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Opera of the Twentieth Century

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Ariadne Auf Naxos [Richard Strauss]
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Opera North production

At the turn of the century verismo operas were all the rage; romanticism was still in full flower. At the more recent turn of the century, it was pretty much "anything goes." During the 20th century operas began to be more about musical tricks, production values, and concept concept concept than about singing -- or great music. Still, we must remember that Puccini, Mascagni, Massenet and their like were still composing well into the 20th century. Strauss was as romantic as they come. Prokofiev came out with gems like "War and Peace." And some of the more "modern" operas have since proved their mettle. On the American front we had "Baby Doe" from Moore and "Susannah" from Floyd, who also did such outstanding works as "Wuthering Heights" and "Of Mice and Men." In other words, the 20th century -- while a bit problematic -- was not exactly a total wasteland when it came to opera. On this page, some notes on notable 20th century works and some photos from notable contemporary productions around the world. Enjoy! [Our thanks to Glimmerglass Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Opera North, Baltimore Opera, Virginia Opera, and the Wexford Opera Festival for some great photos and the permission to use them. Thanks!]

Madama Butterfly [Puccini]
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Baltimore Opera
Tosca [Puccini]
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Virginia Opera

Puccini's masterpiece TOSCA premiered in 1900. He followed up this triumph with MADAMA BUTTERFLY. Puccini also composed IL TRITTICO, LA RONDINE and TURANDOT, his final opera. BUTTERFLY was not initially a success, but after some revisions it became an enduring triumph for Puccini. TURANDOT did not premiere until after Puccini's death. For decades Puccini's operas, with their lustrous melodies and brilliant use of stage technique, were looked down upon by certain critics, a tiresome situation that might finally be ending in the 21st century. Let's hope so. Put plain and simply, Puccini was a genius.

I gioiella della Madonna [Wolf-Ferrari]
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Marie Slorach and chorus at Wexford Opera festival 1981

Il piccolo Marat [Mascagni] Wexford Opera Festival
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Georgi Selesnev, Keith Latham, Karen Notare

In the first two or so decades of the 20th century, verismo operas -- the very first was CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA by Pietro Mascagni  in 1890 -- were still very popular and influential. Two of the finest were I GIOIELLA DELLA MADONNA/JEWELS OF THE MADONNA by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and IL PICCOLO MARAT by Pietro Mascagni. Although set during the French revolution, PICCOLO MARAT's musical style was squarely in the veristic idiom. Pietro Mascagni did several non-verismo operas in the 20th century -- ISABEAU, LODOLETTA -- and became one of the opera world's most under-rated composers. His work is slowly being re-evaluated and increasingly appreciated.

Salome [Richard Strauss]
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Des Moines Metro Opera

In Germany, the heir to Richard Wagner was not his son Siegfried, who was not without talent, but Richard Strauss, who composed such electrifying works as SALOME and ELEKTRA. Strauss could be bombastic and "modern" one minute, and tender, lilting, and "Viennese," the next. DER ROSENKAVALIER seems to be the favorite among opera-goers, but CAPRICCIO and DER LIEBE DER DANAE are, arguably, the more outstanding works, with the latter especially deserving of increased recognition. During his lifetime and afterward, Strauss was slandered as a Nazi or Nazi-sympathizer when in actuality he detested Hitler and adored his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Even had Strauss wanted to leave Germany, he feared reprisals against them, as Hitler considered him a National Treasure.

Dialogues of the Carmelties [Poulenc] Glimmerglass
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Joyce Castle and Maria Kanyova [photo: George Mott]
The rape of Lucretia [Britten] Glimmerglass Opera
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Michele De Young and Nathan Gunn [photo: George Mott]

Although Benjamin Britten had previously come out with PAUL BUNYAN, a kind of musical theater piece, he really burst upon the scene with the opera PETER GRIMES, following it up with such works as THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA, BILLY BUDD, THE TURN OF THE SCREW and DEATH IN VENICE. Britten was not to everyone's taste, with some opera-goers likening his music to film scores instead of operas. In France, Francis Poulenc had a lasting hit with DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES, a bizarre French revolution piece that some find deeply moving and others merely grotesque.

Lizzie Borden [Beeson] Glimmerglass Opera
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Phyllis Pancella [photo: George Mott]
The Mother of Us All [Thomson] Glimmerglass Opera
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Tracy Saliefendic, Joanna Johnston, Ruthann Manley [George Mott]

During the 20th century operas in America and elsewhere began to resemble things -- for better or worse -- that were a far cry from Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. Virgil Thomson's THE MOTHER OF US ALL had some admirers but was essentially a forgettable effort. Jack Beeson's LIZZIE BORDEN was typical of "modern opera" in that there was hardly a tune to be heard. It, too, had its admirers, although it is safe to say that neither work ever became a favorite with serious opera-goers. There were worse -- and better -- things to come.

Regina [Blitzstein]
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Des Moines Metro Opera

Candide [Bernstein]
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Des Moines Metro Opera

During the 20th century, often the more interesting and melodious works were heard not in the opera house, but on Broadway, where Rodgers and Hammerstein had been presenting their own form of American Opera [especially CAROUSEL] since the 1940's. Leonard Bernstein's CANDIDE was an extremely tuneful adaptation of Voltaire's satirical novel, and Marc Blitzstein's REGINA was a fascinating version of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes." Both works teeter-tottered between opera and musical. CANDIDE has been revived numerous times; REGINA also deserves to be.

Of Mice and Men [Floyd] Wexford Opera Festival
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S, Mitten as Conoly and B. Cavanagh as Carlson
Susannah [Floyd]
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Opera North production

One bright spot in 20th century opera was the fact that some modern composers didn't forget that opera was, after all, about singing, and composed honest-to-goodness arias for the singers to perform. One of these composers was Carlisle Floyd, who has had one lasting "hit' with SUSANNAH, but whose true masterpiece may be OF MICE AND MEN or WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Floyd also composed such notable works as COLD SASSY TREE, BILBY'S DOLL and MARKHEIM.

Sweeney Todd [Sondheim]
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Des Moines Metro Opera
The Glass Blowers [Sousa] Glimmerglass Opera
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Vera, Dudley, Lentz, Kanyova, Whitehouse [George Mott]

So 20th century opera runs the gamut from early Americana like John Philip  Sousa's THE GLASS BLOWERS to more modern opera-style Broadway works like Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD -- and everything in-between. it encompasses romantic opera, modern opera, pop opera, Broadway, experimentalism and minimalism. What a shame that as recording techniques became more sophisticated musicians began composing operas that -- so unlike the works of Puccini, Mascagni, Strauss, Floyd and so on -- few people would want to listen to over and over again.
 
Does this whet your appetite? Want to read more about 20th Century Opera? Then click on the photo below and order a copy of William Schoell's brand new OPERA OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: A Passionate Art in Transition  directly from the publisher, McFarland.

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Mailbox, Spinning

Please pardon our appearance as we revamp this web site. A change in format has created some lay out and photo problems which we will correct as soon as possible. Many thanks for your patience. -- The Editors
 
 
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Entire contents copyrighted 2004 - 2005 by William Schoell and Lawrence J. Quirk, except for items written by other authors, in which case said authors retain the copyright of their work . Opinions expressed by individual authors and reviewers are not necessarily the opinions of High and Low NY.