Top 10 Opera Composers

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

A beginner's guide tracing the extraordinary development of opera from Monteverdi in the 17th century to Saariaho today, via the masterpieces of Handel, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Britten

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

In 1607 Monteverdi's first opera, Orfeo, was produced in Mantua, followed in 1608 by Arianna. He seems to have been less active after c1629 but he was again in demand as an opera composer on the opening of public opera houses in Venice from 1637. In 1640 Arianna was revived, and in the following two years Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia (lost) and L’incoronazione di Poppea were given first performances. 

Orfeo was the first opera to reveal the potential of this then novel genre; Arianna (of which only the famous Lament survives) may well have been responsible for its survival. Monteverdi’s last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, though transmitted in not wholly reliable sources and including music by other men, is his greatest masterpiece and arguably the finest opera of the century.

Recommended Recording

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Furio Zanasi, Lucile Richardot, Krystian Adam; Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner (SDG)

Gramophone's Recording of the Month (January 2019)

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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel moved to Hanover in 1710 as court musician to the Elector – a prescient decision, as it turned out. After a year he was given leave to go to England, where he wrote an opera (Rinaldo, 1711) which was an astonishing success. Back to Hanover – but London was too tempting and he returned to England and further triumphs. Time passed (two years in fact) and Handel was still absent from the Hanoverian court. When Queen Anne died in 1714, who should succeed her on the throne? None other than Handel’s German employer, the Elector of Hanover.

If George I was displeased at his musician’s cavalier attitude, it didn’t last long, for soon Handel had a royal pension of £400 a year – with an additional £200 from the Princess of Wales – and he was able to embark on a series of operas underwritten by the nobility and cast with the finest European singers. The Royal Academy of Music in London (not the famous music college, which came later) was set up to present Italian opera and the entrepreneurial Handel was made its artistic director. He was, unassailably, the most powerful musician in the land.

By the late 1720s, not long after Handel became a British citizen, public taste for Italian opera waned (the British had discovered John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera to be more accessible and with tunes they already knew). Handel, now quite wealthy from shrewd investment, sank £10,000 of his own money into another Italian opera company and lost the lot.

Faced with bankruptcy and the debtors’ prison, his health broke down (rheumatism set in and he suffered a paralytic stroke), he appears to have had some sort of breakdown and then...changed course. He wrote himself back into financial success and public favour by resurrecting a genre that was relatively unknown in England – the oratorio.

Recommended Recording


Joyce DiDonato, Elsa Benoit, Luca Pisaroni; Il Pomo d'Oro / Maxim Emelyanychev (Erato)

Gramophone Award winner – Opera Category (2020); Editor's Choice (March 2020)

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart raised opera to new heights. Gluck had single-handedly broken away from the ossified, singer-dominated Italian opera and shown in works such as Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) that music must correspond to the mood and style of the piece, colour and complement the stage action; arias should be part of the continuous action and not merely stuck in to display the singer’s vocal talents. Mozart went further and in his four masterpieces The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute revealed more realistic characters, truer emotions (and, of course, incomparably greater music) than anything that had gone before. Here, for the first time, opera reflected the foibles and aspirations of mankind, themes on which the Romantic composers were to dwell at length.

Recommended Recording

The Marriage of Figaro

Simon Keenlyside, Véronique Gens, Patrizia Ciofi; Collegium Vocale Gent, Concerto Köln / René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi)

Gramophone's Recording of the Year (2004); Editor's Choice (May 2004)

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Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

Rossini wrote his first opera, Demetrio e Polibio, in 1808 and this led to his first commission – La cambiale di matrimonio, a one-act opera which in turn prompted further commissions. From here Rossini’s career snowballed rapidly. His first full-length opera, Tancredi, was an enormous success and less than three months later he had an even greater triumph with his comic opera L’italiana in Algeri. By 21 he was famous throughout Italy.

