Many composers have turned their hand to opera, from Handel to Kanye West. But who are the composers who have shaped this theatrical form into what it is today?
Originating in Italy at the end of the 16th century, opera has attracted composers from all styles and backgrounds. Although Italy remained the epicentre of the European opera world for quite some time, there have always been composers in other countries making waves: Schütz in Germany, Lully in France, Purcell in Britain and, more recently, Missy Mazzolli, Philip Glass and John Adams in the US.
While this may not be an exhaustive list of the greatest opera composers, it is a good place to start for those who are new to the art form.
Please note: this list has been compiled in no particular order.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) truly was opera’s colossus, revolutionising the form and popularising the use of leitmotifs – musical phrases corresponding to specific characters – in operas of the 19th century.
His Ring Cycle perfectly indicates his grasp of the form, made up of four full-length operas – a cycle of unprecedented scale and grandeur. Its four comprising operas are Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and are intended to be heard in a series. Its opening opera, Das Rheingold, is, at two and a half hours, the longest single stretch of unbroken music in the classical music canon.
Which operas did Wagner compose?
Find out more about Wagner and his works here
We named Wagner one of the greatest composers ever
Puccini is the founding father of Italian opera, whose music has stood the test of time. How many times have we heard ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi or seen various adaptations of La boheme performed on stages across the world?
Certainly, there’s something questionable about the way Puccini and his librettists treat women, with many of his female protagonists taking their own lives, but elsewhere in his operas he touches on progressive subjects such as cultural imperialism.
Which operas did Puccini compose?
La fanciulla del West
Find out more about Puccini and his works here
The operas of Benjamin Britten manage to straddle traditional and avant-garde soundworlds and appeal to a wide variety of audiences. After giving the US premiere of Paul Bunyan, written to a libretto by WH Auden, the pair withdrew the opera – despite its deft use of American musical, country and blues idioms.
The premiere of Peter Grimes secured Britten a place on the international opera stage, and from then, Britten was able to flex his operatic muscles and wrote a tranche of stellar works for the stage. He has emerged as one of the major figures of 20th-century opera.
Which operas did Britten compose?
The Rape of Lucretia
The Beggar’s Opera
The Turn of the Screw
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Burning Fiery Furnace
The Prodigal Son
Death in Venice
Find out more about Britten and his works here
Kaija Saariaho’s first opera L’Amour de loin is dark, brooding and already a mainstay of the European opera scene since it was first performed in 2000. It was given its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016 and became the first ever opera by a female composer and conducted by a female composer (Susanna Mälkki) to be broadcast to cinemas across the world as part of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series. The opera is based on the story of Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye, one of the first great troubadours of the 12th century.
Which operas has Kaija Saariaho composed?
L’amour de loin
Thomas Adès leapt to global fame in 1995 following the premiere of his first opera Powder Her Face, written for four singers and chamber orchestra. It is about a beautiful but promiscuous woman who is disgraced during her divorce, and is seen as one of the earliest operas about tabloid culture and cancel culture.
The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel are similarly dramatic, both of which are adaptations: The Tempest of Shakespeare’s play of the same name and The Exterminating Angel an adaptation of the 1962 film by Luis Buñuel.
Which operas has Thomas Adès composed?
Powder Her Face
The Exterminating Angel
Handel was a master of opera and oratorio, having started writing and directing his own operas at the age of just 20. As a young man, he went to Italy – the home of opera – to seek patronage and learn from the great composers of the time. It was here he penned such operas as Rodrigo and Agrippina, both of which are still commonly performed and recorded across the world. He later left Italy for London where he wrote a further 30 operas.
Because of his comparatively long life, his output was vast and the operatic masterpieces were spread evenly across his life. In the 1730s he split his time evenly between writing operas an oratorios, such as Esther and Acis and Galatea.
Which operas has Handel composed?
Il pastor fido
Amadigi di Gaula
Arianna in Creta
Giove in Argo
Acis and Galatea
Find out more about Handel and his works here
In her lifetime, The Boatswain’s Mate was Ethel Smyth‘s most successful opera. The comic two-act opera features the theme that later became The March of the Women, the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and the broader women’s suffrage movement in 1911.
It is her earlier opera, however, that is most regularly performed nowadays. Thomas Beecham conducted the English premiere of The Wreckers in 1909 and it went on to receive a Covent Garden performance the year after. It’s a light opera – a label Smyth was proud of, believing English composers were well suited to the style. Mahler was believed to be interested in bringing it to the Vienna State Opera, but unfortunately got fired before he had the opportunity to do so.
Which operas did Ethel Smyth compose?
The Boatswain’s Mate
Tchaikovsky‘s compositional output is wide-ranging, encompassing ballets, songs, symphonies and, of course, operas. Despite Tchaikovsky’s hesitancy, concerned the public may not accept it, Eugene Onegin has become one of his most commonly performed operas. It is based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin, as are his later operas The Queen of Spades and Mazeppa.
