20th-century Opera

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Who was the greatest composer of opera in the 20th century?

Puccini
5
36%
Janacek
2
14%
Strauss
2
14%
Prokofiev
2
14%
Berg
2
14%
Britten
1
7%
Other (explain below)
0
No votes
 
Total votes: 14

Tchelio
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20th-century Opera

Post by Tchelio » Sat Apr 28, 2007 4:31 pm

Hi Everyone!

I am new to the CMG and am looking forward to participating. One of my current listening/learning projects is to explore many of the great 20th-century operas and learn about them.

I would like to hear your thoughts on your favorite operas from the last century as well as any thoughts on recordings, singers, composers, trends, etc.

Also, if any of you are opera experts out there I would love to hear off the cuff about the impact that the 20th-century made on the opera world.

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Post by Lance » Sat Apr 28, 2007 5:11 pm

First of all, a BIG WELCOME to you. We hope you enjoy your visits to this site and will be a frequent contributor.

I selected Puccini because his operas contain all the elements that appeal to me personally, musically. But then Puccini only lived until 1924 and grew right out of the Romantic period, having been born in 1858, so his influences were strong in that direction from a sheer musical point of view. Otherwise, I would have chosen Richard Strauss, who lived well nigh into almost the first half of the twentieth century. I'm surprised that you didn't place Gian Carlo Menotti on the list, whose shorter operas are performed frequently and who is a composer who has made a mark on the American opera public, even those who don't know much about opera, especially with a work like Amahl and the Night Visitors, which is frequently performed around the Christmas holidays. (At least it is by our resident opera company here, and is always a sellout no matter how many performances they give year after year.) But certainly Menotti isn't in the major leagues with Prokofiev and others you mentioned in your poll in scope of composition, nor length.

As for the impact of twentieth century opera today, I don't think there's been enough time - yet - to have made a major impact, though some fine operas have come forth from composers especially after 1950 or thereabouts.
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Post by RebLem » Sat Apr 28, 2007 6:37 pm

I selected Richard Strauss, for about three reasons.

1. His musical language, his style of writing, resonated throughout the 20th century as no other. Listen to the music of almost any conductor who occasionally composed, the core of whose career was in the first half of the 20th century--Furtwangler, Klemperer, Stock, Szell, even de Sabata--and you will find that his music owes a great debt to that of Richard Strauss.

2. Of the composers listed, only Britten has a sheer volume of work as impressive, and Britten's operas are generally so focused on the sea, and on male characters to the near exclusion of women from his work, that they can hardly be considered universally appealing.

3. Strauss's music focuses, as no other body of work does, on some of the central social, economic, and political themes of 20th century life, and is therefore more relevant to the history of his time than any other, and to the world of ordinary human experience.

Throughout the 19th century and back into the late 18th century, class conflict between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie had been one of the main themes of opera. In Mozart, aristocrats were often portrayed as silly, effete, often comic anachronisms, and his work reflects the sensibilities of the Enlightenment philosophers. After the temporary victory and comeback of the ancien regimes after the Napoleonic Wars, we find many composers, like Rossini, retrenching. Same basic attitude, but muted, with at least the occasional aristocrat portrayed as a force of modernity.

With Verdi, of course, we see a return of the Mozartean approach, except that Verdi is a great deal less funny about it. And another noteworthy feature of his work is that while he was anti-aristocracy, Verdi reserved his greatest ire, especially in his greatest opera, Don Carlo, for the dead hand of the Church. Another feature we see in Verdi is the birth of feminism. His female characters are all women of intelligence and substance.

We find this attitude toward women continuing in the work of Puccini, but because it seems so derivative, in theme if not entirely in musical language--Puccini combines the attitudes of Verdi with a musical language that might be called proto-Impressionism--he cannot be regarded as innovative enough to be considered as important as Strauss. Still, Madame Butterfly is his greatest work. The villain, of course, is an American diplomat (what could be more politically correct and up to date, eh?) named, of all things, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Well. A Founding Father, something of a bounder himself, with the last name of one of the latest, for Puccini's time, examples of the corrupt, anti democratic, exploitive American businessman.

It was a shame, really. Allan Pinkerton had once been a principled man. Like Andrew Carnegie, he was an immigrant from Scotland. His home in Chicago was a station on the Underground Railroad. But in his later years, his detective agency was morfed, under his guidance and that of his successors, into an agency that provided strikebreaking goons to destroy elements of the early American labor movement. By giving his villain this name, Puccini was commenting on a noble dream which seemed to many to have turned to dust. Nothing could be more up to date than that feeling, even though we have seen several rounds of reform, renewal, and then retrenchment since Puccini's time.

