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A History of Opera in Fifteen Key Works

Opera can easily be considered the most international of art forms. After all, a production in one of the primary opera houses of Europe or North America is likely to bring together musicians, singers, and production designers from all over the world collaborating to put together a performance in a language that's possibly the mother tongue of only a few of them. Accordingly, most true internationalists possess at least an appreciation for opera, and many are afflicted with a consuming passion.

However, I acknowledge that significant obstacles prevent most people from appreciating opera. For one thing, ticket prices are geared towards those who have a good amount of disposable income to lavish on entertainment. But I will mention that I have found it quite easy to get cheap tickets in Europe, where opera is often subsidized, and even at certain houses in the United States (standing room tickets at the Metropolitan Opera in New York are currently $15—in contrast, movie tickets in Manhattan are $10). Still, the conventions of opera are archaic and unfamiliar to modern audiences, for how can we be expected to simply accept characters who suddenly sing out their innermost passions? Yet, most musicals, which draw in audiences of all stripes, are essentially pop music versions of the operatic form, so perhaps the genre shouldn't seem all that strange. However, it's one thing to enjoy pop music and quite another to appreciate the complex musical language of opera. On the other hand, the operatic aria has become familiar through appearances in even the most mainstream of movies. Thus, I suppose I'm finding few reasons why we shouldn't all be able to enjoy the occasional night at the opera.

To aid those who are curious but unsure of where to begin, I am providing the below primer, designed to both give background on the development of the art and to offer a list of some of the best and most representative operas, most of which are easy to find on CD and frequently show up on the programs of the world's opera houses.

1. Orfeo, 1607, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Strangely enough, opera didn't exactly evolve naturally out of other art forms. Rather, it was conceived of by a group of Italian musicians known as the Florentine Camerata. The members of the Camerata imagined a sort of musical theatre that would serve as a contemporary version of classic Greek drama, which they knew to have been at least partly sung. This new style of theatre would be completely sung and accompanied by music throughout. They also wanted a clarity of expression for the vocal line and eschewed the polyphonic melodies common in Renaissance-era music in favor of vocals accompanied by harmonizing music that supported rather than overwhelmed. These ideas inspired the first opera, Jacopo Peri's Euridice, in 1600. But the most significant composer to emerge from the Camerata's theories was Monterverdi.

Orfeo is one of the three Monteverdi operas to survive intact, yet the work is nothing like what we now imagine when we think of opera, for the story of Orpheus and his quest to retrieve his bride from the land of the dead is not told with aria and recitative, the two forms of music that would soon constitute the standard structure of opera (we will encounter them shortly). Instead, Monterverdi's pivotal work used neither aria nor recitative but instead alternated solo vocal lines that follow the natural contours of speech with ensemble and orchestral passages. It is also a marvelous and totally unique piece of music, full of a variety of ingenious musical textures and lovely melodies.

2. Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), 1724, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

The reader has a right to wonder why this list has jumped ahead more than a century. Certainly, scores of operas were produced in the intervening years as the form rapidly went from obscure academic experiment to continental sensation. Also during this time, opera evolved into a more familiar form as the type of natural sung speech employed in Orfeo morphed into recitative, dialogue generally accompanied only by harpsichord. Recitative advanced the plot and alternated with arias, solo songs accompanied by full orchestra designed to express inner states of emotion and contemplation. It would be easy to say that most of these operas were not very good, but a more nuanced view would acknowledge that audiences of the time had very different expectations. Instead of compelling plots and characters, opera-goers wanted lavish spectacle. Instead of complex and lyrical melodies, they favored pyrotechnic displays of the singer's art. Thus, though some of the music by composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725), Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), and others is frequently beautiful, their operas are rarely performed any more except as curiosities.

The operas of Handel, one of the true kings of the Baroque era, are an exception. His works have a dramatic integrity that most operas of the time did not possess. In his version of Caesar's adventures in Egypt, the shifts in emotional state that the characters undergo as the narrative progresses are carefully delineated by the music of each aria. This use of music to flesh out the nuances of emotion would become standard in opera. Another characteristic of Baroque opera is the da capo aria (Italian for "from the top"), in which the first verse was repeated after the second one. Handel knew how to use the form for dramatic effect. For example, in Cleopatra's third act aria "Piangerň la sorte mia," the first verse is a statement of regret, whereas the second verse takes a brave stance. When the first verse is then repeated, its regret is even more poignant in contrast.

