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The Opera Lover’s Companion

The Opera Lover’s Companion

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 640
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  • Book Info
    The Opera Lover’s Companion
    Book Description:

    This engaging guide to the 175 most popular operas will enhance the experience of every opera lover. Written by a well-known authority, the book consists of entries that set each opera within the context of its composer's career, outline the plot, discuss the music, and give relevant background information on the libretto, the staging, and the most famous and influential interpreters of the principal roles. In addition, the entries recount details of the first performance and subsequent performance history and provide guidance on the relative quality of available recordings.

    Aimed at opera lovers and committed newcomers rather than specialists,The Opera-Lover's Companiondoes not set out to cover every opera but only those most frequently encountered in opera houses or on recordings. Although the book is dominated by the five great opera composers-Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss-fifty-eight other composers are also represented.

    It is always more pleasurable to go to the opera with a knowledgeable and experienced companion. If you can't, you'll want to take this book.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13081-2
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-3)

    The composer of forty-eight operas, most of them in a light vein and written in collaboration with the librettist Eugène Scribe, Auber was one of the leading figures in the development of nineteenth-century French opera. HisGustav III(1833) is the work whose libretto Verdi made use of forUn ballo in mascheratwenty-six years later.Le Domino noir(The Black Domino, 1837) has one of Auber’s most elegant scores, and a performance in Brussels in 1830 ofLa Muette de Portici(The Mute Girl of Portici) is said to have sparked off the Belgian revolution.

    Fra Diavolo, the most...

    (pp. 3-4)

    A nephew of the famous contralto Louise Homer, and himself a baritone (taught by his aunt), Barber began composing while still a child, and later studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He showed a particular interest in vocal music throughout his career, and an early work, his setting for voice and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’sDover Beachin 1931, made his name known outside the United States. It was, however, not until the 1950s that he composed his first opera. He was a friend of the opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, and it was to a large extent...

    (pp. 4-6)

    Most of the major works of Bartók, the foremost Hungarian composer of the twentieth century, are orchestral or instrumental. Of his three pieces for the stage, all of which date from the early part of his career, two –The Wooden PrinceandThe Miraculous Mandarin– are ballet scores. The one-actDuke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed to a libretto in Hungarian, is his only opera.

    The character of Bluebeard is taken from the fairy tale ‘La Barbe-bleue’ in Charles Perrault’s 1697 collectionLes Contes de ma Mère l’Oye(Tales of Mother Goose). The symbolism of Balazs’s text is open to...

    (pp. 6-10)

    Beethoven, generally regarded as one of the greatest composers, concentrated on symphonic, orchestral and chamber music, producing nine symphonies, sixteen string quartets, thirty-two piano sonatas, five piano concertos and a violin concerto which are central to the experience of most music lovers. Less at ease with vocal music, in which it seems his imagination was hampered by the physical limitations of the human voice, he completed only one opera,Fidelio, at a period in his life when he had already composed his third symphony and his first group of six string quartets.

    When, during the winter of 1803–4, his...

    (pp. 11-27)

    Bellini’s first opera,Adelson e Salvini, was produced in 1825 at the Naples Conservatorium while the composer was still a student there. Its success led to his being commissioned to write an opera for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, whereBianca e Gernando(its title later changed toBianca e Fernando)was successfully premiered the following year. After this, the young composer’s future was assured.

    The libretto of his next opera,Il pirata(The Pirate; 1827), was provided by Felice Romani, the most famous librettist of his day, who went on to collaborate with Bellini on all but one...

    (pp. 27-35)

    It was after he had attended the Viennese premiere in 1914 of Büchner’s playWoyzeck(at the time speltWozzeck, due to someone’s misreading of the playwright’s handwriting) that Alban Berg began to construct a libretto from Büchner’s text and to make some musical sketches for the opera he felt immediately inspired to write. But World War I intervened, and it was not until the middle of 1919 that he managed to finish the first of the opera’s three acts. By 1922 Berg’sWozzeckwas completed and orchestrated; a concert performance of excerpts was conducted by Hermann Scherchen in Frankfurt...

    (pp. 35-44)

    Although Berlioz’s talents were usually more impressively deployed in the concert hall than in the opera house, his great ambition was to succeed as a composer of opera. The enormous sucess of Meyerbeer’sLes Huguenotsat the Paris Opéra in 1836 encouraged Berlioz to revise his first opera,Benvenuto Cellini, which, in its original form as an opera whose musical numbers were separated by spoken dialogue, had been rejected by the Opéra-Comique. Its libretto was very loosely adapted from the memoirs of the fifteenth-century Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, which Berlioz had read shortly after his return from a year spent...

