September 17, 2012

Opera statistics and peak age

I stumbled upon operabase.com, which offers a statistics section on the last 104,000 opera performances around the world since the fall of 2007. For example, the most performed opera over the last half a decade is Verdi's La Traviata with 629 performances. Here's the top ten (you can see the top 1,000 most performed operas here):

1it (#1)Verdi (#1)La traviata (629)
2it (#2)Puccini (#1)La bohème (580)
3fr (#1)Bizet (#1)Carmen (573)
4at (#1)Mozart (#1)Die Zauberflöte (571)
5it (#3)Puccini (#2)Tosca (504)
6at (#2)Mozart (#2)Le nozze di Figaro (494)
7it (#4)Puccini (#3)Madama Butterfly (469)
8it (#5)Rossini (#1)Il barbiere di Siviglia (465)
9it (#6)Verdi (#2)Rigoletto (434)
10at (#3)Mozart (#3)Don Giovanni (433)

This is a pretty useful set of objective statistics to use in my favorite hobby of answering questions that weren't asked by the people putting the list together. For example, we can look at peak age for composing an opera, in much the same way that Bill James surprised baseball fans by pointing out that age 27 had been the peak age for ballplayers. Opera composing is a long, grueling exercise often taking years to do, so it's pretty interesting to see what would be the best age for this.

I define human biodiversity to involve not just diversity between people but within a person as well; most notably, age.

Now, one might argue that this list is biased toward merely "popular" operas. For example, Puccini has the #2, #5, and #7 most performed operas, while Mozart's highest ranked operas are only#4, #6 and #10, yet most experts would rank Mozart above Puccini. But, still, even popular operas are awfully elite in appeal. They're all really good in most objective senses to still be performed after all these years.. No doubt there are fine gradations of greatness that don't show up in a popularity chart, but this list is a good one for an objective measurement of age of peak accomplishment at opera composing.

I note that the oldest composer of operas still popular might be Verdi, who premiered #27 Otello at about age 74 and #30 Falstaff at 79. I can't say the youngest off the top of my head.

But, I'm not going to do all the work of crunching the data. If you do, let me know. 

A couple of methodological issues that don't come up with baseball players:

What to do with death? Mozart died at 35, so he didn't compose any top operas after that age. But it seems like death before retirement shouldn't skew the peak age younger.

What to do with how long it takes to write an opera and how long the finished piece can sit around waiting for an opera company to mount it?

Other facts from OperaBase:

The most performed female opera composer is Kaija Saariaho, with 18 performances over the last half decade.

The top living opera composer is Philip Glass with 69 performances.

The top opera cities in terms of numbers of performances are Berlin, Vienna, and London. Americans don't go to much opera. The top U.S. city is New York at #7 in the world, but then there's a long gap to San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, and St. Louis.

66 comments:

Crawfurdmuir said...

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) composed 39 operas before retiring in 1829, aged 37. According to his Wikipedia entry, "by the age of 21, Rossini had established himself as the idol of the Italian opera public." In terms of sheer numbers of operas composed, his is certainly an example of vigor in youth, as was Mozart.

Verdi was a much later bloomer, as was Puccini. I suspect some allowance has to be made for the development of the form between the time of Mozart and Rossini until that of Verdi and Puccini - orchestras became larger, productions longer and more elaborate. The same is seen with symphonies; Haydn wrote more than 100, Mozart 41, Beethoven only 9. Since Beethoven only Mahler (with 10) and Shostakovich (with 15) have exceeded that number.

It's somewhat surprising to see no Wagner operas on the list. It makes me wonder whether the frequency of performances is entirely a gauge of their popularity with audiences. Mounting productions of the most popular Wagner operas is considerably more demanding and expensive than it is for those of Verdi and Mozart. I suspect that Verdi and Mozart may be performed more frequently not just because audiences predictably like them, but also because they are easier for opera companies.

Anonymous said...

What the?? You didn't disparage minorities in this post. I must have read it wrong.

Venerabilis said...

Interesting idea but there are complications with opera. First there is the issue of language. 8 of the 10 operas on that list are generally sung in italian. There is a circular result. Because many great operas are in italian all singers learn italian so it is easier to assemble a cast for an italian opera than, say, a czech one. Consequently the repertoire of smaller opera houses will be biased towards italian operas without that being a statement necessarily of quality or popularity.