3. Orfeo ed Euridice, 1762, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Besides Italian, the other language that dominated early opera was French. Though to our modern ears Baroque French opera may sound very similar to Italian, there are melodic differences as the music is better suited to the French language, which was less capable of being stretched over multiple notes of music. In the hands of its better composers, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) and Jean-Phillipe Rameau (1683-1764), French opera of this time tended to be more focused than the Italian variety, with less extravagant vocal embellishment and less of a clear division between recitative and aria. French opera also encouraged those who were not pleased with the directions Italian opera had gone in during the Baroque era, including Christoph Gluck.

Although not French himself, Gluck took elements of French opera and synthesized them with Italian operatic traditions to create a wholly new style. He eroded the rigid distinction between aria and recitative by writing accompanied recitative instead of secco ("dry") recitative (accompanied only by harpsichord). He also wanted to take the form back to its roots in Greek theatre by creating emotionally involving drama that didn't rely on unnecessary musical embellishment, and he believed in finding the best librettos (the text of an opera) to set to music. His most well-known opera is familiar in both French and Italian versions and offers an instructive comparison to Monteverdi's earlier iteration of the mythic story. The centerpiece aria of this work, "Che farň senza Euridice?" or "J'ai perdu mon Euridice," depending on the version, is still considered one of the most beautiful and plaintive songs in the opera repertoire.

4. Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera ("opera seria" in Italian) was dramatic rather than comic by definition, even though to our sensibilities it may seem laughably melodramatic, and the plots were peopled with legendary and mythic figures who faced tragic circumstances. Humor was considered too low a subject for the lofty art of the opera house, and musical comedies were relegated to low-brow venues for the common people. Yet "opera buffa" gradually gained respectability. One of the first popular works was Giovanni Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona (1733), which was originally performed during the intermission of an opera seria and which relied on stock characters from the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, Italian comic theatre. Eventually, composers came along who took comic opera to unexpected heights.

As he was a musical innovator in so many ways, it is hardly surprising that Mozart wrote some of the first true masterpieces of opera buffa, particularly the three he wrote in collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte: Don Giovanni (1787), Cosě Fan Tutte (1790), and Le Nozze di Figaro. The latter is considered one of the finest of comic operas, if not the finest opera ever written. Da Ponte adapted his text from a play by Pierre Beaumarchais, a fine piece of wit considered incendiary due to its subverting of the social hierarchy. Da Ponte's libretto is tamer, but Mozart's music retains the bite of the original. Throughout, the music is perfectly composed to express a complex range of emotions, from Figaro's teasing "Non piů andrai" to the Countess's unbearably poignant "Dove sono." In the hands of a good opera company, Mozart's work will have you laughing at one moment and crying at the next. One could hardly recommend a better opera.

5. Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), 1816, Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

Out of the many operas produced during the four centuries of the genre's existence, the majority that are still performed in opera houses all over the world date from the nineteenth century. The first half of the century saw the rise of the Bel Canto movement (Italian for "beautiful singing"), characterized by ornamented vocal lines and smooth, sweet voice technique, a style still prized among singers today. The main Bel Canto composers were Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), and Rossini, a tight circle of artists who together cranked out an astonishing number of works in a short period of time.

By this time, opera buffa was firmly entrenched as an acceptable genre, and one of its finest statements in the early part of the century was Rossini's addition to the number of works about the sly barber Figaro, based on a Beaumarchais play written before Le Nozze di Figaro, which in turn was actually a sequel to this earlier comedy. Though it is clearly not an advancement on Mozart's treatment of the Figaro character, Il Barbiere is still a thoroughly enjoyable opera in its own right and is full of memorable tunes, including Figaro's famous "Largo al factotum," a predecessor to the patter songs that would make Gilbert and Sullivan famous.