But no one opera, no matter how great, can make one a great composer. For that, you have to have a body of work, hitting consistently on a few basic themes. That we find in Strauss as in no one else. In Der Rosenkavalier, his greatest opera, his attitude toward the aristocracy is not tolerant amusement, but anger. Ain't funny any more, he says. You are the dead hand of the past. Get the hell out of our way or we will push you out! In Salome, he applied the new findings of the Freudians to the portrayal of an unbalanced, privileged young woman. Fraught with violence mixed with sexuality, and tinged with intimations of incest, it was one of the most controversial works of its, or even our, time. But look at those themes! A privileged young woman. Unbridled sexuality. Violence. An unbalanced and distorted psychic economy. Not many ideas more up to date than that.
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Post by Chalkperson » Sat Apr 28, 2007 8:06 pm

RebLem wrote:I selected Richard Strauss, for about three reasons.
I could not have put it better myself, RebLem, but if I can only have one vote then unfortunately it must go to Puccini...

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Post by jbuck919 » Sat Apr 28, 2007 8:39 pm

First, welcome to the board.

I suppose it has to be Strauss, but I am reminded of the comment of the director of the Paris opera last year when the issue of new(er) operas was addressed. Something to the effect of Lulu being the last opera in the standard repertory for most of a century, and that wasn't going to change this year either.

Chronologically, all the composers you mention plus Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, all of whom wrote operas that are still in the repertory and rightly so (even if only by fits and starts), are of the twentieth century, but in terms of being close to us, they all belong to a long bygone era, some in more than one way. Not that you implied anything different.

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Post by Tchelio » Sat Apr 28, 2007 9:18 pm

There seem to be several important "one hit wonders" with respect to opera in the 20th century that merit discussion. I think of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk just to name a few.

I wonder what could have been written by Bartok had Bluebeard's castle received greater success in his lifetime - thus encouraging him to write more opera. Or in the case of Shostakovich who was punished by the Soviet authorities for writing a successful opera that was outside of the ideals of those in charge. He shyed away from opera for the remainder of his days as a result.


With respect to opera of the last 50 years or so, I can't say that I know very much. I have listened to John Adams' Nixon in China which I really love. I know he considers himself to be primarily a composer of opera. It will be interesting to see how history views his work. Has anyone seen Dr. Atomic or any of his other operas in person?

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Post by lmpower » Sat Apr 28, 2007 9:30 pm

I also hesitated between Puccini and Strauss. Either choice is fine with me. One should probably distinguish between composers who grew out of the romantic movement and more modernistic choices. Someone once said that Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron was the greatest opera of the twentieth century. That is a point of view that should be represented, though I can't subscribe to it myself. I would incline more toward Rosenkavalier and Turandot.

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Post by Tchelio » Sat Apr 28, 2007 10:05 pm

lmpower wrote:One should probably distinguish between composers who grew out of the romantic movement and more modernistic choices.
I thought about leaving Puccini off for that very reason but decided against it since someone could argue for his inclusion. Oh well. :D

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Post by some guy » Sat Apr 28, 2007 10:21 pm

Well, I didn't vote. Too many greats for there to be a greatest.

I wouldn't choose either Puccini or Strauss. They are people who wrote music in the 1900s but not of the 1900s. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, if that's who you are, but that would seem to exclude you from any "great operas of the 20th century" list.

So Janáček and Prokofiev would have to be pretty high up there, if only because they wrote several operas. Bartók's Bluebeard is a great opera, but I'd say that one opera, however great, doesn't qualify you as a great opera composer! If that were true, we'd be talking all the time about the great 19th century opera composer Beethoven.

That puts us only mid-century, though, and while opera (a terrifically expensive art form) rather lost its appeal for many composers, as did the symphony, there were still a lot of symphonies and operas in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Favorites:

Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle--A genuinely 20th century work, both for its story and for its music.

Janáček: Osud--Wouldn't ever get on anyone's "best" list, including mine if I made one. But it's the one I listen to most frequently. From Jenufa on, they're all great. The two before are ok.