    (pp. 45-53)

    Throughout his brief life Bizet’s main interest remained the composition of operas, several of which were never performed, among them his first, a one-actopéra comique, La Maison du docteur(The Doctor’s House), written during his teenage student years, and the five-actDon Rodrigue, composed in 1873 immediately before he embarked uponCarmen. Bizet’s earliest success came with a one-act comic opera,Le Docteur Miracle, which won a prize offered by Jacques Offenbach and was staged at Offenbach’s theatre, the Bouffes-Parisiens, in 1857. Thereafter, althoughLes Pêcheurs de perles(1863),La Jolie Fille de Perth(The Fair Maid of Perth;...

    (pp. 53-56)

    Borodin’s two great passions were music and chemistry. After graduating from the Academy of Physicians in St Petersburg, he adopted chemistry as his profession, although he had already begun to compose music. In due course he became a professor at the Academy of Physicians. His first work for the stage was a farce or parody,The Heroic Warriors. This was the only opera that Borodin actually completed, but it was by no means entirely original, much of its score being arranged from themes by other composers such as Rossini, Meyerbeer, Verdi and Offenbach. It was given only one performance at...

    (pp. 56-82)

    The leading British composer of his time, Britten wrote music in a number of forms but was primarily interested in vocal music, and especially opera. His first work for the stage was an operetta,Paul Bunyan, written in collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden when Auden, Britten and Britten’s lifelong companion, the tenor Peter Pears, were living in the United States in the early years of World War II.Paul Bunyanwas staged at Columbia University, New York, in 1941. Britten’s first opera wasPeter Grimes, based on a poem by George Crabbe, an East Anglian poet of the late...

    (pp. 82-84)

    Primarily a composer of orchestral and piano music, the German–Italian Ferruccio Busoni, who was both composer and pianist, wrote four operas which, though they have not achieved great popularity, nevertheless have their admirers. (A fifth opera, the earlySigune, has remained unperformed and unpublished.)Die Brautwahl(The Bridal Choice; based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann) was first performed in Hamburg in 1912, andTurandot(taken from the play by Gozzi which Puccini was to use some years later) andArlecchinowere given their premieres on the same evening in 1917 in Zurich. Busoni had by this time already...

    (pp. 85-86)

    When Chabrier was sixteen his family moved from the country to Paris, where he studied for four years, obtaining a law degree and entering the Ministry of the Interior as a junior clerk. He remained a civil servant for eighteen years and devoted much of his spare time to studying music. He was past thirty when his first composition was published, and almost forty before he gave up his civil service job to devote himself entirely to music. His first musical success, while he was still a civil servant, was withL’Étoile, which was followed two years later by a...

    (pp. 86-87)

    Charpentier studied composition in Paris with Massenet and in 1887 he was awarded the Prix de Rome for his dramatic cantataDidon. It was in Rome that he began the composition of his operaLouise, for which he wrote his own libretto based to some extent on a Paris adventure of his student days. It was to take him ten years to achieve a production ofLouise, and when it was eventually staged at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1900 it was a triumphant success. The work was acclaimed as a masterpiece of social realism which offered a new direction to...

    (pp. 88-90)

    Cilea’s first opera,Gina, staged at the Naples Conservatorium in 1889 while he was a student there, created a sufficiently favourable impression for the young composer to be taken up by an important publishing firm. His next opera,La Tilda, staged in Florence in 1892, was generally considered disappointing, butL’Arlesiana(The Woman from Arles) five years later did somewhat better at the Teatro Lirico, Milan, due mainly to the fact that its leading tenor role was sung by Enrico Caruso. Cilea’s only real success came withAdriana Lecouvreur, staged in Milan in 1902 with Angelica Pandolfini in the title...

    (pp. 90-92)

    Cimarosa was one of the two most popular Italian composers in the second half of the eighteenth cenury. (The other was Paisiello.) He wrote nearly sixty operas, most of them comic, the most successful of which,Il matrimonio segreto, is the only one to be performed occasionally today. After making his name as the leading Neapolitan opera composer of his generation, Cimarosa in 1787 accepted an invitation to become composer to the court of Catherine II (Catherine the Great) in St Petersburg, where he spent the next four years. He subsequently moved to Vienna and succeeded Salieri as Emperor Leopold...

