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Between radio and stage. Radio opera – genesis and definition

01.12.2022 / Joanna Kołodziejska / Akademia Muzyczna im. Karola Lipińskiego we Wrocławiu
Kategorie: Teoria muzyki
Obserwuje: Ty i 0 użytkowników
Obserwuje: Ty i 0 użytkowników

Looking back, it seems quite subversive that, in an over 100-year history of radio broadcasting, opera turned out to be an important music genre, even though, due to its audiovisual nature, it cannot be presented in its original version through a medium that communicates by sound alone.

Opera and the rise of radio

In France, over the last two decades of the 19th century, there were several attempts to broadcast opera performances via théâtrophone[1], including shows from the Paris Opera and Comédie Française. The English equivalent of the French invention, the electrophone, was also used to promote theatrical and operatic works, e.g. the 1895 broadcast of the concert from the Royal Opera House[2].

At the turn of the decade, on December 24, 1906, American Reginald Aubrey Fessenden transmitted, among other things, Georg Friedrich Handel’s Largo from Xerxes via a prototype radio by Swedish designer Ernst Alexanderson. That same year, another American explorer, Lee de Forest, using a radio device he had enhanced, radio-transmitted an aria from George Bizet’s Carmen performed by Mariette Nazarin (broadcast from the Manhattan Opera House)[3]. Probably in 1908, 1910 and 1913[4], attempts at pioneer broadcasts of concerts from New York Metropolitan Opera were made. Nonetheless, today, the broadcast of Enrico Caruso’s performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which took place on January 13, 1910[5], is widely recognized as the first broadcast of music via radio. The concert program comprised arias from I Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo and Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. It was not only American broadcast attempts that tied the birth of radio to opera. The first public radio broadcast in Europe[6], in Leaken, Belgium (March 1914[7]), was very much a radio concert,[8] featuring tenor arias from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca and Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, as well as an excerpt from Parsifal by Richard Wagner, played from a gramophone record[9].

From broadcast to radio opera

The development of technology in the first decades of the 20th century brought about the birth of world radio broadcasting. Received with great enthusiasm, the medium proved to be an excellent means of transmitting information and spreading culture. Using sound exclusively, it was naturally linked to music – including opera, despite it being audiovisual by definition. This practice has not been abandoned despite the growing popularity of television and video streaming. To this day, many radio stations offer broadcasts of performances from prestigious stages. The New York Metropolitan Opera boasts the longest tradition in this regard. December 25, 1931 marked the beginning of the Saturday Matinee Broadcast series, which continues to this day and is distributed by US national radio stations. However, this does not mean that such activities did not arouse objections to the „impoverishment” of opera by deprivation of its visual aspect in radio broadcasts. The first reflections on this matter can already be found in pre-World War II literature, including Polish literature. In the May 1934 issue of the Polish periodical Muzyka, in an article titled „In the deadlock of Opera Paradoxes”, allegedly by Mateusz Gliński, Polish Radio’s activities related to the propagation of opera to date are subject to an assessment. The article says that even elaborate lectures delivered by experts before the transmission of an opera cannot replace the listener’s „live contact with the stage.”

Does an opera stripped of stage and live action, played on radio, without its organic poetic foundation and without a stage background remain an opera? We will answer at once, without a shred of hesitation: no. Opera music, detached from the other elements of the show, remains only opera music and is never and can never replace the opera, as a completely separate artistic genre, combining word, movement, sound into an organic entity, fusion of the creativity of the poet, musician, painter and director[10].

A critical judgment of opera broadcasts was also expressed by Zofia Lissa who made remarks about sound distortions caused by radio technology at the time[11]. Meanwhile, Cezary Jellenta emphasized that „the auxiliary and even creative role of radio in broadcasting operas must not be denied.”[12]. Anyway, the creative aspect in the dissemination of opera in Polish radio broadcasting, which reached its climax with the broadcasting of original radio operas, emerged only in the post-war years. This new type of opera had appeared somewhat earlier abroad, where radio artists faced similar aesthetic dilemmas.

