Wednesday, 11 March 2009

... and 10 operas you've never heard of.

As a corollary to the previous 10 Best Operas in the History of the World, Ever, Fact (etc.), here's an esoteric aside. In no particular order:

10. Fosca (Carlos Gomes, 1873)

"Surely you mean Tosca?"

9. Layla and Majnun The best known Azerbaijani traditional opera, which is essentially a Middle Eastern tale interspersed with the traditional song of Azerbaijan, the Mugham.

8. Flammen (Edwin Schulhoff, 1901)

You've heard of Don Giovanni by Mozart. The music buffs among you will have heard of Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni which predates Mozart (just). You probably haven't heard of the Czech Edwin Schulhoff who had a crack at Don Juan with Flammen and who perished in the Holocaust.

7. Licht (Kalheinz Stockhausen, 1977-2003) a 29hr long opera performed piecemeal as it has been completed over a 20 year period. Phew.

6. María de Buenos Aires (Astor Piazzola, 1968) - tango operita.

5. Japanese Noh drama (traditional). You might well have heard of Curlew River, a single act 'church' parable by Benjamin Britten. However it is unlikely that you will have heard of a famous Japanese Noh composition, from which Curlew River takes its form. The performers do not rehearse together and the performance and drama is dictated only by the traditional story upon which a performance is based.

4. Ariane et Barbe-bleu (Paul Dukas, 1907) You've probably heard of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and you've surely heard of Pelleas et Melisande, Debussy's only opera, to a text by Maurice Maeterlinck. Ariane is a feminist Bluebeard's Castle to a Maeterlinck text. Make of that what you will...

3. Doña Francisquita (Amadeo Vives, 1923) The 'classic' of the (romantic) zarzuela genre.

2. Oscar (Mike Read, 2004) This musical on the life of Oscar Wilde managed one performance.

1. Anything written since the war. It's almost impossible to conjure the memory of an opera written since the war that has impacted on the general consciousness, let alone entered the repertory. Britten's compositions are almost an exception. Music drama by the likes of John Adams, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman are familiar through their piecemeal use in the commercial sector. Serious operatic composers (i.e. more than one or two operas) such as Hans Werner Henze and Sir Harrison Birtwistle could monopolise this list single-handedly the same way that Verdi could saturate a '10 Best' list. And of course, there's the list of failure or folly: Madonna reportedly bought a ticket for the premiere of Nicholas Maw's critically mauled version of Sophie's Choice (2002); nobody was really particularly interested in Lorin Maazel's self-serving 1984 (2005); and simply trying to make novelty happen of its own accord by shock or wholesale-import modernism is always going to fail.

It's essential that people don't stop trying though. If sump-lists such as this fail to fill up with contemporary novelties, its a worrying indicator of the trail-and-error rate of current composers.

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