6. La Traviata, 1853, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

The other style of opera that dominated the early part of the century was grand opera. Some may object to the term as a redundancy, but in fact grand opera did a fine job of setting itself apart from the rest through the use of extravagant spectacle, huge choruses, complex dance numbers, and lavish staging. In particular, Frenchman Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) delighted audiences with historically based works like Les Huguenots (1836). However popular it was at the time, grand opera tended to lack musical substance and thus hasn't aged well, and you are not likely to see it staged much today. But grand opera was also a major influence on the works of Verdi, one of the most significant and beloved composers in the history of opera.

Verdi came out of both the Bel Canto and the grand opera traditions, but he placed more emphasis on individualized character and emotion than the former and scaled down the excesses of the latter. He excelled at finding expressive, rich, memorable melodies and managed to produce them in great quantities, as evidenced by the long list of quality operas he composed, including the opera house staples Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853), Aida (1871), and Otello (1887). La Traviata is one of the finest and justly popular of his mature operas. This story of a "fallen woman" (as the title translates) focuses on the passionate life and tragic death of Violetta, one in a string of famous operatic heroines who don't survive to the fall of the final curtain. Gone is the solid division of aria from recitative, as dialogue is frequently tuneful and accompanied by orchestra, blending seamlessly into arias that are breathlessly gorgeous. The final sequence of the first act is a particularly fine example of both theatre and music as Violetta's aria is periodically interrupted by her lover Alfredo, off-stage and continuing to belt out his love song as if from a distance.

7. Tristan und Isolde, 1865, Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Unlike French and Italian, the German language took a while to become truly accepted as a proper language for opera. Most of the earlier works were actually categorized as Singspiele (literally "song-plays"), which mixed musical numbers with spoken dialogue, the most notable example of which is Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (1791). The first true example of German opera to achieve wide recognition was Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (1821), a heady mix of romanticism and myth that set the tone for German opera to come. Because the syllables of the German language cannot be extended over multiple notes as easily as Italian or even French, German opera evolved with a different musical style that made more room for orchestral statements used for their own sake. German opera reached its peak in the second half of the century with the composer whose name is most firmly associated with it: Wagner.

Still controversial for both his aesthetic theories and his crass anti-semitism, Wagner shaped not only German opera but also influenced the direction of all opera to come. His early interest in Germanic legend, leitmotifs (signature musical themes associated with specific characters and ideas), and seamless musical transitions culminated in the towering Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876) (generally known as simply "The Ring" in English), a four-part epic retelling of the Nordic myth of the fall of the gods. Musically, Wagner discarded the standard division between recitative and aria in favor of a continuous musical texture woven with leitmotifs in complex variations. While writing Siegfriend, the fourth opera in the cycle, Wagner took a twelve-year break from the Ring, during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde, a work that managed to be even more innovative than his others. Over the course of a five-hour retelling of the doomed love affair of the titular characters, the music is evasive, each melody lacking cadences, building up an extraordinary tension until the final dynamic resolution at the end of the glorious Liebestod ("love-death") that closes the work. I would certainly not recommend Tristan und Isolde to newcomers, and more accessible works like Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1843) or Die Walküre (1870) are better places to start with Wagner, but it needs to be dealt with by anyone with a serious interest in opera.

8. Boris Godunov, 1874, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

While Italian, French, and German opera were flourishing on the continent proper, another tradition was developing farther to the east. Just as much of Russian high culture looked towards Europe as a model, early Russian opera was based on the European mold. Then, in 1836 Mikhail Glinka composed A Life for the Czar, an opera much more grounded in Russian music. In his footsteps followed a group of five composers known in Russian as the Mogucaja kucka (the "Mighty Handful" or the "Mighty Five" in English): Mili Balakirev, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Aleksandr Borodin, and Mussorgsky, of which the latter three produced works that are still in the repertoire. Rather than forcing Russian text into Italian melody, the music composed by these five followed the natural rhythms of the Russian language and relied on folk melodies for material.