In the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, music programs, transmissions and concerts performed in the studio became extremely popular on the radio. These activities often involved opera music and performances by famous singers. Also, the first American radio operas appeared – literature mentions The Willow Tree by Charles Wakefield Cadman (NBC 1933)[13] and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief (NBC 1939)[14].

In European broadcasting of the 20th century, British Broadcasting Company (BBC), established in 1922 (since 1927 it has operated as the British Broadcasting Corporation) was the biggest promoter of music[15]. From its beginnings, the station presented operatic masterpieces to listeners. As early as 1923, pioneering studio productions were recorded at the initiative of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and a broadcast from Covent Garden was arranged – the first act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute was then broadcast. These events showed British listeners the great potential that the new medium offered for music. It is worth mentioning that already in the 1920s, BBC not only popularized works that were already known, but also supported contemporary composers. It is likely that it was the British radio station that broadcast the first work which resembled a radio opera. This was Geoffrey Toye’s operetta The Red Pen to a libretto by Alan Patrick Herbert,[16] which the composer himself described as „sort of opera.”[17] The piece was first broadcast in 1925[18].
Germany was another country standing out for the above-average influence of radio on the dissemination of music, including opera. The history of radio broadcasting there dates back to before World War I. In the interwar period, before the Nazis took control of the media in Third Reich, radio would also promote new music[19]. Given Germany’s strong operatic tradition, the presence of musical theater in the country’s radio broadcasting seems natural. The first radio broadcast of opera there took place in 1921, and it was Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini,[20] performed by the Berlin Staatsoper[21]. Danuta Jasińska notes that it was in Germany, in November 1924, that the world’s first broadcast of an oratorio (G. F. Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus) took place, as well as the first realization of an opera in a radio studio – it was W. A. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro[22]. It is interesting that Andrew Oster, in contrast to Jasińska, claims that The Marriage of Figaro, staged by the Berlin Staatsoper on November 2, 1924, was also the first broadcast of an opera performance „live” via radio. The discrepancy is curious because both Jasińska and Oster quote Karl Blum’s doctoral dissertation: Die Funkoper. Phänomenologie und Geschichte einer neuen Kunstgattung[23]. Oster also mentions the „broadcast opera,” defined by the German term Sendeoper, which was very popular in the mid-1920s in Germany at the time. This way opera appeared in a new medium for the first time. Such broadcasts differed from typical live transmissions from opera theaters and operas performed in the studio. The lack of visual aspect was filled in by introductions from a radio announcer, who summarized the plot before the start of the broadcast and between the acts of the opera. At that time, however, radio was used only to promote the stage opera in an audio version, and did not interfere with the structure of the composition[24]. The first recorded observation of the need for a German radio opera appeared in the 1930s already. As Oster points out, it was an anonymous article published on June 20, 1930 in the radio press entitled „Ostdeutsche illustrierte Funkwoche.” Its author used the term „radio opera” (Rundfunkoper) to refer to a radio broadcast, or a broadcast of an opera performed in a radio studio. In the above-mentioned article, there is a suggestion about the need to create an opera adapted to radio (Höroper) in a manner analogous to a radio drama (Hörspiel). As Oster points out, this article appeared later than the world’s first (according to him) opera, Gustav Kneip’s Christkinds Erdenreise broadcast on December 24, 1929 by a radio station in Köln[25] (that year also saw the publication of Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith’s Der Lindberghflug to a text by Bertolt Brecht, often cited as a prototype for radio opera[26]). Kneip himself referred to the aforementioned composition as Märchenoper für den Rundfunk (fairy-tale opera for radio). Oster indicates that Christkinds… was not the first work in history to be called a „radio opera” (German: Funkoper). Earlier, the term was used for new works related in some respect to radio, which in fact turned out to be intended not only for radio, but also for the stage. The particularity of radio opera was only consolidated by an anonymous work entitled Hans Kuckcuk, attributed to Walter Gronostay. The composition was written in 1931 and was called a radio opera in two acts (Funkoper in 2 Akten) by its author. Indeed, it was an attempt to transfer opera to the new medium[27] . It is worth noting that the birth of radio opera was also followed by the first attempts to create an original radio oratorio. The first works of this type included: Hermann Ambrosius’ Rundfunkpassion (1929). W. Gronostay’s Mord, as well as Werner Egk’s Das groβe Mysterienspiel and Columbus (1931). Altdeutsches Spiel von der Geburt unseres Herrn by A. A. Knüppel[28] in 1932[29]is another piece mentioned there..

