“Written on Skin” (with Christopher Purves, Tim Mead, and Barbara Hannigan) has won acclaim from critics and audiences, leading me to ask: what (other) contemporary operas do you think are actually good? Readers responded with a long and varied list. (Photo: Richard Termine)

Updated: There’s an element of randomness to any crowdsourced list, and after this one appeared, more people chimed in with their own favorites that hadn’t been included. I’ve therefore gone in and added a few additional titles that were sent in — including a couple of operas that I personally just plain hated; but this is not my list.

Back in my idealistic teenage days, I passionately espoused the view that it was better, as an artist, to touch one person deeply than to reach a crowd superficially.

I cite this by way of introduction to the following list of contemporary operas. This list is drawn from the on-line comments to my piece “Written on Skin and the problem of new opera,” notably including a Twitter conversation extending over a couple of days that showed just how much energy and interest and hope and passion there is about this topic. As part of my article, and part of the conversation, I asked people to name contemporary operas that had moved them; this list is the answer.

Crowdsourced lists are highly arbitrary. Some people who didn’t happen to read my article or see my Tweets in the last few days might add different names to the list. A couple of artists cited works they had helped create, and some will doubtless quibble with my inclusion of them. Some named living composers; some named deceased ones; and some raised the perennial question of how to define “opera” (“Hamilton” got several mentions as an exemplary and contemporary work of music theater). I don’t know if there’s anything to be read into the fact that this list doesn’t include some names you might expect (Mark Adamo, for one); I did take the liberty of adding Tobias Picker’s “Emmeline,” whose omission I decided to consider an oversight. I almost added Louis Andriessen’s “De Materie,” a self-styled “non-opera,” but decided to leave my own tastes out of this. This certainly isn’t my list: I didn’t like all of these operas myself, nor do I think they’re all free of the issues I cited in my original piece.

That’s all beside the point, though. This list isn’t definitive: it’s simply inspirational. It’s a list of new operas that meant something to at least one person: moved him or her to tears, or to excitement, or to a desire for another hearing. We’re talking about an art form that’s struggling with its scale, and many mainstream houses are faced with filling 2,000 seats or more for each performance; it’s hard to find a work that’s going to please that many people. But all of these operas, old and new, large and small, worked for someone — and on some level I still believe that is one significant criterion of success.

John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” (here, in the Metropolitan Opera production with Sean Panikkar, Christopher Feigum and Paolo Szot), despite controversy, makes some people’s best-of lists. (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Operas performed in traditional
opera houses:

Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass (1975-6)
Akhnaten by Philip Glass (1983)
Orphée by Philip Glass, libretto based on film by Jean Cocteau (1991-3)
Nixon in China by John Adams and Alice Goodman (1987)
The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams and Alice Goodman (1991)
Doctor Atomic by John Adams and Peter Sellars (2005)
The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams and Peter Sellars (2013, opera-oratorio)
Susannah by Carlisle Floyd (1955)
Bilby’s Doll by Carlisle Floyd (1976)
Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim (1979)
Europeras 1 & 2 by John Cage (1987)
The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano and William M. Hofmann (1991)
A View from the Bridge by William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein/Arthur Miller (1999)
Higglety Pigglety Pop by Oliver Knussen and Maurice Sendak (1985-91)
Rosa: the Death of a Composer by Louis Andriessen and Peter Greenaway (1993-4)
Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catan and Marcela Fuentes-Berain (1996)
Il Postino by Daniel Catan (2010)
Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally (2000)
Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer (2010)
L’Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf (2000)
Adriana Mater by Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf (2006)
Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas (2011)
Emmeline by Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy (1996)
Dolores Claiborne by Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy (2013)
Shining Brow by Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon (1993)
Tea: a Mirror of Soul by Tan Dun and Xu Ying (2002)
Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov and David Henry Hwang (2003-5)
Anna Karenina by David Carlson and Colin Graham (2007)
The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan (2008)
The Letter by Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout (2009)
Death and the Powers by Tod Machover and Robert Pinsky (2010)
Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell (2011)
The Manchurian Candidate by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell(2015)
Written on Skin by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp (2012)
Sunken Garden by Michael van der Aa (2013)
The Long Walk by Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann (2015)
Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer (2015)

