List of major opera composers

List of major opera composers

This list provides a guide to the most important opera composers, as determined by their presence on a majority of compiled lists of significant opera composers. (See the "Lists Consulted" section for full details.) The composers run from Jacopo Peri, who wrote the first ever opera in late 16th century Italy, to John Adams, one of the leading figures in the contemporary operatic world. The brief accompanying notes offer an explanation as to why each composer has been considered major. Also included is a section about major women opera composers, compiled from the same lists. For an introduction to operatic history, see Opera. The organisation of the list is by birthdate.



Jacopo Peri, who composed the first ever opera, Dafne.
  • Jacopo Peri (1561–1633). A Florentine who composed both the first opera ever, Dafne (1598), and the first surviving opera, Euridice (1600).[1]
  • Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) is generally regarded as the first major opera composer.[2] In Orfeo (1607) he blended Peri's experiments in opera with the lavish spectacle of the intermedi.[3] Later, in Venice in the 1640s, he helped make opera a commercially viable form with Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea, one of the earliest operas in the present-day operatic repertoire..
  • Francesco Cavalli (1602–1676). Amongst the most important of Monteverdi's successors, Cavalli was a major force in spreading opera throughout Italy and also helped introduce it to France. His Giasone was " the most popular opera of the 17th century".[4]
  • Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687). In close collaboration with the librettist Philippe Quinault, Lully founded the tradition of tragédie en musique,[5] combining singing, dance and visual spectacle, which would remain the most prestigious French operatic genre for almost a hundred years. Cadmus et Hermione (1673) is often regarded as the first example of French opera.
  • Henry Purcell (1659–1695). Purcell was the first English operatic composer of significance. His masterwork is Dido and Aeneas.[6]
  • Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725). A key figure in the development of opera seria, Scarlatti claimed to have composed over 100 operas, of which La Griselda is a notable example.[7]
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) was the most important French opera composer of the 18th century. Following in the genre established by Lully,[8] he endowed his works with a great richness of invention. Rameau's musical daring provoked great controversy in his day,[8] but he was an important influence on Gluck.
  • John Gay (1685–1732) and Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667–1752). Creators of the first English ballad opera, the biting political satire, The Beggar's Opera.[9]
  • George Frideric Handel (1685–1759). Handel's baroque-era opera serias set the standard in his day.[10] Despite the often stifling conventions of opera seria, Handel composed a series of over 30 operas that continue to fascinate audiences today. His masterwork is generally thought to be Giulio Cesare.


Gluck, detail of a portrait by Joseph Duplessis, dated 1775 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
  • K527
    Overture to Don Giovanni, one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most well-known pieces. Dating from 1787, it is 6:49 in length.
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Giuseppe Verdi, by Giovanni Boldini, 1886 (National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome).


