Best Contemporary Opera

It’s a strange tale for those of us who grew up in the era of high modernism, but contemporary opera has become popular with audiences. Not the dense, uncompromising works, mind you: Harrison Birtwistle still doesn’t have a lot of fans, while Jake Heggie does.

But since we’re swimming in new opera — the Metropolitan Opera itself did four contemporary operas in its 2021–2022 season — SF Classical Voice decided to ask our readers and critics what they thought the best opera composed since 2000 was. And we got a range of well-written responses.

So, first of all, thank you to all who wrote in. And second, a shout-out to the one composer, J.J. Hollingsworth, who wrote in to nominate herself: “Well, I composed one called Pomp and Circumstances, which maybe you’ll hear about someday … and yes, I do quote Elgar in the score.” Frankly, I’m surprised that only one person did that. Good for you, J.J.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the rest of your highly readable, always enjoyable nominations. All have been lightly edited:

Awakenings, by Tobias Picker, libretto by Aryeh Lev Stollman (2022)

A scene from the 2022 world premiere of Awakenings | Credit: Eric Woolsey/Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Awakenings is a richly layered work featuring a well-crafted libretto and pleasantly nuanced score that together make a deeply moving, thought-provoking, and memorable new opera. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Oliver Sacks about his work with patients who survived the mysterious “sleeping sickness” epidemic of the 1920s, the opera focuses on three particularly poignant cases during the course of a year when they are “awakened” by experimental doses of L-Dopa but then return to their previous catatonic states when the medication becomes ineffective.

Awakenings also gives us a look into the hearts and minds of Sacks and his fellow caregivers, and we quickly come to care deeply about what happens to all these characters in the restrictive setting of a 1960s hospital. After attending the first two performances and reading the reviews, it is clear to me that audiences are powerfully affected by Awakenings. Furthermore, everyone has a slightly different takeaway depending on their personal perspective, which I believe is the hallmark of a great work of art. I look forward to seeing it again and again! — Heidi Munzinger

L’Amour de loin (Love from afar), by Kaija Saariaho, libretto by Amin Maalouf (2000)

Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho | Credit: Andrew Campbell

You don’t often associate nontonal vocal music with the adjectives lush, romantic, and lyrical. But that is Saariaho’s accomplishment in L’Amour de loin. It’s based on La vida breve by the 12th-century troubadour Jaufre Rudel, and the story is about his love for a woman of Tunisia of whom he has only heard reports. At the end of the opera, dying, he meets her briefly, in a transporting love duet. Although everything we hear in this opera is Saariaho’s style, particularly the exquisite orchestration, the musical language extends into stylistic quotes from troubadour music, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, possibly even Messiaen. But for a composer so good at abstract music, L’Amour de loin speaks very directly, and part of that is down to Maalouf’s compressed, elegant poetic lines. Although almost nothing happens onstage, this opera has never been out of the repertoire since its premiere (three productions in 2021). — Michael Zwiebach

Champion, by Terence Blanchard, libretto by Michael Cristofer (2013)

A scene from Opera Parallèle’s 2016 production of Champion | Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo/Opera Parallèle

Blanchard’s Champion packs both a musical and a dramatic punch, pun intended since it is the story of boxer Emile Griffith’s life, in two acts. Could a story be more relevant to our day? It addresses Griffith’s dementia in his failing years, likely a result of his boxing career (as Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson’s certainly was); the travails of a closeted gay man; and the racial and financial obstacles Griffith faced as a young Latino immigrant from the Caribbean. The story is told through the voices of three Griffiths: the declining elder, the boxer in his prime, and (voiced by a boy soprano) the child of the islands.

Although his first opera, Blanchard masters the idiom — his skill with orchestration certainly draws on his vast experience as a film composer (primarily for Spike Lee) — and infuses it with both jazz and Caribbean accents at key moments. The scene that closes Act 1 and depicts the fight during which Griffith brutally (and fatally) beats the gay-baiting Benny “Kid” Paret is brilliant and shocking. Champion is a great opera, with the kind of direct unalloyed power that is a rarity in the repertoire, and one worthy of becoming a staple in opera houses around the nation and the world. — Don Roth

Dream of the Red Chamber, by Bright Sheng, libretto by David Henry Hwang (2016)

Dream of the Red Chamber
A scene from SF Opera’s 2022 production of Dream of the Red Chamber | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The sadness of this story combined with the formal beauty of the staging combined with the emotional effect of the music that ranges from jarring sound to gentle melody offers the viewer a splendid performance experience.  — Vicky Hoover

Elizabeth Cree, by Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell (2017)

Elizabeth Cree
A scene from West Edge Opera’s 2021 production of Elizabeth Cree | Credit: Cory Weaver/West Edge Opera

Set roughly in Victorian times, largely in a music-hall troupe, this hilarious work features murder, mayhem, and madness. It’s made for fans of Kind Hearts and Coronets and Gilbert and Sullivan, featuring pitch-perfect pastiches of period songs. The plot unfolds slowly and slyly enough to fool an audience. Why aren’t composers writing more comic operas? — Lisa Hirsch

Eurydice, by Matthew Aucoin, libretto by Sarah Ruhl (2020)

