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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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Which leads to the next question: what is the standard repertory? Aida, Barber, Carmen , and so on down the alphabet, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen?

Yes and no. The standard repertory—the list of operas most often, most regularly, and most universally performed—changes more over time than many people think. In any decade, the Top 40—or 50 or 100—operas in the world


repertory may appear to be cemented in place with incredible fixity, which is one of the many things about opera its detractors pretend to dislike. Of course, the world's leading symphony orchestras and chamber music groups draw heavily from a common stock of old music as well. Repertory theatres the world over continue to perform the same "classic" plays. But the conservative tastes of the world of opera, it is presumed, far outrun either of these. The caricature of the complacent operagoer is that of someone who never grows beyond Aida-Barber-Carmen, who goes on tapping his toes and hurling his bravos at Fausts and Lohengrins and Lucias and Toscas long after he should have moved on to better things.

In the calendar years 1988 and 1989, professional companies in the fifty-five cities to which I referred offered eleven operas at least 200 times each: The Barber of Seville, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro, La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus , and La traviata . With the exception of Così and The Magic Flute , one would probably have found these same titles in the standard repertory fifty years ago. So the charge of dug-in conservatism in the opera world might appear to be justified.

But if you cast your net wider and deeper, to include all 252 professional opera companies and festivals whose schedules are reported in Opera magazine, a list of the 100 works they perform most often takes on considerable interest. The special tastes of all those German companies become more evident, including their taste for mixing operettas and American musicals in with "proper" operas. The worldwide penchant for lighter, more singable, and more salable works interspersed with the heavier classics gives to the present-day operatic Hit Parade considerable heterogeneity—one more thing that makes it difficult to discuss the phenomenon called "opera" in any logical, univocal way. Admired works that are difficult to cast, such as Tristan and Norma , end up far below the frothy light operas and tired Victorian war-horses (Faust, Adriana Lecouvreur ) that many critics would be happy to see retired from the lists for all time.

What follows is a list of the 100 works most often performed by professional opera companies and festivals around the world in the calendar years 1988 and 1989, compiled by means of an arbitrary (and inherently flawed) tallying process. The titles I give first—which are the titles I'll be using throughout this book—are those colloquially used in the United States and Britain. Sometimes we tend to translate (The Flying Dutchman, The Marriage of Figaro ); other times (Die Fledermaus, Così fan tutte ) we don't.[6]


1. The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro ) (Mozart, 1786)

2. Tosca (Puccini, 1900)

3. Don Giovanni (Mozart, 1787)

4. The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia ) (Rossini, 1816)

5. La Bohème (Puccini, 1896)

6. La traviata (Verdi, 1853)

7. The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte ) (Mozart, 1791)

8. Così fan tutte (Mozart, 1790)

9. Madame Butterfly (Puccini, 1904)

10. Rigoletto (Verdi, 1851)

11. Carmen (Bizet, 1875)

12.*Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss, Jr., 1874)

13. The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführunq aus dem Serail ) (Mozart, 1782)

14. Fidelio (Beethoven, 1805/1814)

15. Aida (Verdi, 1871)

16. The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer ) (Wagner, 1843)

17. Salome (R. Strauss, 1905)

18. Un ballo in maschera (Verdi, 1859)

19. The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d'Hoffmann ) (Offenbach, 1881)

20. Turandot (Puccini, 1926)

21.*The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe ) (Lehár, 1905)

22. Falstaff (Verdi, 1893)

23. Der Rosenkavalier (R. Strauss, 1911)

24. Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel ) (Humperdinck, 1893)

25. L'elisir d'amore (Donizetti, 1832)

26. Ariadne auf Naxos (R. Strauss, 1912)

27. Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1833)

28. Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky, 1879)

29. Faust (Gounod, 1859)

30. Otello (Verdi, 1887)

31. Il trovatore (Verdi, 1853)

32. Die Walküre (Wagner, 1870)

33. Parsifal (Wagner, 1882)


34. Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni, 1890)