What is radio opera?

The circumstances under which radio opera was developed were analogous to the origins of radio drama, genesis of which can be traced to broadcasts of theatrical performances. It evolved from combining the tradition of stage music with the opportunities offered by the characteristics of the new medium. Thus, radio opera is a form of artistic expression, functioning in a way that, to a certain degree, contradicts its name. It exists in the auditory space exclusively – in contrast to traditional opera, which comprises verbal, musical and theatrical layers.

The term „radio opera” is understood as a work composed specially for radio, being the result of adapting traditional opera to the radio matter, so it is by no means a radio broadcast or adaptation of a stage opera. Radio operas are usually shorter than traditional operas (usually no more than 45 minutes) and are characterized by a concise dramatic plot. This is because of the different situation of the spectator, whose perceptual capabilities and attention are limited – listening to radio is usually combined with other activities. It may appear surprising that of all the traditional musical forms and genres, it is opera that best adapted to the conditions of radio art. The transfer of the theatrical genre to radio, among other things, brought artists new opportunities to work on sound, further improved by the invention of stereophony. Moreover, the use of audio layer only in a dramatic work, led to the increased use of music and other sound phenomena strongly semantically charged, as a medium „depicting” the plot of the libretto through sound.[30].

According to Danuta Jasińska, the only Polish author who, in 20th century, made an attempt to theorize the above issue:

Radio opera is a musical-dramatic work composed specifically for the needs and capabilities of radio, using its technical means and possibilities. The specific nature of radio opera lies in the purely auditory reception. Therefore, artists rely on making the listener follow the dramaturgic material and stimulate their creative imagination exclusively through the auditory factor[31].

Jasińska’s approach focuses on the aspect of perception, which is extremely important in the case of radio opera. It can be therefore concluded that the auditory factor plays a dominant role in radio opera[32]. Hence Blum – the research of whom Jasińska references – defines radio opera as an „acoustic work of art”[33].

The definitions given above are in line with Arthur Oster’s descriptions of radio opera in post-war Germany. According to him, a radio opera (German: Funkoper) is nothing more than an opera written specifically for broadcasting, which enjoyed its greatest popularity during the occupation of Germany and in the German Federal Republic between 1946 and 1957. Oster also emphasizes that radio opera is ” purely acoustic in its nature.”[34].

Interestingly, mentions of radio opera in literature qualify it as a genre. Karl Blum, author of the allegedly first theoretical work on radio opera, defines it as „a new genre of art”[35]. Likewise, Oster uses the term genre to speak of radio opera[36]. This trend also appears in Polish literature – Krzysztof Baculewski, describes radio opera as „a genre of dramatic music”[37]. In the first documented Polish press article on radio opera, Ewa Derewecka uses the term „form” in relation to radio opera, which was created by excluding the visual factor from stage opera[38].

Radio opera is considered to have its roots in the formal structure and style of opera and oratorio, on the one hand, and radio, or more precisely radio drama, on the other. Radio opera is viewed as a continuation of the opera genre due to the basic indicators of opera it inherited, such as the dramatic action, the verbal layer, and the musical layer, which includes vocal parts (solo and choral) and instrumental parts. The above elements are invariable indices of an opera work, regardless of the era or style represented[39]. By contrast, radio opera abandons many of the sub-codes used by traditional opera, such as mimicry, gesture, stage movement of the actor, characterization, hairstyle, costume, props, decoration and lighting. It is left with words, intonation, music and sound effects[40].

