Confessions Of An Operaholic

Has Opera Lost Its Funny Bone?

Cast members from The Inspector, a new comic opera by John Musto that debuted last night at Wolf Trap.

Cast members from The Inspector, a new comic opera by John Musto that debuted last night at Wolf Trap. Carol Pratt/Wolf Trap Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Carol Pratt/Wolf Trap Opera

I was sitting at the opera last night, laughing out loud (repeatedly) at the world premiere of John Musto's comedy The Inspector, when a question came to mind: What happened to all the funny operas?

As Musto's score — sparkling, with whiffs of Bernstein and Rota — kept tickling my ear, and librettist Mark Campbell's witty wordplay kept cracking me up, I thought of other recent opera premieres: Tod Machover's Death and the Powers, Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, Daron Hagen's Amelia, Jorge Martin's Before Night Falls, Paul Moravec's The Letter, Daniel Catan's Il Postino, Zhou Long's Madame White Snake. These are serious operas. Someone else must be writing comedies, right? Still, I couldn't name any off the top of my head.

How far back in time must we go to find a higher ratio of funny operas? In the beginning, around 1600, opera was pretty serious stuff — mythological tragedies and historical dramas starring the likes of Orfeo and Ulysses. But as soon as the 1650s we have Pier Francesco Cavalli's romantic comedy La Calisto. Fast forward only several decades, and the comedic style opera buffa emerges from Naples and is bred around the rest of Italy in the first half of the 18th century. From there it's an easy jump to comic geniuses like Mozart (Marriage of Figaro), Rossini (Barber of Seville) and Donizetti (L'elisir d'amore), and even Verdi, with his final opera, Falstaff, debuting in 1893.

Could it be that in the last century or so, opera has lost its taste for humor? How many true comic operas can you name, say, after Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, which premiered in 1918? Maybe two world wars sobered us all up and we never exactly snapped out of it. A few notable exceptions? Sure, there's Shostakovich's biting satire The Nose, and Janacek's barnyard romp Cunning Little Vixen. Perhaps you can think of others — and I'm not talking Broadway here, or operetta, where humor has always been more commonplace.

And then perhaps it's just a general snobbery toward comedy? Even back in the mid-18th century, opera buffa, while popular, was considered inferior by the intellectual set, especially as it migrated outside Italy. And today, how many comic films get nominated for best picture at the Oscars?

Meanwhile, back at the Barns of Wolf Trap in northern Virginia, where Musto's distinct brand of horseplay unfolded, I was having such a good time, it left me yearning for more wide smiles and comic surprises in the opera house.

Have some thoughts about comedy and opera? Let us know in the comments section.

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