Venice had been the stage for his early work. Rossini then moved on to Naples and temporarily to Rome, where he’d been asked to write an opera for the Teatro Argentina. Desperate for a story, he decided to use Beaumarchais’s play Le barbier de Séville. It was an audacious choice for any composer but Rossini composed the 600 pages of his The Barber of Seville in 13 days (according to Rossini – his biographer says 19). Though he borrowed from some of his previous work, it remains one of the most astonishing feats of sustained, instant musical creation. The premiere was a fiasco but the second performance was a triumph and Il barbiere di Siviglia has continued to delight audiences throughout the world on a regular basis ever since.

Based in Naples, Rossini began an affair with the prima donna Isabella Colbran and continued his triumphant progress with La Cenerentola (1817), Mosè in Egitto (1818), La gazza ladra (1817) and Zelmira (1822). In fact, between 1808 and 1829 he produced no fewer than 40 operas. Now married to Colbran, Rossini moved to Vienna, where he met Beethoven and composed Semiramide (1823), his next big hit. Then on to London, where he was feted by public and royalty alike (George IV sang duets with him) and treated as the greatest living composer. In 1824 he headed for Paris, where he adapted his style to French tastes with Le comte Ory (1828), following it with his grand opera masterpiece, William Tell.

Recommended Recording


Sols; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Opera Rara Chorus / Sir Mark Elder

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Opera Category (2019); Recording of the Month (Awards issue 2018)

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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner had his first taste of success when his opera Rienzi, which he had begun in 1837, was accepted for production at the Dresden Opera. The opera, written in the approved Meyerbeer style, was a complete triumph and made Wagner’s name known throughout Germany. Dresden next offered a production of Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner’s first tentative steps towards a new style of opera. It resulted in complete failure but in February 1843 Wagner was made director of the Dresden Opera. In the following six years he raised the standard of performance there to unprecedented heights in a series of painstakingly produced performances, including, in October 1845, the premiere of his own Tannhäuser. By 1848 he had almost completed a third operatic masterpiece, Lohengrin.

That year was the year of revolution in Europe and its spirit had spread to Saxony by 1849. Wagner sided with the revolutionaries, producing radical pamphlets, making political speeches and sympathising with the rioters. When the revolution came to nothing he was forced to flee Germany and for the next 13 years he lived in exile in Zurich. Here, he formulated his revolutionary ideas about opera and the ‘music of the future’: the concept of ‘music drama’ involving a synthesis of all the arts. The plan that began to occupy his mind was a giant project of four dramas in which all his theories would be realised, an opera cycle called Der Ring des Nibelungen. It took him a quarter of century to complete it.

Meanwhile, Franz Liszt had mounted the world premiere of Lohengrin (Weimar, 1850). Its fabulous success made Wagner the most famous living composer of German opera, though he was unable to attend any performances of his work there. At one time he lamented that he was just about the only German who had never seen a performance of Lohengrin. While working on The Ring, Wagner interrupted his labours with two other music dramas, Tristan und Isolde (1859) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867). The friendship and generosity of a wealthy silk merchant, Otto Wesendonck, allowed him to live in a luxurious villa in Zürich while he was working on The Ring and Tristan. The friendship and generosity were repaid by Wagner having a passionate affair with Otto’s wife, Mathilde. Much of Tristan was written under her influence; she may even have been the inspiration for the work, though it’s just as likely that Wagner fell in love her because he was working on Tristan. Whatever, Tristan und Isolde is one of the most important works of the 19th century and its harmonic innovations exercised an enormous influence on the future of music, paving the way for Mahler and Schoenberg.

Recommended Recording


Peter Hofmann, Dunja Vejzovic, Kurt Moll; Berlin German Opera Chorus, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan (DG)

Gramophone's Recording of the Year (1981)

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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

In 1836 Verdi married Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his patron, but tragedy intervened: their two infant children died and in 1840 his beloved young wife died of encephalitis. During these four years he had completed his first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, and moved to Milan; La Scala mounted the work with some success and Verdi was given a contract to write more for the opera house. He was 27. His last opera, Falstaff, would be mounted at the same theatre in 1893, when he was 80.

