Many may think of opera as an old-fashioned art form, but it is certainly alive and well in the twenty-first century. The following four works may be recent additions to the repertoire, but they’ve already demonstrated their ability to engage audiences both with their captivating scores and their compelling, timeless depictions of the human condition—hallmarks of any great opera.
1. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012)
Without a doubt one of today’s most buzzed-about opera composers, George Benjamin’s second opera Written on Skin premiered to widespread critical acclaim, even lauded by some as “the best opera written in the past 20 years” (Renaud Machart in Le Monde July 9th, 2012). The opera’s wild success inspired the Royal Opera House to commission a second work from Benjamin, librettist Martin Crimp, and stage director Katie Mitchell: Lessons in Love and Violence, which premiered in May 2018.
With just a handful of soloists (several of whom play double roles), the opera deftly juxtaposes ancient legends with modern-day concerns. Benjamin has spoken extensively about his creative process, recounting how he became “completely obsessed” for two-and-a-half years, and describing his “overwhelming desire… to captivate people and, just for an hour and a half or so, to make them enter a different world and empathize, perhaps, with what’s going on.”
“The challenge is to make operas sound natural in the twenty-first century—which is not necessarily so easy. It was much more natural in the nineteenth-century, much easier in some ways.” —George Benjamin
2. John Adams’s Doctor Atomic (2005)
Generals, courtesans, kings… historical figures have long served as inspiration for opera composers. The titular Doctor Atomic at the heart of John Adams’s opera is physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the libretto by Peter Sellars—who also serves as stage director in the production below—paints a complex portrait of the man dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb.” Gerald Finley, who debuted the role, described the opera in a 2009 interview with The Guardian as “a Greek tragedy,” with the characters oblivious to the horrible repercussions of their actions, and the audience all too aware of the outcome. Adams has also spoken of a more contemporary inspiration: the sci fi films he watched as a child…
“I was inspired by the science fiction movies of the 1950s, which I watched as a little kid on black-and-white television and remembered how many of these science fiction movies started with some nuclear test in the desert and then some terrible thing happened… And I thought in a way: that really constituted the mythology of our time, that kind of existential angst that the awareness of nuclear war and particularly the kind of fear that I felt as a kid growing up in the ’50s and ’60s.” — John Adams
3. Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain (2014)
Based on a short story by American author Annie Proulx, Charles Wuorinen’s 2014 opera Brokeback Mountain stands in the long tradition of operas inspired by literature. The pair of Pulitzer Prize winners collaborated on the work, with Proulx agreeing to write the libretto—her first foray into the medium—after considerable convincing. A tale of doomed love between two young men in deeply homophobic 1960s Wyoming, both author and composer have described the important role the setting plays in the narrative and in communicating the characters’ emotional development:
“The music of Brokeback Mountain conveys the harsh magnificence of the Mountain where the protagonists first meet. Visiting Annie in Wyoming, seeing the land where the story is set and the characters shaped was invaluable, and it made a deep impression on me. Sometimes the score evokes the icy clarity of the high-altitude freedom the characters enjoy there. But the Mountain also breathes and storms, and the music projects this turbulence as well—especially when it transfers into the interior lives of the characters and their interactions in the human world. — Charles Wuorinen
4. Alma Deutscher’s Cinderella (2016)
Latest in the long line of prodigious young performer-composers, Alma Deutscher’s second opera, composed at the tender age of twelve, earned her critical acclaim and praise from some of classical music’s most respected figures.
“It’s natural for her, it’s play, and I think it was play for certain brilliant young composers, like Mozart, like Korngold. These are very unusual people who have this. There is a sense of phrasing which many people two or three or four times her age would be lucky to have. There is a sense of what the harmony does that seems to be completely inborn to her.” —Sir Simon Rattle
The opera is a re-telling of the Cinderella story with a meta, modern twist: Cinderella is a composer and the Prince—also a poet in this version of the tale—is searching for a lost melody rather than a lost glass slipper. A beacon of light in an often dark and heavy repertoire, this version of Cinderella has certainly struck a chord with fans worldwide: its American premiere (below) was one of our most-viewed operas last year.
Can’t get enough contemporary opera? Check out the full playlist here!