The 12 Greatest Operas in English

Not known as the natural language of opera, English turns out to have thrown up more gems than one might think.

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Opera in English has had a rocky ride over the years. Slow to take off (the first proper attempts were over 60 years behind the Italian pioneers), and soon relegated to something rather looked down upon by the musical literati, it took Benjamin Britten to really put it back on the agenda in the last century.

Any decent summary of the best operas in English would need to be much longer than a ‘List’ feature such as this. Honourable mentions should be made for early gems such as Frederick Lampe’s hilarious take on Pyramus and Thisbe or Blow’s Venus and Adonis. And if Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and King Arthur were properly operas we suspect either might have made the top ten. Sadly, opera in English then lost out to the vogue for opera in Italian and only a few gems like Arne’s Artaxerxes were able to get a hearing in the native tongue.

The Victorian period wasn’t the complete dearth that some musicologists would suggest with fine works in the bel canto style from the likes of Michael Balfe (The Bohemian Girl, The Maid of Artois), William Wallace (Maritana, Lurline) and Julius Benedict (The Lily of Killarny). Perhaps the biggest hit was Sullivan’s Ivanhoe, though an operetta like The Yeomen of the Guard approaches operatic level and contains some of his finest music.

The twentieth century saw a blossoming of the artform with works by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Walton leading the way though many have yet to be properly recorded for the assessing ears of posterity (like Malcolm Williamson’s Our Man In Havana). American composers like Copland (The Tender Land), Barber (Vanessa) and Menotti (The Consul) also began to set libretti in English.

Of course, Britten rather cornered the market from 1945 to 1976, but other fine stageworks from the younger generation (the likes of Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle) also got airings. The American influence also gathered momentum with fine examples from the likes of John Adams such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. Australian composers also began to appear with works like Richard Meale's Voss featuring prominently. Peggy Glanville-Hicks' Sappho has recently proved a neglected find.

This century has seen many excellent new operas in English by composers like Thomas Adès (Powder Her Face and The Tempest) and James MacMillan (The Sacrifice), and several international composers have also seen the benefit of writing in a more widely understood language than their own. And with plenty of interesting new commissions on the horizon, the immediate future looks bright.

What follows, then, is just the tip of a pretty impressive iceberg. And, of course, everyone will have their own favourites. Here are ours…

12. Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress
Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is an opera in three acts, and loosely based on a series of eight paintings and engravings, The Rake’s Progress (1732-33), by William Hogarth. Stravinsky had the inspiration for the work after seeing the art series in a Chicago exhibition in May, 1947. The libretto was written by W.H. Auden and his partner at the time Chester Kallman.
The opera tells the story of the tumultuous decline of one Tom Rakewell, who deserts his partner Anne Trulove for the pleasures of London. On his journey he is accompanied by the conniving Nick Shadow, later on revealed to be the Devil in disguise. After a string of misadventures and misfortune – all instigated by Shadow – Rakewell finds himself institutionalised in Bedlam Hospital for the criminally insane. The moral of the opera: "For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds a work to do."

The opera was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 11 September 1951, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the role of Anne Trulove and Robert Rounseville starring as Tom Rakewell. The premiere was notoriously difficult and the opera took some years to establish itself before being recognised for the neo-baroque masterpiece that it is.

Notable arias include Tom's aria, Here I Stand, Anne's moving aria No Word from Tom and the 'Catalogue' aria sung by Baba the Turk, Tom's bearded wife - don't ask...

11. Walton: The Bear

The Bear is the second of William Walton’s two operas. An one-act production, the opera’s libretto was written by Paul Dehn and Walton, and based on the play of the same name by Anton Chekhov.

The Bear was written after Walton received a commission for a new opera from the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965. The work was premiered two years later in the Festival’s Jubilee Hall on June 3, 1967, and dedicated “to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky” – former patrons of Britten.