Edited to add:

Cold Sassy Tree by Carlisle Floyd (2000)
Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd (1969)
The Passion of Jonathan Wade by Carlisle Floyd (1962, rev. 1991)
Satyagraha by Philip Glass and Constance DeJong (1979)
The Perfect American by Philip Glass and Rudy Wurlitzer (2012)
The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe by Dominic Argento and Charles Nolte (1976)
Miss Havisham’s Fire by Dominic Argento and John Olon-Scrymgeour (1979, rev. 2001)
Casanova’s Homecoming by Dominic Argento (1985)
Mary, Queen of Scots by Thea Musgrave (1977)
Lear by Aribert Reimann and Claus H. Henneberg (1979)
The Postman Always Rings Twice by Stephen Paulus and Colin Graham (1982)
Un re in ascolto (The King Listens) by Luciano Berio (1983)
Saint François d’Assise by Olivier Messiaen (1983)
X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis (1985)
Rappacini’s Daughter by Daniel Catan and Juan Tovar (1991)
Die Eroberung von Mexico by Wolfgang Rihm (1991)
A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn and Philip Littell (1998)
The Handmaid’s Tale by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley (2000)
Volpone by John Musto and Mark Campbell (2004)
The Tempest by Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes (2004)
Lysistrata by Mark Adamo (2005)Two Boys by Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas (2011)
A Christmas Carol by Iain Bell and Simon Callow (2014)
Two Women by Marco Tutino and Fabio Ceresa (2015)

The composer David T. Little, whose “Dog Days” has attracted a lot of attention since its 2012 premiere. (photo: Merri Cyr).

Operas originated by smaller presenters that have been taken up by traditional opera houses:

Glory Denied by Tom Cipullo (2007)
Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears (2009-13)
Dog Days by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek (2008-12)
Song from the Uproar by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek (nominated by director) (2012)

Operas presented outside of traditional opera houses:

The Black Rider by Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, and William S. Burroughs (1990)
So Long Ago I Can’t Remember by GAle GAtes et al (2001)
The Merchant of Venice by André Tchaikowsky (1968-82, first staged 2013)
The Singing by Daniel Levy (1997-2000)
Ask your Mama by Laura Karpman and Langston Hughes (2009, opera-oratorio)
Lolita by Joshua Fineberg (2008-9)
Invisible Cities by Christoper Cerrone (2009-13)
Smashed: the Carrie Nation Story by James Barry (2012)
As One by Laura Kaminsky and Mark Campbell (2014)
The Scarlet Ibis by Stefan Weisman and David Cote (nominated by librettist) (2015)

Edited to add:

Punch and Judy by Harrison Birtwistle and Stephen Pruslin (1967)
Into the Little Hill by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp (2006)
Here Be Sirens by Kate Soper (2014)
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by David Lang and Mac Wellman (2014)
The Hunger by Donnacha Dennehy (2014)
The Last Hotel by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh (2015)

Audrey Luna as Ariel in Thomas Adès’s opera “The Tempest” at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.)

Composers mentioned without reference to specific operas:

Note: Subsequent contributors did specifically name some of these composers’ works. 

Thomas Ades
Donacha Dennehy
Harrison Birtwistle

Jonathan Dove
Gerald Barry
Pascal Dusapin

Peter Eötvös

Edited to add:

Judith Weir
Robert Ashley [Inconsequential caveat: I never wrote the word “alot" for “a lot" – it’s a typo.]
Philippe Boesmans (whose work will have its first-ever North American production when “Julie” comes to Toronto in November).
Pierre Bartholomée

Older “new operas:”

Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein (1927-8)
Montezuma by Roger Sessions and Giuseppe Antonio Borgese (1963)
A Month in the Country by Lee Hoiby and William Ball (1964)
Le Grand Macabre by György Ligeti (1974-7, rev. 1996)
Mittwoch aus Licht by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1995-7, first staged 2012)

Edited to add:

The Consul by Gian Carlo Menotti (1950)

“You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way you have the habit of talking, putting it in other words, but I mean by understanding, enjoyment” — Gertrude Stein