Jacopo Peri, to whom belongs the distinction of having composed the first opera, was born in Rome but grew up in Florence. A member of a noble family, Peri studied under Cristoforo Malvezzi of Lucca. From 1579 to 1606 he was an organist at the Badia in Florence, and in 1588, he entered the service of the court of the dominant Medici family as maestro di cappella first to Ferdinand I, Duke of Tuscany, and afterwards to his son, Cosimo II. In 1589 he performed to great acclaim in the giant musical production La Pellegrina, organized to commemorate Ferdinand's marriage to Christine of Lorraine.
Peri became associated with a group of humanists in Florence, headed by Giovanni de' Bardi, who were dedicated to attempting a revival of Greek tragedy as the Greeks themselves had experienced it. It was established knowledge that ancient performances had included long set pieces alternating with what might be termed duets and extended choral odes, all sung or declaimed in rhythms that varied according to the emotions being expressed. Dance and instrumental accompaniment were also involved. No music had survived from ancient Greece, however, so these Florentine intellectuals had to make their best guess as to how the music should sound.
The result of this experiment in reconstruction was Dafne, a pastoral drama by the poet Ottavio Rinuccini with music by Peri and Jacopo Corsi. Peri was responsible for the recitatives and some of the musical numbers. Now considered the first opera, Dafne was performed privately in 1597 at Corsi's home in Florence; as word of its novelty spread it received several more performances over the next few years.
In 1600, Peri was commissioned to write a second opera, again with Rinuccini, on the occasion of Maria de' Medici's marriage to Henry IV of France. Drawing on the ancient Greek legend of the miraculous powers of music, they produced Euridice; Peri himself probably sang the role of Orpheus in the first performance. This opera, by virtue of the more public circumstances of its creation, awakened wider interest in the new music. Opera came into its own as an art form over the next few decades.
Peri's compositional style emphasized monody and declamation, a break from the contrapuntal style of his predecessors, and an embrace of the style that would prove the foundation of modern music composition. In addition to Dafne and Euridice, Peri wrote recitatives for Rinuccini's Arianna in 1608 and also composed other operas, ballets, and madrigals. From the early 1600s, Peri was in the service of the Mantuan court, for which he wrote the opera Adone in 1620.
Peri died in Florence in 1633 and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Novella, where his gravestone, crediting him as opera's inventor, is still clearly visible in the nave. Most of his music, including the much of the score to Dafne, is now lost, but Euridice survives and is still occasionally performed.