Opera | Contemporary | Classical

European culture lay in ruins after the end of World War II. There were many who, in company with the philosopher Theodor Adorno, felt that Nazi atrocities such as Auschwitz rendered art impossible, at least temporarily.

Others, though, felt that humanity could only establish itself anew by rediscovering the potency of art, including opera. On the one hand, that meant rebuilding opera houses destroyed during the war; on the other, opera had to rediscover its moral authority, and that could best be done by the creation of new works.

In some senses, the old had died and the new been born during the war. Capriccio, the last opera by Richard Strauss, had its premiere in Munich in 1942, with Allied air-raids a nightly threat. Meanwhile Benjamin Britten, who spent the duration of the war in America, had written his first opera, Paul Bunyan, staged in a student production at Columbia University, New York, in 1941. Where Capriccio seemed lost, both musically and dramatically, in an agony of nostalgia for a world eradicated by the war, Paul Bunyan, a work rooted as much in American as in European idioms, was filled with energy and optimism.

The Shock of the New

The English composer Britten was to emerge as the first great opera composer of the post-war era. Yet while composers attempted to renew opera, most opera houses relied increasingly on a repertory that had been fixed, not even in the 1930s, but in the 1920s. This was especially true in the US, where new work emerged only with the greatest difficulty. Faced with a culture resistant to the shock of the new, many composers abandoned opera altogether. Others sought to change the form, while still others continued to explore the possibilities that opera had always traditionally offered. The rich, and in many ways unprecedented, diversity of opera since 1945 derives from the interaction of these responses.

European Opera after the War

Several composers whose reputations were established before the war contributed significantly to the post-war repertory. When Schoenberg died, he left incomplete his last stage work, Moses und Aron, on which he had begun work in the 1930s. Acts One and Two were first given in concert in Hamburg in 1954, and staged in Zürich in 1957. Two months after Schoenberg’s death came the Venice premiere of The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky, written in the United States by a Russian composer, to a libretto in English by a British poet (W. H. Auden) and an American (Chester Kallman). The last of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, it is among the most successful operas written since the death of Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), thanks in part to its quasi-Mozartean music and dramaturgy, well served by a sardonic libretto.

The Pre-war Tradition

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) wrote his first opera, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (‘Tiresias’s Breasts’) in 1944, but it was not staged until 1947. The riotous musical business, fondly evoking broad swathes of French...

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