‘Meta-operas’, that is, operas portraying the world of opera and its protagonists (such as impresarios, music directors, librettists and virtuosi), became increasingly common during the eighteenth century. Most of the scholarly literature on meta-opera, however, concentrates on the operas' poetic texts, their librettos. Scholars have dealt with these operas about operas almost as though they were spoken dramas, without taking into account the many ways in which metatheatrical practices and conventions are made more complex by the presence of music.
What do meta-operatic scores look like? Are they similar to other ‘ordinary’ scores of the same time, or do their metatheatrical techniques set them aside as special? Considering a number of eighteenth-century works, this article points out how specific musical means can contribute to the overall effect of meta-operatic plots: the stratified nature of meta-narratives is, in fact, mirrored in the scores when realistic music is performed on stage. On these occasions, the presence of more than one layer of musical performance (of music and ‘music’) can be detected in the score. Furthermore, the presence of realistic music allows for a highly flexible treatment of standard operatic practices, and a number of passages work across conventional oppositions such as recitative/closed number, ‘real-life’/‘performed’ and ‘spoken’/‘sung’. Meta-operas, therefore, offer a special perspective on the presence of realistic music in opera.