Secondly you forget that operas have two creators - composer and librettist. While they are sometimes the same person this is not usual. Brillian librettists are much rarer than brilliant composers. Part of the glory of some of the operas of Mozart and Verdi can be attributed to the work of, respectively, Lorenzo da Ponte and Arrigo Boito. Schubert on the other hand never got a decent libretto an so one of the greatest composers for the human voice never wrote a great operas despite seven attempts.

Steve Sailer said...

"First there is the issue of language."

Right. There are huge issues of path dependency with great composers because the cultural infrastructure is much more expensive than with, say, lyric poets. Thus, most famous orchestral composers are German, or maybe Italian or, now and then, French.

But, my question has to do with age, which doesn't seem to be terribly biased by these issues.

David said...

Age 26 to age 42. Average (all ten): age 35. Puccini's three are all around age 35.

You have to figure that being involved in the staging and/or promotion of an opera is not only stressful but also physically taxing. Despite Verdi's outliers, it seems like a young person's game. As you get older, who wants the hassle? Rossini quit at 38, poked around at a Stabat Mater for the next 12 years, then said vaffanculo (except for some salon pieces).

Anonymous said...

You have to figure that being involved in the staging and/or promotion of an opera is not only stressful but also physically taxing.

This is particularly true of early 19th-century Italian opera, where composers like Bellini and Donizetti were almost literally worked to death.

Anonymous said...

Thus, most famous orchestral composers are German, or maybe Italian or, now and then, French.

I thought that Russians had to be somewhere high in such a list, so I googled. In America, for 2006-2007, the most performed composers:

1 Mozart (425)
2 Beethoven (391)
3 Brahms (270)
4 Tchaikovsky (242)
5 Shostakovich (188)
6 R. Strauss (155)
7 Dvorak (150)
8 Prokofiev (130)
9 Stravinsky (126)
10 Ravel (124)
11 Mendelssohn (117)
12 Haydn (111)
13 Rachmaninoff (109)
14 Sibelius (103)
15 Mahler (101)
16 J.S. Bach (98)
17 Copland (97)
18 Wagner (89)
19 R. Schumann (88)
20 Handel (71)

Five Russians, one French, zero Italians (one Swede/Finn!).

http://www.talkclassical.com/4331-most-performed-composers-2006-a.html

CJ said...

Opera is great. More people would be fans if it got more exposure, and the quality of singing has been improving steadily since I first began attending operas 40 years ago.

Dunno about crunching the numbers, though. Mozart is a special case for several reasons -- because he composed a large amount of outstanding music that wasn't opera, because the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas were pioneering works (the third one, Cosi fan tutte must surely be #11 or #12 on that list), and because he died prematurely at 35, at or near the height of his creative powers.

Bizet likewise is hard to quantify. Commercial success eluded him, which may have contributed to his death at 37. He might well have produced more material that would have been popular today.

Finally, Puccini may score high on that chart because he is actually the most recent of the great opera composers, and thereby perhaps the most accessible to contemporary ears. He was still composing at the time of his death at 66; in fact his last opera Turandot, which must also have just missed your top 10, hd to be completed by another composer.

So, while I like statistical analysis, the "most often performed operas" category may not yield much. Let's just be happy opera still exists in the current Dark Age of art.

Venerabilis said...

I think it does make any statistical analysis of age problematic. Great librettists bring out the best of great composers. Verdi would seem to be evidence that the effect can work into your eighties.

For a career trajectory look at Strauss (Richard that is): early failures then a sucess de scadale with Salome (libretto by himself from the the play by Oscar Wilde). This attracts the notice of respected poet Hugo von Hoffmanstal who becomes his librettits for a series of mostly brilliant operas from Elektra to Arabella, at which point von Hoffmanstal drops dead. Strauss's subsequent operas are generally regarded as inferior - which could be regarded as the effects of age, Strauss being in his 60s. Except that at the age of 78 he writes Capriccio, libretto again by himself, the story having particularly attracted him. Had that not come along our view of the effect of age on Strauss could be different.

Now with a large enough sample the noise the librettist effect produces could be eliminated - but I don't think your sample is going to be big enough.

Robert said...

Bellini died when only 33, thus being shorter-lived even than Mozart was, so that might skew the sample somewhat. The Bellini opera Norma is still frequently heard, and La Sonnambula only slightly less so. Admittedly, few of his other operas (he left a dozen or so) have been performed in living memory, save when a Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland gets the bit between her teeth and insists on reviving them.