The opera tells the story of Popova, a widow who encounters Smirnov, a hostile creditor of her late husband demanding the money owed to him. Popova’s servant Luka watches the on in shock as the two become increasingly quarrelsome and eventually aim loaded pistols at each other in a duel. About to fire, Popova and Smirnov instead lower their weapons upon the realisation they have fallen deeply in love.

Since its premiere, the opera has enjoyed greater success than its larger-scale predecessor, Troilus and Cressida. This fact has been helped by its comedic themes and a widely lauded libretto, praised for successfully bringing Chekhov’s characters to operatic life. It's score is a sparkling gem, packed full of clever quotes and musical jokes.

In contrast to Triolus and Cressida, the opera is deliberately minimal in casting and instrumentation, employing just three singers and a small chamber orchestra – an intimate and intense production. However, the problem of finding a partner work for a double-bill has often mitigated against it.

Popova's comic aria, I Was A Constant, Faithful Wife, is often extracted by mezzo-sopranos as a recital turn.

10. Turnage: Greek

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s hard-hitting, provacative opera Greek is a work in two acts but played without interval. The work’s libretto was adapted by Turnage and Jonathan Moore from Steven Berkoff’s 1980 verse play of the same name – a modern re-telling of the Oedipus story, in which the social decay and violence of London’s East End are confronted by Eddy, the central protagonist.

The essential elements of the story are familiar – Eddy unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Several important plot points differ however, particularly the ending, in which Eddy decides that he will continue to love his mother. "Bollocks to all that!” he declares. “...It's love I feel!"

Turnage composed the opera between 1986 and 1988 for the first Munich Biennale. The opera’s premiere performance took place on June 17, 1988 at the city’s Carl-Orff-Saal Hall as an international co-production between the Munich Biennale, the BBC and Edinburgh International Festival.

The opera ran for two more performances at the Biennale on 18 and 19 June, and received its UK premiere the following month at the Edinburgh Festival. The first fully staged production in Australia took place courtesy of Chamber Made Opera in Melbourne on 13 June 1991.

Greek was written for a cast of four singers, who share eleven roles including the man-hating sphinx – played both both female singers at once. The character of Eddy is the one exception, who earns a full-time role on stage. The opera is semi-comedic and features sharp dialogue plus a score which reflects popular music though the medium of football chants and the like.

9. Glass: Akhnaten

Akhaten is the third in Philip Glass's trilogy of operas about men who changed the world in which they lived through the power of their ideas. The work, premiered in 1984, was the culmination of Glass’s two other biographical operas, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (about Gandhi).

The opera was first performed at the Stuttgart State Opera, under the German title Echnaton. It was staged in an abstract style with highly ritualistic movements, and featured British countertenor Paul Esswood in the title role. It received a highly praised performnace at the English National Opera in the 1980s with Christopher Robson in the lead.

The opera tells the story of the Pharaoh Akhenaten – the first monotheist in recorded history – and his substitution of a single-god religion for the previous Egyptian practice of worshipping a whole Pantheon of gods. Akhnaten’s rise, reign, and violent overthrow are shown in a series of tableau.

The libretto, also by Glass, is taken from Egyptian texts of the period and from a poem by Akhenaten himself plus the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Other sources include extracts of decrees and letters from the Amarna period – the seventeen-year period of Akhenaten's rule and it all ends with an extract from Fodor's Guide.

The score is probably Glass' strongest and most traditional despite its obvious minimalism.


8. Holst: Sāvitri

A chamber opera in one act by Gustav Holst, Sāvitri, is based on the episode of Sāvitri and Satyavan from the Mahābhārata – the Sanskrit epic of ancient India. Holst had made at least six earlier attempts at composing opera before arriving at Sāvitri.

