The arts

For sheer big-budget lavishness, opera is hard to top. Richard Jones's 1988 version of 'Die Fledermaus' by Johann Strauss (one of whose sets by Nigel Lowry is shown here) boasted pantomime gorillas in tutus, a diva's striptease, a comic cooking apple strudel, 20 high-kicking chorus girls and a budgie. Combining orchestral music, solo and choral singing, dance, stage and costume design and drama, opera is often regarded as the peak of high culture.

It began in Florence in the 1590s, when Renaissance intellectuals invented recitative, a play sung in monody. The first opera house opened in Venice in 1637. by 1690 a format had crystallised. Each scene was divided into two parts: the first, in recitative, advanced the plot; in the second, a dramatic climax produces sung melodies (arias).

Artificiality is the breath of life to opera. The more extravagant, the better. Each new addition, whether Gluck's use of ensemble and chorus or Mozart's grand finales, has inflated the experience and heightened the emotional temperature. No wonder opera design is so startling.

Victoria Neumark

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