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The Opera Portal

Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work (called an opera) which combines a text (called a libretto) and a musical score. Opera is part of the Western classical music tradition. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble.

Opera started in Italy at the end of the 16th century (with Jacopo Peri's lost Dafne, produced in Florence around 1597) and soon spread through the rest of Europe: Schütz in Germany, Lully in France, and Purcell in England all helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. However, in the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe, except France, attracting foreign composers such as Handel. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his "reform" operas in the 1760s. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute, a landmark in the German tradition.

The first third of the 19th century saw the highpoint of the bel canto style, with Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all creating works that are still performed today. It also saw the advent of Grand Opera typified by the works of Meyerbeer, the mid to late 19th century is considered by some a golden age of opera, led by Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy. This 'golden age' developed through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French opera through to Puccini and Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel operatic traditions emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia, the 20th century saw many experiments with modern styles, such as atonality and serialism (Schoenberg and Berg), Neo-Classicism (Stravinsky), and Minimalism (Philip Glass and John Adams). With the rise of recording technology, singers such as Enrico Caruso became known to audiences beyond the circle of opera fans. Operas were also performed on (and written for) radio and television.

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A portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aged 14, in Verona, 1770
Between 1769 and 1773 the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold made three Italian journeys. The first, an extended tour of 15 months, was financed by performances for the nobility and by public concerts, and took in the most important Italian cities, the later journeys were to Milan, for Wolfgang to complete operas that had been commissioned there on the first visit. Leopold had been employed since 1747 as a musician in the Archbishop of Salzburg's court, becoming deputy Kapellmeister in 1763; but he had also devoted much time to Wolfgang's and sister Nannerl's musical education. He took them on a "grand tour" between 1764 and 1766, and spent some of 1767 and most of 1768 with them in the imperial capital, Vienna. The children's performances had captivated audiences, especially early in these journeys; and they made a considerable impression on European society. By 1769 Nannerl had reached adulthood, but Leopold was anxious to continue 13-year-old Wolfgang's education in Italy, a crucially important destination for any young composer of the 18th century.

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The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania
Credit: Joseph Noel Paton

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, Joseph Noel Paton's 1849 painting which depicts a central scene from Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play has had several operatic adaptations, most notably Purcell's The Fairy-Queen and Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Britten's opera premiered in 1960 with Alfred Deller as Oberon and Jennifer Vyvyan as Titania.

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Simone Young

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Leoš Janáček
Leoš Janáček, baptised Leo Eugen Janáček, (3 July 1854 – 12 August 1928) was a Czech composer, musical theorist, folklorist, publicist and teacher. He was inspired by Moravian and all Slavic folk music to create an original, modern musical style, until 1895 he devoted himself mainly to folkloristic research and his early musical output was influenced by contemporaries such as Antonín Dvořák. His later, mature works incorporate his earlier studies of national folk music in a modern, highly original synthesis, first evident in the opera Jenůfa, which was premiered in 1904 in Brno, the success of Jenůfa (often called the "Moravian national opera") at Prague in 1916 gave Janáček access to the world's great opera stages. Janáček's later works are his most celebrated, they include the symphonic poem Sinfonietta, the oratorio Glagolitic Mass, the rhapsody Taras Bulba, two string quartets, other chamber works and operas. Along with Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, he is considered one of the most important Czech composers.

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Antonio Scotti
Of the great modern Italian composers, I feel that Puccini is the most important, because he has a more intimate appreciation of theatrical values. He seems to know just what kind of music will fit a series of words or a scene, which will best bring out the dramatic sense.

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Francesca Caccini


Main topics

Opera history: Origins of opera • Italian opera • Opera in German • French opera • Opera in English • Polish opera • Russian opera • Hungarian opera • Armenian opera • Opera in Latin America

Opera topics

Opera genres: Azione teatrale · Ballad opera · Comédie en vaudeville · Comédie mêlée d'ariettes · Dramma giocoso · Dramma per musica · Farsa · Festa teatrale · Género chico · Grand Opera · Music Drama · Opéra-ballet · Opera buffa · Opéra bouffe · Opéra bouffon · Opéra comique · Opéra féerie · Opera semiseria · Opera seria · Operetta · Pastorale héroïque · Romantische Oper · Savoy opera · Semi-opera · Singspiel · Spieloper · Tragédie en musique · Verismo · Zarzuela · Zeitoper

Opera terms: Aria · Aria di sorbetto · Arioso · Bel canto · Breeches role · Burletta · Cabaletta · Cadenza · Cantabile · Castrato · Cavatina · Chest voice · Claque · Coloratura · Comprimario · Convenienze · Coup de glotte · Da capo aria · Diva · Entr'acte · Fach · Falsetto · Fioritura · Gesamtkunstwerk · Head voice · Intermezzo · Kammersänger · Leitmotif · Legato · Libretto · Literaturoper · Mad scene · Maestro · Melodrama · Melodramma · Monodrama · Messa di voce · Opera house · Passaggio · Portamento · Prima donna · Prompter · Recitative · Regietheater · Répétiteur · Sitzprobe · Spinto · Sprechgesang · Squillo · Stagione · Surtitles · Tessitura · Timbre · Vibrato

Opera voices: Baritenor · Baritone · Bass · Bass-baritone · Coloratura soprano · Contralto · Countertenor · Dramatic soprano · Haute-contre · Lyric soprano · Mezzo-soprano · Soprano · Soubrette · Spinto soprano · Tenor · Tenore contraltino · Tenore di grazia

Opera lists: Opera topics • List of operas by composer • Important operas • Major opera composers • Opera librettists • Opera houses • Opera companies • Opera festivals • Opera directors • Operetta composers • Orphean operas • Zarzuela composers • Opera genres • Operas set in the Crusades • The Record of Singing • Bayreuth canon

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