The opera tells the story of Sāvitri, wife of the woodman Satyavān, who hears the voice of Death calling to her one evening. Upon Death’s arrival, Sāvitri’s husband collapses. Sāvitri's lamentations prompt Death to offer her one wish (except for the life of her husband) and she asks for life for herself. Death is tricked, because as Sāvitri points out, living without her husband by her side will be impossible. Death, moved to compassion, spares both husband and wife.

The opera was first given in an amateur performance at Wellington Hall, London on 5 December 1916, despite Holst’s intention that the work to be performed "in the open air, or else in a small building".

The opera features three solo singers, a wordless female chorus, and a chamber orchestra of twelve musicians (consisting of two flutes, a cor anglais, two string quartets and a double bass). The need for an offstage chorus and the shortage of complementary one-act operas to make up a double bill have been blamed for the scarcity of performances.

Holst's use of modal styles in the music of the opera is highly regarded for its use of bitonality, representing the distinct yet subtly connected realms of Sāvitri and Death. Opera critic Donald Mitchell has also famously noted the influence of Richard Wagner in the work’s vocal style.

7. Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess is an opera with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin. It was based on Heyward’s book of the same name, and addresses African-American struggles in the fictitious Catfish Row in South Carolina during the 1920s.

The work was given its premiere performance in New York in 1935, and featured an entire cast of African-American singers – the first opera to do so.

The opera tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black beggar living in the slums who attempts to rescue Bess, a beautiful woman but also a drug-addict, from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover.

Conceived by Gershwin as an “American folk opera”, the work was not widely accepted until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera’s production of the work earned rave reviews. In 1985, New York’s Metropolitan Opera gave their first performance of the work – launching the opera onto the international stage and earning it a place in the canonical operatic repertoire.

Best known songs from the opera include Summertime, It Ain’t necessarily So and Bess, You Is My Woman Now. The opera is widely admired for Gershwin's blending of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music.

6. Birtwistle: Punch and Judy

Sir Harrison Birtwistle is undoubtedly one on the most influential opera composers of the last 50 years. His operatic masterpiece is, perhaps, Gawain, produced by the Royal Opera House in 1991 but criminally never put out on DVD (despite a TV broadcast). In lieu of that, we have chosen an earlier work – the game-changing Punch and Judy.

Birtwistle’s 1967 opera to a libretto by Stephen Pruslin burst onto the scene causing immediate controversy, both for the uncompromising musical style and the violence of its storyline.

Based on the English children’s puppet figures, the opera was first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival, which had commissioned the work with David Atherton conducting the English Opera Group. Benjamin Britten was reported to have walked out of the premiere at the interval.

Nevertheless, the work went on to conquer the world with the first US performance in Minneapolis. The first New York performance had to wait until 1988. Birtwistle directed a revival of the opera at Aldeburgh in June 1991.

In Birtwistle’s treatment of the traditional story, Punch throws his and Judy’s baby into the fire before stabbing Judy to death. He then sets off in search of Pretty Polly who rejects him because of the murder of his baby. Along the way Punch murders the Doctor and Lawyer (with a gigantic hypodermic needle and quill, respectively) before killing the narrator by sawing him in half inside a bass viol case. Punch goes to the gallows but cheats the hangman into hanging himself. Pretty Polly now reappears and the two sing a love duet before the gallows, now transformed into a maypole.

5. Alwyn: Miss Julie

Why Alwyn’s 1979 operatic version of Strindberg’s play Miss Julie is not better known is a mystery. An essentially tonal work, it’s faithful to its source material, with four excellent roles suiting lyrical voices and accessible as a traditional opera.

The action is set on a Swedish noble’s estate on Midsummer's Eve. The count’s daughter, Miss Julie, is attracted to her father’s handsome valet, Jean, in spite of the differences in their social stations. Jean, however, is loosely committed to Kristen, the cook. The sexual tension between Julie and Jean builds to the point where they consummate their relationship in the night.

Julie has dreams of her and Jean escaping to live their lives together in Switzerland but Jean realizes that this is unrealistic, especially when Julie insists on taking her lapdog.