Giacomo Puccini
  • Leoš Janáček (1854–1928). Janáček's first mature opera (Jenůfa) blended folksong-like melodies and an emphasis on natural speech-rhythms à la Mussorgsky with a character-driven plot of some intensity;[45] his later works became increasingly terse, with recurrent melodic fragments, lyrical outbursts and unconventional orchestration serving a diverse collection of source-material – just a few bars of these operas can instantly be identified as his.
  • Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919) Italian composer associated with verismo. His Pagliacci is a staple of the operatic repertoire and is usually given alongside Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana.[46]
  • Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924). The only true successor to Giuseppe Verdi in Italian opera,[47] Puccini's Tosca, La Bohème and Madama Butterfly are among the most popular and well-recognised in the repertoire today.
  • Gustave Charpentier (1860–1956). French composer famous for a single opera, Louise, set in a working class district of Paris.[48]
  • Claude Debussy (1862–1918). Like Beethoven, Debussy finished only one opera, but his setting of Maeterlinck's Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande is a key work in 20th century music drama.[49] In many ways an "anti-opera", Pelléas contained little of the conventional singing or action audiences at the première had come to expect, but Debussy used his subtle orchestration to create an elusive, dream-like atmosphere, which still has the power to fascinate (or repel) listeners today.
  • Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945). Italian composer, famous above all for Cavalleria rusticana, usually given in a double-bill with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.[50]
  • Richard Strauss (1864–1949). Strauss was one of very few opera composers in the early years of the 20th century to accept and conquer the challenge laid down by the scale and radical nature of Wagner's innovative works.[51] He composed several operas that remain extremely popular today, including Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier.[37]
  • Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949). A follower of Wagner, Pfitzner is best known for the opera Palestrina which explores the debate between tradition and innovation in music.[52]
  • Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). A leading Modernist composer and the deviser of the twelve-tone system, Schoenberg began his operatic career with the Expressionist monodrama Erwartung. His major opera Moses und Aron was left unfinished at his death.[53]
  • Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) wrote two short, but innovative, operas: L'enfant et les sortilèges, set in the world of childhood, and the Spanish-flavoured L'heure espagnole.[54]
  • Franz Schreker (1878–1934). An Austrian composer associated with Expressionism, Schreker once rivalled Richard Strauss in popularity but, as a Jew, he fell foul of the Nazis. His operas include Der ferne Klang and Die Gezeichneten.[55]
  • Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). After composing the Rimsky-Korsakov-inspired The Nightingale and the near-operas Renard and The Soldier's Tale, Stravinsky bucked 20th century trends by composing a "number" opera, The Rake's Progress, using diatonicism.[56]
  • Alban Berg (1885–1935). Because of their atonal music which uses tonal conventions harkening back to late romanticism[57] and tragic libretti, Berg's masterworks Wozzeck and Lulu have stayed in the repertory and assumed increased popularity after his death.[58]
  • Béla Bartók (1881–1945) wrote only one opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, a key piece in 20th century music theatre and the only Hungarian work with a secure place in the international operatic repertoire.[59]
  • Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). A major modern composer in the Russian tradition,[60] Prokofiev produced operas on a wide variety of subjects, from the comic fairy-tale The Love for Three Oranges, to the dark and occult The Fiery Angel and the epic War and Peace. Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev suffered under the Soviet artistic regime, but his work has recently been championed by conductors such as Valery Gergiev.
  • Paul Hindemith (1895–1963). A German composer who came to prominence in the years following World War I. His key opera Mathis der Maler, dealing with the problems of an artist in a time of crisis, has been seen as an allegory of Hindemith's situation during the Third Reich.[61]
  • George Gershwin (1898–1937) owes his place in the standard operatic repertoire to Porgy and Bess.[62]


Major female opera composers

John Singer Sargent drawing of Ethel Smyth, 1901

A number of reasons, including the high cost of production and high status of opera,[73] have been suggested to explain the relatively few women who have been composers of opera, and no woman composer met the criteria for inclusion above. However, some experts in our sample disagreed,[74] and named one or both of the women below as comparable to those already listed:

See also


  1. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.768
  2. ^ Orrey p.18
  3. ^ Professor Tim Carter in Viking Opera Guide (p.678) writes: "Monteverdi's recitative owes much to Peri...However "Orfeo" has much broader roots. There are many references to the tradition of the Florentine intermedi: the spectacular stage effects, the mythological subject matter, the allegorical figures, the number and scoring of the instruments and the extended choruses". See also Carter, writing about the intermedi in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera (p.4): "rich display and erudite symbolism made the intermedi an ideal projection of princely magnificence".
  4. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.189
  5. ^ Orrey p.35
  6. ^ Orrey p.55
  7. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.942
  8. ^ a b Orrey p.40
  9. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.343
  10. ^ a b Orrey p.59
  11. ^ Oxford Companion to Music, p. 783
  12. ^ Orrey p.85
  13. ^ Viking Opera Guide pp.216–218
  14. ^ Orrey p.101
  15. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.210
  16. ^ Orrey p.139
  17. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.1002
  18. ^ Viking Opera Guide pp.37–38
  19. ^ Orrey p. 140
  20. ^ Oxford Illustrated History of Opera pp.146–150
  21. ^ a b Britannica p.631 C.2
  22. ^ Orrey p.134
  23. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.412
  24. ^ Orrey pp.129–133
  25. ^ Orrey p.153
  26. ^ a b Orrey p.154
  27. ^ Orrey p.180
  28. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.1098.
  29. ^ Orrey pp.168–169
  30. ^ Orrey pp.137–147
  31. ^ Britannica p.633 C.1
  32. ^ Orrey p.177
  33. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.134
  34. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.929. Viking says Saint-Saëns wrote 13 operas, including his part in an unfinished work by Guiraud and two opéra comiques.
  35. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.253.
  36. ^ Orrey pp.156–157
  37. ^ a b Britannica p.637 C.2
  38. ^ Orrey p.182
  39. ^ David Brown (author of the four-volume Tchaikovsky: A Biographical and Critical Study, Gollancz, 1978–91) in Viking Opera Guide, pp. 1083–1095
  40. ^ Viking Opera Guide p. 197
  41. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.302
  42. ^ Orrey p.156
  43. ^ Graham Dixon in Viking Opera Guide, p. 622
  44. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.864
  45. ^ Britannica p.638 C.2
  46. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.563
  47. ^ Orrey p.225
  48. ^ Viking Opera Guide pp.202–204
  49. ^ Orrey p.216
  50. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.617
  51. ^ Orrey p.213
  52. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.772
  53. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.952
  54. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.848
  55. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.958
  56. ^ Orrey p.220
  57. ^ "ALBAN BERG". Composers online. W. W. Norton & Company. Retrieved 2006-09-10. 
  58. ^ Orrey p. 225
  59. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.55
  60. ^ Britannica p.637 C.1
  61. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.467
  62. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.348
  63. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.1207
  64. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.1102
  65. ^ Orrey p.232
  66. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.51
  67. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.648
  68. ^ Orrey p.234
  69. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.461
  70. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.243
  71. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.360
  72. ^ Viking Opera Guide p.17
  73. ^ See, e.g. Katherine Kolb's review of Women Writing Opera: Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution.
  74. ^ See #Lists consulted