A scene from the 2020 world premiere of Eurydice | Credit: Cory Weaver/LA Opera

A refreshing rebirth of the universally known Orpheus legend. The music offers a variety of styles, current as well as past, that I find refreshing, especially as it weaves in dance, a tip of the hat to the old tradition of ballet in opera. The vocal writing requires, as it should, virtuosic singing from both soprano and tenor; tessiture vary for Eurydice and go satisfyingly high for the tenor. The new conception of including Eurydice’s father creates emotional depth, especially for Eurydice, both vocally and dramatically. Bravo always for more emotional validity onstage. — Carol Webber

The Exterminating Angel, by Thomas Adès, libretto by Tom Cairns (2016)

Thomas Adès
Thomas Adès | Credit: Marco Borggreve

I find this a fascinating and absolutely delicious work, with touches of humor and sometimes-thunderous tonal music that pushes right to the edge. I have seen it three times, courtesy of the Met Opera’s HD program in theaters and a showing on KQED channel 9, and it has now become my favorite opera of any kind. Based on the 1962 Luis Buñuel film of the same title, it is the story of a strange dinner party where a group of spoiled, upper-class Spaniards find they cannot leave the room and are forced to stay for days or weeks while tempers fray and polite masks slip off. Some characters die. Others try to rescue themselves. They finally manage to walk out of the living room, out of the house — and into a sudden musical apocalypse. There is no escape. Adès’s music for the opera is wonderful and challenging and should be heard at least twice. Listen for the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument that lends an eerie shimmer to this complex work. — Lynn Price

Girls of the Golden West, by John Adams, libretto by Peter Sellars (2017)

Girls of the Golden West
A scene from the 2017 world premiere of Girls of the Golden West | Credit: Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera

I nominate John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West not only as “Best Contemporary Opera” but as “Most Likely to Be Reevaluated and Rediscovered.” Combining historical narratives with multiple musical vocabularies, the opera offers a deeply analytic, emotionally charged look at the dark side of California history. The piece contains one of the great baritone arias of the 21st century — “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (to a text by Frederick Douglass) — as well as a tour-de-force climatic scene in which a Spanish woman is lynched by a white mob in Downieville — all based on real events. Sadly, in Adams’s revised version, Lola Montez’s flamboyant “Spider Dance” has been omitted. The Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform Girls of the Golden West in concert next season. Look for the shift to begin.  Jim Farber

Why I Live at the P.O., by Stephen Eddins, libretto by Michael O’Brien (2022)

Why I Live at the P.O.
A scene from the 2022 world premiere of Why I Live at the P.O. | Credit: Nick Karlin/UrbanArias

Last month we were in Washington D.C. and saw an opera by Stephen Eddins. It was a comic opera and actually one of the most delightful evenings I have spent in the lyric theater in some time. UrbanArias staged the piece in the Dupont Circle area. The opera is based on a short story by Eudora Welty. I wish we had more comic operas. Eddins’s piece is short enough to be easily paired with another one-act. Maybe a serious short opera, for contrast. Anyway, our evening in Washington reminded me of what a wonderful experience it is to laugh and enjoy beautiful music. — Paul Bendix

A few long-lived operas with still-living creators were nominated by fans who only caught up with them in the 21st century. It seems wrong not to honor those operas and those experiences, so:

Frida, by Robert Xavier Rodríguez, libretto by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz (1991)

A scene from Florida Grand Opera’s 2019 production of Frida | Credit: Daniel Azoulay/Florida Grand Opera

This opera, sung in both Spanish and English, incorporates music from Mexican folk traditions to tell the dramatic story of the life of Frida Kahlo, one of the most visionary and iconic artists of the 20th century and wife of the country’s great muralist, Diego Rivera. I was cast to sing Cristina Kahlo and Mrs. Ford in this opera recently, and I’m also a stand-in for El Paso Opera’s production later this year. I really enjoyed it, as it has some elements of being a hybrid of opera and musical theater. [N.B. This opera was performed in San José, by Opera Cultura, in April 2022, one of three productions it has had this year.] — Kristin Genis-Lund

Nixon in China, by John Adams, libretto by Alice Goodman (1987)

John Adams
John Adams | Credit: Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Although Nixon in China premiered in Houston in 1987, I saw the San Francisco premiere in 2012, so it will have to do for this challenge. I had to see the production with standing-room tickets due to a tight budget. “This will serve to keep me awake,” I thought — but no need, I was mesmerized. Although a critic, Marvin Kitman, had said in 1988 that the opera had “only three things wrong,” referring to the libretto, the music, and the direction, I thought the opposite was true. The Alice Goodman libretto is clever; it brilliantly manages to describe astonishing events: the anti-communist Nixon, opening the world to the “sleeping giant.” Pat Nixon’s arias are eloquent. What would make her more human than removing her uncomfortable shoes while lying down in the hotel room? What a contrast with the universally hated Madame Mao. In bloodcurdling coloratura she rails against her own people. I was about 15 years old, and still living in my native Argentina, when Nixon visited China. My family was as fascinated, and as glued to the black-and-white TV, as with the moon landing. The opera shows the insider vision of the unlikely event. Nixon in China makes history palpable. — Liliana Kossoy Hamlett