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?

  • Pia Ngere-Liu

    I have played this mental game with myself a few times and have decided that it has to be (for me at least), a function of who I would have liked to have seen singing a particular work. My top 3 would therefore be:
    Norma (a Callas performance) -- mainly for the trio and finale.
    Traviata (Ahem, also) -- Germont/Violetta scene, party scene -- finale.
    Don Giovanni (Giulini recording) -- the whole thing -- tunes galore.
    And a honorable forth -- Salome -- with a Salome which can sing through the orchestra.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    I always think of Carmen and Boris Godunov first. They were the ones that stood out to me as a child, and they hold up under more mature scrutiny. Verdi and Wagner vie for supremacy in my adult heart. Verdi grabs me. I have to allow myself to let Wagner sweep me into his world.

  • Thanks, Porgy. This was a fun piece.

    The older I get, the less I like lists. But like you, I have a similar attraction to at least peruse lists that come up. And as much I might think that they are meaningless, I will still get into discussions based on results of different lists.

    If I had to choose my own picks, I’d probably choose Tristan und Isolde, Otello and Nozze di Figaro.

    The more interesting results of this list are the individual singer choices. I can only roll my eyes at the selections of Roberto Alagna and Diana Damrau. Regarding the latter, I do wonder whether some of the singers actually understood that the objective was not to pick opera with one’s favourite roles.

    Re: Carmen not faring well, I wonder if that has to do with the fact that people who regularly sing Carmen or Micaela are asked to do it so often that they are just tired of it.

  • Armerjacquino

    Brilliant stuff! I don’t know how I’d be able to separate ‘favourite’ from ‘best’, plus they’d change daily.

    Definitely NOZZE; there or thereabouts I’d add TRITTICO, COSI, ONEGIN, FIDELIO, ROSENKAV, JENUFA and RIGOLETTO.

    btw: Rysanek and Ludwig were perhaps even more prominent Marschallin-turned-Old Countesses.

    • Porgy Amor

      Söderström came to my mind because she made what was assumed at the time to be her Met farewell in the Strauss opera. Fleming even mentioned her in an interview, “I remember being at Elisabeth Söderström’s farewell at the Met, which was also Rosenkavalier, and I was crying along with everybody else. Then a few years later she came back. So this is something I have learned from my colleagues. Never say ‘never’!'”

      With Rysanek and especially Ludwig, I just think of the Marschallin as one of many things they sang, not really a role with which I identify them. Not even Ludwig’s best role in that opera.

      On Söderström: Our Christopher Corwin commented recently that she was miscast in that Met Pikovaya Dama, and the late Innaurato and others have said the same. It really was not the right kind of voice, in that the best-preserved part was not the part that was going to help her, and I can imagine the portrayal getting swallowed up in the Met live. Moshinsky’s production also begged for a bigger, more extroverted Countess.

      However, under telecast conditions, with the cameras and the microphones bringing things into focus, it was impossible to miss her imaginative and interesting ideas about it, and her means to project them. As she saw it, the biliousness was a smokescreen; this was really a lost, frightened old person. I found her Countess quite unforgettable in the ball scene, confused and overstimulated by what was around her and trying to cover.

      And so she made more of a mark in the part with me than some other Countesses who were better equipped for it by nature.

      • Greg Freed

        “Moshinsky’s production also begged for a bigger, more extroverted Countess.”

        This was the problem. And also the production came laden with history…I didn’t see Rysanek but somehow she managed to make a huge impression in what is honestly a fairly dull role sung by almost anyone (including Soderstrom, who I did see.) It’s a cameo that you can make into a star turn if you’re a bête de scène like Rysanek. Zajick, too, was dead weight in the role, voce or no voce.

        • Porgy Amor

          Oh ,see, I think she’s one of the two most significant characters in the opera. The tenor in Rosenkavalier is a cameo you can make into a star turn, but I want to know who is playing Gherman and the Countess above all when it comes to this opera. And I do like the music for Liza and Yeletsky very much, but they’re more straight-ahead. (Tomsky is a little harder to talk about.)

