Name the composer of these operas: La Finta Semplice; Mitridate; Lucio Silla; and La Clemenza Di Tito. If you are seriously into opera, or even music broadly, you might know or guess the answer. I’d wager the typical opera fan will be baffled, except that the language the names are in may help you rule out a few composers. While waiting on an appointment recently, I began perusing The New Penguin Opera Guide edited by Amanda Holden, 2001. At 1168 pages, the Guide is an encyclopedia of opera composers with a fairly complete listing and discussion of their operatic works. Amazon’s description of the Guide says, “Over 100 distinguished contributors have written on more than 800 composers and examined 1500 operas in detail.”
Think about that for a moment. Eight hundred composers – how many can you name? The Guide begins with the listing of Antonio Maria Abbatini and ends with Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg. Ever hear of those composers? Fifteen hundred operas – how many have you seen? I’m guessing you have not seen the four Mozart operas listed above. And I’m not picking on Mozart. How many of these Verdi operas have you seen – Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio; Jerusalem; or Aroldo? And so it goes, not all of the great composers’ works were hits.
Somehow perusing the Guide made me remember one of my favorite poems, Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which ponders how many of the parishioners lay in their graves with unrealized potential. The Penguin Guide is in part a graveyard of forgotten composers who nevertheless had distinguished themselves while alive; yet, despite their ability and efforts, never achieved wide spread or lasting recognition. Likely each one put their heart and soul into their work, but perhaps their operas just weren’t that good or maybe the composers gave up too quickly or maybe for some reason audiences overlooked them. If one looks at the history of opera, many famous operas of famous composers were failures when first presented; sometimes fan appreciation grew with time and sometimes revisions made the works more accepted. In many cases, lives and composing careers were cut short by untimely deaths due to accidents or disease. In Mozart’s case, the first three operas above were written early in his career. Suppose his life had been cut even shorter – no Figaro, no Giovanni, no Cosi, and no Magic Flute. What might some of these unknown composers have achieved with more time to develop their craft and operas?
I also wonder if society settled on the hundred or so operas that get repeatedly performed too quickly. Music professionals and audiences have winnowed the list over time, but if we started over and had a competition would some new ones emerge as favorites? I’d guess not many, but I’d bet there would be some. Some conductors/directors would find a way to stage them or singers would find a way to interpret their roles such that audiences would be won over and they would emerge from obscurity, or maybe we’d find that we had just overlooked a gem. Operas are expensive experiments. You don’t get that many times upon the stage to work it out or grow an audience. And we must admit that we can only sustain interest in so many operas, with more than 1500 accumulated over time, and new ones coming along every year.
Let me end this elegy by acknowledging not only the composers but all the librettists, singers, conductors, stage directors, managers, staff, critics, and financial benefactors that were necessary to establish and maintain this four-hundred-year enterprise. The genius, talent, dedication, and hard work that enabled the writing of Penguin Guide’s 1168 pages is a staggering testament to human creativity, ability, and teamwork. It continues to the present day and will soon be playing at an opera house near you. The reward is not only in the legacy which can be capricious, but is primarily in the moment when the music, the performers, and audience share the creative experience and musical connection that brings us together as human beings, those alive and those who went before us.