35. I pagliacci (Leoncavallo, 1892)

36. Don Carlos (Verdi, 1867/1884)

37. Don Pasquale (Donizetti, 1843)

38. Marion (Massenet, 1884)

39. Lohengrin (Wagner, 1850)

40. Das Rheingold (Wagner, 1869)

41. Nabucco (Verdi, 1842)

42. Der Freischütz (Weber, 1821)

43. Cenerentola (Rossini, 1817)

44. Elektra (R. Strauss, 1909)

45. La clemenza di Tito (Mozart, 1791)

46. Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck, 1762)

47. Andrea Chenier (Giordano, 1896)

48. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wagner, 1868)

49.*Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers ) (Offenbach, 1858)

50. The Bartered Bride (Smetana, 1866)

51. Götterdämmerung (Wagner, 1876)

52. Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky, 1874, with later revisions and editions)

53. Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea, 1904)

54. Tannhäuser (Wagner, 1845/1861)

55. Kátya Kabanová ( Janácek[*] , 1921)

56. Werther (Massenet, 1892)

57. La forza del destino (Verdi, 1862/1869)

58. Simon Boccanegra (Verdi, 1857/1881)

59. The Daughter of the Regiment (La Fille du regiment ) (Donizetti, 1840)

60. Wozzeck (Berg, 1925)

61. Macbeth (Verdi, 1847)

62. Siegfried (Wagner, 1876)

63.*La Vie parisienne (Offenbach, 1866)

64. The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky, 1890)

65. Zar und Zimmermann (Lortzing, 1837)

66. Jenufa[*] ( Janácek[*] , 1904)


67. Mefistofele (Boito, 1868/1875)

68.*The Mikado (Sullivan, 1885)

69.*The Gypsy Princess (Csárdásfürstin ) (Kálmán, 1915)

70. The Pearl Fishers (Les Pêcheurs des perles ) (Bizet, 1863)

71. L'incoronazione di Poppea (Monteverdi, 1642)

72. Manon Lescaut (Puccini, 1893)

73. Idomeneo (Mozart, 1781)

74. L'italiana in Algeria (Rossini, 1813)

75. Tristan und Isolde (Wagner, 1865)

76. Die Frau ohne Schatten (R. Strauss, 1919)

77. Giulio Cesare (Handel, 1724)

78.*West Side Story (Bernstein, 1957)

79. Arabella (R. Strauss, 1933)

80.*La belle Hélène (Offenbach, 1864)

81.*My Fair Lady (Lerner, 1956)

82. Gianni Schicchi (Puccini, 1918)

83. Norma (Bellini, 1831)

84. Peter Grimes (Britten, 1945)

85. Bluebeard's Castle (Bartók, 1911)

86. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor ) (Nicolai, 1849)

87. La finta giardiniera (Mozart, 1775)

88. The Turn of the Screw (Britten, 1954)

89.*La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein (Offenbach, 1867)

90.*A Night in Venice (Eine Nacht in Venedig ) (J. Strauss, Jr., 1883)

91. Albert Herring (Britten, 1947)

92. Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy, 1902)

93. Thaïs (Massenet, 1894)

94.*The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns ) (Lehár, 1929)

95. Les Dialogues des Carmélites (Poulenc, 1957)

96. La Gioconda (Ponchielli, 1876)

97. Il signor Bruschino (Rossini, 1813)

98. Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns, 1877)


99. Le comte Ory (Rossini, 1828)

100. La sonnambula (Bellini, 1831)

All sorts of games can be played with statistics, especially statistics you have contrived and collected yourself. But despite its obvious weaknesses and omissions, I believe this list reflects fairly accurately the state of contemporary taste. It also leads me to a few reflections.

1. The operas that head the list seem relatively secure in their positions. The bottom third or quarter, however, will vary considerably from year to year, depending on producers' search for varliety, how long a work has been off the schedule, and the changing preferences of singers and audiences. In trying to fix an image of the current "standard repertory," therefore, one should also take note of the next twenty or so, any one of which may appear on a Top 100 ranking in a different set of seasons.