          I’ve seen a lot of sopranos and mezzos take her on in different ways that were contrasting and interesting.. It does, I think, require some kind of thinking, though. The camp gargoyle approach isn’t interesting to me.

          • CKurwenal

            I look at who the Liza and Countess will be first (I think because I’m so used to the Gherman letting me down, possibly due to some very specific history I have with this piece). I enjoy the Countess’s moments as much as any other in this opera and the scene that culminates in her death is usually the highlight, for me. I’m not a particular fan of Barstow’s soprano work, but her Countess at the ROH made as big an impression on me as anything I’ve ever seen (and the competition on that night alone came from Mattila, Hvorostovsky and Galouzine).

            • Porgy Amor

              By the way, Cocky, a singer you and I have talked about, Dame Felicity Palmer, was another who named her own vehicles. Jenufa, Elektra and Pikovaya Dama.

              She is one of the best of the Tchaikovsky Countesses I have seen. In the Glyndebourne performance with her fake-aged self from ’92, Marusin is certainly unforgettable in the problematic role of Gherman. Whether he’s “good unforgettable” or “bad unforgettable” will be a matter of taste, but he certainly opens up the debate.

            • CKurwenal

              Dame Felicity is the best ‘all rounder’ in the role I have seen, but stopped short of creating the kind of magic that Barstow achieved in her big scene. She certainly surpassed Barstow in the rest of it though.
              She gave a lovely interview on BBC radio 3 a couple of weeks ago on her career in general, and singled out Klytamnestra as her favourite role, but had a fair bit to say about the industry in general and the compromises you have to make in terms of lifestyle in order to be an opera singer.

            • Greg Freed

              CK, surely Galouzine didn’t let you down! He was a knockout at the Met. I always wished he’d sing there more because that was a Met-sized voice.

            • Agreed about Galouzine. I’ve only seen his Gherman on video (the one where he’s in an insane asylum) but he’s very good in it. I saw him play a character of similar demands in Prokofiev’s The Gambler at the Met. He was terrific in that.

            • CKurwenal

              No, Galouzine didn’t -- he was extraordinary as you say. But unfortunately, most of the others I have heard have really struggled with it. It was the first opera in which I was ever paid to sing, and I will never forget how excruciating our dress rehearsal was, with the Gherman essentially falling apart and immediately withdrawing from the production at the end. The rapidly arranged replacement was borrowed from the Mariinsky who happened to be on tour to London at the time, and he could get round the notes fine but made a pretty nasty sound. There have been various others who have narrowly avoided coming to grief in all sorts of corners in the score. I seem to have seen it rather a lot, for a not terribly often performed opera -- I do really love the work (and was very sorry to miss Dame Gwyneth’s Countess last year!).

      • Camille

        Very interesting to me for as it happened I was there at a couple performances while filming occurred, and yet have never seen that filmed version.

        In the house, the subtleties of which you speak did not come across and I was disappointed. Then, I’d not expected a lot since it was not Söderström’s actual voice type to begin with. I was so entranced with the opera and how Gergy conducted it mattered little.

        Even if it were Dolora’s voice type, it didn’t work for her either but then, she’s never been noted as a stage animal/actress, etc.

        I think you probably just need Martha Mödl and that solves everything!

        • Porgy Amor

          I think you probably just need Martha Mödl and that solves everything!

          Yes, she was fascinating with little left vocally. With her, what I remember most is the concentration in the monologue. The vehemence with which she recounted events and described personages of younger years, long vanished. It was as though she were trying to conjure ghosts, If she just kept her mind focused enough, she could reenter that world, could touch what she could still see. Of course, while she was singing, it would be in an audience member’s mind that this was a singer whose career went back almost 50 years. She knew many ghosts of her own.