It should be emphasized that although the links between radio opera and oratorio are being recognized, there are also radio oratorio (German: Funkoratorium) and radio melodrama (German: Funkmelodrama). These developed earlier than radio opera which dates back to the 1930s[41]. Nevertheless, Jasińska points out that what manifests the connection between radio opera and oratorio is primarily the presence of the narrator[42]. It is worth mentioning that this element also brings radio opera closer to radio drama. In the „theater of the imagination,”[43] developed through attempts to transfer the stage drama to radio, the part of the narrator was also added, in order to explain the stage action. His function, therefore, was to compensate for the lack of a visual aspect in the work. Already in the interwar period, also in Polish radio dramas, this artistic measure met with objections and was considered unnecessary. It was believed that explanations were superfluous, since a well-crafted dramatic action using sound only should be enough for the listener to imagine the world depicted[44].

The strong genetic tie between radio opera and radio drama raised questions among some Polish scholars. A decisive position was taken by Baculewski who views radio opera as „a genre contradicting its name” due to the lack of the visual aspect in the piece, which the recipient must complement with the help of their own imagination[45]. Małgorzata Gąsiorowska expressed a similar opinion:

Radio opera – this term arouses mistrust, seems to be a linguistic oxymoron. This is because the combination of music and stage action is the very essence of opera, a blend of these two elements producing a new quality. Is radio opera, then, a new kind of radio drama, with more presence of music than before?[46]</46>.

Tadeusz Szeligowski, who composed radio opera himself, offers a different perspective:

It goes without saying that opera in its traditional, 19th-century form has no prospects. To compose in this style today is almost ridiculous. However, if we use the means available thanks to modern musical theater, it is possible to create a completely new type of show, a new type of opera, a new type of musical drama. The libretto plays a particularly important role here[47].

Radio opera, originating from the tradition of stage opera, is, unlike a radio drama, a comprehensive musical work, written in the form of a score. Not only does the musical layer powerfully accompany the words, but it is also closely integrated with them through the vocal parts and through the way the musical form is shaped, inspired by the tendencies observed in traditional opera. In the discussion about the characteristics of the musical layer in radio opera the role of radio cannot be overlooked. It provides new areas of artistic exploration for composers, related to techniques common in radio broadcasting, such as sound engineering and recording editing etc. Experience in the field of experimental music, involving concrete and electronically generated sounds, also played its role[48].

Radio dramas are much more likely to use the help of a so-called musical illustrator than a composer. As a result, radio plays are often soundtracked with ready-made recordings rather than specially commissioned music[49]. Even in cases where radio drama music was composed, the scores usually did not survive[50]. This basic difference, already noticeable during the creative process, is another argument suggesting the greater importance of music in a radio opera than in a radio drama.

Analogous listener perception is the most important factor, highlighted also by Jasińska, linking radio opera to radio drama. It is naturally conditioned by the audial nature of all productions from the radio space. Consequently, in the practice and theory of radio drama the co-creative role of the listener is emphasized[51]. It is in the mind of the recipient that a piece without the visual aspect can be given its final shape. The aforementioned subject applies also to radio opera. This correlation was perfectly grasped by Krukowski:

Radio opera, completely devoid of the visual factor and interfering solely with the sphere of auditory experience, also appeals to the listener’s imagination, so it is, in a sense, a musical theater of the imagination[52].

Radio opera can, similarly to a radio play, be construed as a certain type of „open work”[53] due to its indeterminacy resulting from the absence of the visual aspect. The dual nature of radio opera stemming from its genesis affects more than just the reception of the work. It also inspires composers’ creative explorations – hence it is difficult to understand the lack of a broader continuation of radio opera. In addition, it poses another challenge to the theory of analysis and music aesthetics.


[1] The device was patented in 1881 by Clement Adler. In the same year it gained recognition at the Paris International Electrical Exhibition. It was used for transmission over a telephone line. See T. Crook, Radio Drama. Theory and Practice, London and New York 1999, pp. 15-18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] M. Białas, Orfeusz technokrata. Media w upowszechnianiu muzyki poważnej, Toruń 2010, p. 156.

[4] S. Miszczak, Radiofonia i telewizja na świecie 1920-1970, Warszawa 1971, p. 1.

[5] M. Białas, op. cit., p. 157. A. Marszałek also quotes the date 1910, see Radio a opera w Polsce międzywojennej: zagadnienie kulturowe, in: Opera w kulturze, ed.M. Sokalska, Kraków 2016, s. 251. S. Miszczak reports that the broadcast of the E. Caruso’s performance took place in 1908. This information is also found in Słownik wiedzy o mediach. See S. Miszczak, op. cit. p. 175. Cf. with Z. Bajka, Media w rozwoju historycznym, in: Słownik wiedzy o mediach, Bielsko-Biała 2007, p. 37.

