Following Gyppo Byard’s initiative and further posts by him and No Good Boyo I hereby present my favourite operas. Now, I’m not a massive opera fan: in the realm of classical music I tend to prefer oratorios, lieder and chamber music - or simply banging my head against a wall and shouting “why, why, why!!” in counterpoint - but I do have my favourites. Opera has the reputation of being a most bourgeois and respectable of art forms, so here we go: one by a bloke with a girl’s name, another by a bloke who fancied underage boys, one with a libretto by a gay brother, and one about somebody who shags his mum.
Bluebeard’s Castle (Béla Bartók, 1911)
You must ignore me when I say silly and rude things about Hungarians, for the truth is that I love their music. Bartok does it for me, and I reckon he was a genius. We saw Bluebeard’s Castle in the Hungarian Opera house here – £2 for front row seats, beat that you Covent-Garden-going suckaaas!! – and I was in ecstasy. It only lasts an hour, has only 2 characters, and is rather short on romance. My wife speaks “hospital Hungarian” and could understand a bit, and we’ve had great fun since intoning the “give me the keys” schtick every time we arrive at our front door. Bartok also collected lots of great folk music in the area where I now live and even learned to speak Romanian - so, respect.
Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten, 1945)
I’m glad that Boyo didn’t pick this one as his Britten opera as it’s my flyaway favourite. Most of Benny’s stories seem to be about little-boys-lost who need protection, but I suppose you’ve got to write about what you know. It has the astringency that I crave and yet gallons of “real music” at the same time. It’s also got the salty tang of the sea, especially in evidence in the interludes. Peter Pears is pretty camp in this clip but it’s a good television version of the opera. I saw it in another wonderful staging by the ENO at London’s Colosseum.
Street Scene (Kurt Weill, 1947)
I greatly enjoy the music of Weill and Hans Eisler (with lyrics often by Bertolt Brecht, of course). I know much of it in recordings by singers such as Dagmar Krause, Ute Lemper, Robyn Archer, etc, but this is the only one of their operatic works – apart from a very poor production of The Threepenny Opera - that I’ve seen on the stage. As Street Scene is from Weill's American period it's perhaps atypical, but it's a very pleasing and unassuming piece, not posing or puffed up like many operas that turn me against the genre, but telling stories with poignancy and some excellent jazz-influenced classical music.
Œdipe (George Enescu, 1931)
You’ll think that I chose this because it’s by a Romanian. Welllll... that fact that I’ve heard it is because it’s by a Romanian, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not any good. On the contrary, it’s excellent. Enescu was a real all-rounder: brilliant musician, renowned teacher (of Yehudi Menuhin, famously) and an interesting composer with a very varied range. Œdipe has been described variously as “a forgotten masterpiece”, “the finest musical interpretation of the Oedipus myth” and “of course is good, is by a Romanian!”