    (pp. 92-93)

    Dallapiccola studied in Graz and Florence, and began his musical career in 1926 as a pianist. He later began to compose, earning his living by teaching, and became one of the leading composers of his time, writing in a style which evolved from his enthusiasm for Mahler, Schoenberg and Berg. His first opera,Volo di notte(Night Flight), an imaginative work though rather mixed in style, was composed in the late 1930s and first performed in 1940.Il prigioniero(1950) subordinates the composer’s musical prowess to his concern for modern man and his predicament. Dallapiccola wrote his own libretto, basing...

    (pp. 93-97)

    Although he planned and began to write other works for the stage, among them a version of Edgar Allan Poe’sThe Fall of the House of Usher, the only opera that Debussy completed wasPelléas et Mélisande. He read Maeterlinck’s play shortly after its publication in 1892, subsequently attended its premiere in Paris in May 1893, and then immediately sought and obtained Maeterlinck’s permission to turn the play into an opera, adapting the playwright’s text simply by omitting four of the scenes and making a number of other cuts in the dialogue. Debussy began to compose the opera in September...

    (pp. 97-101)

    Best known for his ballet scores, of which the most famous isCoppélia, Delibes also wrote a number of operettas before turning to the composition of operas for the Opéra-Comique in Paris.Le Roi l’a dit(The King Says So, 1873) andJean de Nivelle(1880) were followed by his masterpiece,Lakmé. Delibes began another opera,Kassya, which was completed after his death by Massenet and performed in Paris in 1893 to no great success.

    It was the librettist Edmond Gondinet who suggested to Delibes the idea forLakmé. Orientalism was very much in vogue in France at the time,...

    (pp. 101-122)

    Donizetti’s gift for opera was discovered while he was still a student in Bologna. His first success,Enrico di Borgogna, staged in Venice in 1818, led to commissions from other Italian theatres, and he quickly embarked upon a career of writing sub-Rossinian comic operas, though he was also capable of setting serious dramatic texts. Among his early serious operas areL’esule di Roma(The Roman Exile; 1828) andIl paria(The Outcast; 1829). It was withAnna Bolenain 1830 that he arrived at both his mature style and the beginnings of his international success.

    The libretto ofAnna Bolena,...

    (pp. 122-125)

    One of the two leaders (the other being Smetana) of the nineteenth-century nationalist movement in music in what was then Bohemia and later became Czechoslovakia, Dvořák composed thirteen operas, few of which have found wide acceptance abroad. OnlyRusalka(1901) is to be encountered with reasonable frequency in foreign opera houses, though bothThe Jacobin(1889) andThe Devil and Kate(1899) are occasionally performed. His final opera, the dully conventionalArmida, was a failure.

    Dvořák, whose musical stature is revealed most clearly in his symphonies and chamber music, was not naturally drawn to the stage, though he was involved...

    (pp. 125-129)

    Although Flotow composed more than thirty operas and a number of ballet scores, he is known today primarily forMartha, oder der Markt von Richmond. Born in Germany, he received his musical education in Paris and composed his first opera,Pierre et Catherine, before he was twenty-one, to a libretto that had been offered to him by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges (1799–1875), a young French librettist who was to write plays, ballet scenarios and opera libretti for nearly half a century. (He is best remembered now as the co-author, with Théophile Gautier, of the scenario for the balletGiselle...

  25. JOHN GAY
    (pp. 129-132)

    John Gay, who wrote the words and compiled the music ofThe Beggar’s Opera, was not a composer but an eighteenth-century English minor playwright and poet who, withThe Beggar’s Opera, invented a new form: the ballad opera. He subsequently went on to create two more ballad operas:Polly, a sequel toThe Beggar’s Opera, andAchilles. The first of these, however, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, and the second, staged posthumously in 1733, was initially admired but has not retained its popularity.

    InThe Beggar’s OperaGay, who in 1718 had provided Handel with the libretto forAcis...

    (pp. 132-136)

    One of the most gifted twentieth-century American composers of musical comedy, songs and light orchestral music, George Gershwin wrote a number of popular Broadway musicals, includingLady, Be Good(1924),Strike Up the Band(1927),Rosalie(1928),Girl Crazy(1930) andOf Thee I Sing(1931). He composed only two operas, the earlier of which,Blue Monday, a one-act chamber opera in a jazz idiom which Gershwin and his librettist Buddy De Silva wrote in about five days, was first performed as one of the items in a Broadway revue,George White’s Scandals of 1922. Gershwin’s masterpiece,Porgy and Bess,...

    (pp. 136-142)

    After studying at the Naples Conservatorium, Umberto Giordano composed his first successful operas in the early days of Italian enthusiasm forverismo(realism), immediately after the success of Mascagni’sCavalleria rusticana. (Giordano’s very first opera,Marina, written while he was still a student, came sixth in a competition in 1889 which was won byCavalleria rusticana.) Mala vita(Evil Life; 1892), a crude work about a labourer who offers to reform a prostitute if the Virgin Mary will cure his tuberculosis, was quite popular when first performed, but it has failed to survive. Giordano reverted to an old-fashioned Romantic style...

