One of the most daunting things for the English-speaking newcomer to opera is the language barrier. It’s unfortunately true that many of us in the UK don’t speak a second language and so operas in French, Italian, German and sometimes even Czech or Russian seem impenetrable.
There are plenty of modern English translations of traditional operas – the English National Opera performs all its operas in English. But it’s arguable that something is lost in translation. So here we’ll look at some operas that were meant to be performed in English.
English opera might not have the same venerable tradition as its continental cousins, but not all English operas are modern. Henry Purcell, writing in the latter half of the 17th century – known as the Baroque period – is considered one of the greatest English composers. His chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, with a libretto by Irish poet Nahum Tate, premiered some time between 1683 and 1688.
Purcell’s only true opera, it is based on Book IV of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid. It recounts the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas, and her despair when he abandons her.
One of the definitive recordings is a 1961 production with Dame Janet Baker as Dido, with music from the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Anthony Lewis. For a completely different take, choreographer Wayne McGregor’s 2009 production fuses music and movement. It’s available on Blu-ray.
We travel forwards in time almost 100 years for our next opera. Artaxerxes was composed by Thomas Arne to an English translation (probably by Arne himself) of a text by Italian poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio. The first English opera seria – an Italian musical term referring to the noble and ‘serious’ style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to about 1770 – it premiered on 2 February 1762 at the Theatre Royal, now better known as the Royal Opera House.
It is loosely based on the life of King Artaxerxes I of Persia, who succeeded his father Xerxes I after the latter’s assassination by Artabanus. It isn’t widely performed today, but a recording of a 2011 Royal Opera House production with South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie in the title role is recommended.
You can’t talk about English-language opera and not mention Gilbert and Sullivan. Writing in the latter half of the 19th century this dramatist/composer duo wrote 14 comic operas together. HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are among the best known and even those who swear they know nothing about opera will recognise at least some of the music. All three are easily found on Amazon; try the remastered D’Oyly Carte Opera Company productions.
It was in the 20th century that English opera really came into its own and today most new operas are written in English – in the Western world at least. The master of 20th century English opera has to be Benjamin Britten. He wrote prolifically and among his most well-known opera are Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw; but one of his best is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Based on the Shakespeare play of the same name, the story is well known and so makes a good introduction to opera. It was first performed on 11 June 1960 as part of that year’s Aldeburgh Festival and has since become one of the most frequently performed operas written since World War II. That very production is available on CD, with British countertenor Alfred Deller in the role of Oberon, the fairy king.
A contemporary of Britten, Michael Tippitt was during his lifetime ranked alongside the former as one of the leading British composers of the 20th century. One of his best-known operas is The Midsummer Marriage, a retelling of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791). Reactions to the opera’s premier at the Royal Opera House in 1955 were mixed, but it has since received several new productions.
A recording of the ROH’s 1970 revival remains the best available. The performance featured Sir Simon Rattle wielding the baton and an all-star cast of British singers.
American opera is in its infancy compared to other traditions, but it has still produced at least one great work. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has given us such standards of American music as ‘Summertime’ and ‘I got plenty O nuttin’. The libretto was written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.
The opera tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black street-beggar living in the slums of Charleston. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer. Premiering in 1935, Porgy and Bess was remarkable for it’s all African-American cast. Despite a luke-warm initial public reception, today it is one of the best-known and most frequently performed operas.
One of the best recordings is of Glyndebourne Festival’s first-ever production of Gershwin’s masterpiece in 1988. Sir Simon Rattle conducts Jamaican-born British bass-baritone Sir Willard White in the title role.
Bringing us up to today is Philip Glass. At 87, this American composer and pianist is still working. He has written numerous operas and musical theatre works, 12 symphonies, 11 concertos, eight string quartets and various other chamber music and film scores.
One of his best-known works is Akknaten, based on the life of the eponymous Egyptian pharaoh, but this is sung in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian. So instead we’ll recommend another ‘portrait’ of a famous figure from history: Einstein on the Beach. This 2012 reissue of a 1978 recording is performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by Michael Riesman.
This isn’t an exhaustive list and it certainly isn’t definitive. But it’s a good start on your journey to discovering English-language operas. Let us know your favourite works in English and the composers who created them.
There’s a great selection of English-language operas out there; this is just a small selection.