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  Opera (Italian, ‘(dramatic) work’) is one of those rare artistic forms which, everywhere it is practised, rapidly reached a mature state and has hardly changed since. In essence, it is a stage show in which the characters sing instead of speak, and in which instruments, instead of merely accompanying, contribute emotional meaning and depth as the spectacle proceeds.

In the East, opera is one of the most ancient forms of theatre show; in China and Japan it was for centuries considered the ‘high-art’ form of theatre, spoken drama being a ‘lower’, more vulgar genre. This may have been because the stories in opera were often elaborated from myth, and involved demons, gods and other supernatural characters for whom song (or declamation to music) seemed a more appropriate form of utterance than ordinary human speech. Sometimes, in these operas, the performers onstage mimed and danced silently, while the singers or singer, providing all the voices, performed at the side, with the orchestra in open view. This is also the style of Indian and Indonesian traditional ‘opera’, where stories from myth and religion are performed by dancers to the accompaniment of an opera, sung and played alongside in a kind of simultaneous concert. The components of all such shows were traditional, and so intricate that the craft took years to learn, aspirants often starting their apprenticeship as small children.

In the West, opera began in 1598, as the outcome of experiments (by the Camerata) to re-create the performance-style of ancient Greek tragedy. Western operas are attributable to named writers and composers; the performers invariably sing (or speak and sing) onstage, and the instrumentalists (except in a few modern operas) are kept separate, in front of or at the side of the stage. Early operas used stories from Greek myth or Greek and Roman history. In the 18th century a fashion began for setting comic operas, and some serious ones, in contemporary times; in the 19th century, serious operas were often based on Romantic novels, grand episodes from European history, or even (in the Verismo, ‘truth-to-life’ school) on newspaper reports of crimes, marriage tangles and other subjects which would once have been dismissed as too ‘low-life’ for the form. Comic opera, at about the same time, gave rise to a secondary form, operetta, which is essentially trivial, frivolous and tuneful. (In modern times, composers of musicals have reversed this trend: many contemporary musicals are on deeply serious themes, the music being dignified by the subject instead of the other way about.)

Opera has survived experiments of all kinds, from the ‘number’ style favoured in early 18th-century Europe (where each singer had to have a ‘big number’, a display piece at least equal to those of his or her rivals, however well or badly such numbers fitted the story) to the overtly propagandist ‘Peking operas’ of late 20th-century China, where patriotic pageant and political moralizing are grafted on to popular tunes and hollow stage spectacle. Dr Johnson called opera an ‘exotic and irrational entertainment’. Its death is constantly being announced, but it remains, both in the East (where it has a heterogeneous audience, both connoisseurs and ordinary people watching local shows) and in the West (where seat prices for live shows appeal more to the affluent and to providers of ‘corporate entertainment’, but where there is a huge popular appetite for operas recorded on CD and video) one of the most vigorous and thriving of theatre genres. KMcL



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