As of 1990, the runners-up would include Verdi's Luisa Miller , Auber's Fra Diavolo , Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel , Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk , Jerry Bock's Fiddler on the Roof (called Anatevka in Germany, where it remains a repertory staple), Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream , Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress , Carl Millöcker's Der Bettelstudent (but only in Germany), Puccini's Il tabarro and La rondine ,  Janácek[*] 's The Makropolous Case and The Cunning Little Vixen , Richard Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau , Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto , Weber's Oberon , Borodin's Prince Igor , Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina , Donizetti's Viva la mamma (as his farce Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali is popularly retitled), Cherubini's Médée (or Medea), Gershwin's Porgy and Bess , Purcell's Dido and Aeneas ,  Dvorák's[*] Rusalka , Lehár's Der Zarewitsch , Gounod's Romeo et Juliette , and two or three other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

2. An obvious conservatism is evidenced by the staying power of a great many old favorites, from Tosca to La sonnambula , which should be no more surprising than the durability of Ravel's Boléro and Tchaikovsky's Pathétique on orchestral rosters. The estimate, made by Meirion and Susie Harries in their useful book Opera Today , that two thirds of the "international standard repertory" is made up of nineteenth-century works, is borne out exactly: sixty-six out of these one hundred date from the nineteenth century, as against twenty-four from this century (not all of them "modern," of course), nine from the eighteenth (seven


Mozart, one Gluck, and one Handel), and one from the seventeenth, Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea .

3. More interesting to me than the "conservatism" of this list are its variety (opera today clearly means a great many things) and the vitality displayed by its changes over time. Despite the durability of many "war-horse" works, such a list of favorite operas would have been remarkably different fifty, thirty, even twenty years ago—as I think I can demonstrate.

My old copy of The Victor Book of the Opera (published sometime in the late 1930s) describes and illustrates 106 operas in greater or less detail, greater in the case of anything by Wagner (the Ring gets 47 pages; Die Meistersinger and Parsifal , 14 each) and other Golden Horseshoe hits—Aida, Barber, Bohème, Boris, Butterfly, Carmen, Cav and Pag, Faust, Figaro, Gioconda, Giovanni, Lucia, Martha, Mignon, Otello, Rigoletto, Tosca, Traviata; lesser for everything else. The selections are skewed somewhat by the Victor Company's desire to sell records (selections available are noted throughout the text) and by the author's tendency to take the Metropolitan Opera of New York as the international norm. But it's still, I think, a fair index of "the opera world" of just over half a century ago.

The 106 works described in the book include four American operas written between 1927 and 1937, all of which have effectively disappeared. Operetta is in general excluded, although the author, Charles O'Connell, describes eleven Victor-recorded Gilbert and Sullivan standards, perhaps at the request of his sponsor. The remaining ninety-one operas include nine once-popular French works by Meyerbeer, Massenet, and Halévy rarely revived even in France anymore (L'Africaine, Dinorah, Hérodiade, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, Robert le diable, Le Cid, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, La Juive ); and operas such as Balfe's The Bohemian Girl , Rimsky-Korsakov's Coq d'or and Sadko , Weber's Euryanthe , Thomas's Hamlet , Wolf-Ferrari's The Jewels of the Madonna , Delibes's Lakme , Montemezzi's The Love for Three Kings , and Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila that most of us cannot expect to see produced. (I've caught four of them so far.) None of these is among the Top 100 of 1988–1989.

4. An even more telling proof of the vitality and mutability of the standard opera repertory is the fact that in the 106 operas described in the Victor Book , one will not find thirty operas—all first produced before 1935—that are among the Top 100 today. Operas returned or risen to favor since the 1930S include five by Mozart (Così was first performed professionally in the United States in 1922, Idomeneo in 1951, Tito in


1952), four by Strauss, two by  Janácek[*] (see "The  Janácek[*] Boom," in the essays that follow), and long-ignored early Verdi operas like Macheth and Nabucco .