Prokofiev: Semyon Kotko--Without Gergiev, this Soviet work might have remained neglected and unheard. Perhaps not. There is a Prokofiev society whose members are sufficiently rabid. (I mean that in a good way.) Semyon Kotko was written at the top of his form, anyway, regardless of the story. The music is wildly exciting. It's as good as it gets with Prokofiev, and that's very good indeed. As with Janáček, all his other operas are great, too. More uneven, some of them, than anything Leoš did, but still very fine.

Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District--If there is a more consistently gorgeous opera anywhere by anybody, I want to know about it. (I mean, other than the ones I already know... Seriously beautiful, though. Grabs your heart and does not let go.)

Britten: Peter Grimes--Seen this live with Langridge. Had to go back and see it again. And then a third time. Truly. I did do that thing.

Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre--This is wicked funny and all over the map; whichever map you've got, this is all over it. Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges is a kind of proto-Grand Macabre. Much as I love Prokofiev, Ligeti's is vastly superior. In fact, this could easily be the best opera of the twentieth century. If there is such a thing.

Maderna: Satyricon--Good fun. Not quite as wild as Le Grand Macabre, nor as wooly, but still good clean fun.

Feldman: Neither--I don't have to say anything other than Feldman. Think his other stuff is solid gold? Well, so is this.

Nørgård: Nuit des Hommes--I only "discovered" Nørgård recently, so I've only managed to track down this one so far. There are four others and I want them all. This one's very nice. The title might seem a bit of a downer, but there you are. The music's great. You can't help feeling better about things after hearing this. (Like Dvořák's Noonday Witch tone poem. Horrifying story. Gorgeous music.)

Kutavičius: Lokys, the Bear--Outrageously addictive. Do not pass this up for any reason. Any of you. I mean it.

And last, and best:

Lachenmann: Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern--As with Feldman, I only have to say Lachenmann. This is everything all of his other music is. If you're afraid of opera but love Lachenmann, you have nothing to fear with this one. Wow. Takes the top of your head off.

There is lots I've not mentioned. Ashley and Berg for two. There's lots that I don't know. Prometeo, Die Hamletmaschine, The Mask of Orpheus, for instance. Those other operas by Nørgård. World enough and time...

Anyway, Tchelio, welcome and enjoy!
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Post by Brahms » Sat Apr 28, 2007 10:29 pm

some guy wrote:Tchelio, welcome and enjoy!
Yes, Tchelio, welcome!

:D

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Post by Ralph » Sat Apr 28, 2007 10:48 pm

Welcome! Great poll. I would vote for Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
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Post by Chalkperson » Sat Apr 28, 2007 11:27 pm

Feldman: Neither--I don't have to say anything other than Feldman. Think his other stuff is solid gold? Well, so is this.

I had no idea he wrote an Opera and I thought I had all his music...

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Post by some guy » Sat Apr 28, 2007 11:49 pm

Neither did I (pun unavoidable) until about a month ago. Don't remember where I saw the reference to it, but I got it immediately I knew about it.

You've probably already looked it up, but it's on col legno with Musica Viva and the words are by Samuel Beckett.
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
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Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
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Post by Lance » Sun Apr 29, 2007 1:07 am

It's interesting to observe that our friend, Puccini, is leading the pack.
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Post by Tchelio » Sun Apr 29, 2007 2:47 am

I have to say to some guy that your list represents exactly why I am excited to be participating in these forums. You have thrown out some tantalizing possibilities that I had never heard of.

I am familiar with Semyon Kotko, and I have the Gergiev recording. It is truly a piece worth checking out. And, regarding Prokofiev, I must admit that I am a HUGE fan. In fact, the fake name Tchelio is taken from the Love For Three Oranges - the bumbling magician.

While we are on the subject of Prokofiev, I encourage any of you to check out the DVD of Betrothal in a Monastery. It is light opera done the Prokofiev way and it is thoroughly entertaining.

Thank you everyone for the warm welcome!

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Post by Chalkperson » Sun Apr 29, 2007 2:55 am

some guy wrote:Neither did I (pun unavoidable) until about a month ago. Don't remember where I saw the reference to it, but I got it immediately I knew about it.

You've probably already looked it up, but it's on col legno with Musica Viva and the words are by Samuel Beckett.
I don't think that's quite an Opera, I have it on Hat Hut art and I thought it was a study based on words by Samuel Beckettt, I will check it out on monday...

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Post by RebLem » Sun Apr 29, 2007 3:17 am

Oh, I forgot, Tchelio. :oops:

Welcome to our goofy little community. :shock:
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Post by Chalkperson » Sun Apr 29, 2007 1:28 pm

I forgot these...:oops:

Dallapiccola - Ulysses
Dallapiccola - The Prisoner

and dependant on your classification...

