Opera’s new voices: 10 composers making overtures to greatness

The Guardian, 15 February 2016

The Opera Guide is the first opera reference book compiled solely for publication online. At last reference books can be kept up-to-date, and this concise version of my previous opera guides contains state-of-the-art information on the 100 composers whose operas are most often performed, along with 250 operas that are their best works. Starting with Monteverdi and Cavalli, it ranges all through the repertoire to Peter Maxwell Davies, Kaija Saariaho and Thomas Adès, who have all written new operatic works to be premiered this year.

I first realised the need for such a book in the early 80s. There was, then, Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book of 1976, with 109 composers, but Britten’s Death in Venice was as far as it went; but no one had yet covered Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies, who were writing operas, let alone Philip Glass who had written eight stage works by 1985. I wanted to know about a lot more and, with several brilliant advisers, set about commissioning specialist writers to cover hundreds more opera composers. Penguin published four editions between 1993 and 2005 – both The Viking Opera Guide and the New Penguin Opera Guide contained 850 composers. But now there are more to add and it’s startling to see how quickly the opera world has changed, which composers (according to Operabase) are most popular and which no longer are.

Of the 100 in this new concise book, more than 50% have flourished since 1900 and 18 of them – almost 20% – are living. As David Pountney points out in his feisty Foreword, opera is now more diverse than it has ever been in its 400-year history.

A few composers who were in the 2005 concise edition are omitted in The Opera Guide. Mark Adamo, Franco Alfano, Arrigo Boito, Ferruccio Busoni, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Douglas Moore, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Judith Weir have been relegated as their operas aren’t in the current hit parade. Most of these composers are mainly renowned for writing in other genres: Schubert and Schumann didn’t cut the mustard as opera composers, Boito was a better librettist (for Verdi et al) than a composer etc. But they will all be back; there is a plan to revise and update all the material for more eBooks containing 1,000 opera composers.

Here are ten who are in the new guide – and the work that made their name or brought them popularity – but whose works may still be unfamiliar even to seasoned opera buffs. All of them are still writing operas, though only two, Bolcom and Rihm, had when I began research for the Viking Opera Guide in 1985. The other eight hadn’t begun, but then neither had John Adams, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès, who are now among the most familiar of contemporary opera composers.

Gerald Barry (born 1952): The Importance of Being Earnest

Gerald Barry composed his first opera in the late 1980s, but his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece, first seen in 2011, established him as a composer whose quick-fire dialogue and manically allusive music can be genuinely comic – a rare skill in opera today.

George Benjamin (b. 1960): Written on Skin

One of the leading European composers of his generation long before he wrote his first opera, George Benjamin is a meticulous creator of refined sounds, whose music has acquired an extra expressive dimension since he began writing for the stage. His second opera, Written on Skin, premiered in 2012 and has already received more than 70 performances in major opera houses around the world.

Wiliam Bolcom (b. 1938): A View from the Bridge

Though he’s widely respected in the US as a versatile and eclectic composer and pianist, Wiliam Bolcom and his music aren’t yet well-known on this side of the Atlantic. Premiered in 1999, A View from the Bridge sticks closely to Arthur Miller’s play, perhaps partly because Miller was its co-librettist.

Jonathan Dove (b. 1959): The Adventures of Pinocchio

Jonathan Dove’s facility for writing operas has produced 25 stage works in 20 years so far – surely deserving an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Flight, composed for Glyndebourne and set in an airport lounge, and The Adventures of Pinocchio, commissioned by Opera North, seem especially likely to become repertory works.

Detlev Glanert (b. 1960): Caligula

Detlev Glanert inherited from his teacher Hans Werner Henze an open-minded view of tradition and a wonderful flair for orchestral colour. Caligula, based on the terrifying play by Albert Camus, was the first of his full-length operas to be seen in Britain, when ENO staged it in 2012; his 13th opera, Solaris, received its world premiere that same summer.

Jake Heggie (b. 1961): Moby-Dick

With Dead Man Walking, first seen in 2000, Jake Heggie became the most popular opera composer of his generation in the US. His more recent operas, including Moby-Dick and Great Scott (of the Antarctic) also have emotive, easily accessible subjects and scores composed in a similar quasi-lyrical style.

Tobias Picker (b. 1954): Emmeline

The near Broadway set-piece style of Tobias Picker’s operas, starting with Emmeline in 1996, has proved enormously successful, especially in the US, while Fantastic Mr Fox, based upon Roald Dahl’s story has become a family favourite too.

Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952): Die Eroberung von Mexico

Arguably the leading European composer of his generation, Wolfgang Rihm’s vast output ranges across almost every conceivable musical genre. His operas have been equally wide ranging too – from the expressionist world of the early one-act Jakob Lenz, his most widely performed stage work, to the wordless experimentation of Séraphin, via the Artaud- inspired extremes of Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico).

Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952): L’Amour de Loin

Kaija Saariaho’s early music was much admired for the refinement and elegance of its sound world, which often made use of electronics. But when she began composing operas, her style became much more direct and harmonically clear; her latest stage work will receive its premiere in Amsterdam in March, though so far only her first opera, L’Amour de Loin has been fully staged in the UK.

Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947): Luci mie Traditrici

No opera composer working today has a more distinctive sound world than Salvatore Sciarrino, with his use of harmonics, key clicks and instrumental extremes, as well as vast spectrum of vocal effects. He often approaches his subjects, which have included Lohengrin and, in Luci mie traditrici, the life of the wife-murderer/composer Gesualdo, from an ironic and often humorous perspective.