We’ve been hard at work over the last month inputting many of the major opera houses’ 2012-3 seasons. There’s more diversity in the coming year than we’ve ever seen: it’s our firm impression at the moment that the variety of opera available is growing substantially each year. For a supposedly moribund art form, that’s pretty cheering, so this article is to share some of that cheer with you and give you a taste of the 2,000 or so opera performances that we already have in for the coming season.

The Mikado at ENO © Chris Christodoulou
The Mikado at ENO
© Chris Christodoulou

Happy Birthday Dick and Joe

In case anyone in the opera world hasn’t noticed, 2013 is the bicentenary of the birth of the two titans of Romantic opera: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. The two men did not appreciate each other’s art, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying them both, and not surprisingly (for an anniversary year), there’s plenty of choice.

La Monnaie De Munt © Johan Jacobs
La Monnaie De Munt
© Johan Jacobs

The two most performed Verdi operas are the ones you expect: Rigoletto (Munich, Zurich, La Fenice, La Scala, the Met and many others - the pairing of Joseph Calleja and Patrizia Ciofi in Munich in July looks particularly enticing) and La Traviata (new raunchy-looking productions from La Monnaie in Brussels and ENO in London, plus Munich, Amsterdam, Vienna and many more). But if you’re looking for more infrequently performed Verdi opera, this will be a good season to find it. His fifth opera I due Foscari (based on a play by Byron about the politics of mediaeval Venice) is being played by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège as well as in the theatre dedicated to Verdi in Palermo. If you want to see his rarely performed second opera Un giorno di Regno, you’ll need to head for Sarasota, Florida in March [updated - the original incorrectly said May].

For Wagner fans, it’s basically Ring Year, with celebratory cycles performed in Berlin, Munich, Paris, London, New York and Milan: there’s even a Siegfried in Gateshead from Opera North. There are interesting looking performances of some of the other operas: Bryn Terfel fans might fancy heading to Zurich around new year to hear him sing The Flying Dutchman, and Kent Nagano conducts a Tannhäuser for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (as well as all of their Ring Cycle). The Met’s Parsifal in February features the star pairing of Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape.

Novelties

If you hanker after those heady days when most opera productions were new works, with Rossini and Donizetti churning out new operas at the rate of knots, you’ll be disappointed. But most seasons include at least one newly written work. Of course, it’s difficult to say which of these are going to fly and which are going to flop, but here’s a smattering of the ones we think look interesting.

The highest profile new opera is George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, based on a strange 12th century tale of a lord, his wife and an illuminator of manuscripts. It’s a co-operation between several major European houses which will be touring next year in a production by Katie Mitchell, with Benjamin himself conducting. Our database has the performances in Amsterdam, London and Munich.

In October, Bavarian State Opera are also staging the première of Babylon, a love story by Jörg Widmann, who clearly has the ancient city on the brain: his Bavarian Babylonian March (a thought to conjure with) opened the Munich orchestral season in 2011 and his publishers speak of his “enduring fascination” with the city.

If you’re interested in Wagner’s philosophy as well as his music, there’s an intriguing looking world première by Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp: Tragedy of a Friendship, by the young German composer Moritz Eggert, who uses music and dance to trace the friendship between Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. Also in Belgium - clearly a vibrant place for new opera at the moment - La Monnaie stage Benoît Mernier’s second opera La Dispute, an investigation of love and betrayal, as well as Pascal Dusapin’s 2008 Passion.

Across the Atlantic, Vancouver Opera première Tan Dun’s newest opera Tea: a Mirror of Soul.

There are a number of “nearly new” operas premièred a few years ago and getting their first revivals. Covent Garden is doing Birtwistle’s Minotaur; in the US, San Diego Opera are staging Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, a “mariachi opera” by Pepe Martinez premièred in Houston in 2010, which tells a story of Mexican immigrants to the US.

Rarities

If you’re in the camp that can’t quite cope with contemporary opera but still want to see something that isn’t yet another repeat of traditional repertoire you’ve seen many times, next season is awash with possibilities. One example is Zurich’s performance of Telemann’s opera The Patient Socrates, a farce based on the premise that a change in Athenian law has forced Socrates to take an additional wife (aficionados of classical history will know that Socrates’ wife Xanthippe was a celebrated shrew, and in the opera, his fictional second wife Amitta is equally bad).

