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He was referring to the art of singing as it flourished in Italy from the mid-1700s through the first decades of the 19th century. He might also have been referring to the approach to writing operas by the Italian composers who were steeped in the bel canto singing tradition. It is not really clear.

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The technique of singing that produced the desired results valued smooth production, or legato, throughout the entire vocal range. Ideally, you did not want to hear singers shifting gears as their voices moved from low to middle to high registers. Also prized was the ability to execute effortlessly all manner of embellishments — rapid-fire runs, trills and such — the better to decorate vocal lines. So the use of a lighter yet penetrating sound in the upper register was crucial to the style.

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He did not hesitate to come back to the very cradle of opera with a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and offer works in the repertoire that were frowned on by some of the big names in opera such as La Traviata played by Natalie Dessay and Elektra staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well as taking artistic risks through commissions like the one for Written on Skin by George Benjamin – a work described by the press as “the first lyrical masterpiece of the 21st century”.

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