    (pp. 143-147)

    The father of the nineteenth-century Russian nationalist school of composers, and a pioneer in Russian opera, Glinka completed only two operas, though he made sketches for three more. While in his twenties he attended performances in St Petersburg of a number of operas by Rossini given by a touring Italian company, so it is hardly surprising that his first completed opera,A Life for the Tsar, in effect the first real Russian opera, should be cast in the Rossinian bel canto mould. It was, in fact, on his return in 1833 from a three-year residence in Italy, where he met...

    (pp. 147-156)

    Gluck’s importance lies in the fact that, although he began as a composer of the oldopera seria, he effected a reform in his later works by rebelling against the formal conventions of Italian opera and by striking a new balance between music and drama. Although few of his forty-three operas (which today can seem as stiffly formal as those against which Gluck rebelled) are now regularly performed, his greatest works have remained in the repertoire. Gluck’s first opera,Artaserse, was performed in Milan in 1741. He composed a further seven operas for Italy before visiting London in 1746 and...

    (pp. 156-163)

    Gounod’s earliest ambition was to succeed as a composer of sacred music. After winning the Prix de Rome at the age of twenty-one, he became music director of a church in Paris for four years, and then he enrolled at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice; but he abandoned his religious vocation after only a few months to take up the career of opera composer. Through the influence of the famous mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, he received a commission from the Paris Opéra to composeSapho. Although the opera met with little success, Gounod received a second commission to setLa Nonne sanglante...

    (pp. 163-165)

    Born in Paris into a Jewish family that changed its name from Levy when he was eight, Halévy became a pupil of Cherubini at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of twelve, and he won the Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome when he was twenty. As opera was his chief interest, he held advisory positions at Paris opera houses from 1826 to 1845. Of the thirty-three operas he completed, a few remained unperformed at his death, while others, among themClari(1828),La Reine de Chypre(1841) andCharles VI(1843), were successful in their day.La Juive(1835), which was...

    (pp. 165-177)

    Handel was born in Germany and produced his first two operas in Hamburg at the age of twenty. He then left for Italy, where he became a composer of Italian operas, and in 1712 took up residence in London, where he remained for the rest of his life. HisRinaldohad been staged in 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre with such success that it ushered in an era in which Italian opera became the fashion in London. Over the next thirty years Handel composed more than thirty operas for London.Il pastor fido(1712),Teseo(1713) andAmadigi di Gaula...

    (pp. 177-179)

    The son of a schoolmaster, Henze studied at the State Music School in Brunswick, Germany, but he was conscripted at the age of eighteen in 1944, was taken prisoner by the British army, and was not able to resume his studies until the end of the war. The most important German composer of his generation, he has written fourteen operas or works of one kind or another for the theatre. The earliest,Das Wundertheater(The Magic Theatre), a one-act piece described by the composer as an opera for actors, was first performed in Heidelberg in 1949. Revised for singers fifteen...

    (pp. 179-182)

    The foremost German composer of his generation, Hindemith composed three unsuccessful one-act operas before creating a stir in 1926 withCardillac. The lighter piecesHin und Zurück(There and Back; 1927) andNeues vom Tage(News of the Day; 1929) were followed byMathis der Maler, his best-known opera.Die Harmonie der Welt(The Harmony of the World), produced in Munich in 1957, deals with the relationship of the artist or scientist to the society of his time, asMathis der Malerhad done (Mathis being the painter Mathias Grünewald). Hindemith’s only English-language opera was a one-act piece,The Long...

    (pp. 182-186)

    Humperdinck composed nine works for the stage. The earliest, and the one for which he is remembered today, is the operaHänsel und Gretel, which was composed almost by accident. Humperdinck began by studying architecture at the University of Cologne, but he was persuaded by the composer Ferdinand Hiller to switch to composition, and in his mid-twenties he won a prize which enabled him to visit Italy. There he met Richard Wagner, who invited him to Bayreuth to assist in the preparation ofParsifalfor the stage and for publication. Humperdinck had begun to write choral and orchestral music, but...

    (pp. 186-202)

    One of the former Czechoslovakia’s greatest three composers (along with Dvořák and Smetana), Janáček produced nine operas, the majority of which have made their way into the international repertoire. His earliest compositions were choral and organ works, reflecting his early musical training at a monastery school in Brno where he later returned to teach. His first opera,Šárka, composed in 1887, remained unperformed until 1925. His second,The Beginning of a Romance, a one-act piece consisting mainly of folk songs, was withdrawn by the composer after four performances in 1894. It was with his next opera,Její pastorkyňa(Her Step-daughter),...