The three Donizetti hits - Lucia di Lammermoor, L'Elisir d'Amore, and Don Pasquale - were all written between the composer's mid-30s and his mid-40s. (When only 51, Donizetti died an insane syphilitic.) He must have one of the highest failure-to-success ratios of all time: altogether he left behind 75 operas, at least 65 of which are totally unknown to all but a handful of experts.

Wagner, by the way, was still in his 20s when he finished his first masterpiece, The Flying Dutchman. Another early achiever is someone whom nobody on this thread has mentioned yet: namely Weber, who scored a spectacular success with his opera Der Freischütz before dying of tuberculosis when not yet 40.

Anonymous said...

Boring!

Steve Sailer said...

Yeah, very few baseball players died in their primes. If you go back a century, you have Addie Joss dying after nine seasons (they had to waive the 10-season minimum to admit him to the Hall of Fame) and the slugger who fell off a train drunk and was swept over Niagara Falls. But, it's a big methodological issue for calculating the peak age of opera composers.

Dutch reader said...

I find the low ranking of Italian cities curious. Venice is the highest ranking Italian opera city at #36, well below, for instance, Regensburg, Erfurt and Wroczlaw - hardly places that would immediately spring to mind when talking about opera. Out of the 26 Swiss cities listed, the overwhelming majority are German Swiss, with a couple of French-speaking ones (Geneva, Lausanne) and not a single Italian-speaking one.

In the overall ranking German and German-speaking cities are overwhelmingly dominant.

Re most performed composers of orchestral music: 8 gentile Germans, 5 Russians, 3 Jews (2 German, 1 American); 1 Czech, 1 Frenchman, 1 Finn/Swede.

Anonymous said...

I find the low ranking of Italian cities curious. Venice is the highest ranking Italian opera city at #36, well below, for instance, Regensburg, Erfurt and Wroczlaw - hardly places that would immediately spring to mind when talking about opera.

Yes, I know. My Italian penpal, an intelligent, well-educated woman, informs me that hardly anyone in Rome (her hometown) attends opera. In fact, she doesn't know anyone who even listens to opera. This, in the land that gave birth to opera!

dearieme said...

Thank God there's no bloody Wagner in the top 10.

For anyone curious to watch an opera, there's a fine Zeffirelli film of La Traviata.

For anyone curious just to listen, try Bizet's Carmen and then Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

dearieme said...

Or, or, or ...

Just try a compilation of Rossini opera overtures. Just the thing for roaring down the side an Australian salt lake on a sunny day.

Steve Sailer said...

Yes, Carmen is a good starting point because it's more like a 20th Century American musical, with extremely catchy songs that have a lot of repetition of the hooks the way pop songs do. The 1983 movie of Carmen is good.

Steve Sailer said...

"I find the low ranking of Italian cities curious."

One issue I didn't look into is whether a "performance" is the same thing everywhere. I've been to semi-pro operas and operettas mounted in school auditoriums. Do those count?

Anonymous said...

For anyone curious just to listen, try Bizet's Carmen and then Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

Seconded! My two most favorite operas. I think they top the list for a lot of opera fans.

Robert said...

Monteverdi provides hope for late theatrical bloomers everywhere. He was in his 70s when he wrote two of his best and most renowned operas: Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and L'Incoronazione di Poppea. (These were among the first operas intended for a paying audience; most earlier operas had been strictly for connoisseurs, usually aristocratic.)

Janacek was another late bloomer. Didn't write a single noteworthy stage work before he reached the age of 52 (1906), whereupon he produced Jenufa. All his other operas of consequence were written between his 60th and his 74th years.

At the other chronological extreme, don't forget Purcell, who, like Mozart, Bellini, Weber, and Bizet (as well as - among non-operatic masters - Schubert, Chopin, and Mendelssohn), perished when still in his 30s. Purcell wrote, strictly speaking, only one opera (i.e. only one opera with no spoken words), but it's a little masterpiece: Dido and Aeneas.

dearieme said...

What am I thinking of? Don't forget Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Anonymous said...

The poster who talked about improved singing over the past 40 years had it right, but therein lies a problem for opera's appeal. The more we know about training voices, the later the experts think one is ready for prime time. Most serious opera singers do not debut now until their early 30s, and it usually takes several years for their career to really get underway.

