One of the really special things about opera is its raw, immediate nature.
There are no microphones. No soundboards. No special effects. Just a performer singing their soul out.
Except sometimes it’s not that simple. Because unless you speak Italian, French, German, and Russian then chances are that you’re going to have to choose between watching the performer or staring up at surtitles because English was a little late to the ball when it comes to opera history.
Opera has been around for centuries and it wasn’t until the 20th century that operas written in English took off. Meaning that most of the greatest operas were written in languages other than English.
So what are you supposed to do if English is your only language? You can either make due with surtitles or you can check out our list of the greatest English operas!
Peter Grimes – Benjamin Britten
One of the most famous English operas of all, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes has been a huge hit since it first premiered in 1945. Peter Grimes was such a hit that only three years after its premiere it was being performed all over the world in 7 different languages and 16 separate productions and it is just as popular today as it has ever been. The large choral scenes and cast make for a very large setting for the main character to explore. Peter Grimes is the story of a outsider and how he is influenced by society. Grimes’ ambiguity and social commentary will keep you entertained from the first note to the last! As a matter of fact, with Cennarium, you can watch Peter Grimes performed at the 66th Aldeburgh Festival.
The Turn of the Screw – Benjamin Britten
Britten explored tragedy in Peter Grimes, but in The Turn of the Screw he explores horror. And with a name like The Turn of the Screw you know that this story is going to be bad for its characters. Just like a screw, Britten’s final chamber opera digs into the viewer deeper and deeper and cranks up the drama with every scene just like the Henry James’s novel it is based on. While the narrative may seem episodic pay attention to the screw theme as it connects the 16 different scenes. See The Turn of the Screw and find out why it was the second most performed opera from 2009 to 2014.
Dido and Aeneas – Henry Purcell
After you see The Turn of the Screw you can treat yourself to the most performed opera from 2009 to 2014, Dido and Aeneas. It is one of the few English operas that was composed hundreds of years ago and stood the test of time. While it’s first performance is thought to be around 1689 or earlier, Dido and Aeneas has engaged audiences ever since. It is based on the ancient love between the queen of Carthage and Virgil’s Aeneas as he flees the fall of Troy in search of a new home. Witches, storms, gods, love, tragedy, this opera has everything you need to entertain you from start to finish.
Porgy and Bess – George Gershwin
The first great American opera premiered on Broadway on October 10th, 1935. Even though it received mixed reviews after its premiere, the fact that some of the most popular songs in American musical history, like “Summertime” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin”, came from this show speaks to how great it is. Even though the show wasn’t performed in full from its debut to a 1976 revival by the Houston Grand Opera it is still the standard for American opera. Not only is Porgy and Bess a great opera but it was revolutionary for casting an all African-American cast in the 1930’s.
Susannah – Carlisle Floyd
Susannah is Americana at its best in this tale out of the Appalachia where a young girl battles her elders within the church community. Floyd captures the age old themes of religion and power as well as fear and misunderstanding of sexuality. Maybe that’s why it’s one of the most performed American operas. A short and sweet story packed with moral questions that most operas couldn’t answer in double the amount of story, Susannah is a achievement of American opera and should be on ever opera lover’s must see list.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Benjamin Britten
Did you think we would forget A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It wouldn’t be a list of the best English opera without Britten’s hilarious fairytale. But it’s not just your Disney fairytale. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a psychological experience with competing emotions all coming together for one spectacular show. Not to mention it has a fantastic score. MSND does not stand out only because of it’s great story and music, but because it was conceived and debuted all in under a year. Maybe that’s why it follows Shakespeare’s original work so closely. Opera lovers and theater lovers alike will love Britten’s interpretation. If you are around London this summer, you should definitely stop by the Glyndebourne Festival 2016, they are going to be performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the month of August!
What are your favorite English operas? Let us know in the comments, share this article with your friends and see what they say!