          I really do think if you had caught Söderström in a more intimate venue, and in a production more supportive of what she was trying to do, her take on the role would be something that registered more strongly. She was quite different from Mödl, but equally well considered as a real performance. Not that that would have entirely obviated the vocal fach issue.

      • MisterSnow

        I recently watched the film on Regina Resnik (available on You Tube). There was a video of an except with her a the Countess and she was marvellous both acting an vocally. She appears with Stratas, who spoke glowingly of her. The one time I saw Resnik was around 1980 as Orlofsky. Her voice was weakening but she was a totally arresting presence! 10-15 year earlier (when her voice was still in good condition) she must has been a marvel as the Countess.

  • Kedem Frühling Horowitz Berger

    My top three are Falstaff, L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Lulu. And Figaro is probably the most enlightened Dramma per musica per se, if it makes sense -- it shows what musical theatre can ultimately do. The wider circle has Elektra, Tristan, Don Carlo, Jenufa, Don Giovanni and Meistersinger, possibly Boris and Pelleas too (for sheer originality).

  • fletcher

    Great piece, Porgy, on an impossible list certain to stir up some objections. As I mentioned before, I’m pretty shocked at the rejection of Carmen, a perfect opera (along with Rigoletto, which also missed the top 20). It’s done all the time, and not often well. Carmen as stock vamp, as AMM recently played her, does the opera no favors. Conlon, in his pre-show lecture, compared Carmen to Don Giovanni, saying every man has a DG inside and secretly wants a Carmen, and every woman yearns to be Carmen, which I found, uhhhh, problematic. And also pretty dumb. (Also worth pointing out that without Carmen, Pelléas is the only French opera on the list.)

    Anyway, I find it pretty straightforward to separate favorite from greatest and even from best. Best implies a near-perfect conception -- an excellent, tight libretto aligned with unfailingly brilliant music. Great implies, to me, monumentality of achievement, with an eye at historical importance. So one could say that Don Carlos is a great opera while acknowledging it has its structural problems, or on the other hand that something like Cendrillon can be faultlessly constructed but fall short of greatness. Favorites can be irrational: I’ll stan for Damnation all day long while allowing that it’s weird and uneven and kind of silly.

    Admittedly, my own tastes lean towards sprawling ambition: the Ring, Troyens, Forza and Don Carlos, Guillaume Tell. This bias leads me to favor the perverse grandeur of Don Giovanni over the sharp worldliness of Nozze and consider that the former is “greater” and the latter “better”. Or that Rigoletto is an astonishing work of genius on every page (even if Budden disdains the Duke’s cabaletta) but Otello is the masterpiece. Falstaff similarly falls short, and maybe this betrays a snobbish anti-comedy bias (although the funniest part of Wagner’s five-hour comedy on the superiority of German art is that the prize song isn’t even a good tune). I’m okay with that. Puccini is an interesting case because for me the later works are more interesting and musically more sophisticated while maybe lacking the dramatic brilliance that made the earlier works so popular -- so I’m comfortable saying Bohème is a greater opera but Trittico, as a whole, is better.

    So: greatest: Don Giovanni, Otello, and Tristan, in no particular order, a pretty conventional list (with Troyens as a close fourth) -- contrasted with best, Carmen, Rigoletto, and Nozze (with Salome in fourth). Favorites: Damnation, Ariadne, Fanciulla, with either Così or Don Carlos in fourth depending on the phase of the moon.

    • CKurwenal

      I find it interesting that you think Carmen is a perfect opera. I have always thought it a problematic and stilted one, with too many poorly integrated ‘numbers’ that get in the way of plot progression or character development (for me this afflicts the first 2 acts -- 3 and 4 I find are much stronger from that point of view). The Jose/Micaela duet, Micaela’s aria, the Card scene and the final Carmen/Jose duet are some of my favourite things in all opera but as a total work or experience in the theatre, I find it very far from perfect.