Lists consulted

This list was compiled by consulting ten lists of great opera composers, created by recognized authorities in the field of opera, and selecting all of the composers who appeared on at least six of these (i.e. all composers on a majority of the lists). Judith Weir appears on four of the ten lists consulted, more than any other female composer in the sample. The lists used were:

  1. "Graeme Kay's Guide to Opera, produced for the BBC". 
  2. "The "Opera" Encyclopaedia Britannica article". 
  3. "Opera," in Columbia Encyclopedia online". 
  4. Composers mentioned in Nicholas Kenyon's introduction to the Viking Opera Guide (1993 edition) ISBN 0-670-81292-7.
  5. "The Standard Repertoire of Grand Opera 1607–1969", a list included in Norman Davies's Europe: a History (OUP, 1996; paperback edition Pimlico, 1997) ISBN 0-7126-6633-8.
  6. Composers mentioned in the chronology by Mary Ann Smart in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera (OUP, 1994) ISBN 0-19-816282-0.
  7. "A Bird's Eye View of the World's Chief Opera Composers" in The Oxford Companion to Music by Percy Scholes (10th edition revised by John Owen Ward, 1970). ISBN 0-19-311306-6.
  8. Composers with recordings included in The Penguin Guide to Opera on Compact Discs ed. Greenfield, March and Layton (1993 edition) ISBN 0-14-046957-5.
  9. The New Kobbe's Opera Book, ed. Lord Harewood (1997 edition) ISBN 0-399-14332-7.
  10. "Table of Contents of The Rough Guide to Opera".  by Matthew Boyden. (2002 edition) ISBN 1-85828-749-9.


  • The composers included in all 10 lists cited are: Berg, Britten, Donizetti, Gluck, Handel, Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, Rameau, Rossini, Richard Strauss, Verdi, and Wagner.
  • The composers included in nine of the lists are: Bellini, Berlioz, Bizet, Glinka, Gounod, Lully, Massenet, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky
  • The composers included in eight of the lists are: Adams, Debussy, Glass, Henze, Janáček, Leoncavallo, Menotti, Meyerbeer, Pergolesi, Purcell, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schoenberg, Smetana, Thomas (Ambroise), Tippett, and Weber
  • The composers included in seven of the lists are: Auber, Beethoven, Borodin, Cavalli, Cherubini, Cimarosa, Delibes, Hindemith, Mascagni, Offenbach, Prokofiev, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Shostakovich, and Gustave Charpentier
  • The composers included in six of the lists are: Barber, Bartók, Chabrier, Peter Maxwell Davies, Dvořák, Gay and Pepusch, Gershwin, Halévy, Peri, Pfitzner, Scarlatti, Schreker, Spontini, Stravinsky, Walton.
  • Judith Weir was included in four lists; Dame Ethel Smyth in two.

Other References

  • Sadie, Stanley (ed) (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 and ISBN 1-56159-228-5. , at 5,448 pages, the largest general reference concerning opera in the English language.
  • The Viking Opera Guide (1993) ISBN 0-670-81292-7 Contributions are by noted specialists in their fields.
  • Warrack, John; West, Ewan (1992). The Oxford Dictionary of Opera. ISBN 0-19-869164-5. 
  • Boyden, Matthew, et al. (1997). Opera, the Rough Guide. ISBN 1-85828-138-5. 
  • Orrey, Leslie and Milnes, Rodney. Opera: A Concise History. World of Art, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500202176. 
  • Encyclopædia Britannica: Macropedia Volume 24, 15th edition. "Opera" in "Musical forms and genres". ISBN 0-85229-434-4
  • Parker, Roger (ed) (1994). The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816282-0. 

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