[6] M. Białas, op. cit. p. 157. Sometimes described as the first public radio broadcast ever, cf. Radio, entry in: Wielka encyklopedia PWN [online], http://encyklopedia.pwn.pl/haslo/radio;3965394.html (DOA May 20, 2017). See also S, Miszczak, op. cit. p. 25.

[7] There are references to a different day date for this event – among others, R. E. Wood and S. Miszczak give March 28, M. Białas citing Z. Bajka – March 18. See S. Miszczak, op. cit. p. 25; R. E. Wood, Seventy Years of Broadcasting in Belgium [online], http://www.pateplumaradio.com/genbroad/history/belgium.htm (DOA May 21, 2017). Cf. with: M. Białas, op. cit. p. 157.

[8] Radio concert here means the music performances for the needs of radio broadcasting.

[9] M. Białas, op. cit. p. 157. See also S. Miszczak, op. cit. p. 25.

[10] [no inf. on author], W matni paradoksów operowych in Muzyka 1934 no. 5, p. 216.

[11] Z. Lissa, Radio we współczesnej kulturze muzycznej. Psychologiczne, artystyczne, społeczne i pedagogiczne problemy radia in Kwartalnik Muzyczny 1934 no. 16. after: A. Marszałek, op. cit. p. 259.

[12] C. Jellenta, Opera zreformowana przez radio, in Muzyka 1934 No. 6. After: A Marszałek, op. cit. p. 259.

[13] S. Goslich et al, op. cit. p. 322.

[14] The opera was performed on stage in 1941 in Philadelphia. See Menotti, Gian Carlo, entry in: The New Grove [online], http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/18410 (DOA May 27, 2017).

[15] History of the BBC – 1920s [online], http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zxqc4wx (DOA May 25 2017).

[16] A. Jacobs, Toye (Edward) Geoffrey, in Grove Music Online [online], https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.28239 (DOA May 10 2021).

[17] The score of the composition has been lost; only the libretto survives. See War Composers. The Music of World War I. Geoffrey Toye [online], http://www.warcomposers.co.uk/toye.html (DOA May 10, 2021).

[18] Grove Music Online reports 1927, but this was the second performance of the work.

[19] Broadcasting, entry in: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie, vol.3, London 1980, p.322.

[20] The full name of the theater: Staatsoper Unter den Linden/Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin.

[21] This was probably the first radio transmission of an entire opera recorded in the literature. Cf. D. Jasińska, Geneza i rys…,p. 73. See also A. Diler, Rundfunk und Fersehen, I. Geschichte, entry in: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 8, Stuttgart 1998, p. 611.

[22] D. Jasińska, Geneza i Rys…, p. 73.

[23] K. Blum, op. cit. According to Jasińska, the present work includes an analysis of 49 radio operas written in various countries between 1931 and 1952. Oster states that Blum analyzed 47 compositions. See D. Jasińska, Geneza i Rys…, p. 73. cf: A. Oster, op. cit. p. 3.

[24] A. Oster, op. cit. p. 3-4.

[25] Other sources also cite the work as the first ever radio opera. Jasińska calls it the „original radio opera” dating the premiere to December 12, see ibid. Geneza i rys…, p. 73. It is mentioned by Lenka Králová, among others, see ibid., op. cit. p. 55. The information also appears in the Polish literature – Słownik Encyklopedyczny published by Europa. See Opera, entry in: Interia leksykony [online], http://leksykony.interia.pl/haslo?hid=92118 (DOA May 26, 2021). Also, the Universal-Lexikon, after S. Goslich, states that Kneip’s work is considered the first radio opera. See Funkoper, entry in: Universal-Lexicon, 2012 [online], http://universal_lexikon.deacademic.com/240632/Funkoper (DOA May 25, 2021).

[26] Also called „radio cantata,” „school radio oratorio,” and Lehrstück. See L. Králová, op. cit. p. 55; A. Oster, op. cit. p. 6.