      • grimoaldo2

        I do agree that Rigoletto is a perfect opera, the only one I can really think of.Since the broadcast from Chicago was posted here I have been listening to the first scene over and over, in different versions, something I have been listening to since I was about six years old and it never fails to astonish and move me. Simply staggering. How anybody could rate La Boheme above that is beyond me.

        • CKurwenal

          I don’t really see how La Boheme could be improved. I agree with you re Rigoletto but I don’t think Boheme is any less good. Personally though, when it comes to favourite operas I tend to like the longest. Tristan, William Tell, Don Carlos, Frau Ohne Schatten, Gotterdammerung, Khovanschina etc tend to be the works I enjoy the most in live performance.

          • grimoaldo2

            I agree with you there, I was picking up on the word “perfect” in fletcher’s post. Don Carlos is also my favourite Verdi, Handel operas if performed uncut are also about four hours long and if done well leave me wanting more, and I am counting the days until I see Le Prophete in Berlin, four and a half hours, yippee!

          • fletcher

            I could do without the whole of Act II, for instance.

            • CKurwenal

              But then the contrast of Marcello/Musetta with Rodolfo/Mimi in Act III would go for nothing, and the Musetta of Act IV wouldn’t be very interesting as you wouldn’t have particularly formed any opinion of her character. Plus You’d go straight from love at first sight to awkward temporary reconciliation, which would jar weirdly. I think Act II is essential for reinforcing the fact that the opera is about the Bohemians, all of them, and not just Rodolfo and Mimi.

            • fletcher

              I was mostly joking, but compare for instance the children’s choruses of Carmen and Bohème; the first, immediately following the leering soldiers (“On fume, on jase, l’on regarde passer les passants”) and the harassment of Micaëla, is for me profoundly chilling: the little boys of Seville can’t wait to grow up and become just like the swaggering soldiers, and the cycle of toxic masculinity continues; the dramatic function of the second (“Ecco Parpignol!”) is to illustrate that children like toys at Christmas.

            • rapt

              I agree completely with your singling out of Carmen and Rigoletto as perfect--and Boheme wouldn’t be near the top of any list of mine--but I wonder if there might not be dramatic appropriateness in Puccini’s highlighting the children-like-toys theme, given the childish antics of the Bohemians themselves in this scene and the focus on Mimi’s new bonnet and the free meal they procure.

        • DonCarloFanatic

          Dunno. I feel the same way about Tosca. How can it get any better? Rigoletto is so musically deceptive, too. Sweet, sweet music and dark, dark story.

          • grimoaldo2

            Yes, Rigoletto is unique in that way. Simply astonishing, strikes me as miraculous and almost unbearably poignant every time I hear or see it,

            • fletcher

              I don’t have the quote in front of me, but I think that Verdi felt the same way.

        • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

          Is there a link to that Chicago Rigoletto? I missed it and would love to hear it.

          • grimoaldo2

            Yige Li posted a link via We Transfer but it was only good for a week and has expired now, I just checked, sorry Betsy.

            • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

              Well, Poop. Thanks, Grim.

            • Yige Li


              I will be more than happy to upload it again as I really want more people get a chance to experience the marvelously musical Rosa Feola’s Gilda. While the thing turned out even better that someone asked me for the file after the original link expired, so I uploaded it again last week. But this link just has 2-day life remained. And you can find the program pdf here:

              Let me know if you experience any problem.

      • fletcher

        See I find the world-building of the first few numbers -- the splashy, playful but almost martial music of the prélude, the palpable menace of the opening scene, the toxic nature of Michaëla’s first interaction with the soldiers, the creepy children’s chorus, the wistful song of the factory workers set against the aggressive posturing of the young men toward the cigarières (“Sans faire les cruelles”, which should never be cut), all before Carmen’s big introduction! -- to be totally incomparable. Some might thing it’s slow but it’s essential for setting up the oppressive nature of Bizet’s Seville, which clarifies Carmen’s later choices. Rigoletto does something similar with the duke’s lascivious court, but the rest of Mantua is a blank. Act II does the same with the looser, sexier world of the smugglers. You need a mezzo who can dance though. But each number proceeds from the last with such clear structure and intent and inexorable force, all the way to the crushing end. (One of the things I love about that Act IV finale is imaging how Verdi might have handled the scenario and marveling at how brilliant, how original and startling Bizet’s handling of the confrontation and murder remains.)