But opera is performance spectacle, and it gets disjointing for even veteran opera goers to keep suspending disbelief and accept a very stolid 49 year old woman as, say, "Anna Bolena". Let alone for opera novices raised on Hollywood hardbodies.

Steve Sailer said...

As an introduction to opera for people who like 20th Century Broadway musicals like West Side Story and Oklahoma:

1. Porgy and Bess
2. Carmen

and then what? Something by Puccini? Which one has the catchiest tunes?

Steve Sailer said...

"Most serious opera singers do not debut now until their early 30s"

That's a really late prime for something so physical, even athletic. It suggests that opera singing really is just about the technically hardest of all the performing arts, just like singers claim.

Anonymous said...

dearieme:"Thank God there's no bloody Wagner in the top 10."

Philistine.

David said...

>and then what? Something by Puccini?<

"Gianni Schicchi" is short, and one of the tunes is probably widely familiar. The plot is easily followed, too.

Anonymous said...

Mozart holds positions #4, #6 and #10. You missed one, Steve.

dearieme said...

By the by, Mr iSteve, Miss McArdle would seem to be a reader of yours.
"So let me suggest a third possibility: being poor is still miserable in America because much of the worst part of being poor is being forced to live in high concentrations of other poor people."

Anonymous said...

I'm frankly amazed that Zauberflote is so high. It's definitely not that popular in the U.S. Forgive me for skimming, but are these numbers weighted in any way to account for national favorites? (IOW, I'm guessing the high number for Zauberflote results from tons of performances in Germany.)

- Opera lover and Steve fan

Anonymous said...

. It suggests that opera singing really is just about the technically hardest of all the performing arts, just like singers claim.

Opera across the board, not just in singing, requires really hard effort. Set designers have to be a cut above their purely theatrical counterparts, since they have to think much more about acoustics and keeping synchronized with the orchestra.

As for the orchestras themselves--wow. There is a reason why, in the United States' capital of high culture (NYC), most experts would rate the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra by itself as superior to the New York Philharmonic that performs just across Lincoln Center Plaza. Even though the latter can spend something like two hours a night doing nothing but strings thrumming a beat.

John Derbyshire said...

I like that list. It's a nice poke in the eye for opera snobs.

Prof. Robert Greenberg, in his 32-lecture Great Courses course on "The Life and Operas of Verdi," does not give over a single lecture to La Traviata. The boring Falstaff gets six and a half lectures.

Anonymous said...

Quick plug for HGO.

The Houston opera company is really quite good. We have enjoyed it quite a bit over the years.

However, I was stunned when I went to Berlin and they had performances every day of the week. They really like opera.

pat said...

I think your stat analysis is bunk.

You claim that opera is composing is a long arduous process. Do you realize that "The Barber" was composed in two weeks. This was not that unusual before musical copyright. Composers only got paid for the first performances. Rossini joked about Cenerentola that he had had plenty of time for this one - he wrote it in three weeks.

Rossini was only the second very very young student admitted to the Bologna Academy. The other one had been Mozart.

Opera composing is not like playing center field. At any one time there will be perhaps a hundred good center-fielders playing pro ball. That's a large enough 'N' for normal statistics to apply. But there were hardly enough lasting opera composers in the whole nineteenth century for one ball team. The numbers are just too small to make group inferences.

BTW I've sung in seven of those top ten operas.

One reason the numbers are so small is that the ability to compose an opera is a very rare gift. For Rossini and Mozart writing an opera was nothing, but fully on third of all the music Schubert ever wrote was opera and not a single one was a hit. Beethoven struggled for years to make "Fidelio"something that could hold the stage. Beethoven wasn't very good at creating vocal melodies but no one wrote more great songs than Schubert. Opera composition ability is very rare.

The stats suggest that the ability to write a successful opera is at least ten times as rare as the ability to write either a novel or a piano concerto. Sabermetrics work in baseball because there are so many stats but opera composing is a history of unique individuals.

Albertosaurus

Mark Caplan said...

Pietro Mascagni wrote Cavalleria rusticana at age 27.

Karen said...

Beginners could do a lot worse than "What's Opera, Doc?". Even Wagner experts like that one.

As for actual operas for novices, other that what has been suggested already, "Aida" is good, as is "La Boheme" and "The Barber of Seville.". Read a plot synopsis first.

Florida resident said...

Dear Mr. Sailer !
I would like to hear the opinion of opera-lover
John Derbyshire;
see also the bootm of the page at

http://johnderbyshire.com/FamilyAlbum/Huntington2012/page.html

"Derbyshire with Anna Netrebko".