[27] A. Oster, op. cit. p. 4-5.

[28] Only the initials of the first names are known.

[29] A. Oster, op. cit. p. 7. cf. with: D. Jasińska, Geneza i Rys…, p. 73. See also S. Goslich et al, op. cit. p. 322.

[30] See S. Goslich, Siegfried, R. H. Mead, T. Roberts, Broadcasting, entry in: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie, vol. 3, London 1980, p. 321. cf. with: A. Jaschinski, T. Münch, Rundfunk und Fernsehen. IV: Musik für den Rundfunk, in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 8, Stuttgart 1998, p. 626.

[31] , Geneza i rys historyczny opery radiowej in Muzyka 1973, no. 1, p. 67.

[32] This problem stems from the genesis of radio opera, having its origin not only in the tradition of musical theater, but also in radio drama. Hence, it is described more extensively in this paper, in subsection 2.2 Genealogy of radio opera, pp. 29-38.

[33] Quoted in D. Jasińska, Polskie opera radiowe, Muzyka 1974 no. 2, p. 31.

[34] A. Oster, Radio, Rubble and Reconstruction. The Genre of Funkoper in Postwar Occupied Germany and the German Federal Republic, 19461957. Ph.D. Thesis, Princeton University 2010, pp. 3, 6-7, 13.

[35] Cited after D. Jasińska. Geneza i rys…, p. 67.

[36] Ibid, passim.

[37] He defines television opera in a similar way. See K. Baculewski, Polska twórczość kompozytorska 1945-1984, Cracow 1987, p. 158.

[38] E. Derewecka, , Opery radiowe in Ruch Muzyczny 1960 no. 21, p. 12.

[39] D. Jasińska, Geneza i rys…, p. 67.

[40] I discern opera subcodes after T. Kowzan. Adopting such a detailed classification of subcodes manifests the fundamental difference between traditional opera and radio opera. See U. Eco, Semiotics of Theatrical Performance, The Drama Review 1977 no.73, p.108. quoted after M. Gmys, Technique of theater in theater and its operatic concretizations, Toruń 2000, p.45.

[41] A. Oster, op. cit. pp.6-7.

[42] D. Jasińska, Geneza i rys…, s. 67.

[43] A commonly accepted synonym for the term radio drama. The term was first used in Poland in 1933. See Z. Marynowski, Teatr wyobraźni in Radio 1933 No. 45, pp. 2-3.

[44] W. Hulewicz, Teatr Wyobraźni. Uwagi o słuchowisku i literackim scenarjuszu radiowym, Warszawa 1935, p. 88. Cf. with: Blaunstein, O percepcji słuchowiska radiowego, in: Wybór pism estetycznych, ed. Z. Rosińska, Kraków 2005, p. 156-157.

[45] K. Baculewski, Polska twórczość kompozytorska 1945-1984, Cracow 1987, p. 158.

[46] M. Gąsiorowska, Przygoda króla Artura [essay], in G. Bacewicz, Przygoda króla Artura. Komiczna opera radiowa oparta na motywach celtyckich (według Sigrid Undset), libretto: E. Fiszer [CD], Polskie Radio SA 2009.

[47] J. Cegiełła, Rozmowa z RomualdemTwardowskim, in: Szkice do autroportretu polskiej muzyki współczesnej, Kraków 1976, p. 133.

[48] See ibid, p. 68.

[49] J.Bachura, Odsłony wyobraźni. Współczesne słuchowisko radiowe, Toruń 2012, p. 155.

[50] Information obtained by the author from the Music Library of the Polish Radio SA on February 16, 2017.

[51] This problem was addressed by, among others, L. Blaustein, W. Hulewicz, M. Kaziów, S. Bardijewska, E. Pleszkun-Olejniczakowa, J. Bachura.

[52] S.Krukowski, Opery radiowe in Ruch Muzyczny 1969 no. 22, p. 14.

[53] I adopt the term after: U. Eco Poetyka dzieła otwartego, in: Kultura dźwięku. Teksty o muzyce nowoczesnej, select. and ed. Ch. Cox, D. Warner, Gdańsk



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