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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 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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Composer Gavin Bryars playing the double bass
Doctor Ox's Experiment is an opera in two acts by Gavin Bryars (pictured). It has an English-language libretto by Blake Morrison after the novella of the same name by Jules Verne. It was first performed on 15 June 1998 at the London Coliseum by English National Opera (ENO) who co-commissioned the opera with BBC Television. In the experiment of the title, Doctor Ox introduces a gas into a sedate and conservative Flemish village with the result that everyone and everything becomes speeded up and chaotic. (Ox's and his assistant's names combine to make Oxygėne, the French name for Oxygen.) The opera explores the conflict between Ox's advocacy of modernity and scientific and political change and Ygène's belief that liberation and the accompanying loss of the traditional rhythms of life might bring unhappiness. The music is predominantly slow-moving and quiet. Bryars allocated distinct voice types to the different types of roles: town elders, young lovers and scientists. He also included some unusual instruments in his orchestra: an oboe d'amore and an amplified jazz bass in the love scene, an electronic keyboard and a flugelhorn instead of trumpets in the brass section. The reception was mixed with several critics complaining of boredom while others wrote of members of the audience being entranced by the music.

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Magna Lykseth-Skogman
Magna Lykseth-Skogman
Credit: Atelier Jaeger, restored by Adam Cuerden
Magna Elvine Lykseth-Skogman (6 February 1874 – 13 November 1949), also known as Magna Lykseth-Schjerven, was a Norwegian-born Swedish operatic soprano. After making her début at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1901 as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, she was engaged there until 1918 becoming the company's prima donna. She performed leading roles in a wide range of operas but is remembered in particular for her Wagnerian interpretations, creating Brünnhilde in the Swedish premières of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and Isolde in 1909. Considered to be one of the most outstanding Swedish opera singers of her generation, she was awarded the Litteris et Artibus medal in 1907 and became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1912.

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Jean de Reszke

Selected biography

Ernst II in an 1848 portrait by Frederick Richard Say
Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (21 June 1818 – 22 August 1893) was the sovereign duke of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha from 29 January 1844 to his death. A supporter of a unified Germany, Ernest watched the various political movements with great interest. While he initially was a great and outspoken proponent of German liberalism, he surprised many by switching sides and supporting the more conservative (and eventually victorious) Prussians during the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars and subsequent unification of Germany. An excellent musician and amateur composer all his life, Ernest was a great patron of the arts and sciences in Coburg. He composed songs, hymns, and cantatas, as well as musical works for opera and the stage which met with success in Germany, including Die Gräberinsel (1842), Tony, oder die Vergeltung (1849), Casilda (1851), Santa Chiara (1854), and Diana von Solange (1858). Diana von Solange prompted Franz Liszt to compose an orchestral festival march based on the opera's musical motifs.

Selected quote

George Bernard Shaw
Every Englishman believes that Handel now occupies an important position in heaven. If so, le bon Dieu must feel toward him very much as Louis Treize felt toward Richelieu.

Selected audio

The aria "Ombra mai fù" (originally written for the soprano castrato Caffarelli) from George Frideric Handel's Serse (1738) gained popularity in the 19th century, and proved enduringly popular, being adapted to many voice types and as a popular instrumental piece ("Handel's Largo"). This 1920 recording by tenor Enrico Caruso is one of his last.

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