    (pp. 202-204)

    After completing his studies in Naples, Leoncavallo composed his first opera,Chatterton, while he was still in his teens, although it was not performed until he revised it twenty years later. His earliest success, and easily his greatest, came withPagliacci, which was staged in Milan in 1892, bringing its composer immediate fame.I Medici, the first part of a projected trilogy, was a failure the following year, and Leoncavallo did not complete the remaining two parts. HisLa Bohème(1897) suffered by comparison with Puccini’s opera based on the same novel by Henry Murger and performed only some months...

    (pp. 205-209)

    Mascagni was born in Livorno, studied in Milan and then found work as a conductor of touring operetta companies, one of which performed his first work for the stage, an operetta,Il re a Napoli, staged in Cremona in 1885. In 1888, deciding to enter a competition for a one-act opera, organized by the publishing firm of Edoardo Sonzogno, Mascagni chose as his subject the playCavalleria rusticanaby Giovanni Verga, which he had seen in Milan four years earlier with the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse as Santuzza. Verga, the leader of the naturalistic orverismoschool of Italian...

    (pp. 209-224)

    Massenet was the most prolific French opera composer of his time, and for a considerable period he was the most important. However, after his death in 1912 his music was regarded for many years by the younger generation of composers and critics as superficial, insignificant and lacking in contemporary relevance. Over the years Massenet’s operas have gone in and out of fashion, and even now there are voices to be heard decrying the melodic charm of this most ingratiating of composers. But those who do not object on principle to being entertained in the opera house, rather than hectored, will...

    (pp. 225-228)

    Menotti was born in Italy and began his musical studies in Milan. After his family moved to America he attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Primarily a composer of operas, for all of which he provided his own libretti, he had his first success with the one-actAmelia al ballo, which was given its premiere in Philadelphia in 1937 in an English translation asAmelia Goes to the Ball. Most of Menotti’s subsequent libretti were written in English. An opera for radio,The Old Maid and the Thief, was broadcast by NBC in 1939.The Island God, staged...

    (pp. 228-237)

    The son of a wealthy Jewish family, Meyerbeer studied in Berlin and Darmstadt. His first two operas,Jephtas Gelübde(1812) andWirth und Gast(1813), composed to German texts, were both failures. Between 1817 and 1824 he composed seven Italian operas which were successfully staged in various Italian cities. When the last of them,Il crociato in Egitto(The Crusader in Egypt), was accepted for production in Paris, Meyerbeer took up residence in that city and began to compose large-scale works in the style of Frenchgrand opéra. The first of these,Robert le diable(Robert the Devil; 1831), was...

    (pp. 237-248)

    Monteverdi was born into a musical family in Cremona. By the age of fifteen he had already written a group of short religious pieces, which were published in Venice. He was in his twenty-fourth year when, after having composed a number of madrigals and canzonettas, he obtained a position in Mantua as one of the musicians at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, eventually being promoted to the position ofmaestro di cappella. When the Duke died, in 1612, Monteverdi was dismissed by the new Duke but becamemaestro di cappellaat the basilica of St Mark in Venice, where...

    (pp. 248-250)

    Douglas Moore studied in New York, and later in Paris with D’Indy and Nadia Boulanger, before taking up an academic career in music. He taught at Columbia University from 1926 until his retirement in 1962. Of his ten operas, the first to be successfully staged (in New York in 1939) wasThe Devil and Daniel Webster, which is still occasionally revived by American opera companies. Even more successful wasThe Ballad of Baby Doe, first produced in Central City, Colorado, in 1956. Moore’s final opera,Carrie Nation, staged at the University of Kansas in 1966, is based on the life...

    (pp. 250-292)

    Leopold Mozart, the composer’s father, was a violinist and composer in the service of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. Wolfgang at the age of three liked to sit at the keyboard picking out chords, and before his sixth birthday he was being toured through Europe by his father as a child prodigy. At the age of eleven he wrote his first works for the stage, and his first full-length opera,La finta semplice(The Pretended Simpleton), he wrote at the age of thirteen. In December 1769 Wolfgang, now nearly fourteen, and his father set out on their travels again. In...