We also named Tchaikovsky one of the greatest ballet composers ever
Which operas did Tchaikovsky compose?
Vakula the Smith
The Maid of Orleans
The Queen of Spades
Find out more about Tchaikovsky and his works here
In 2018, Missy Mazzoli made history when she became one of the first two women (along with Jeanine Tesori) to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. She has chosen to base her Met Opera commission on George Saunders’s 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo. BBC Music Magazine‘s columnist referred to Mazzoli as ‘writing in a lush, neo-Romantic style spiced with minimalist and jazz flecks.’
Her most recent opera, Proving Up, explores the dark realities of the American Dream, based on a story by the writer Karen Russell. ‘I wrote it right after the 2016 election when issues of inequality and access were being discussed more than ever – something that has only intensified in the last four years,’ Mazzolli told BBC Music Magazine in 2020. ‘Most of my operas so far have centred on women in impossible situations. Being a woman in a male-dominated field and struggling to carve out an identity is one of my big preoccupations.’
Which operas has Missy Mazzoli composed?
Song from the Uproar
Breaking the Waves
Read our reviews of Mazzoli recordings here
Verdi dominated the world of Italian opera in the 19th century after the premiere of Nabucco took Milan by storm in 1842, following in the footsteps of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini who came before. Even during his lifetime, Verdi’s operas were incredibly popular, performed across the world. His La traviata remains the most-performed opera in the world – despite having initially been viewed as something of a disappointment after the epic historic operas he had written before, Rigoletto and Il trovatore. Together, these three operas – written during his ‘middle period’ remain his best loved.
Which operas did Verdi compose?
Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio
Un giorno di regno
I Lombardi alla prime crociata
I due Foscari
La battaglia di Legnano
Les vêpres siciliennes
Un ballo in maschera
La forza del destino
Find out more about Verdi and his works here
By the age of 13, Mozart had already composed a short one-act opera: Bastien and Bastienne. From here, his ambitions and talents grew, thanks to several trips to Italy which helped hone his operatic skills and establish his reputation as an opera composer.
His sophisticated orchestral writing aided the creation of his operas, most of which are still readily performed today. The Marriage of Figaro is one such opera, the first collaboration between Mozart and the theatre poet Lorenzo da Ponte. They continued working together for several years, ending with Così fan tutte, their final opera together.
We named The Marriage of Figaro as the greatest opera of all time
Which operas did Mozart compose?
Apollo et Hyacinthus
Bastien und Bastienne
La finta semplice
Mitridate, re di Ponto
Ascanio in Alba
Il sogno di Scipione
La finta giardiniera
Il re pastore
Thomas, König in Ägypten
Idomeneo, re di Creta
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Le nozze di Figaro
Cosí fan tutte
La clemenza di Tito
British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage has penned a number of operas, including a chamber opera, Country of the Blind. Taking inspiration from a wide variety of genres and styles, Turnage’s operas encompass eclectic soundworlds and explore complex and provocative subject matter.
The Silver Tassie is set in First World War Dublin and follows the life of a local footballer who becomes paralysed while fighting in the trenches, while Anna Nicole tells the story of the rise and demise of Playboy model Anna-Nicole Smith. Its 2013 premiere became the last work staged by the New York City Opera.
Which operas has Mark-Anthony Turnage composed?
Twice Through the Heart
Country of the Blind
The Silver Tassie
Straddling the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Monteverdi was pioneering in the development of Italian opera and vocal music. Instrumental music also played a key role in his writing however, with strings dominating the orchestral accompaniment in operas such as Orfeo. This might be due to the fact that Monteverdi grew up in Cremona, home to the Amati family who manufactured top-quality violins and string instruments.
Although opera had already been developed by the time Monteverdi started writing, Orfeo is considered to be the first great masterpiece in Italian opera. He was pioneering with his later operas as well: L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea) was the first known opera to be based on a factual historical subject, a trend that has continued throughout the course of operatic history.
Which operas did Monteverdi compose?
Le nozze di Tetide
La finta pazza Licori
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia
L’incoronazione di Poppea
Find out more about Monteverdi and his works
There are few opera composers as wholly original as Janáček. Despite not getting round to writing his first major opera (Jenůfa) until middle age, he found his stride and completed many significant operas in the latter half of his life.
His operas are notable for their prominent use of Slavic folk music from his native Czech Republic. Like many Italian operas, his writing is full of heightened drama and complex, fleshed-out characters.
Which operas did Janácek compose?
The Beginning of a Romance
The Excursions of Mr Brouček
The Cunning Little Vixen
The Makropulos Affair
From the House of the Dead