Hagar the Horrible
by Richard Wagner
Hagar, a seasoned Viking warrior deeply representative of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, contends with the gods of Valhalla and his needling wife, Helga, in this difficult but classic work. Wagner’s brassy leitmotifs convey the full range of human emotion over the course of an eighteen-hour, four-part cycle. In the opera’s tragic conclusion, Valhalla is destroyed as Hagar, wildly outnumbered by enemy forces, suffers the incompetence of swarthy crewmate (and likely Jew) “Lucky” Eddie, to the sobbing of dozens of contrabass trombones.
by Giacomo Puccini
A bohemian crew of child artists, musicians, and prostitutes fall in love and discover the true meaning of Christmas in Puccini’s most famous and widely performed work. The central plot concerns the tragic affair of tortured poet Linus and young seamstress Sally Brown, whose spoonerisms provide the opera much-needed comic relief before her sad death in Act 4. Meanwhile, Sally’s brother Charles contends with his sadistic paramour, Lucy, as well as a cruel schoolteacher whose lines are sung in an experimental, incomprehensible countertenor. (In the original libretto a bizarre “missing act,” unused by Puccini, features a super-intelligent beagle who becomes a World War I flying ace, only to fall to drink and madness.) Revived frequently by virtually all major opera houses, Peanuts is usually found near Verdi’s Garfield in season programs.
by Georges Bizet
The first true example of French operatic verismo, Cathy met with harsh criticism after its first performance as critics reacted to Bizet’s unflinching examination of sordid modern romance and also dieting. As described musically in the overture, Cathy’s eponymous heroine is forced to choose between two suitors: hapless boss Mr. Pinkley (bass) and perennial boyfriend Irving (tenor). Bizet’s use of exotic, feminized themes, such as the Herbal Essences jingle, was revolutionary for its time. Highlights include the renowned Act 1 aria “L’amour est un carbohydrate rebelle” and the shocking finale, in which Cathy is suffocated to death by her mother.
For Better or Worse
by Gaetano Donizetti
A middling bel canto melodrama, For Better or Worse is nevertheless famous for its populist appeal and simple, repetitive song structure. FBoW’s pastoral story proceeds inventively if inexplicably in real-time, which accounts for what some critics have derided as its “sluggish” pace, and concerns the mundane Onterian lives of the Patterson family, played by five sopranos who sing exclusively in coloratura. The singers are given unusual freedom for what Maria Callas (who as Elly Patterson earned the longest standing ovation in operatic history) once described as “pointless noodling.”
Calvin and Hobbes
by John Adams
The meaning of the music is “between the notes” in this minimalist, modern work by opera’s most important living composer and merchandizer. Simple arpeggios and steady tonics belie the complexity of a highly politicized and true story of a power-mad sociopath and an aging stuffed tiger who speaks in riddles. More than any other modern work, Calvin and Hobbes has been rapturously embraced and highly emulated in American culture, and likenesses of Calvin in flagrante micturitio can be found on many popular car decals and T-shirts.