Your F.r.

Ed said...

Sometimes Steve will throw out ideas just to generate discussions. As earlier commentators have pointed out, trying to determine when opera composers peak runs into at least two big problems:

1. Small sample size.

2. Quite a few composers who "peaked" in their early 30s because that is when they died.

That said, I've heard that musical talent develops significantly earlier and peaks significantly earlier than in the other arts. That is why you get child prodigy musicians (including composers) and no child prodigy artists, writers, etc.

Opera is slightly different because its not a pure musical form, the libretto is extremely important, as is the various minor arts that go into how the whole thing is staged, and then producing opera is expensive and the composer has to sell the thing to someone with deep pockets willing to do that. So again, you get the small sample size. It may also explain the counter-examples offered of a few composers who didn't get going with opera until relatively late in life.

Observing from the Sidelines said...

Crawfurdmuir: "Since Beethoven only Mahler (with 10) and Shostakovich (with 15) have exceeded that number [of symphonies]."

Some rather obscure composers have done so too: Miaskovsky (27), Pettersson (16), and Havergal Brian (32, including probably the longest and physically largest symphony ever: The Gothic).

But the most amazing case of symphonic graphomania belongs to the contemporary Finn Leif Segerstam: 253 and counting!

el supremo said...

@Crawfurdmiur raises a good point about how the data is skewed by the practicality of putting on certain operas.

Parsifal was composed very late in Wagner's life but is a masterpiece - however it is really demanding on singers and not easy to stage so it is perfotrmed less frequently even though it is very highly regarded. The Ring cycle operas have a similar issue.

These practical issues skew the list as a whole - You can put together a decent performance of La Traviata with B list singers, but something like Siegfried requires top talent.

Another factor is the drive and capacity of the opera company director - there are fewer directors with the drive, resources, and institutional support to put together a full performance of the Ring cycle, so there are fewer of them in the list.

Anonymous said...

Did I miss something? Mozart is at 4, 6, and 10, not 6 and 10.

Henry Canaday said...

I’ve never heard music played badly in a German city. I am not talking about operas or symphonies, just regular bands, bands made of teenagers in scarlet uniforms playing traditional songs or the three-guy pop bands that play rock and other contemporary tunes for tourists in the summer. They’re all bloody good. And no one loves to sing along with the music like Germans.

Anonymous said...

" The more we know about training voices, the later the experts think one is ready for prime time. Most serious opera singers do not debut now until their early 30s, and it usually takes several years for their career to really get underway."

I believe that's a mistake, especially for women. The timbre of a female singer's voice changes continuously over her lifetime, starting to darken noticeably by her late 20's to early 30's. This was true for Cecilia Bartoli who began performing in major operas in her early 20's. Her later recitals and operatic performances while beautiful were not as exciting because of a diminished upper range.

Bartoli had the advantage of being musically trained from the age of eight by parents who were both professional singers, so she was ready to begin her career sooner. If she had debuted in her 30's I doubt she would have risen to her current level of prominence.

Nate M said...

Steve, I'm assuming you're a fan, so I'm surprised you left Leonard Bernstein's operetta/high culture musical Candide off your list of operas for those who like Broadway. It's full of dazzling music like the overture, that Renee Fleming showpiece aria "Glitter and be gay," and the truly awesome final chorus, "Make our garden grow." The libretto (thanks to Voltaire, Stephen Sondheim, and even Lillian Hellman) is dark, cynical and hilarious and I think well suited to your particular sense of humor.

And as long as I'm raving about Bernstein, his much shorter opera Trouble in Tahiti is possibly my favorite example of that now-tired genre in which smug urban Jews ridicule the depressed soulless WASPs of 1950s suburbia. "There is a garden" is another of the finest American arias. The BBC did a good film version of this. goodhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CThlbtcXLag

riches said...

If a song came, by chance, over the car radio and made you pull the car onto the road’s shoulder, I’d call that a "catchy tune".

Delibes’ Flower Duet (from Lakme) is that song. "But wait!" - as the late night commercials say- The Bell Song is a bonus.

Nate M said...

I would add Dvorak's Rusalka to the list of operas for people who like Broadway. In addition to a Disney-friendly story (the Czech Little Mermaid!), it is relentlessly tuneful, as you would expect from Dvorak.

Steve Sailer said...