        • Lohenfal

          Carmen is one of the all-time greats, but it benefits from the spoken dialogue of the original version. The individual numbers are much more powerful than when linked by Guiraud’s recitatives. The characters also emerge more clearly when we hear the dialogue. In the “standard” version, everything just seems more generic and “operatic.” Of course, one needs singers who can speak French properly and convincingly, and how often does that happen?

          • Nigel Wilkinson

            It’s funny, a late friend of mine really hated opera -- except Carmen. It was the only exception.

            • Lohenfal

              After his break with Wagner, Nietzsche appeared to also like only one opera: Carmen. He constantly used it as a stick wherewith to beat his erstwhile friend’s music.

  • David Prosser

    Regarding the picture caption -- I once saw Nozze at the Royal Opera House with Charles and Camilla in the audience. It was long past the days of Diana, but I did wonder if the story of an aristocrat desperately trying to deceive his wife so he could go off and play around with another woman was a little too close to home…

  • Re favourites and greats, I think I can handle the difference. I have no doubt at all that Mozart was a great composer, but I’m not personally a particular fan.

    Re favourites… As everybody here knows, when you decide what operas to go to you, for a start it all depends on what’s available wherever you happen to be, and then you weigh up a number of things: the work of course, but also who’s singing, who’s directing, the usual standard of the house, whether you’ve seen the opera or this production before, price… I may not be especially drawn to Mozart, even less to Bellini, but if I see Warlikowski has been invited to direct I’ll check the cast and if it looks good, I’ll go. So favourites don’t really come into it -- more a series of preferences.

    I’ve come to prefer live performances so much that at home, if I listen intently to opera, it’s usually to get to know a work I didn’t know before, recent examples being Bomarzo or Saint-Saëns’ Proserpine. Otherwise I just leave the player on “random” and it spits out bleeding chunks.

    But thinking about this question of favourites, I wondered what I would take to the proverbial desert island. Supposing I could only ever listen to a limited number of operas again, what would they be? I thought about the ones I do sometimes put on at home because they never bore me: works I can listen to with pleasure any time, whatever the mood. This makes quite a short list. I don’t know if this means they’re favourites, but the result is quite odd, because in all truth the pieces are (in no particular order): Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Bluebeard’s Castle, Die Ägyptische Helena, War and Peace, Betrothal in a Monastery, The Adventures of Mr Broucek, Les Paladins, Giulio Cesare, Les mamelles de Tirésias.

    “Runners-up” might be Elektra, Ariadne and Capriccio, Platée, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Death in Venice, Il viaggio a Reims, Nixon in China, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, other Janaceks, but the first slightly weird list certainly represents what I choose to spend time with at home.

  • Greg Freed

    My reaction is predictably equal parts “lists of favorites are the lowest form of discourse” and “seriously, no love for Nixon in China?!” It’s, yeah, hard to resist Top 10/20/1,000 lists, and it’s how most of us got started discussing opera, because it’s the lingua franca of places like and Opera-L. I tend think it’s worth having a few favorites and understanding how subjective even that is. Rankings in matters of culture, eh.

    Meanwhile I think three of those mezzos that voted for Dead Man Walking have sung in it, two of those in the world premiere, and one has publicly stated interest in doing so.

  • John Huizinga

    The results appear to be more about the singer-voters and their self-interest than the ‘view from nowhere’. It would be more interesting to me to know the thoughts of someone with less baggage such as Riccardo Muti or Daniel Barenboim.

