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 was championed by Claudio Monteverdi with works such as L'Orfeo. It 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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Selected article

Richard Nixon (right) meets with Mao Zedong, February 1972
Nixon in China is an opera in three acts by John Adams, with a libretto by Alice Goodman. Adams' first opera, it was inspired by the 1972 visit to China by US President Richard Nixon. The work premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, in a production by Peter Sellars with choreography by Mark Morris. When Sellars approached Adams with the idea for the opera in 1985, Adams was initially reluctant, but eventually decided that the work could be a study in how myths come to be, and accepted the project. To create the sounds he sought, Adams augmented the orchestra with a large saxophone section, additional percussion, and electronic synthesizers. Although sometimes described as "minimalist", the score displays a variety of musical styles, embracing minimalism after the manner of Philip Glass alongside passages echoing 19th century composers such as Wagner and Johann Strauss. Following the 1987 premiere, the opera received mixed reviews; some critics dismissed the work, predicting it would soon vanish. However, it has been presented on many occasions since, in Europe as well as in North America, and has been recorded twice. In 2011, Nixon in China received its Metropolitan Opera debut, a production based on the original sets, and in the same year was given an abstract production in Toronto by the Canadian Opera Company. Recent critical opinion has tended to recognize the work as a significant and lasting contribution to American opera.

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Les contes d'Hoffmann, Giulietta act
Les contes d'Hoffmann, Giulietta act
Les contes d'Hoffmann, Giulietta act
Credit: Pierre-Auguste Lamy (?), restored by Adam Cuerden
Illustration to Jacques Offenbach's last composition Les contes d'Hoffmann, showing the Giulietta act, set in Venice. In this act, Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta and thinks she returns his affections. Giulietta is not in love with Hoffmann but only seducing him under the orders of Captain Dapertutto, who has promised to give her a diamond if she steals Hoffmann's reflection from a mirror. The jealous Schlemil, a previous victim of Giulietta and Dapertutto (he gave Giulietta his shadow), challenges the poet to a duel, but is killed. Nicklausse wants to take Hoffmann away from Venice and goes looking for horses. Meanwhile, Hoffmann meets Giulietta and cannot resist her, giving her his reflection, only to be abandoned by the courtesan, to Dapertutto's great pleasure. Hoffmann tells Dapertutto that his friend Nicklausse will come and save him. Dapertutto prepares a poison to get rid of Nicklausse, but Giulietta drinks it by mistake and drops dead in the poet's arms.

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Jean de Reszke

Selected biography

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.

Selected quote

Amelita Galli-Curci
The old Italian composers knew well how to write for the voice. Their music has beauty, it has melody, and melodic beauty will always make its appeal. And the older Italian music is built up not only of melody and fioriture, but is also dramatic. For these qualities can combine, and do so in the last act of Traviata, which is so full of deep feeling and pathos.

Selected audio

From Giacomo Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, sung by Frances Alda (1919).

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Giuseppina Strepponi

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