Mussorgsky's story of the guilt-ridden Tsar, based on a play by Pushkin, is both one of the finest of Russian operas and one of most representative of the style. Like Wagner and Verdi's later works, the music is continuous and boldly supports the drama. The time signature and melodies are based on Russian folk music, and as a result the work frequently sounds rough-hewn and even brutal to ears accustomed to the European tradition, but these elements add up to a strong and compelling dramatic experience.

9. Carmen, 1875, Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Even as grand opera dominated the top French stages, another style filled the smaller houses where the common people went for entertainment: opéra comique, the French version of the German Singspiel. In a sense, the history of opera has had parallel tracks, "high" opera of the wealthy and "low" opera for everyone else. Frequently, significant changes have come about from intersections between the two strains, as when some French composers started to synthesize the extravagant productions of grand opera with the simpler drama of opéra comique to create a new style, which Bizet adopted for one of the most popular operas ever.

Bizet's pivotal work was originally written with spoken dialogue as appropriate for opéra comique, but some productions use a recitative composed after Bizet's death. The story of a soldier's consuming and destructive passion for the title character, a fiery gypsy and classic femme fatale, has given us some of the most memorable songs in the repertoire, including the seducive "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (also known as the Habanera) and "Votre toast je peux vous le rendre" (better known as the Toreador song). The opera was also remarkable for taking place among common soldiers, farmers, and thieves instead of the royal, mythic, or aristocratic world that was considered the proper subject for opera.

10. La Boheme, 1896, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

As composers like Bizet started to mine the worlds of the marginalized classes for their stories, a new movement in opera was born that we call verismo (Italian for "realism"). The term is of course misleading as there is nothing remotely realistic about either the highly artificial operatic form or its melodramatic plots, but the verismo movement offered the spectator the thrill of experiencing the seemier side of existence in a safe environment and took pride in taking stories from the back pages of the newspapers.

In Italian verismo, nobody made a bigger impact than Puccini. Often reviled by opera snobs for his melodramatic plots and music engineered to pull heart-strings, he is nevertheless one of the most popular of all opera composers, with staples like Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and Turandot (1926) showing up regularly on opera house schedules. His most well-known and perhaps finest work is the tale of young starving artists trying to survive while following their dreams and falling in and out of love in Paris. The closing number of the first act of La Boheme is an instructive example of how opera is supposed to work. We watch the characters Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love within minutes of meeting each other, the bond expressed in a lovely duet. Normally it might be difficult to accept such a speedy alignment of two people's souls, but the music is so utterly ravishing that it manages to convince us as we willingly give in to the irresistible appeal of being young and in love.

11. Der Rosenkavalier, (The Rose Cavalier), 1911, Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

With the close of the nineteenth century came the end of the golden age of opera, and Puccini was one of the last artisans of an essentially dying art. Opera as a genre certainly did not cease to exist, but in the twentieth century it would take forms that would have been unrecognizable to Rossini, Verdi, or Wagner. To write an opera in the traditional grand or buffa mold in the twentieth century would become a self-conscious act that could hardly avoid touching on parody. Igor Stravinsky would take this type of neoclassicism to great heights in The Rake's Progress in 1951, but before him came a curious work from an unexpected source.

Richard Strauss (no relation to the Viennese Strauss family) began his career as a follower of Wagner, and his early operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) managed to take Wagner's later experiments to the next level, though not to the level that Alban Berg, whom we will meet soon, would take them. Yet he also proved himself a fine composer of lush, lyrical music, and his story of the rose knight accomplished something quite grand—a send-up of the conventions and music of traditional opera buffa that is also, simultaneously, an exquisite example of the form at its best. Somehow, the jagged style of Strauss's early operas is tempered to blend easily with more traditional waltz rhythms (which are also, however, altered for parodic effect), and moments of poignancy such as the Marschallin's sorrowful aria "Da geht er hin" in the first act bring an expressiveness to a very standard plot. Even the Italian singer's aria "Di rigori armato," written as parody, serves as a wonderful example of the art of aria.

