Lisa Hirsch asked on Twitter the other day for suggestions for the five most important operas written since 1965 (i.e. in the last fifty years). It’s a really interesting question and I pinged off a quick, semi-considered response. Thinking about it some more I think I would stick with my choices. (Obviously I haven’t seen every eligible opera but it surprises me a bit how many I have seen live or on DVD). So here are my picks:
Aribert Reimann’s Medea. It was a toss up between this and Lear but, for whatever reason, Medea had a bigger emotional impact on me. Uncompromising modernism and tremendous dramatic vitality are the characteristics here. The premiere run sold out in Vienna. I wonder how it would do in North America?
Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur. Also uncompromising musically and dramatically. Violent, visceral and quite hard to watch in places but deeply satisfying on many levels. Although revived at Covent Garden this one hasn’t been seen anywhere else, which surprises me. Birtwistle’s more experimental, non linear, Gawain would be another possibility.
John Adams’ Nixon in China. This is probably, in terms of number of performances and productions, the most successful modern American opera, even if it had to wait over twenty years to be seen at the Met. Unusually it’s a “numbers opera”. Adams has never confined himself to “modernist” notions of music drama and, like Britten, before him, is quite prepared to use older forms to good effect.
Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. Musically less challenging than most of Saariaho’s works, it’s a curiously meditative piece that repays multiple viewing/listenings. It’s had a surprisingly large number of performances for a new opera and, almost uniquely for a European piece, has been seen in two North America houses and is headed for the Met in a new Robert Lepage production.
George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. One of my particular favourites. The music is very fine but it’s probably the libretto that makes this one. The weird violation of time and space just seems right for the operatic treatment. It’s still a very new piece and, I think that although it’s been seen in quite a few places it’s all been the same production. It will be interesting to see what happens when another director has a go at it.
So there you go. No Henze, No Heggie the former surprising me more than the latter though my favourite Henze opera, Boulevard Solitude, falls outside the fifty year window. No Glass either. Not my bag. What have I missed?