    (pp. 292-300)

    The youngest son of a well-to-do Russian landowner, Mussorgsky began to compose or at least to improvise music as a child, even before he began to have piano lessons. At the age of seventeen he attempted to write an opera, although he had not been taught the rudiments of composition. The following year he met Dargomïzhsky, who was already an established composer, and through him became acquainted with Balakirev, who gave Mussorgsky his first lessons in musical form, and Rimsky-Korsakov. In his mid-twenties Mussorgsky worked for two or three years on an opera based on Flaubert’s historical novelSalammbô, but...

    (pp. 300-304)

    Jacques Offenbach, the son of a synagogue cantor, studied in his native city of Cologne and in Paris and became a cellist in the orchestra of the Paris Opéra-Comique. The most famous composer of French operetta of his day, he achieved his first huge international success withOrphée aux enfersin 1858. This was followed byLa Belle Helène(Beautiful Helen; 1864),La Vie parisienne(Parisian Life; 1866),La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein(The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein; 1867) andLa Périchole(1868).

    The last few years of Offenbach’s life were devoted to the composition of what he hoped would prove...

    (pp. 304-306)

    One of the last representatives of the German late Romantic school of composers, Pfitzner began his career with two operas that were heavily indebted to Wagner:Der arme Heinrich(Poor Heinrich), staged in Mainz in 1895, andDie Rose vom Liebesgarten(The Rose from the Garden of Love), staged in Elberfeld in 1901. He scored his greatest success with a more individual work,Palestrina, first performed in Munich in 1917. Composed to a libretto written by Pfitzner himself,Palestrinais a work of homage to the Italian composer whoseMissa Papae Marcelli(Mass for Pope Marcellus) was thought to have...

    (pp. 306-309)

    Ponchielli, who is regarded as the leading Italian composer of the generation between Verdi and Puccini, was taught the rudiments of music by his father, a church organist in a village near Cremona. He later studied at the Milan Conservatorium, and after graduating he settled in Cremona as a music teacher and organist at a local church. The only one of his ten operas still performed today isLa Gioconda, first staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1876. None of his earlier operas achieved any success, with the exception ofI promessi sposi, based on the novel by Alessandro Manzoni,...

    (pp. 310-313)

    Though Poulenc was a deeply religious being who described his Catholic faith as ‘that of a country priest’, there was also a strong element of worldly sophistication in his nature, which led a friend to describe the composer’s personality as half monk, half guttersnipe. Poulenc’s musical training was for the most part informal, and his earliest works, mostly songs and piano pieces, are in the determinedly avant-garde style of the 1920s. In 1921 he wrote incidental music for a nonsense play,Le Gendarme incompris, by Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet, but he withdrew his score soon afterwards, and did not...

    (pp. 313-322)

    Before he graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatorium in 1914, Prokofiev had already composed five operas. The first of these,The Giant, was written when he was nine, but only the last of the five,Maddalena, was performed, and then not until more than twenty-five years after its composer’s death, when it was broadcast by the BBC, and staged in Austria (Graz, 1981) and America (St Louis, Missouri, 1982). Prokofiev’s sixth opera,The Gambler, composed between 1915 and 1917, was eventually performed in 1929 in Brussels, by which timeThe Love for Three Oranges, commissioned by the Chicago Opera in...

    (pp. 322-352)

    Giacomo Puccini, the greatest Italian composer of the generation after Verdi, came of a long line of composers of church music in Lucca. He began his own studies there, before entering Milan Conservatorium. His first opera,Le villi(The Willis; 1884), set in mediaeval Germany, tells the story of a deserted village maiden who dies of grief, returning to haunt her faithless lover from beyond the tomb. When it was staged at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan,Le villiwas successful enough to win its composer a contract with Ricordi, the leading Italian music publisher. However, Puccini’s second opera,...

    (pp. 352-354)

    Henry Purcell was born into a musical family and became a chorister in the Chapel Royal at an early age. He was twenty when he was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey and began to compose in virtually every category of music practised in his time. He wrote odes for various royal occasions, songs, and pieces for organ and for harpsichord, but developed a particular interest in music for the theatre. When he was invited by Josias Priest, who ran a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea, to produce an entertainment for performance there, Purcell responded with a short opera, lasting no...

    (pp. 355-359)

    An innovator in his music for the piano, and an orchestrator of genius, Ravel composed only two operas, both of them one-act works, each lasting less than an hour. His first,L’Heure espagnole, was based on a comedy of the same title by Maurice Etienne Legrand (1873–1934) which Ravel had seen in Paris in 1904 at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. Using the pseudonym of Franc-Nohain, Legrand adapted his play as a libretto for the composer, and Ravel completed his opera in vocal score by the autumn of 1907. However, the director of the Opéra-Comique considered its plot somewhat too...

