Claude Debussy n'a composé qu'un opéra dans sa vie, Pellés et Mélisande, chef d'oeuvre dans le domaine lyrique
Claude Debussy n'a composé qu'un opéra dans sa vie, Pellés et Mélisande, chef d'oeuvre dans le domaine lyrique © Getty  /  DEA/G.DagliOrti

Those composers who only wrote one opera

The composers who lived from the 18th to the 20th century are divided into those who composed operas, often in large quantities, and the more cautious ones, who only did it once.

Among the great composers, some of them were more cautious than the others about the idea of composing operas. Whether we talk about Debussy, Bartók, Schumann or Ligeti, they all have one thing in common: they only have one opera in their repertoire… Was that a choice or coercion? Let's take a little tour of lonely operas.

Fidelio by Beethoven

Fidelio, half spoken, half sung work, is the only opera composed by Beethoven. Perhaps the only one because the composer spends several years before achieving what the director of the Theater an der Wien asks him to do in 1803: that is, to set to music a heroic story entitled Vestas Feuer. After a complicated collaboration, Beethoven abandons it to focus on another libretto, Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love, which will become Fidelio in 1814 after two failures and three major revisions.

Genoveva by Schumann

If on one hand he is one of the most famous composers of his generation, his opera is less known. The premiere of Genoveva is performed in June 1850, surely not the right time to do that, because it means the end of season… The opera receives negative criticism, the composer himself recognises this, which is why he decides to not write a second one; Schumann will gain more success thanks to his oratorios such as Paradise and the Peri or Scenes from Goethe's Faust.

Liszt’s Don Sanche, or The Castle of Love

During the premiere of his only opera in 1825, Franz Liszt is only 14. The audience appreciates the work, both for his young age and for the opera, which will later fade into oblivion. The manuscript was believed to have perished in the 1873 fire of Salle Peletier in Paris; but at the beginning of the 20th century, it is found in the library of Palais Garnier, and in 1977 it will be donated to the Bloomsbury Theatre, called Collegiate Theatre at that time.

King Arthur by Chausson

Once it is completed in 1894, Ernest Chausson will never see the performance of his opera, although it took him seven years to achieve it. King Arthur makes us wonder about the influences of the French composer. Is it pure, Wagnerian style or is it rather that French style from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Philippe Jordan, who conducted this work at the Opéra de Paris in 2015, answers:

Wagner is a trap! Addressing King Arthur' exclusively from this perspective, trying to highlight just this aspect of the work would be a terrible mistake; in this opera, there is a form of lyricism that is absolutely French: that lightness in the tone is what we need to address.

Pelléas and Mélisande by Debussy

Debussy tries several times to compose some operas, but he will complete only one: Pelléas and Mélisande. This opera receives mixed critical reaction: there is some criticism and a number of cuts need to be made… It is the night of the premiere, and almost 10 years have passed since 1893, when the French composer decided to create the opera. This maturation gives birth to a true music masterpiece, of which Debussy says:

It is a work rich in contrasts, full of power and violence, even if all that goes through silence, expectations, hesitations, fluidity. The more we squeeze in, the greater our ability to find its deep passion.

Dukas’ Ariadne and Bluebeard

Paul Dukas calls the same librettist as Debussy for his only opera, Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck. However, the completion of the opera will take him less time if compared to his contemporary, since the work is complete after seven years, and it is given to the Opéra-Comique in Paris, in May 1907.

Bluebeard's Castle by Bartók

Another version of the tale by Charles Perrault is created in 1911. Bluebeard's Castle is the only opera by Bartók. Once again, Maurice Maeterlinck has something to do with this… In fact, his poem Ariadne and Bluebeard inspires librettist Béla Balázs to write the work set to music by Bartók.

Saint François d'Assise by Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen loved birds, and he was deeply Christian. The subject of his only opera is therefore not trivial: Saint Francis of Assisi, a religious man who preached to the birds… Written for the Opéra de Paris in 1975, Messiaen will be both the composer and the librettist of this opera. Saint François d’Assise is a massive, complicated, long work, but it will guarantee Messiaen a successful, international career.

Le Grand Macabre by Ligeti

This opera is the longest work written by Ligeti, rather an anti-opera, since Ligeti writes this piece totally opposed to the style of the operas of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His characters are initially called Spermando and Clitoria, before being renamed Amando and Amanda. Violence, sex, cynicism and hysteria: despite all this, Le Grand Macabre is performed in the greatest opera houses.