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Why Not Haydn the Opera Composer?

Cecilia Bartoli in Haydn's "Orfeo" at Covent Garden

Cecilia Bartoli in Haydn's "Orfeo" at Covent Garden

Tuesday at 8:00 pm

Franz Joseph Haydn is often regarded as the father of the symphony and the father of the string quartet. That’s an extraordinary legacy; so what’s the story with Haydn and opera? Of course, opera was over 100 years old when Haydn came along, so he couldn’t have been its progenitor. What’s puzzling, however, is that most people don’t even know that Haydn wrote operas. He did – fifteen of them. Tom Service, chief classical music critic for The Guardian posited last month that this could be due to “the laziness of programmers, producers, and opera houses in not exploring one of the richest music-theatrical seams of the late 18th century.”

Haydn has had his champions, including mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, Austrian maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and the celebrated 20th century Hungarian conductor Antal Doráti.

In fact, Haydn wrote most of his operas in the countryside of Hungary, at the summer palace of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy. These operas were intended to entertain the prince and his guests, as were his symphonies and string quartets. Much of the music written at the Esterházy estate has become standard classical repertoire – just not the operas.


An illustration of one of Haydn’s productions at the Esterhazy palace.

We know that Haydn could write dramatically for the voice, as is evident in his beloved oratorio The Creation. We know that Haydn comes with the highest recommendations (Mozart was among his admirers). We also know he’s a favorite of The Tuesday Night Opera host Peter van de Graaff.

This week, WFMT presents an opportunity to hear a complete opera by Haydn on The Tuesday Night Opera. Peter features Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice with Cecilia Bartoli (Euridice); Uwe Heilman (Orfeo); Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (Creonte); and the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

View the libretto to Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

  • Jim Schoense

    Thanks for this highly informative and interesting article!