Twentieth-Century Opera

In the early part of the 20th cent. the foremost operatic composer was Richard Strauss. Although influenced by Wagner, he composed operas with even richer and more stunning orchestrations, often using dissonant harmonies and abandoning tonality to emphasize the humor or drama of a scene. Among his most successful operas are Salomé (1905), Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), and the allegorical Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow, 1919).

After World War I a period of innovation began that has continued to the present day. Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu (1937; posthumously completed in 1979) have been the most enduring of early atonal operas. Arnold Schoenberg's serial work (see serial music) Moses and Aaron (unfinished, 1932) had successful revivals in the United States in the 1960s and again in the United States and Germany in the 1980s. George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) is considered the first great American opera, while Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (1938), dealing with the life of the painter Mathias Grünewald, represents the trend of the 1930s toward lavishly staged, moralistic epics.

Operatic composers who emerged after World War II include Gian-Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Alberto Ginastera, Hans Werner Henze, and Dominick Argento. The first two composed in traditional musical idiom, as in Menotti's The Medium (1946), The Consul (1950), and Amahl and the Night Visitors (written for television, 1951) and Barber's Vanessa (1957) and Antony and Cleopatra (1966). Henze's The Young Lord (1965) and Ginastera's Bomarzo (1964) and Beatrix Cenci (1971) are highly innovative and controversial. Argento's operas, including Postcard from Morocco (1971) and The Aspern Papers (1988), are generally musically conservative but often unconventional in other aspects. Operas by the Americans Douglas Moore and Carlisle Floyd use American history, legend, and folk music, as reflected in Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956) and Floyd's Susannah (1955).

The most internationally accepted post–World War II composer of operas was the Englishman Benjamin Britten. His first operatic success was Peter Grimes (1945), followed by The Rape of Lucretia (1946). Britten's other works include Billy Budd (after Melville's story, 1951), The Turn of the Screw (after Henry James's story, 1954), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (after the novella by Thomas Mann, 1973). Britten's operas are cast in traditional musical and dramatic form.

Some late 20th-century avant-garde operas include The Devils of Loudon (1968–69) by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki; Le Grand Macabre (1978) by the Hungarian György Ligeti; Three Sisters (1996) by the Hungarian Peter Eötvös; and Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1980), Akhnaton (1984), The Voyage (1992), and White Raven (1998) by the American Philip Glass. Other operatic works by Americans in the same period include Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) by John Adams; The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) by John Corigliano; and McTeague (1992) and A View from the Bridge (1999) by William Bolcom. Owing to widespread indifference to new works on the part of the opera-going public and most major opera houses, plus the financial burden incurred in staging a new work, many composers in the latter part of the 20th cent. turned to community and college opera workshops to produce their works. However, in the 1990s and 2000s this trend was partly reversed, with younger audiences becoming interested in opera, and more large companies presenting operas by contemporary composers.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Music: Theory, Forms, and Instruments