Ulrik, the gamekeeper, shoots the dog and Jean finally tells Julie to slit her wrists, as her mother had committed suicide prior. The opera ends as Miss Julie leaves, presumably to kill herself.

The opera had a successful premiere and the cast (Jill Gomez, Benjamin Luxon, Della Jones and John Mitchinson) was captured on a fine Lyrita CD, which is still available. The musical interludes are also worth a listen having been recorded seperately on Naxos.

4. Benjamin: Written on Skin

George Benjamin's Written on Skin was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, and received its British premiere at the Royal Opera House in London in March 2013.

The opera is based on the strange and brutal 13th-century Provençal tale Le Coeur Mangê, in which an unnamed ruler (The Protector) asks an illuminator (The Boy) to glorify his power for perpetuity in a book. The Boy’s presence awakens the sexual independence of The Protector’s wife (Agnes), and their subsequent affair leads to the murder of The Boy.

In a grisly dénouement, The Protector forces his wife to eat The Boy’s heart, after which she jumps from a window to avoid a similar fate.

In order to allow the contemporary world to “bleed through”, British playwright Martin Crimp has added three “angels” who manipulate the drama as if conducting an experiment and double as subsidiary characters. It’s a brilliant conceit that produces
a satisfyingly tight piece of musical theatre matched in intellectual rigor by Benjamin’s razor-sharp score.

Crimp ingeniously mixes direct speech with characters narrating their own actions (which incidentally lends a special clarity to a recording), as you are frequently aware of what a character is doing or thinking. Benjamin uses his orchestra with enormous imagination and sensitivity to evoke the musical world of the medieval illuminator. Bass viola da gamba and glass harmonica make a terrific impact at key points.

The original cast were made up of handpicked soloists. Christopher Purves brought out the cruel ambiguities of The Protector in 
a performance of gripping intensity. Barbara Hannigan and countertenor Bejun Mehta were riveting throughout, their voices intertwining in their psycho-erotic game-playing. 

Written On Skin was a multi-award-winner and was widely reported to represent the future of the artform.

3. Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Purcell’s brilliant baroque jewell, Dido and Aeneas, is one of the very earliest English operas written to a libretto by the playwright Nahum Tate.

It was first performed at Josias Priest’s girls' school in London, probably in the summer of 1688. The story is based on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid and tells the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage and her love for the Trojan prince Aeneas, shipwrecked on his way to found a new kingdom in Italy after the fall of Troy. Her despair when she is abandoned, telling represented in the superbly constructed When I Am Laid In Earth, remains one of operas most recognisable and performed arias.

Dido and Aeneas was Purcell’s first opera, as well as being his only sung through dramatic work – his other stage works (The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, Dioclesian etc), although longer and containing more music, are semi-operas or masques.

Originally based on Tate’s 1678 play Brutus of Alba, or The Enchanted Lovers (1678), the opera may well be allegorical and could refer to the marriage between William and Mary. In a later poem, Tate alluded to James II as Aeneas, who is misled by the evil machinations of the Sorceress and her witches (representing Roman Catholicism, a common metaphor at the time) into abandoning Dido, who symbolises the British people. This may explain the presence of the Sorceress and the witches, who do not appear in the Aeneid.

The almost abstract nature of the dramatic through line has meant that the opera is open to all kinds of adaptations, particularly in the case of contemporary dance. Mark Morris created a version in 1989 in which he originally danced both the roles of Dido and the Sorceress. Another dance version, choreographed by Sasha Waltz, premiered at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin in 2005 and featured dancers performing underwater in an enormous fish tank. This version will make its Australian debut at the 2014 Sydney Festival.

2. Britten: The Turn of the Screw

Benjamin Britten was undoubtedly the most important composer of opera in English after Henry Purcell. So great was his influence on the genre that a feature entitled “The 12 Greatest Operas in English” could arguably be a list of 12 Britten operas and no others.

