Cher Public

Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles

An opera set in a luxurious country house, treating on the topic of class: hardly the sort of thing one would expect Brits to fancy!

The tendency to rank—to create subjective lists of best or greatest, or to organize things in ascending or descending order—is a human compulsion. Inevitably, these rankings inspire objection, criticism, sputtering outrage. “How can you put X above Y?” “How can you leave Z off altogether?” “This is so stupid. There is no ‘best’!” 

Nevertheless, if the subject is of interest, it is the rare fan who is not curious enough about the results to take a look. Our compulsion to compare notes is another strong one, and goes some way in accounting for internet traffic.

A quick Google search will lead you to rankings of just about everything: the 44 men who have served as United States President; the 25 best novels in English; the 50 greatest television shows; the 100 best pop albums; the 15 best cities in which to vacation; the 30 MLB ballparks. Amid abuse heaped on the person or persons responsible for the list-making, there tends to be lively discussion.

Every ten years since 1952, the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound has been polling critics and directors to determine the greatest films ever made. From 1962 through 2002, the big winner was Citizen Kane, until in 2012 Welles’s film was knocked to second by Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Other top-ten staples have included Battleship Potemkin, The Rules of the Game and .

For its October issue, presently available from North American bookstores and newsstands, the British magazine BBC Music polled 172 singers to arrive at a list of “the 20 greatest operas of all time.” Each singer was asked to provide three choices, and presumably was allowed to let his or her conscience be the guide in weighing factors of musical accomplishment, historical significance and personal affection.

All 172 singers’ top-three lists were published in the magazine, in addition to the cumulative top 20 with a blurb on each of the lucky 20 operas.

It might have been interesting to widen the net. Sight & Sound consults both critics and directors, and an opera poll bringing critics, musicologists, conductors and stage directors to the table with the singers would have given a fuller, more “authoritative” picture, if a more diffuse one. Still, I give credit to BBC Music for asking people who are in the business and have studied music.

The panel leans both female (more than 100 of the 172 voters were women) and Anglo, although there is international representation. Young singers still new to the business were asked, as were reigning stars in midcareer and retired eminences such as 82-year-old Mirella Freni.  

BBC Music has not yet made the results available online to nonsubscribers, so there can be no link. It would not be sporting of me to transcribe the whole thing here. I will admit that I was curious enough to ask around before picking up a hard copy. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro was the consensus pick for the greatest opera ever written—a sound choice, in my opinion—with more than twice the votes of the runner-up (Puccini’s La bohème).

I had wondered if a composer might be penalized for having many important operas from which to choose. An admirer of Berg or Debussy has something very obvious to nominate, and not much else. Indeed, both Wozzeck (#4) and Pelléas et Mélisande (#11) were favored.

But what of Verdi, with his 28 operas, more than half of which are frequently performed and could be called masterpieces without anyone snickering? Verdi did not do badly for himself, with four entries in the top 20, more than any other composer. Perhaps it was his abundant achievement that kept any one opera from placing higher than ninth (Otello).

Votes for Wagner’s Ring as a totality were not accepted (fairly, I think), and Die Walküre was the most popular individual entry, just making the top 20. Two non-Ring Wagner operas were more highly placed. The other composers appearing more than once were Monteverdi, Mozart and Puccini, with two operas each.

Results in the margins hint at some singer/fan schisms. Bizet’s Carmen was the big surprise loser, one of the world’s best-loved operas for most of 150 years but not in the top 20 and not close. With only four mentions from the 172 singers, Carmen was slightly outpolled by Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, four of the votes for which came from illustrious American mezzo-sopranos (Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham, Joyce DiDonato, Jamie Barton).

Much was made in the advance publicity of a strong showing by operas of more recent vintage. The top 20 includes six operas that premiered in the 1900s—just barely, in a few cases. Only Britten’s Peter Grimes dates from later than 1925.

Still, the singers’ lists suggest that singers are more comfortable with the new (or newer) than most audiences are. Besides Dead Man Walking, there were votes for Le Grand Macabre, Emmeline, The Silver Tassie, The Exterminating Angel (from Anne Sofie von Otter, its world-premiere Leonora) and Written on Skin.