12. Kátya Kabanová, 1921, Leoš Janácek (1854-1928)

It is true that the international opera scene is chauvinistic when it comes to languages. For many decades, Italian and French were considered the only proper languages for opera, and German and Russian managed to squeeze in only after much resistance. Of course, operas have been produced in all of the primary European languages, but it would be very rare to see an opera sung in, say, Dutch outside of the borders of the Netherlands. Yet with the early twentieth century came an interest in nationalist music, that which reflected the folk traditions of a nation, and some operas in that mode managed to get into the repertoire. Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (1918), in Hungarian, is one of my personal favorites. But the national opera that made the most impact in this period was Czech opera, which first gained prominence with The Bartered Bride (1870) by Bedrich Smetana. Antonín Dvorák's Rusalka (1901) is another favorite. However, the Czech composer with the most enduring operatic legacy is Janácek.

Janácek's most important musical compositions were produced after he started to use Czech folk music and adapted melody to the distinctive rhythms of the Czech language. In Kátya Kabanová, the tragic tale of the title character's doomed love is told with a constantly dynamic musical accompaniment composed of short phrases built into a complex and expressive texture. Much of the music is weaved from two significant motifs announced in the overture: a serene melody associated with the river that figures as an important character in the story, and the brutal music associated with the final tragedy, which recurs at every major crisis in the plot.

13. Wozzeck, 1925, Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Wagner had managed to push the boundaries of music with Tristan und Isolde, but in the twentieth century these frontiers were pressed to extremes that are challenging even for the present-day listener. The principles of atonality, music that is not structured around a tonal center, and serial composition (also called twelve-tone), the structuring of melody around rows consisting of each note from the chromatic scale, were used to create a harsh, dissonant, and frequently startling musical language, particularly by the members of the Second Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his two most prominent pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Schoenberg himself wrote the fantastic Moses und Aron (1954), but his one opera hasn't achieved the fame of the best-known work by his student Berg.

I find Berg's Wozzeck to be one of the ugliest statements in opera, which I say with the utmost of praise. The atonal music is ideally suited to the story—based on a play by Georg Büchner written in the early nineteenth century but very much ahead of its time—of a simpleton soldier who undergoes daily indignation at the hands of his superiors and his prostitute girlfriend until he finally snaps. To give the music a solid sense of order, Berg employed leitmotifs and traditional forms such as passacaglia, rondo, fugue, and an ingenious series of thematic variations. Uncomprising in its brutality, fragmented, and explicitly critical of the mechanization of military order, Wozzeck could only have followed a war that shattered the consciousness of the continent and irrevocably changed all art.

14. Porgy and Bess, 1935, George Gershwin (1898-1937)

I have to tried to emphasize that whether it's called Singspiel, opéra comique, or operetta, musical theatre developed as sort of a less erudite but more fun-loving younger brother of opera throughout its history. Musical theatre had been written in the English language for a long time, one of the earliest notable examples being John Gay's ballad opera The Beggar's Opera (1728) (later reworked by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht as the masterful Threepenny Opera in 1928). English light opera became very popular in the hands of lyricist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan in the later years of the nineteenth century. A line can be easily traced from their works through the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim and right up to the current hits that attract audiences to Broadway. Generally, musical theatre employs less sophisticated lyrics and music that is more akin to pop than to classical. Frequently, the distinction is less clear, and the line is often drawn by individual opera companies. For example, the New York City Opera has shown Gilbert and Sullivan as well as Sondheim, but the Metropolitan Opera does not these days. One of those works that defy categorization is Gershwin's masterpiece.

For Porgy and Bess Gershwin deliberately wanted to write a work structured like a European opera that drew on the tradition of musical theatre and would be shown on Broadway. I am willing to take a stand and call Porgy and Bess an opera, but more importantly, it is one of the most distinctly American of all operas, employing the rhythms and melodies of uniquely American music. Moreover, the songs were specifically written for the inflections of African-American speech; indeed, license to perform the work in the United States requires an all-African-American cast. Gershwin manages to blend together recitative, arias, complex ensembles, spirituals, work songs, and street vendor chants and somehow makes them all work together. It should be noted, however, that the work is still controversial in the African-American community.