Un giorno di regno, a comic opera completed in the face of personal tragedy, was produced in 1840 but was a fiasco. Its failure convinced Verdi he should abandon his operatic ambitions but the impresario Merelli persuaded him to undertake a third work, this time using the biblical subject of Nabucodonosor – or Nebuchadnezzar – later shortened to Nabucco. It was a turning-point in Verdi’s career and also for Italian opera. Here, for the first time, he found his own individual voice (though still much influenced by Rossini and Donizetti); here was the successor to Bellini and Donizetti, and Verdi’s fame spread throughout Italy. His next success, again a historical subject, came with I Lombardi alla prima crociata, followed by another based on Victor Hugo’s drama Ernani. This time the subject was more overtly political, the life of a revolutionary outlaw, and the work was acclaimed.

For the next eight years from 1851, one opera followed another with varying success. During a stay in Paris, where a French production of I Lombardi was being given (renamed Jérusalem), Verdi renewed his acquaintance with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in the original production of Nabucco. After living together for several years, the couple were married in Savoy in 1859. By then, Verdi had written the three masterpieces that were to make him famous throughout the civilised world. The fact is that none of the subsequent operas had come close to the successes of Nabucco and Ernani. Then, using another drama by Victor Hugo, Le roi s’amuse, he composed Rigoletto. Soon every barrel organ in Europe was playing ‘La donna è mobile’, the teasing aria of the lecherous Duke. Neither this number (which Verdi kept under wraps until the dress rehearsal for fear that someone would steal what he knew to be a hit tune!) or, indeed, the whole opera show any sign of diminishing in popularity 160 years later.

Rigoletto alone would have been enough to perpetuate his name as a fine composer of operas and Verdi would have ended up as another Mascagni or Leoncavallo. But to follow that with two more masterpieces (and within the space of a couple of years) and still have some of his greatest works ahead of him guaranteed him a place among the immortals of music. Il trovatore received its first performance in Rome in January 1853; La traviata followed less than two months later in Venice. By the age of 40 he had eclipsed Meyerbeer as the most acclaimed living composer of opera.

Recommended Recording


Erwin Schrott, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk; Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia / Antonio Pappano (Warner Classics)

Gramophone Award winner – Opera Category (2016); Recording of the Month (Awards issue 2015)

Read the review

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

In 1889 Puccini was searching for a good librettist. His next choice was a potential disaster. The subject he had selected was a cheeky and daring one in the circumstances, for Puccini decided on writing an opera based on the same story, Manon Lescaut, as that with which Massenet had had a huge success only a few years earlier (Manon, 1884). The original libretto by Domenico Oliva was entirely rewritten by Puccini and Ricordi with contributions along the way from Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. In the final score of Manon Lescaut, no librettist is credited, a unique curiosity in the annals of opera. Paradoxically, Manon Lescaut provided Puccini with an unprecedented success. It is the work in which he discovered his own musical voice and overnight it made his name internationally famous.

With his next opera, La bohème, Puccini confirmed that prediction, though initial reaction was far cooler than the enthusiastic welcome accorded Manon Lescaut. It was more conversational in style, more grittily real and the orchestral score was more impressionistic. The conductor for the premiere was the young Arturo Toscanini, just beginning to make a name for himself (he recorded the work many years later). Within a short time La bohème had been produced all over the world; it’s still regarded by many as Puccini’s supreme masterpiece.

With fame came wealth and in 1900 he built a fabulous villa in the simple village of Torre del Lago by the lake of Massaciuccoli near Florence – he’d been living in the place since 1892 – and began work on his next project. It was based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 play La Tosca. Using the same team as La bohème (librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa), Puccini completed the work in 1893. Now one of the best-loved of all operas with some of the most famous arias, Tosca divided the critics. Shaw referred to Sardou’s melodramas as ‘Sardoodledom’, describing the original play as ‘a cheap shocker’. The remark was copied 50 years later by the American critic Joseph Kerman when he described Puccini’s opera as ‘that shabby little shocker’.

