Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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The Standard Repertory’s 140-Year Bracket: Critiques of the Concept on Other Websites

January 24th, 2006

In November, 2005 I posted my description of the Standard Opera Repertory as a group of frequently produced operas, bound in time by Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” and Puccini’s “Turandot”. I was pleased to read the vigorous discussions of this premise that occurred over ensuing weeks on Jonathan’s and Alex’s Wellsung website and Lisa Hirsch’s Iron Tongue of Midnight website. Each discussion brought forth a number of post-Turandot (and occasionally) pre-Nozze operas that were defended as being part of the Standard Repertory.

In arguing against the premise set forth on this website, Lisa set forth her list of post-Turandot works she believed are performed often enough to be considered as Standard Repertory. It is a serious list that I will remark on below:

Berg: Lulu

Britten: Billy Budd

Britten: Death in Venice

Britten: Midsummer Night’s Dream

Britten: Peter Grimes

Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtensk

Strauss, R: Arabella

Strauss, R: Capriccio

Stravinsky: Rake’s Progress

I am not prepared to concede any opera on the list as meeting my definition of the Standard Repertory, although in my original essay, I argued the possibility that “Billy Budd” is continuing an ascent in popularity and may be the leading contender of the post-Turandot works to take a place in the Standard list.

[Jon Vickers in the title role of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”; resized image of a historical photograph.]

But Lisa’s list is an interesting one. 50 years ago, not a single one of the operas on Lisa’s list had been performed by the San Francisco Opera — to take the example of a major company whose productions I attend regularly. Since then, I have seen every opera on the list in performance at San Francisco Opera during its regular season. And, furthermore, every opera, except “Death in Venice”, has had at least two different regular season productions over the past 50 years. On the other hand, “Death in Venice” (unlike the rest of operas on the list) had been produced in two separate years in San Francisco’s budget-priced Spring Opera, prior to its regular season premiere.

Therefore, if one proposed a definition that inclusion in the Standard Repertory requires at least two different productions of an opera over a period of time (say, the past 50 years) at a major opera house, Lisa’s list would work very well.

I back-tested this tentative definition (two productions in 50 years at the same house) on what I regard as the Standard Repertory and it works for my list also. It also would include pre-Nozze operas: Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”, Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”, and Mozart’s “Idomeneo”. Among post-Turandot operas it would include Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” that many would argue has become standard fare, and also Milhaud’s “Christophe Colomb”, that will have fewer proponents.

Among the pre-Turandot 20th century works it would include three of the Janacek operas (“Makropoulos Case”, “Jenufa” and “Katya Kabanova”), Charpentier’s “Louise” and Berg’s “Wozzeck”. Other Puccini and Richard Strauss works are among the pre-Turandot 20th century list, although most of these are not disputed as being “standard repertory”.

[Below: Kiri Te Kanawa in the title role of Richard Strauss’ “Arabella”; edited image of a Winnie Klotz photograph for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City.]

Over time I plan to discuss each of the operas on Lisa’s list, in the context of the Standard Repertory discussion. Accepting the implicit challenge in her list, as each of these is discussed, a clearer definition of what constitutes the “standard repertory”, and what does not, should emerge.

Tags: 2005-2016 William's Commentaries