, Bellini or Verdi). Those who do not like opera may well agree that “one play of our celebrated Shakespeare will give infinitely more pleasure to a sensible mind than a dozen English-Italian operas”. The discussion continues that opera is not so bad, as it is a combination of words and music. “If the libretto as they call it, is not approved, notwithstanding the excellence of the music, the opera will be condemned. “
This shows the high status of the text in operas. A couple of examples. Librettos by the great Metastastio were used by the composers Pergolesi, Bach, Cherubini, even Mozart, as well as numerous others whose names are not so well known today. Or Lorenzo da Ponte wrote librettos for 28 operas by 11 composers which also included Mozart and Salieri.
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