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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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Célestine Marié who created the role of Carmen
Carmen is an opera in four acts by the French composer Georges Bizet. The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. The opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, on 3 March 1875, and was not at first particularly successful; its initial run extended to 36 performances. Before this run was concluded, Bizet died suddenly, and thus knew nothing of the opera's later celebrity. Written in the genre of opéra comique, it tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naive soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy Carmen. José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen's love to the glamorous toreador Escamillo after which José kills her in a jealous rage. The depictions of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic outcome in which the main character dies on stage, broke new ground in French opera and were highly controversial. After the premiere most reviews were critical, and the French public was generally indifferent. Carmen initially gained its reputation through a series of productions outside France, and was not revived in Paris until 1883; thereafter it rapidly acquired celebrity at home and abroad, and continues to be one of the most frequently performed operas; the "toreador's song" from Act 2 is among the best known of all operatic arias. Later commentators have asserted that Carmen forms the bridge between the tradition of opéra comique and the realism or verismo that characterised late 19th-century Italian opera.

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Royal College of Music - April 2007.jpg
Credit: Diliff

The Royal College of Music in London. Founded by Royal Charter in 1882, its first director was Sir George Grove. Amongst the opera singers who have trained or taught there are Joan Sutherland, Thomas Allen, Gwyneth Jones, Heddle Nash, Clara Butt, and Jenny Lind. The current building was designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield in the Flemish Mannerist style and built in 1894.

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Claudia Muzio

Selected biography

Maurice Ravel in 1925
Maurice Ravel (7 March 1875 – 28 December 1937) was a French composer, pianist and conductor. He is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. In the 1920s and 1930s Ravel was internationally regarded as France's greatest living composer. Born to a music-loving family, Ravel attended France's premier music college, the Paris Conservatoire; he was not well regarded by its conservative establishment, whose biased treatment of him caused a scandal. After leaving the conservatoire, Ravel found his own way as a composer, developing a style of great clarity, incorporating elements of baroque, neoclassicism and, in his later works, jazz. He liked to experiment with musical form, as in his best-known work, Boléro (1928), in which repetition takes the place of development. Ravel completed two operas, and worked on three others. Ravel's first completed opera was L'heure espagnole (premiered in 1911). His second was L'enfant et les sortilèges (premiered in 1925).

Selected quote

Thomas Beecham in a 1910 caricature
If an opera cannot be played by an organ-grinder — as Puccini and Verdi's melodies were played — then that opera is not going to achieve immortality.

Selected audio


A polacca from Le trompeur trompé, an 1800 opéra comique by Pierre Gaveaux and François Bernard-Valville. Performed on historical instruments, with Montserrat Alavedra as Agathe.

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1896 advertisement for the Théâtrophone

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