    (pp. 360-363)

    Rimsky-Korsakov’s fourteen operas are by far the most important part of his oeuvre, although he also composed much orchestral and chamber music and a large number of songs. His first opera,The Maid of Pskov, was composed between 1868 and 1872, at the same time that his friend Mussorgsky was beginning work onBoris Godunov. During one winter the two composers shared a small room and a piano, Mussorgsky working on his opera in the mornings and Rimsky-Korsakov on his in the afternoons.The Maid of Pskovwas successfully produced in St Petersburg in 1873, though Rimsky-Korsakov was to make...

    (pp. 363-396)

    In November 1812 Rossini was invited by the leading theatre in Venice, La Fenice, to compose anopera seriafor performance three months later. The subject, Voltaire’s five-act tragedyTancrède, had already been chosen, a libretto was written by Gaetano Rossi, who had previously collaborated with Rossini onLa cambiale di matrimonio(The Marriage by Promissory Note), and Rossini proceeded to compose the opera at what was his usual brisk pace.

    At its premiere in Venice in February 1813,Tancrediwas favourably received. Rossini then made some changes, and when the opera was performed several weeks later in Ferrara, it...

    (pp. 397-399)

    A fluent and prolific composer, Saint-Saëns wrote thirteen operas, of which the only one to achieve international success wasSamson et Dalila. Among his other operas areEtienne Marcel(1879),Ascanio(1890), both of which contain much agreeable music, though they are generally considered deficient in theatrical effect, andHenry VIII(1883), whose principal theme is based on a traditional English tune that the composer discovered in the library at Buckingham Palace. His final opera,Déjanire(Dejanira), was staged in Monte Carlo in 1911.

    Saint-Saëns first intended to use the biblical story of Samson and Delilah as the basis of...

    (pp. 399-402)

    Arnold Schoenberg is famous as the first composer to develop the atonal method of composition, or music that discards the use of a key system. His serial or twelve-note technique influenced several other composers, though it was not widely adopted and was never accepted other than by small coteries.

    His four operas span the greater part of Schoenberg’s creative life.Erwartung, composed in 1909 but not performed until 1924, when it was staged at a contemporary-music festival in Prague, is a one-act monodrama for soprano and orchestra.Die glückliche Hand(The Fateful Hand), another one-act piece, written immediately afterErwartung...

    (pp. 402-405)

    Shostakovich, the last of the great symphonic composers, wrote only two operas.The Nose, a satirical comedy based on a short story by Gogol, was produced in Leningrad in 1930, at a time when the comparatively young Soviet Union was still in a state of artistic experiment. A difficult work to stage, and not sufficiently rewarding,The Nosedid not find popularity outside Russia.The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which Shostakovich composed shortly afterwards, is by contrast a grim melodrama based on a story by the Russian novelist Nikolai Semionovich Leskov (1831–95).

    Shostakovich first encountered Leskov’s story when his...

    (pp. 405-410)

    Smetana, the first major Czech nationalist composer, wrote eight operas, which led to his being considered the father of modern Czech music. His first opera,The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, performed in Prague in January 1866, won him the chief conductorship of the Provisional Theatre in that city, a post he held for eight years. With his second opera,The Bartered Bride, which was given its premiere only four months after that ofThe Brandenburgers in Bohemia, Smetana showed on the operatic stage the very embodiment of his country’s character. Although there was a Czech language, there was, of course, no...

    (pp. 410-416)

    The most famous member of the celebrated family of composers of Viennese light music, Johann Strauss II, whose waltzes include such perennial favourites asThe Blue DanubeandTales from the Vienna Woods, is the father of nineteenth-century Viennese operetta. It was at the instigation of the French composer Jacques Offenbach that Strauss was persuaded to try his hand at what was to him an unfamiliar genre. Offenbach, a great admirer of Strauss’s effervescent waltzes and polkas, was on a visit to Vienna with one of his own highly successful operettas when he encouraged the Viennese composer to write his...

    (pp. 416-450)

    The son of Franz Strauss, who was a distinguished horn player and a professor at the Music Academy in Munich, Richard Strauss began his musical studies at the age of four and produced his first composition, a Christmas carol, when he was six. By his early twenties he had composed much chamber music, piano music and a number of songs, had completed a symphony and had become an assistant conductor at the Munich Hofoper, where his father played first horn in the orchestra.

    Guntram, the first of Strauss’s fifteen operas, was composed mostly in Egypt, where the composer had gone...