    • Camille

      Yes; I quite agree with this opinion. This list is rather silly and moot, for what can one expect a singer to say? Therefore one must duly applaud Mesdames Dessay, Fleming and Yoncheva for venturing outside their safe routines.

      The only favo(u)rite opera I have is the one to which I am currently listening.
      AND Don Carlos!

      • John Huizinga

        I have more recordings of Don Carlo than any other Verdi opera — yet I don’t find it his masterpiece, merely the most interesting due to the incomparable historical backdrop, and the scale and range of the cast list.

        While I haven’t seen the issue and lack the data, my impression is that what is reported as results has many ‘false positives’ and ‘false negatives’. Like the follow up comments, this topic quickly devolves into the equivalent of a discussion of what someone’s favorite color is.

        • Porgy Amor

          I have a lot of recordings of Carlos or Carlo too, and this is necessary if you care about a piece and it is impossible to get everything under one cover, as it is with that opera. And so I have Paris premiere, Milan with cuts, Milan without cuts, Milan sung in English without cuts, Modena in Italian, Modena in French…more than one performance of a few of these options. Also the Pappano/EMI, which is in French but is its own unclassifiable animal.

          His masterpiece, no. Otello and Falstaff are greater operas, in my estimation, and the Requiem is a greater work as well. And with all of those, I could ration myself to a single great recording. You know what you’re going to get when they are performed. (Not that I would want to do with just one.)

          • Nigel Wilkinson

            I was at a fantastic concert performance of Macbeth last night, so good it really made it sound like the perfect opera -- I thought of the discussions going on here.

          • John Huizinga

            Without getting into the ‘greater work’ debate, I find Don Carlo fascinating because of its scale and complexity —and the fact that because it was such a challenge for Verdi, it remains imperfect. You cannot say that of Otello or Falstaff which are faithful to the Bard and immaculately resolved. Macbeth, both the play and the opera, is far more intriguing to me. As with DC, the composer’s struggle with this dark work also led to two versions.

            What I referred to as his ‘masterpiece’ imho is a work of both his finest thematic inspiration and, simultaneously, immense concision — if would be difficult to cut a bar of music. This does not usually appear true (for me) in Verdi as, even in works with passages of sustained inspiration (Trovatore, Forza, even Aida) there is too much ‘padding’. In addition, in what I’m calling his masterpiece, there are elements (such as a sardonic humor) which are quite novel in his oeuvre (pointing to Gianni Schicchi) — but which give this relatively short work immense chiaroscuro.

            • DonCarloFanatic

              If I’d first seen Don Carlo in a different production than the Met’s circa 1980, my feeling for it might be different. But Jerome Hines scared me silly, and everything else was so perfect for the era. And there was the music. And the singing. It’s the only opera I always want to crawl into.

            • John Huizinga

              That’s an interesting point because neither of the DC productions I’ve seen were remarkable — let’s accept this is the biggest scenographic challenge in Verdi. OTOH it might have been the merely very good singing which didn’t efface memories of multiple recordings, several live (electrically so in the Met 72 capture with Corelli and Caballé).

  • MisterSnow

    I don’t find it surprising that singers would favor some operas that they have performed a lot. They have studied these operas extensively and know them inside out. Glad that their knowledge is not just limited to the operas they perform (or would like to)!

  • Cicciabella

    Finally found the time to read Porgy’s entertaining analysis of the “best opera” list. Some singers’ choices are very amusing. I’ve tried to come up with my own list and it’s definitely not easy. My favourite opera composer bar none is Verdi but none of his operas make my top three, although he wrote so many perfect or near perfect works: Macbeth, Traviata, Rigoletto, Otello, Falstaff…If I had to preserve 3 operas for posterity they’d be Don Giovanni, Tristan und Isolde, and L’incoronazione di Poppea, in that order. Besides music which never ceases to astonish, the “best” operas have endlessly fascinating libretti and are, in the right hands, powerful theatre. Porgy writes that he can tell a lot about a person from their choices. I see now that my three choices are all operas about anarchy in one form or another…