Another surprise is the appearance of a previously undiscovered classical-era opera by a Belgian composer, André Grétry: his 1792 L’Officier de Fortune gets one performance by Opéra Royal de Wallonie at Liège in October.

For a rare opera from a very non-rare composer, head for Berlin to see Mozart’s romance La Finta Giardiniera.

A scattering of others: Martinů’s Julietta is coming to ENO in September. Mussorgsky fans can choose from Khovanshchina in Paris or his historical epic Boris Godunov in Munich and Vienna. On the decidedly lighter side, Vlaamse Opera are putting on Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. Wexford Festival Opera’s programme is centred on lesser known works from Cilea, Delius and Emmanuel Chabrier as well as Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement. English Touring Opera have a couple of 20th century English productions this season: Britten’s Albert Herring and Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse.

Last but not least, a unique item is Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp before Ullmann’s death there. Like Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, it's scored for the arbitrary selection of musicians who were available in that place at that time. There are two productions next season: one from Berlin Staatsoper, and one from English Touring Opera.

Stars

Diana Damrau continues to be a regular at the Met, but you can also see her sing Traviata in Zurich. Amongst other Met regulars, Joyce DiDonato is singing Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi in Munich and San Francisco, while Renée Fleming is singing two concert performances of Richard Strauss’s last opera Capriccio at Covent Garden. Baroque fans may want to catch Anne Sofie von Otter in Zurich’s “opera based on the music of Handel” Sale. Top Wagnerian sopranos are being kept occupied by Ring Cycles: Janice Baird in Paris and Susan Bullock at Covent Garden, where she’s also singing Elizabeth I in Britten’s Gloriana. And followers of Anna Netrebko may or may not see her in L’Elisir d'Amore at the Met, La Bohème at La Scala and Eugene Onegin in Vienna.

Amongst leading tenors at the moment: Jonas Kaufmann is due to sing Tosca in Munich, Parsifal at the Met and Don Carlos in Covent Garden; we hope he recovers swiftly from the illness that has led him to drop out of Les Troyens next month. Joseph Calleja sings Rigoletto and I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Tybalt to DiDonato’s Romeo) in Munich as well as Madama Butterfly in Vienna. Top lyric tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden and Le Comte Ory at the Met; he also revives his highly successful collaboration with Natalie Dessay and director Laurent Pelly in La Fille du Régiment in Paris. (For a singing star of the past, by the way, you can see Dame Kiri te Kanawa playing the speaking part of The Duchess of Krakenthorp in the same production in Vienna).

Finally, some sort of Atlas award for carrying the show needs to go to José Cura, who is credited as director and set designer for Wallonie’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci double bill, as well as playing the tenor roles in both operas!

From other walks of life

It really does seem to us that opera is drawing increasing interest from other places in the arts, and we’ve spotted a couple of instances of famous names from elsewhere playing major parts next season. Celebrated artist Anish Kapoor is doing the sets for La Monnaie’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, while best-selling novelist David Mitchell (whose Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was one of my top reads a couple of years ago) collaborates with Michel van der Aa for the “film-opera” Sunken Garden, to be premièred at the Barbican by ENO in April and subsequently going to De Nederlandse Opera.

Looking back on this article, I realise some important things. Firstly, if you’re able to travel to the major European cities - and if you start in southern England, getting to any of Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Liège or Antwerp is pretty easy these days, with Berlin, Zurich and Munich eminently weekendable by air - the variety on offer is truly staggering. I’ve been mentioning some of the items that are interesting because they’re new or off the beaten track, but I’ve only covered a fraction, with over 150 different operas by over 80 different composers. And if your taste is more mainstream, the number of different productions of Puccini, Mozart and Donizetti (as well as this year’s anniversary composers Verdi and Wagner) is immense.

You might not have expected it, in view of the pressures of recession on many arts budgets, but somehow, it still manages to be a good time to be an opera lover.

David Karlin 31st May 2012