    (pp. 450-456)

    Stravinsky, one of the greatest of twentieth-century composers, wrote operas at various stages of his career. He was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, and his earliest opera,The Nightingale, reveals something of that composer’s influence. In three short acts and lasting less than an hour, it has a libretto by the composer and Stepan Mitusov, based on a story by Hans Andersen. The song of the Nightingale (soprano) in the forest has become so famous that the Chinese imperial court arrives in search of the bird, who agrees to sing for the Emperor (baritone) but disappears when a mechanical nightingale is...

    (pp. 456-457)

    An important figure in Polish music in the first half of the twentieth century, Szymanowski composed an operetta and two operas, one of which,Król Roger, is still quite frequently performed.

    Act I. The cathedral in Palermo. Priests ask King Roger to imprison a young Shepherd who has been preaching a philosophy that they consider to be anti-Christian. Urged by his wife, Roxana, to hear the Shepherd before deciding, King Roger commands him to be produced. The Shepherd answers the King’s questions, explaining his philosophy ecstatically, and Roxana is clearly impressed by the youth. The King orders him to appear...

    (pp. 457-464)

    Tchaikovsky is regarded primarily as a composer for the orchestra, whose three ballets(Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker)and at least three of whose symphonies are deservedly popular. Nevertheless, he composed more operas than symphonies, though only two of his operas are regularly performed outside Russia. He destroyed his earliest opera,Voyevoda(The Provincial Governor), after its 1869 premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, but the work was later reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts and other material, and Tchaikovsky used much of its music again inThe Oprichnik, performed in St Petersburg in 1874.Vakula the Smith, first...

    (pp. 464-469)

    The most successful twentieth-century British composer of opera after Benjamin Britten, Tippett composed in the late 1930s two one-act operas, which he described as plays for children, with words by his friend the playwright Christopher Fry, but he did not write his first major opera until 1946. He had, at the beginning of World War II, sketched out a synopsis for a work that he conceived as a protest against the Nazi persecution of Jews, and was at first undecided whether it should be intended for the stage or the concert platform. When he showed the poet T.S. Eliot his...

    (pp. 469-542)

    Italy’s greatest composer, the son of an innkeeper in the village of Le Roncole, near Parma, revealed a talent for music as a child and was taught by the organist of the village church. By the age of ten he had advanced sufficiently to be sent for further tuition to the nearby small town of Busseto, where Antonio Barezzi, a merchant, took the lad into his house and gave him a job. Soon the young Verdi was composing marches for the local Philharmonic Society as well as music for the church. In his nineteenth year, aided by Barezzi and by...

    (pp. 543-594)

    The greatest German opera-composer of the nineteenth century was as a child interested both in the theatre and in music. He learned to play the piano, and having written a play in his teens he began to take lessons in composition in order to be able to provide incidental music for it. Soon he was involving himself in music to the exclusion of all his other studies. In his eighteenth year he had an orchestral work, an overture, performed in Leipzig. He next produced a piano sonata and a symphony. His main interest, however, lay in combining his literary and...

    (pp. 594-599)

    Weber was one of the early leaders of the ninetenth-century Romantic movement in German music. He studied in Salzburg with Michael Haydn, brother of the more famous Joseph, composed his first opera,Die Macht der Liebe und des Weins(The Force of Love and Wines), at the age of twelve and had his second opera,Das Waldmädchen(The Forest Maiden), produced in Freiburg by a travelling company when he was fourteen. In his twenties he composed the operasSilvanaandAbu Hassan, the latter the earliest of his stage works to have survived. In 1817, at the age of thirty,...

    (pp. 600-605)

    For a short time a pupil of Humperdinck, Kurt Weill at the age of 21 settled in Berlin, where he studied with Busoni for three years. Although his earliest compositions were instrumental, Weill always thought of himself as a composer for the theatre. His first operas, one-act pieces written in a contemporary idiom, were traditional in the sense that they were scored for a normal orchestra and intended for classically trained singers. But Weill longed for an art that would decisively mirror his own time and the life of his adopted city of Berlin. (He came from a Jewish family...

    (pp. 605-608)

    Zimmermann studied in Cologne and Bonn, and after military service during World War II in France he resumed his studies at Darmstadt. His only opera,Die Soldaten, was first performed in Cologne in 1965, its libretto by the composer based on Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz’s play of the same title (1775). The opera aroused considerable controversy at its premiere, due mainly to its complex structure. At the time of his death Zimmermann was at work on a second opera,Medea.

    Act I, scene i. Wesener’s house in Lille. Wesener’s daughter Marie writes to the Mother of her fiancé Stolzius.


  71. Index of Titles
    (pp. 609-611)
  72. General Index
    (pp. 612-627)