A comparable measure of changing tastes is provided by a recently published list of the works most often broadcast or telecast by the Met in the years between 1940 (when its broadcasts began) and 1990. All but one of their Top 50 (the missing title is Gounod's Romeo et Juliette ) are among my current Top 100; but the difference in rankings is marked. Works such as Figaro, Così, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, Fidelio , and Turandot rank much higher today than they did over the Metropolitan's half-century of broadcasts. A great many others show up in the 1988–1989 list at far lower places worldwide than on the Met's list, which may indicate changing tastes over fifty years, the basic conservatism of the Metropolitan Opera, and the entry or reentry of many works into the worldwide lists in recent years. As "standards" such as Aida, Norma, Samson, Cav and Pag, Faust, Tristan, Manon Lescaut, La gioconda, Tannhäuser , and Lucia have fallen in the ranks, new favorites such as Ariadne, Cenerentola, Elektra, Der Freischütz, Manon, Nabucco, Eugene Onegin , Gluck's Orfeo , and Mozart's Seraglio (none of which figured in the Met's half-century favorites) have risen to take their places.

Most noteworthy among these changes is the rise to clear current dominion by Mozart, a phenomenon that has taken place largely in our own lifetime. Between the bicentennial celebrations of his birth and death (1956–1991), Mozart has moved to the number one rank among opera composers in terms of productions and performances; his works now hold four of the top eight positions. The astonishing climb to favor of Così only began at Glyndcbourne in the 1930s. But I would guess that the most fervent Mozartean at Glyndeboume fifty, even twenty years ago could never have predicted that La Clemenza di Tito would have ended up more internationally popular among producers and operagoers than Die Meistersinger or Forza, Idomeneo more popular than Tristan; or the eighteen-year-old Mozart's La finta giardiniera , of all things, ahead of La Gioconda and Samson et Dalila .

5. Other messages of interest one might draw from the current standard repertory listings include the general acceptance of Handel, Monteverdi, Gluck, and, of course, Richard Strauss; and the entry of Britten, Berg,  Janácek[*] , and Bartók into so many regular seasons, year after year. And yet chroniclers of opera as an institution, like Herbert Lindenberger, continue to insist that "the commercially viable operatic repertory today [1984] has not grown within living memory."


6. In some ways, almost as interesting to me as the rise and fall of the leaders are the two hundred or more other operas that are now professionally performed every year. As Andrew Porter points out in the fortieth anniversary issue of Opera magazine (February 1990), the repertoire at almost all serious opera companies, large and small, has expanded astonishingly since World War II. Whether you live in or visit one of the great opera cities, have near to hand a company that offers no more than a handful of works, or vacation in any one of a dozen or more festival venues, you can be fairly certain of hearing works, new and old, that your parents and grandparents could never have heard—and this does not take into account the immensely extended repertory available now on record and tape.

In the article just mentioned, Porter laments the lack of public interest in new operas (actually this seems to vary considerably from place to place). But he is positively rapturous about the rise to visibility, even to fame, of so many forgotten operas of the past: operas by Monteverdi, Handel, Rameau ("I have seen six Rameau operas staged," Porter announces with obvious pleasure), Gluck, Mozart, Verdi,  Janácek[*] —all operas "that my grandfather had no chance of seeing." But Porter is also pleased to have been able to see and hear little-known Mascagnis and Donizettis, long-retired bel canto showcases of Rossini and Bellini, even an occasional glimpse of the long-maligned, all-but-forgotten grand operas of Massenet and Meyerbeer.

Peter Conrad wrote in 1987 that "the operatic canon is closed, our attitude to the art necessarily retrospective." But in the summer of 1990, I was able to see the American premières of both Nicolò Jommelli's La schiava liberata of 1768 and Aribert Reimann's The Ghost Sonata of 1984, virtually without leaving home. In the two years before that, traveling no farther than my home state and a nearby summer festival, I saw for the first time Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel , Vivaldi's Orlando furioso , Cavalli's Ormindo , Massenet's Cherubin , Philip Glass's Satyagraha , Handel's Giustino , and Penderecki's The Black Mask —along with my now standard fare of operas such as Lulu, Idomeneo, L'Africaine, Tancredi, Mefistofele , and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk .

Summer opera festivals in cities like St. Louis, Santa Fe, and Wexford (Ireland) regularly offer new or little-known older works. In 1990–1991, the English National Opera offered, apart from three bicentennial Mozarts, nothing but twentieth-century works—a total of nineteen, including nine new productions, one a world première. (The list, admittedly, included three Puccinis.) For better and worse, the "standard repertoire" of opera has never been larger or more diverse.


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