"hardly anyone in Rome (her hometown) attends opera. In fact, she doesn't know anyone who even listens to opera"

That's really sad.

Anonymous said...

What to do with death? Mozart died at 35, so he didn't compose any top operas after that age. But it seems like death before retirement shouldn't skew the peak age younger.

A little off-topic, and I know that Mozart accomplished a lot in 35 years, but what Franz Schubert accomplished in only 31 years simply astounds me: The more I hear of his corpus, the more I'm coming to the conclusion that Schubert was probably the single most musically-gifted person who ever lived.

And if you want to hear it for yourself, then track down a copy of Giulini's 1993 live performance of the 9th Symphony with the Bayerischen Rundfunks - it's one of the most profound accomplishments of Western Civilization in the entire 20th Century.

Steve Sailer said...

Isn't Rossini's "Barber" something of a greatest hits collection drawn from earlier Rossini operas?

Anonymous said...

smug urban Jews ridicule the depressed soulless...

Well now ain't that the pot calling the kettle black?

John Derbyshire said...

Albertosaurus nails it. Opera defies analysis.

Great composers can be hopeless at it: Haydn composed 22 (I think) operas, but only Armida is ever performed, and that not much. Contrariwise, first-rank opera composers are rarely great at non-operatic music. Of the best, I think only Handel and Mozart qualify.

Nor is there much of a match between composers' personalities and their works. Rossini, a melancholy hypochondriac, is best remembered for his happy comedies (though the majority of his operas were in fact serious); Puccini, a cheerful boulevardier, for heroines dying tragically (Mimi, Butterfly, Tosca).

You sure don't have to be nice. Bellini was vain and silly, Wagner a monster of egoism, Mozart not as bad as in that play, but not someone you'd want around the house.

It's really a fun artform to get into. All human life is there, both on- and off-stage.

Anonymous said...

Bartoli had the advantage of being musically trained from the age of eight by parents who were both professional singers, so she was ready to begin her career sooner. If she had debuted in her 30's I doubt she would have risen to her current level of prominence.

Bartoli also had the advantage of good looks ready-made for the marketing department, but most serious scholars of vocal performance I've spoken to think that she will never go down in history as one of the truly greats (even when she was in her prime)--just one of the great money-makers.

Charlotte Church is a good example of a promising classical voice who was shoved out of the chute way too early (again for marketing reasons), to the point where she had to completely abandon classical for pop by the time she was 20. If she had been kept under wraps in conservatories for her teens and most of her twenties, she probably would today be just now embarking on a twenty year run at La Scala, the Met, you name it. Lack of exposure also would have kept her from having some ugly aspects of her personality from being developed.

Anonymous said...

"The top living opera composer is Philip Glass with 69 performances."

I like some Phil Glass stuff but a Glass opera is pointless, like a lunch buffet serving only hors d'oeuvres.

Anonymous said...

"It's somewhat surprising to see no Wagner operas on the list."

Too big to mount often. Also, after great overture, it can reeeeeeeaaaaaaalllly sloooooooooow down. Wagner foolishly got rid of stuff like arias, and so his operas just sound like sung plays.

I only really enjoy Lohengrin and Rheingold.

Fellow Traveler in Berkeley said...

For the new(ish) opera fan, here are two more to try. These do not have the catchy accessibility that, say, Bizet can offer. They are sublime (but definitely accessible) works sung by some of the greatest:

Depuis Un Jour from Charpentier's Louise sung by Maria Callas


Ombra Mai Fu from Handel's Serse sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

The singer in the second link is, sadly, not very well known - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose career was cut short by her death from cancer at age 52. She started as a violinist and didn't shift her focus to singing until her mid-30s.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Robert Greenberg, in his 32-lecture Great Courses course on "The Life and Operas of Verdi," does not give over a single lecture to La Traviata. The boring Falstaff gets six and a half lectures.

Say what you will about "The Talk: Nonblack Version." This is truly deserving of the point-and-splutter treatment.

vinteuil said...

Anonymous @ 3:07 - quite right. Falstaff *boring?* It is, in contempt of question, the greatest comic opera not composed by Mozart.

Oh, well - Derbyshire seems to favor tastes-great-less-filling bel canto stuff, so I guess it's no big surprise that he'd feel that way.

I'll grant him that it's silly for a 32 lecture course on the The Life and Operas of Verdi not to devote at least a couple of lectures to La Traviata.

