7 famous German operas to see once in your life
It may not be to everyone’s taste, but opera is a proud tradition in Germany. If you’re looking to get acquainted with the federal republic’s vast and rich cultural landscape, a working knowledge of German-language opera is certainly a string you should add to your bow. Here’s an overview of some of the most famous German operas that have contributed magnificently to the art form so beloved in Germany today.
From Mozart to Beethoven to Wagner: The finest German operas
Almost ever since the first operas were staged in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century, German composers have been penning their own works, contributing to a uniquely German artform that is one of the strongest traditions in European culture. Let’s pick up our theatre binoculars and take closer a look at some of the most influential works throughout the history of German opera.
Sigmund Theophil Staden - Seelewig
Although German opera history began in 1627 with composer Heinrich Schutz’s German translation of the Italian opera Dafne, the score to that piece unfortunately no longer exists. The earliest surviving German-language opera is therefore Seelewig (known as The Sacred Forest Poem in English), composed by Sigmund Theophil Staden in 1644.
The play tells, in three acts, the story of a nymph caught between pleasure and virtue, in an allegory for the trials that a soul must encounter on its journey through the world. Seelewig is often considered the first example of a Singspiel, a kind of music drama that featured spoken dialogue interspersed with ballads and ensemble numbers, using a rhythmic pattern of repeated lines and melodies similar to folk music. Singspiele would be considered “the” style of German opera until the 18th century.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte
While “simple” Singspiele were the favoured style among the German public in the mid-17th century, at court and elsewhere across Europe, the grander and more dramatic Italian style was in vogue. Indeed, even famous German-born composers like Handel chose to pen works in Italian. It was only with Mozart’s reworking of the Singspiel that a lasting tradition of serious German-language opera was born.
Seeking to promote German-language opera in a display of nationalism, in 1788 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to establish a German-language opera troupe in Vienna. Although the troupe folded a few years later, they did achieve one major success with an original production penned by a young Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
This paved the way for other theatres to open in the city offering German-language opera, including the Freihaus-Theatre auf der Wieden, run by actor and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who also happened to be Mozart’s friend. In 1791, Schikaneder persuaded Mozart to set his libretti, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).
The resulting work, nowadays considered one of the greatest operas ever written, blurred the lines between Singspiele and Italian opera, weaving an ambitious, powerful fantasy. It tells the story of Tamino, who sets off on a quest to save Pamina from the clutches of an evil enchanter, with a magic flute and a set of magic bells for protection. On the surface a simple fairytale about a damsel in distress, The Magic Flute is a complex allegory about the quest for wisdom and enlightenment.
Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio
After Mozart’s premature death, contemporaries such as Ludwig van Beethoven saw his opera as something to aspire to - and build upon. Beethoven however was not a prolific opera writer, completing only one piece during his lifetime.
This fitful style is summed up in the fact that Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, was significantly revised three times, with great sections of the score being borrowed from an earlier piece that was never completed. Indeed, the work frustrated Beethoven so much that he apparently vowed never to compose another. The final version of the opera that debuted in 1814 was heralded as a success.
The opera tells the story of Leonore, who disguised as a prison guard named Fidelio rescues her husband Florestan from a certain death in a political prison, spinning a story of personal sacrifice, heroism and eventual triumph, liberty and justice.
Carl Maria von Weber - Der Freischütz
In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Romanticism began to exert an influence over German composers. As a cultural movement, Romanticism sparked a revival of interest in the Middle Ages and German folklore, with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and German medieval epics as particular sources of inspiration.
With Der Freischütz (The Marksman), Weber - who was resentful of the dominance of Italian operas across Europe - sought to establish a uniquely German form of opera. He turned to German folk songs and folklore for inspiration, basing his eerie, supernatural opera on a tale from the Gespensterbuch (a collection of German ghost stories) in which a marksman makes a pact with the devil.
In the story, a young man hopes to earn the right to marry his sweetheart by winning a shooting contest. When he fails, he follows a forester into the depths of the woods, where he is gifted with seven magic bullets in exchange for giving a soul to the Devil. Upon its release, Der Freischütz quickly became an international success. It is nowadays considered one of the first German masterpieces of opera.
Richard Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen
While Weber may have been the first to score a Romantic German opera, his innovations were eclipsed by another: Richard Wagner, one of the most revolutionary and controversial figures in musical history.
Wagner pursued an ideal of opera as “music dramas” in which every element of the story, including music, staging and costumes, should work together to serve the drama of the story. He vastly increased the power and richness of the orchestra, spinning complex webs of leitmotifs, thick and richly textured music, and “endless melodies”. Wagner’s glorification of German mythology and thinly-veiled antisemitism would make him a favourite of the Nazi party.
The pinnacle of Wagner's works has to be his epic operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, a work unprecedented in size that consists of four operas and totals roughly 16 hours of performance. Known as the Ring cycle in English, the music dramas are based loosely on gods, heroes and mythical creatures from German legend, told over three generations, starting with a dwarf called Alberich who fashions a ring from Rhine Gold.
Individual works from the Ring cycle are sometimes performed separately from each other, but Wagner intended them to be performed in a series. The piece remains a staple of opera house seasons today.
Engelbert Humperdinck - Hänsel und Gretel
Another composer who turned to German folklore and the Brothers Grimm for inspiration is Engelbert Humperdinck, whose piece Hänsel und Gretel still has an assured place in the standard repertoire of many opera houses today, often being performed around the Christmas holidays.
The libretto for the piece was written by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, adapted from songs she had written for her children based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Humperdinck employed Wagner’s harmonic techniques but gave them a lighter touch more suited to the fairytale subject matter.
Richard Strauss - Salome
The most successful of Wagner’s followers, Richard Strauss established his reputation as Germany’s leading opera composer with his dark and violent opera Salome, based on the German translation of the Oscar Wilde play.
The opera’s combination of Biblical themes with strands both erotic and murderous shocked audiences at its first staging. Even some of the cast themselves were uncomfortable with the subject matter, with lead Marie Wittich refusing to perform a section called the “Dance of the Seven Veils”. It was denounced by some commentators as blasphemous and obscene - remaining banned in London until 1907 - but was a major success at opera houses across Europe.
But it was not just the content that audiences found shocking - it was also the music itself. Described variously as “thunder”, “noise” and a “cacophony”, the complex arrangement covered 49 instruments, including some like kettledrums and a heckelphone that had rarely been used in operatic or orchestral works before. With this experiment in atonality and Freudian psychology, Strauss laid the groundwork for modernist productions in the 20th century.
Opera in German
With just seven German-language operas, we have gone on a wild ride through the history of the making of German opera. Of course, these works barely skim the surface of this rich and varied body of work. Got a favourite German opera that we haven’t mentioned? Let us know in the comments below!