The Top 10 Operas Written in the Last 10 Years

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This weekend, a city-wide festival focusing on the work of 100 composers, all under age 40, got underway. Called SONiC: Sounds of a New Century, the 10-day event's particular focus is on works written in the last decade. This tantalizing, not to mention ambitious, prospect has got us thinking about operas written in the last 10 years.

Some works just skirted by that number—Saariaho's L'amour de loin, for starters. And in an abridged odyssey this past weekend of listening to works from 2001 onward, some that felt entirely millennial were remarkably decades older (The Mines of Sulphur? 1960s? Really?) and others that rang mid-century were, disappointingly, more recently written (I won't name names). Still narrowing the list down was no easy task, and meant cutting some pieces that I hope will, such as Jeanine Tesori's A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, become rep staples. But in the meantime, here are our top picks. And tell us: What's the best opera you've seen or heard that was written in the last ten years? Leave your picks in the comments below.

10. Missy Mazzoli: Song from the Uproar (2009-12)
Is it fair to put a work that’s still in progress on this list? It feels more unfair to exclude it, because past readings of Missy Mazzoli’s opus about female explorer Isabelle Eberhardt have revealed the opera in its manifold states to be a heart-stomping work full of moody video imagery, hypnotic melodies and exquisitely haunting soundscapes. If this is where opera in the 21st Century is headed, it’s going to be a very, very good hundred years.

9. Einojuhani Rautavaara: Rasputin (2001-03)
Since Sibelius, there have been a steady stream of notable Finnish composers invading our soundwaves; for starters, there’s the holy trinity of Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg and Esa Pekka Salonen. Born in 1928, Einojuhani Rautavaara is a solid link between the composer of Finlandia and the post–war songsmiths and, remarkably, one still working today. There’s a bit of the Boris Godunovian grandeur in his 2001-03 opera about the Mad Monk and confidante to the last Tsar’s family, neatly incorporating Rasputin’s schizophrenic tendencies into a mystical and unshakable score.

8. Karlheinz Stockhausen: Sonntag aus Licht (2003)
Clocking in at nearly twice as long, Stockhausen’s ambitious Licht cycle trumps Wagner’s own marathon collection of operas and was completed in 2003 with Sonntag aus Licht (Sunday From Light). The composer spent 26 years modeling each of his seven operas after the mythologies surrounding the weeklong creation myth. While much has been made of paring down and a newfound sense of operatic austerity in the form of minimalism and chamber works, this mesmerizing epic of epic epicness is essential: On its own, Sonntag is so extensive that its individual scenes came from various commissions and have been premiered piecemeal (the work just received its world premiere this past April).

7. Louis Andriessen: La Commedia (2004-08)
Written in the wake of his own wife’s death, Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia is a whirligig of Florentine court music, a De Staat brand of energy, singsong children’s choruses, minimalist Italianate jazz and an searing underscored monologue from Lucifer himself. Yet, in Andriessen’s hands, it all blends effortlessly and, like other works on this list, brings to vibrant, millennial life a towering work of the past. Would that a commercial recording were available (hint, hint…).

6. Osvaldo Golijov: Ainadamar (2003-05)
Winner of the 2007 Grammy Award for best opera recording, Golijov’s first opera mixes the Jewish Argentine composer’s signature combination of Latin musical idioms with Hebraic sonic impulses and flashes of Arabic moments (most prominently in the title for the latter, which translates as “Fountain of Tears”). The result of this 21st-century passion play about one of the 20th Century’s great literary figures is an amalgam of musical influences that have preceded Golijov that simultaneously creates a distinctive sound from this singular composer.

5. Harrison Birtwistle: The Minotaur (2008)
Just because a work is steeped in ancient themes and characters doesn’t mean it cannot also be a part of the current cultural climes. Opera, after all, sprang forth from a then-contemporary attempt to musically adapt Greek tragedy, and Richard Strauss’s mythological works are 20th-century musical foxes. And in comes Harrison Birtwistle for the 21st Century with a work of literal blood and musical guts about a half-man, half-bull that makes the characters in The Sun Also Rises seem grounded.

4. John Adams: Doctor Atomic (2005)
Adams’s opera about the technical advances of J. Robert Oppenheimer—and their subsequent moral setbacks—has, well, bombed in terms of productions. However, the nuanced score ranks among John Adams’s finest work full of ill-boding harmonies and kinetic, intricate punctuation. The literary references in the patched-together libretto are apt and, in cases like the Act I closer “Batter My Heart,” yield some galvanizing moments.

3. Olga Neuwirth: Lost Highway (2003)
Here’s a hallmark of post-millennial opera: rooting works in cinematic source material. Many have tried to less successful results—Howard Shore’s The Fly and Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon both come to mind (though in fairness both were based on films based on books). But Neuwirth captures the Britten-like creepiness of movie maestro David Lynch in her gripping work that deftly balances the myriad themes and textures of the film while translating them into musical terms.

2. Philip Glass: Waiting for the Barbarians (2005)
Not only is Barbarians one of Philip Glass’s greatest operas since his heyday in the heady 1980s, the whole package speaks to the sounds of a new century from adapting a work by J. M. Coetzee—who won the Nobel Prize in 2003—that deals frankly and poetically with militaristic bridges to nowhere and the politics of torture. The sophisticated production from the opera’s world premiere in Erfurt, Germany (and U.S. first look in Austin, TX) is also indicative of opera houses embracing modern technology.

1. Thomas Adès: The Tempest (2004)
It seems odd to cite a Shakespeare-based opera as a work exemplary of the 21st Century, but there is the power of Thomas Adès. Playwright Meredith Oakes gives us a streamlined libretto, eliminating some of the play’s most famous lines (“full fathom five” becomes “five fathoms deep”) but creating a libretto that merges seamlessly with Adès’s prismatic and fearless score, rather than composer seeming subservient to the Bard. There are outbursts of lyricism, moments of melancholy longing and white-knuckle atonalities that, combined, cemented Adès’s reputation as one of the new millennium’s most prominent composers.

Weigh in: What are your favorite operas of the last decade? Least favorite?