English eclipses other languages in many things, but opera is not one of them.
The English language barrier: Benjamin Britten was a brilliant composer; he is also uniquely international. He pops up at La Scala, La Fenice and at the Mariinsky Theatre. As an English-language composer of opera, he is an oasis in a desert.
Here’s one example: Verdi and Britten composed a combined total of four operas on plays by Shakespeare; only one of them is in English (Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Verdi’s Falstaff, while a masterpiece of Italian opera, is not a celebration of Shakespeare’s treatment of language—Shakespeare, a writer who is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest of any language. Britten, on the other hand, brings to opera a number of literary heavyweights: along with Shakespeare are E.M. Forster, Henry James, and Herman Melville—in their native tongue. What makes Britten’s operas unusual is not that they’re in English, there are many, but that the opera houses around the world perform them, almost in spite of that fact.
Ian Bostridge speaks of Britten’s gift for English settings:
Our year-long celebration of Benjamin Britten at 100 continues on Tuesday with his opera based on the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw, 8:00 PM. The performance stars Ian Bostridge and Joan Rodgers.