The Column: Five Great Modern Operas That the New York Times Music Staff Missed!

By James Inverne on Jan 07, 2014 01:46 AM EST

The New York Times has published an interesting piece, their classical music writers giving their thumbs-ups to the modern operas they consider the most likely candidates for perennial popularity. Which, in opera terms, means at least a production every year or two, somewhere, we'd guess.

Among their choices were some fine works but, perhaps inevitably, the list felt incomplete. It was bound to, and there's the fun.

The Times writers picked, among many other works, Thomas Adès' The Tempest (no argument there from me, the opera is a miracle of dark beauty and drama), record-breaking Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur--come to think of it, Brits do rather well in this list, with Judith Weir, George Benjamin, the warning Peter Maxwell Davies and, as per Anna Nicole, Mark-Anthony Turnage also accounted for--along with Kaija Saariaho's intoxicating L'Amour de Loin.

Steve Smith, the Times writer perhaps most immersed in the world of new music, goes for some eclectic and unexpected choices. David T. Little's Dog Days gets his vote, as does Robert Ashley's Perfect Lives, neither of them in many people's lists of usual suspects.

There are more, and I do urge you to read the article. There are truly great operas being written. More people need to see and hear them, and this is as good a guide as any (for all that I disagree with one or two, not least John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, a work I don't get on with on various levels--unlike Adams' superb Nixon in China).

Except that I'd also add a supplementary. Everyone will have their own ideas of what should have been in there but wasn't, and I see no reason to withhold mine.

So, bursting from me in a passionate fit of uncontrolled enthusiasm, here are five more operas (Classicalite's Five Best, as it were) that I think we'll hear from again, many times over...

Jerry Springer: The Opera

Yes, it is an opera, from it's first hushed chorus of "Jerry Eleison" through to its cod-salvation ending. And you know what? This mixing of the dregs of society and the heightened stylization of the operatic form gives the characters a certain dignity. By the end, it's even moving. But still very, very funny. And there's even a wonderful, complete live performance on DVD (be warned though, to say the language is adult is the understatement of the decade).


Why does Turnage's Anna Nicole make the list but not his incendiary first opera, from Steven Berkoff's play? A modern classic, complete with rap and swearing.

The Silver Tassie 

I am an unashamed Turnage fan and this anti-war opera is perhaps his masterpiece (actually, I'd put both this and Greek ahead of the fine Anna Nicole). A blistering, grand story of how war can eat people up inside and out, its U.S. premiere was scuppered by the Iraq war.


Osvaldo Golijov's finest hour (so far). Is the Argentinian-born composer's Lorca-infused work, almost violent in its ramming up of wonderful ideas, an opera? A song cycle? Both? Something else? Opera for me, and I can't believe, even when the incredible Dawn Upshaw is no longer singing it, that it won't be an abiding favorite of the future.

A Streetcar Named Desire 

André Previn's 1995 opera was much hyped when first performed and lived up to that hype. It tends to get forgotten for some reason when people talk about hit modern operas but has already been performed in well over a dozen places in the U.S. and abroad. And there's the fine recording with Renée Fleming. Its great strength is its theatricality, and you can feel in every bar Previn's upbringing in movie scores as much as his subsequent mastery of the classical masterpieces.

And my least favorite modern opera? It would be impolite to say (ahem, Gadaffi: The Opera, cough!).

A shame by the way that the newspaper set 1976 as its benchmark for when "modern opera" starts (the year that Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach was premiered), because that means we cannot count 1970's magnificent Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd.

But do seek it out!

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TagsThe Column, James Inverne, Andre Previn, New York Times, Renee Fleming, Jerry Springer, A Streetcar Named Desire, Osvaldo Golijov, Turnage, Greek, The Silver Tassie

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