15. The Death of Klinghoffer, 1991, John Adams (1947- )

I have put off asking the inevitable question for as long as I could, but now it seems I have no choice: Is opera dead? Certainly one could conclude that by examining the season schedules of the leading opera houses and finding that the vast majority of productions are by long-deceased composers. In this view, a visit to the opera house is like a trip to a museum: a glimpse at the aesthetic values and obsessions of past centuries. If someone espousing this view notes the presence of world premieres at some of the biggest opera houses, it is only to point out how badly received, both critically and popularly, contemporary operas are. However, I would pose a contrary view and mention that the vast majority of operas that made it to the stage in any era failed to establish themselves in the repertoire, so it is hardly surprising if most of today's new operas don't outlast a season. Occasionally, a work comes along that does seem to have a lasting appeal.

John Adams is one of the few contemporary composers to attain some success in the opera field. His earlier stage works, Klinghoffer and Nixon in China (1987) received critical acclaim, and his most recent opera, Doctor Atomic (2005), opened in San Francisco to decent reviews. Klinghoffer was taken straight from recent headlines, the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by terrorists and the murder of passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Opera has always been effective at adapting music trends for its own ends—as evidenced by the use of atonality in Wozzeck—and in this case Adams uses minimalism to create hypnotic effects that contrast disturbingly with the immediate, brutal narrative. I was lucky enough to see a production of the work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but if you can't see it live an excellent filmed version is available on DVD. Whether in a hundred years Klinghoffer or any other operas of the last twenty-five years will still be performed or if our age will be remembered as a low-point for opera is impossible to say. But I will contend that if you genuinely believe in opera you should take a chance on some of these world premieres and support living composers who have taken on the enormous challenges of bringing a work to the stage. Otherwise, opera truly is dead.

An Extra Five

I can't resist giving a brief mention to five other works that nearly made it to the list above and dropped off only because they don't quite fit my narrative. They are all, however, wonderful and unique works that are well worth seeing.

16. Norma, 1831, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

Most of the memorable operas from the Bel Canto era were the opera buffa works of Donizetti and Rossini, and the works of Bellini are sometimes unfortunately sidelined. However, Bellini wrote some of the finest works of the period, and the most noted of all is this tragic tale taking place among druids and Romans in a Britain of legend. Norma's coloratura (an Italian word signifying highly ornate and embellished vocals) aria "Casta diva" is justly considered one of the finest ever written.

17. Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), 1890, Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Pagliacci, 1892, Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)

It may seem like I'm cheating by including two operas under one entry, but only partly so as since 1894 these two one-act dramas have been frequently presented as a double feature. Both are excellent examples of Italian verismo. Cavalleria tells of jealousy, a challenge, and a duel to the death in a provincial Italian village. Pagliacci is the iconic tale of the tragic clown, an emblem of opera as familiar to popular culture as the horn-helmeted Wagnerian soprano. Canio the clown's lament, "Vesti la giubba," a biting melody backed by heart-rending violins, is one of the most well-known and perfect verismo arias.

18. Pelléas and Mélisande, 1902, Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Debussy, whose music is generally categorized as impressionist, was an innovator whose one opera was a reaction to what he saw as the excesses of Wagner and the romantics. Instead of striving for dramatic, bold expression, the haunting music, much of it crafted from whole tone scales, sets moods and delineates subtle emotional states. It is really unlike any other opera ever written.

19. Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo Uyezda (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District), 1934, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

One of Shostakovich's unique achievements was writing personal and expressive music at a time when he could have easily been sent to the gulag under Stalin's totalitarian regime. Indeed, his version of the Macbeth story resulted in a narrow brush with the authorities. The unconventional and masterful use of dissonant melodies contrasting with lyrical, soft-toned arias is ideally suited to the tale of a murderess who is nevertheless somewhat of a sympathetic character.

20. Peter Grimes, 1945, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

I have unfairly neglected English opera so far in this list, and I wouldn't want to leave the impression that the best that came out of the "sceptred isle" was Gilbert and Sullivan. Set in a fishing village and focusing on a titular character who is neither heroic nor beyond redemption, Britten's most famous work is a striking account of the outcast's relationship with society.

Last update for this page: 12 August 2006