Four years after the premiere of Tosca came the third of this remarkable trilogy written by the same three men, Madama Butterfly. Puccini once more went to great pains not to repeat himself musically and created an exotic atmosphere for his Japanese setting, using authentic Japanese folk tunes in the score. The first performance was a fiasco orchestrated by Puccini’s rivals, but after many cuts and revisions it was re-presented two months later at Brescia (May 1904), where it triumphed.

Recommended Recording


Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi; Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan / Victor de Sabata (Warner Classics)

Article: Maria Callas – The Tosca Sessions

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Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

The decade from 1887, in which Strauss wrote a succession of tone-poems, made his name throughout the musical word: Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldenleben and Also sprach Zarathustra.

By the turn of the century Strauss was recognised not only among the most important and provocative composers of the time but in the front rank of great conductors. In 1898 he was given one of the most important musical posts in the world – the conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic, which he retained for a dozen years. Using his immense influence he introduced a system by which, for the first time, German composers would receive a royalty from every performance of their work by a major orchestra or opera house.

Concurrent with the tone-poems were his operas. Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901) were failures. (The soprano lead in Guntram was Pauline de Ahna; she married Strauss in September 1894, remaining with him, despite a stormy relationship, until the end of his life, dying only months after him.) In 1900 he met the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a librettist who was to have a profound effect on his career in the theatre. Their collaboration began with Salome, premiered in 1905, followed by Elektra in 1909. These managed to provoke the same hearty opprobrium as the tone-poems: ‘There is a vast deal of ugly music in Salome – music that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a coarse file…’ (New York Tribune). As if by way of concession, Hofmannsthal’s and Strauss’s next venture could not have been more different, evoking the graceful world of 18th-century Vienna in their charming comedy Der Rosenkavalier. It remains among the most cherished of all operas.

Recommended Recording

Der Rosenkavalier

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall; Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan (Warner Classics)

Gramophone Award winner – Remastering (1988)

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Before the end of the war Britten had produced two of his most enduring works, the Ceremony of Carols and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, but it was his opera Peter Grimes that made him internationally famous. This was the result of a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation in America. The resumption of artistic activity after the conflict and the reopening of the Sadler’s Wells theatre made this a keenly anticipated event and produced one of the most memorable first nights in British music. Peter Grimes was hailed as milestone in modern opera.

With only two opera companies established in Britain, Britten founded the English Opera Group. Then in 1948 he, with Eric Crozier and Peter Pears, founded the Aldeburgh Festival, then, as now, an indispensable national flagship of musical excellence. He and Peter Pears had made their base in the Suffolk village and it was remain their home for the rest of their lives together. A string of operas followed Peter Grimes, some with the expected full orchestra, some scored for a mere 12 instruments, facilitating performances and showing the composer to be a master of inventiveness with limited forces. The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Death in Venice (1973) have all, to a lesser or greater degree, established themselves in the repertoires of opera houses the world over.

Recommended Recording

Peter Grimes

Stuart Skelton, Erin Wall, Roderick Williams; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)

Gramophone's Recording of the Year (2021); Recording of the Month (October 2020)

Read the review

Kaija Saariaho (b1952)​

After studying with Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Kaija Saariaho worked for Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg (1981‑82) and attended a computer music course at IRCAM in Paris in 1982. Although much of her output is chamber works, she has turned increasingly to larger forces and broader structures, such as the opera L’amour de loin, premiered at the 2000 Salzburg Festival, and Oltra mar for chorus and orchestra, commissioned by the NYPO. Her second opera, Adriana Mater, was commissioned for the Opéra National de Paris’s 2006 season. Her second string quartet, Terra memoria, was commissioned for the Emerson Quartet by Carnegie Hall. Another opera, Émilie, has the life and death of Émilie du Châtelet as its subject. Only The Sound Remains (2015) combines two operas, both of which are inspired by Noh theatre.

Recommended Recording

L'Amour de loin

Daniel Belcher, Ekaterina Lekhina, Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Rundfunkchor Berlin & Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi)

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Opera category (2010)

Read the review

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