Among his masterpieces, several jostle for the top slot. Peter Grimes, a triumph at its post-war premiere and subsequently more performed than any other Britten opera, is probably felt my many to be the pick of the bunch. Billy Budd, A Midsummer Nights Dream and his final opera Death in Venice, would also be contenders. We have chosen his 1954 adaptation of Henry James chilling short story The Turn of the Screw – a piece which perhaps sees Britten reaching the pinnacle of his refinement as a setter of the English language, and dramatically one of the most effective operas of all time.

The work, with a fine libretto by Myfanwy Piper, wife of the artist John Piper, designed several of Briten’s operas, was commissioned by the Venice Biennale and given its world premiere on 14 September 1954, at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice. The composer conducted the original cast which included Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess and Britten’s partner Peter Pears as the predatory ghost, Peter Quint.

In two acts, the opera has a prologue and sixteen scenes, each of which is preceded by a variation on a twelve-note “Screw” theme. It is scored for Britten’s typical chamber orchestra of only 13 players.

A Prologue tells about a young governess sent to Bly House to look after two children. She is never to trouble or write to their guardian however. When she arrives at Bly, she is immediately drawn to Miles, the little boy but a letter from Miles’ school arrives, advising the Governess that the boy has been expelled.

One day, she sees a pale-faced man looking through a window. Based on her description, the housekeeper tells the governess about Peter Quint, the former valet and implies that Quint may have preyed on Miles and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. Quint, it turns out, has died under mysterious circumstances on an icy road.

The following day the governess sees a strange woman across the lake who is clearly the ghost of Miss Jessel. Miles clearly sees the ghosts and the Governess eventually decides to write to their guardian. The letter is stolen at Quint’s suggestion. Finally, Miles confesses that he took the letter and when the Governess demands to know who put him up to it, Miles blurts out Quint’s name. The ghost vanishes but Miles falls dead on the floor.

1. Tippett: King Priam

King Priam was Michael Tippett’s second opera following the highly romantic The Midsummer Marriage of 1955. The libretto, as in all his operas, is Tippett’s own work, but whereas some of his writing can reasonably be criticised for awkwardness of style, none of that can be leveled at King Priam.

The story is based on Homer’s Iliad, except for episodes describing the birth and childhood of Paris, which are taken from the much less well known Fabulae of Hyginus.

The opera was composed for an arts festival held in 1962 in conjunction with the reconsecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, for which Benjamin Britten also wrote his War Requiem. That work was first performed in the Cathedral the day after the premiere of King Priam and rather put the uncompromising operatic work in the shade.

The first Covent Garden performance was on June 5 the same year, conducted by Sir John Pritchard and staged by Sam Wannamaker. It was premiered in Germany at the Badisches Staatstheater in 1963, in Greece at the 1985 Athens Festival, in France at the Opéra de Nancy et de Lorraine in 1988, in Italy at Batignano in 1990, and in the United States San Francisco Opera Center Showcase in 1994. In total, the work has been revived twelve times since its premiere.

The opera, composer in a lyrical style, despite the brutality of much of its subject matter, has always been a success with critics and public and at the time of its premiere did much to rescue Tippett's reputation and establish him as a leading figure among British composers.

King Priam is essentially an anti-war opera, focussing on individual moments of moral choice in ancient Troy. The opera begins soon after the birth of Paris, when an Old Man prophesies that the baby will grow up to cause his father’s death.

Queen Hecuba immediately declares that her child must be killed. Priam hesitates, but reflects, “What means one life when the choice involves a whole city?” He gives the baby to the Young Man to be abandoned on a mountainside but the child survives and is eventually returned to Priam. Paris grows up, steals Helen from Menelaus of Sparta, and causes the ten-year war, all of which is conveyed in music of great variety and power.

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The 12 Greatest Operas in English
Britten's Peter Grimes: for many people the epitome of opera in English
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