10 best operas by Jewish composers

10 best operas by Jewish composers


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2015

All right then, another list. This one has been provoked by a media list of operas by women composers. But once you take out Meyerbeer – irredeemably obsolete – and 96% of Offenbach, the choice is quite limited. Here’s what we have come up with, in roughly chronological order:

1 Offenbach:  La belle Helene


2 Korngold: Die tote Stadt
Vienna’s most popular contemporary opera between the two wars.

3 Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

4 Schoenberg: Moses and Aron

Probably the most ambitious undertaking of the 20th century

5 Milhaud: Christoph Colomb

Hugely ambitious drama, seldom seen

6 Weill: Street Scene

(a more durable opera than Mahagonny\)

7 Sondheim: Sweeney Todd

Seen in all the world’s best opera houses

sweeney todd

8 Glass: Satyagraha

philip glass cats

9 Ligeti: Le grand macabre

grand macabre den norske opera

10 Nyman: The man who mistook his wife for a hat

man who mistook



  • Andrew Condon says:

    If ever the age-old question regarding Wagner’s possible Jewish ancestry was proven, you would have your 10 operas without the need for anyone else’s involvement! I was going to suggest Alban Berg, but interestingly he wasn’t Jewish, so his masterpieces don’t count in this instance.

  • Martin H says:

    I would have certainly included Weinberger’s, Schwanda the Bagpiper

  • Has been says:

    In 1847 it was announced that Felix Mendelssohn would create an opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest for production in London. Mendelssohn died before he could complete the opera.

  • MJ says:

    As long as Sweeney Todd is on there, maybe West Side Story should be fair game.

  • Ignacio Martínez-Ybor says:

    Other than a melodious duet (which sopranos have appropriated as an aria), I have always found Tote Stadt a lumbering, unredeemable bore. Why not include Tales of Hoffman even if others had a hand in it? I am so glad Street Scene was remembered. Instead of Sweeney Todd, why not Braunfels who was half-Jewish and musically silenced by the Nazis because of it. I think Die Vogel is a better qualifying work than Sweeney Todd.

  • John Nemaric says:

    How sad this is!!!

    Did you forget?

    One the greatest operas ever composed: La Juive. The composer: Jacques Frontal Halevy (1799-1862). With libretto by another Jewish genius: Eugene Scribe.

    Who can forget the glorious “Rachel, quad du Seigneur la grace tutelaire”?

  • Joel Cohen says:

    May I suggest, ahem, a list of the 10 best operas by non-Jewish composers? By non-heterosexual composers? By composers with facial hair?

    But as this list goes: If you are going to include “developed” musicals/opéras comiques like Street Scene and La Belle Hélène, then Rodger’s South Pacific ought to get a crack as well.

  • harold braun says:

    Nothing by Weinberg?

  • Dr Presume says:

    If Benjamin Fleischmann had survived WW2 and finished his studies with Shostakovich, I’m sure he’d have been a major player in post-war European music, but as it is, all we have of him is a single work, the Chekhov-inspired opera “Rothschild’s Violin” – a miraculous forty-five minutes…

  • Brian b says:

    I’d remove the Milhaud from your list, I’ve heard it several times, or as much of it as anyone cares to revive at any given time, and it’s quite empty, much of it sounds like a mediocre film score.
    But in its place would go Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Act 4 alone is tremendous, not just the love duet but the frightening scene of genocidal plotting that precedes it. It deserves a place in the top echelons of 19th century opera.

  • MacroV says:

    How about “The Magnificent Cuckold” or “Beatrice Cenci” of Berthold Goldschmidt? Perhaps not ones to challenge Moses und Aron but both have a lot of great music.

  • Warren says:

    how about Weinberg’s The Passenger, which is a masterpiece. I also second the nomination of Svanda the Bagpiper by Jaromir Weinberger.

  • john mclaughlin williams says:

    Everyone has an opinion; here’s mine: forget Glass and Ligeti. Schreker could have two or three titles on this list.

  • Joel Friedlander says:

    Offenbach was not Jewish when he wrote Le Belle Helene in 1864, as he converted to Catholicism on August 14, 1844 when he married Hérminie d’Alcain. He was 25 and she was 17 years of age. If we are to believe in free will a person is allowed to convert out of a religion. Since he was not Jewish he doesn’t belong on this list.

  • Jan says:

    Samson&……?!?! Or maybe not?

  • Gonout Backson says:

    Could someone tell me what makes music (or any art at all) “Jewish”, “female” or “gay”? Ready to accept any sensible definition.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But that’s very easy. Jewish music: the very best according to Jewish standards, female music: the very best according to feminist standards, and gay music: the very best according to gay standards. And good music: according to musical standards.

  • schnabelowski says:

    Schreker is missing!

  • Timothy Schwarz says:

    Let’s not forget: “Kreidekreis” by Zemlinsky; Viktor Ullmann’s “Der Kaiser von Atlantis”; maybe not top-ten material, but a beautiful opera nonetheless: Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas”; the operettas of Emmerich Kálmán

  • John Borstlap says:

    Only nr 2 is a good opera. And where is Weinberg’s ‘The Passenger’?

  • Viv says:

    Why is Meyerbeer considered obsolete?