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Six of the best contemporary operas

In our poll, 172 leading opera singers voted for the greatest opera ever written. Find out which modern opera classics made the list

Jake Heggie's 'Dead Man Walking' (Credit: Cory Weaver)

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro may have taken the crown, but not all of the nominations were quite as traditional…

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Almost half of the Top 10 were 20th-century works, and ten singers proposed an opera written in the past 30 years.

It seems that modern operas, with their adventurous new directions, are creating as lasting an impact on singers as the classics.

So which works made the cut for our respondents?

Jake Heggie Dead Man Walking (2000)

Dead Man Walking is the greatest opera written in the last 50 years, according to our survey. Based on true events, this two-act piece tells the story of a Catholic nun who fights for the life of a man on death row. Heggie’s work creates ‘total engagement in audiences like few other theatrical experiences I have encountered,’ explains mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

Recommended recording:

Measha Brueggergosman, Cheryl Parrish, Joyce DiDonato, Frederica von Stade, Susanne Mentzer, Jon Kolbert, Philip Cutlip, John Packard; Houston Grand Opera & Chorus/Patrick Summers
Erato 6024632

Read our full review of this recording here.

George Benjamin Written on Skin (2012)

Vivid and compelling, it is no surprise that Benjamin’s first full-length opera is one of the greatest successes of recent years. Set in 13th-century Provence, the work loosely draws on an Occitan razo which recounts the legend of troubadour Guillaum de Cabestanh, offering a contemporary take on its themes of love, passion and violence. Watched over by angels, the protagonists deliver a parable whose moral is never quite resolved.

Recommended recording:

Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/George Benjamin; dir. Katie Mitchell
Opus Arte OA BD 7136

Read our full review of this recording here.

Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel (2016)

Trapped at a post-opera dinner party by some unfathomable force, guests find themselves unable to leave – and anarchy ensues. Based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film, The Exterminating Angel places ‘the bourgeois condition’ under a magnifying glass and suggests they are not actually trapped in a room but in their own heads. Adès’ darkly comic opera is flamboyant and discombobulating, featuring live sheep and a Tenor ode to coffee spoons.

Recommended recording:

Audrey Luna, Amanda Echalaz, Sally Matthews, Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote, Christine Rice, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Frédéric Antoun, David Portillo, Rod Gilfry, John Tomlinson; Metropolitan Opera, Thomas Adès, Gary Halvorson

Mark-Anthony Turnage The Silver Tassie (2002)

Set in First World War Dublin, this tragi-comedy follows the fate of local football hero Harry Heegan from his tassie (trophy)-winning glory to the trenches, where he suffers a paralysing injury. Each act is treated like a symphonic movement, culminating in a taunting dance finale featuring Irish jigs and reels. With a musical idiom sitting somewhere peculiar between Wozzeck and West Side Story, Turnage’s soundworld is never less than eclectic.

Recommended recording:

Gerald Finley, John Graham-Hall, Anne Howells, Sarah Connolly, Vivian Tierney, David Kempster, Mary Hegarty; ENO Chorus & Orchestra/Paul Daniel
ENO Alive 001

Read our full review of this recording here.

Tobias Picker Emmeline (1996)

In his two-act opera, American composer Tobias Picker’s Emmeline imagines the Oedipus myth in the context of 19th-century industrial Maine. Vivid orchestration brings the scene of a working mill to life, emulating busily clicking gears, while elsewhere the musical scenery is interwoven with songs and Protestant anthems of the time.

Recommended recording:

Patricia Racette, Herbert Perry et al, Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Santa Fe Opera Chorus/George Manahan

Oliver Knussen Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1985)

Higglety Pigglety Pop! is one of two operas on which Oliver Knussen collaborated wih author Maurice Sendak in the 1980s (the other is Where the Wild Things Are). A sparkling one-act children’s opera, it tells the tale of Jennie the Sealyham terrier who heads off for adventure, and ends up starring in the World Mother Goose Theatre.

Recommended recording:

Cynthia Buchan, Lisa Saffer, Mary King, Rosemary Hardy, David Wilson-Johnson, Stephen Richardson, Christopher Gillett, Quentin Hayes; London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen
DG 4695562

Read our full review of this recording here.

See the result of our survey here, and for a full rundown of the singers’ choices, pick up a copy of our October issue – out now.

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Amelia Parker