One of my favourite descriptions of opera probably has to be from the character Jamie Macdonald (in the film In The Loop), who angrily espouses that “[opera…] It’s just vowels, foreign subsidised vowels”. And I can’t help feel that there is a little bit of truth in that. Opera companies throughout Britain receive a great number of grants and government subsidies, whilst the repertoire of most is usually French, Italian or Germanic in its origins. But I was lucky enough to get to the Mid Wales Opera Company’s production of the Bear, by William Walton the other day, and it put me on the look out for more of the operatic worlds offerings in my own mother tongue. So after a little bit of research with the help of my daughter, who is now a world class devotee of the signing princesses (as she has dubbed all sopranos), and much to the displeasure of my fiancee, who is not, here are a few of the better pieces that could serve as an introduction to the world of the English language Opera.
The Bear- By William Walton
This one act opera tells the tale of a widow who has not left the house since the death of her husband and an ill mannered creditor of her late husband, whom the widow dubs the Bear. this small cast and small ensemble of musicians is a light hearted comedy based on a Chekhov play of the same name is thoroughly amusing, especially the eponymous Bear’s treatment of the Luka, the Widow Popova’s manservant.
Akhnaten- By Philip Glass
Aknaten by Philip Glass is an opera in three acts, and its inclusion on this list is cheating slightly as much of the opera is in English, it was originally performed in German, with much of the opera itself actually being in ancient Egyptian. The story itself is a simple (if such a term may be used) biopic of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, set almost 1400 years before the birth of Christ.
Porgy And Bess- By George Gershwin
With music and lyrics from the Gershwin brothers, Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black street-beggar living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer. This is one of the most popular opera’s of the 20th century and has been adapted numerous times on stage as well as several times on screen, with notable performances by Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr.
Punch and Judy- By Sir Harrison Birtwistle
Punch and Judy is probably one of the most violent operas of all time, but given the nature of the subject matter this isn’t surprising. It follows the story of Mr Punch and his Journey of carnage as he kills his child, his wife, and varying members of the public before dancing into the abyss with his lover Pretty polly. It’s a weird one, the version I watched, portrayed Mr Punch and Co in a sort of crack house circus which served to highlight the nightmarish content of the original source material.
HMS Pinafore- By Gilbert and Sullivan
You couldn’t mention English language opera without bringing up Gilbert and Sullivan, and Pinafore is the duo at their best. Its a tale about duty and love and class, with a young sailor who falls in love with the captains daughter, and through a few twists of fate somehow manages to win the day. This is probably my favourite of all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas, narrowly beating the Mikado and and the Pirates of Penzance, and features such classic numbers as Sweet Little Buttercup & He Is An Englishman