Messiaen - St Francis of Assisi

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Post by some guy » Sun Apr 29, 2007 9:36 pm

Tchelio,

You're very welcome. The DVD is good, though whoever did the makeup for Mendoza had way too much fun, I think!

Chalkperson,

Thanks for adding the Dallapicolla and Messiaen. I completely forgot Krenek's Jonny Spielt Auf, too, which I recently got for free from a friend who just couldn't see that it had any virtue at all. And Virgil Thompson's Four Saints in Three Acts should be on the list.

As for whether Neither is an opera, well I suppose if that's on the list, Partch's Revelation in a Courthouse Park should be on it, too. The Partch has a story and scenes, anyway. Yes. I'm convinced. Put it on the list. And if Delusion of the Fury had more singing...

Anyway, I can't believe I didn't put HatHut on my list of cool labels in the list of cool labels thread.
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
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Post by Chalkperson » Sun Apr 29, 2007 10:20 pm

some guy wrote:Anyway, I can't believe I didn't put HatHut on my list of cool labels in the list of cool labels thread.
I forgot it too...:wink:

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Post by jbuck919 » Mon Apr 30, 2007 12:27 am

A thread like this will inevitably become a retrospective on every opera written since whenever that has reached some kind of threshold of public consciousness. Nobody yet has (or should have) mentioned Menotti, who for a while actually looked like he might have a toe-hold on hanging around in the repertoire at least in the US. (His operas other than the famous "Amahl" which is a special case are god-awful, but he had a following for a while when nobody would produce for instance Sessions' Montezuma.) The question, folks, was who was the greatest opera composer of the 20th century, not who belongs on the stalled and fell out of the sky list. I wouldn't want to be on the clean-up crew.

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Post by Lance » Mon Apr 30, 2007 12:42 am

jbuck919 wrote:A thread like this will inevitably become a retrospective on every opera written since whenever that has reached some kind of threshold of public consciousness. Nobody yet has (or should have) mentioned Menotti, who for a while actually looked like he might have a toe-hold on hanging around in the repertoire at least in the US. (His operas other than the famous "Amahl" which is a special case are god-awful, but he had a following for a while when nobody would produce for instance Sessions' Montezuma.) The question, folks, was who was the greatest opera composer of the 20th century, not who belongs on the stalled and fell out of the sky list. I wouldn't want to be on the clean-up crew.
Well John, I mentioned Menotti, and I alluded to "Amahl," and not the other operas. But Menotti IS a 20th century opera composer with a name known by many (because of "Amahl)," though I wouldn't place him in the same list as the other composers in the poll. But some MAY believe he is worthy of more consideration. What? You don't like his opera, "The Telephone," or "Amelia Goes to the [Freaking] Ball?" What about "The Medium?" (I thought that to be a good opera.) Mme. Flora has some good lines in that one! Hmmm!
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Post by jbuck919 » Mon Apr 30, 2007 12:53 am

Lance wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:A thread like this will inevitably become a retrospective on every opera written since whenever that has reached some kind of threshold of public consciousness. Nobody yet has (or should have) mentioned Menotti, who for a while actually looked like he might have a toe-hold on hanging around in the repertoire at least in the US. (His operas other than the famous "Amahl" which is a special case are god-awful, but he had a following for a while when nobody would produce for instance Sessions' Montezuma.) The question, folks, was who was the greatest opera composer of the 20th century, not who belongs on the stalled and fell out of the sky list. I wouldn't want to be on the clean-up crew.
Well John, I mentioned Menotti, and I alluded to "Amahl," and not the other operas. But Menotti IS a 20th century opera composer with a name known by many (because of "Amahl)," though I wouldn't place him in the same list as the other composers in the poll. But some MAY believe he is worthy of more consideration. What? You don't like his opera, "The Telephone," or "Amelia Goes to the [Freaking] Ball?" What about "The Medium?" (I thought that to be a good opera.) Mme. Flora has some good lines in that one! Hmmm!
Yes, Lance, I made the mistake of glossing over what I assumed was a simple welcome post.

I find Menotti to present the same difficulty as Bernstein, and that is not an inherent reflection on their talent but on the possibilities of 20th century composition on the US. "Amahl" is a little more than a musical, and everything else a little less than an opera.

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