Anonymous said...

"And no one loves to sing along with the music like Germans."

Well, maybe Latvians:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjkQjKdKKMo

Anonymous said...

Ombra Mai Fu from Handel's Serse sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

The singer in the second link is, sadly, not very well known - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose career was cut short by her death from cancer at age 52. She started as a violinist and didn't shift her focus to singing until her mid-30s.



Ah yes, the local girl made good. I love Lorraine. Not only a wonderful singer but a wonderful human being as well. She is deeply missed.

Kylie said...

"A little off-topic, and I know that Mozart accomplished a lot in 35 years, but what Franz Schubert accomplished in only 31 years simply astounds me: The more I hear of his corpus, the more I'm coming to the conclusion that Schubert was probably the single most musically-gifted person who ever lived."

I have the exact same response to Schubert's music. The maturity of works he composed when only in his twenties is just astonishing.

John Derbyshire said...

Anonymous @ 3:07 - Heh, right. Now we're talking about SERIOUS STUFF.

Silver said...

Also, after great overture, it can reeeeeeeaaaaaaalllly sloooooooooow down. Wagner foolishly got rid of stuff like arias, and so his operas just sound like sung plays.

Lol, I've never sat through an entire opera, but, as a beginner, I couldn't agree more. Wagner's overtures are incredible, but I still haven't been able to go on and listen to the entire thing. I thought maybe listening to some noteworthy arias might be the easiest way to break into appreciating an entire opera but it hasn't really worked out that way. For example, I really enjoy some of the arias from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sadko," especially "The Song of the Varangian Guest" (awesome!) but the rest of the opera can't really match that I find myself getting bored. Or another example, "Dido's Lament" from Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" is very moving, but again I can't help feeling the rest of it will fail to compare so I tune out. One day...


Anonymous said...

Im so surprised other commentors haven't mentioned Rigoletto as a starter piece. It has a lot of classic pieces, including one of the best quartets of all time- it's also a good and easy to follow story and it has both comedy and tragedy. It's my favorite opera. The 1982 movie with Pavarotti and Gruberova is awesome. Watch it, No0bs.

Anonymous said...

"Bartoli also had the advantage of good looks ready-made for the marketing department, but most serious scholars of vocal performance I've spoken to think that she will never go down in history as one of the truly greats (even when she was in her prime)--just one of the great money-makers."

Pure jealousy on the part of "serious scholars." To the Italians she is a national treasure and a historic figure in their musical history. She is disliked for having been instantly popular early in her career before the "scholars" could put in their two cents. As for Charlotte Church, she has a generic voice so common to the Welsh. Her music career flopped because she was born with the soul of a charwoman, not a musician. Tough nuggets to her.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Silver wrote: "Or another example, "Dido's Lament" from Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" is very moving, but again I can't help feeling the rest of it will fail to compare so I tune out. One day..."

"Dido and Aeneas" is short in comparison to later operas. It wouldn't be a large sacrifice of time to listen to the whole thing.

One of the great surprises in the opera for me, the first time I listened to it, was the sailor's chorus at the beginning of the third act::

"Come away, fellow sailors, your anchors be weighing,
Time and tide will admit no delaying;
Take a bouzy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
And silence their mourning
With vows of returning,
But never intending to visit them more."

The passage "never intending to visit them more" is set with several repetitions of "never, no never" in a manner immediately reminiscent of Gilbert's and Sullivan's sailor's chorus in "H.M.S. Pinafore.":

"Captain: ...And I'm never, never sick at sea!
Chorus: What, never?
Captain: No, never!
Chorus: What, never?
Captain: Hardly ever!"

G&S had to have known the Purcell opera (it was relatively obscure in the nineteenth century) and, expert parodists that they were, alluded to it in their own inimitable fashion.

Anonymous said...

Im so surprised other commentors haven't mentioned Rigoletto as a starter piece. It has a lot of classic pieces, including one of the best quartets of all time


www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYRZOEzoOgQ


Yeah, Joe Green could write a tune or two.

Incidentally, if you live in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Opera is currently doing a fine production of Rigoletto with a first-rate cast. (Ends Sep. 30, I think, so check it out before it's gone.)

neil craig said...

"Mozart died at 35, so he didn't compose any top operas after that age."

So after 35 he was decomposing.

Sorry - the devil made me do it.

It strikes me that the limited number of composers involved makes the sample to small to draw many conclusions.