We all know the classic operas like Carmen and La bohéme but it goes without saying that with every work that is hugely popular there are droves of works with just as much heart and soul put into them that just fade into the background. Not every song can be number one nor every movie win an Oscar, but the ones that don’t aren’t of any less worth nor any less enjoyable. It is with this ideology in mind that we would like to introduce you to five obscure operas.
(Show on featured photograph: Purcell’s The Indian Queen at Teatro Real)
1. Tale of a Deaf Ear
Written by Mark Bucci, this one act opera is set in suburbia. Tracey and Laura Gates, a married couple, are musically arguing about Tracey’s penchant for drinking. Suddenly he is struck down by cardiac arrest. Laura is devastated and asks God to save her husband. We shift the scene to three separate miracles replayed for the audience.
Operatically these are performed in Italy, Scotland, and Germany not only in setting but in language as well. Once the miracles are revealed, we shift scenes again back to the suburban home of the Gates. Tracey is feeling fine and unaware of what had happened to him. Laura tries not to argue with him about his drinking but her anger gets the best of her and they fight again, yet this time Tracey dies for real.
Mark Bucci is the first American opera composer on our list. He was born in Manhattan in the roaring twenties. Tale for a Deaf Ear was a commissioned piece and inspired by an article in a magazine. It premiered at the Tanglewood in 1957 and it was an instant hit.
While there are many characters in this Ned Rorem opera only six voices are used to tell us the story. It is set in medieval Norway with the Queen in Oslo. Bertha, their queen, is losing her sanity and thirsty for war. She ignores the endless pleas from her council to cease with all the endless combat.
Bertha doesn’t pay their cries any attention and continues to grow more and more insane. This kind of person makes for great opera intensity. Finally, Bertha dies yet her subjects still glorify her as a queen they want to revere and honor.
Ned Rorem was born in Indiana and is still alive today. He is the only composer on our operatic list to not have passed away. Rorem studied music at the University of Chicago, the American Conservatory of Music, Northwestern University, Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
3. Egon und Emilie
There is very little information on the Internet to be found on composer Ernst Toch and barely anything is available about the plot of this opera that is known for a plot that is told with only one voice. The only reference we could find was in German, so after translating and listening to opera itself (link provided to music below), we must conclude that Egon und Emilie is a lover’s quarrel.
They may be married or they may not. The constant words that popped up when translating the German synopsis of the opera were “absurdity” and one time we saw “diaper.” Also, one line in the German summary said, “Egon schweigt beharrlich” which translated to, “Egon silent persistently.” The one video of the opera we could find had only the music without any performance.
Egon is there throughout Emilie’s performance, but silent with persistence. Either way, when listening to Emilie sing in this one voiced opera one can feel the frustration and anxiety of her character. Also, at the end Egon speaks to her, he doesn’t sing.
This choice to have him speak instead of sing, we can only assume, is why this opera was listed as a one-voice piece. He speaks with the calmness of a still lake. This brings us to the conclusion that Egon and Emilie have overcome their differences to find peace.
The composer Ernst Toch was born in Austria in 1887. He was originally a medical student until he realized his love and talent for composing music. He dropped out of medical school and moved to Germany. He lived there and was very well known for his music and operas, one of which happens to be the Princess and the Pea.
Then Hitler came into power and Toch exiled himself from Germany to London and then eventually California. He has won a Pulitzer Prize for Music and taught at the University of Southern California.
4. A Game of Chance
This Seymour Barab opera highlights the lives of three women who work together. One wishes for wealth once wishes for fame, and one wishes for love. A Representative grants each one their musical wish.
Of course, their dreams came true but the results didn’t supply any of the happiness the operatic trio had hoped for. The wealthy girl wishes for friends, the married girl wonders if there was more to life, and the famous writer, she wishes for companionship. We can only assume the moral of this four voiced opera is this; be careful of what you wish for, it just might come true.
Seymour Barab was born in the roaring twenties in Chicago. He served in World War II and spent a year in Paris, where, in one year’s time in the French city, Barab wrote over two hundred works of music.
He is well known for his one-act comical operas. One of his fans was Kurt Vonnegut who said that the Barab’s operas were “full of magic.” The novelist went on to say he considered it “an honor to have worked with” Barab.
5. Twice in a Blue Moon
Phyllis Tate created this modern opera, a story of John Crome and his wife Pheby. John is a painter and they are poor. The couple needs something to sell at the local fair and Pheby suggests they split one of John’s paintings into two pieces and sell both halves as individual works.
John does not think this is a good idea. Suddenly the operatic audience finds themselves moved forward in time to see a guide in a prominent art museum explaining to visitors the unusual nature of the painting that is now back in one piece, worth a ton of money, and very famous. Then we are thrown back into the home of the Cromes who are dressed like people who have money.
They leave their home on their way to attend the same local fair where they were fortunate enough to sell their original piece.
Phyllis Tate was an English composer born in Buckinghamshire, England in 1911. She is also the only woman composer on our list of operas today. Twice in a Blue Moon was written in 1969. Tate was a wild child who would sing lewd songs at school that would eventually get her expelled.
Still, her talent was recognized in 1928 and she would go on to study musical composition at the Royal Academy of Music. She produced many musical works but unfortunately she destroyed all of her operas written before the mid-1940’s due to a highly self-critical nature.
Watch great rarely performed (or popular) operas here!