You can probably guess which star tenor named David Alagna‘s Le Dernier jour d’un condamné first and completed his list with two 20th-century Italian rarities, neither cited by his colleagues.

Meanwhile, the present Italian bel canto craze notwithstanding, nothing from the Bellini/Donizetti/Rossini wing managed enough votes to muscle in. The Renaissance and Baroque periods fared better.

Predictably, there was an element of self-interest in many singers’ choices. A bass may choose three operas with great roles for his voice type (Matthew Best‘s Boris Godunov, Don Carlos and Parsifal), and a dramatic tenor likewise (Stuart Skelton‘s Peter Grimes, Götterdämmerung and Parsifal). A baritone who is a strong actor, Stéphane Degout, liked Wozzeck, Pelléas and Nozze.

A soprano diva may gravitate to her own successful vehicles (Diana Damrau‘s Roméo et Juliette, Manon and Traviata; Kiri Te Kanawa‘s Nozze di Figaro, Arabella and Rosenkavalier). Two Minnies, Deborah Voigt and Eva-Maria Westbroek, gave La fanciulla del West some love. Mozart specialist Angelika Kirchschlager submitted an all-Mozart list.

There were surprises. Natalie Dessay chose two operas in her own lane and a third well outside of it (Eugene Onegin). Danielle de Niese did the same (Manon Lescaut). Sonya Yoncheva has been a Norma and a Violetta, but not a Kundry, yet Parsifal was her third choice.

Perhaps she was once a Flowermaiden; perhaps she just loves Parsifal. I might have seen Otello and, to a lesser extent, Walküre coming from the protean Plácido Domingo, but Manon Lescaut was a mild surprise, superb though his Puccini Des Grieux was at its best.

Was anyone expecting Renée Fleming to follow Nozze di Figaro and Rosenkavalier with Pikovaya Dama, an opera she never sang in its entirety? Perhaps she is weighing the possibility of a Tchaikovsky Countess comeback somewhere down the line. There is, after all, a “former Marschallin” precedent (Elisabeth Söderström).

I take these things lightly, but I enjoyed skimming the selections, both the obvious choices and the less expected ones. The bottom line is that the 20 operas these singers ultimately settled on are works that have stood the test of time and have flourished in differing interpretations.

If someone who had never been in an opera house told you she was going to see Rosenkavalier, Don Carlos, Jenufa or L’Orfeo that night, whether it was your personal recommendation for a first-timer or not, you would feel that that person was going to hear something significant and worthwhile in the 400-year story of opera.

I mentioned earlier “musical accomplishment, historical significance and personal affection” among factors a respondent may try to bring into balance. I think that just as lists of favorites differ from person to person, so do the factors that shape those lists. A list can be revealing.

If someone tells me his three favorite operas are Adriana Lecouvreur, La Gioconda and Cavalleria Rusticana, I am going to have a sense of his tastes and even his personality, just as I am if someone’s three favorites are Cenerentola, Don Pasquale and Sonnambula; or Fidelio, Don Carlos and War and Peace; or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Lulu and Written on Skin.

What would my own top three have been? Well, I am well positioned to be sanguine about the BBC list because all three of my choices made the top 20. I would have chosen, in descending order, Falstaff, Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Why those three? It certainly is not because I prefer comedies. Rather, those operas give me the three faces of Opera Rushmore working at the very height of their powers, and they are all operas I have found more rather than less in as I have lived with them, studied them and returned to them over and over. They have wit, brains, depth of feeling, humanity.

If I see a performance of Barbiere di Siviglia or Tosca and it is not very good—as it so often is not—I can shrug it off and say, “Eh, they can’t all be winners.” When I see one of the above operas not treated well, it is more than a missed opportunity; I feel saddened or affronted. I suppose that that is as good a definition of opera love as any.

The BBC Music issue is presently available on this side of Atlantic wherever you buy magazines to which you do not subscribe. I now turn the topic over to you for that lively discussion I saw coming in my opening remarks. What makes your list…and why?