As soon as you think about it, or consult, say, Kobbe's famous opera guide, you realize that a rich hoard of relatively short operas lie hidden from us by their absence from the stage. We can hear them. Many of them have been recorded, often more than once. But we seldom see them.
The short opera flourished particularly strongly in the 20th century. Ravel, Busoni, Bartok, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Poulenc and Dallapiccolaall produced operas lasting around an hour, or less. British 20th-century composers almost specialized in operatic conciseness. Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst and Walton showed the way. In our time Peter Maxwell Davies, Judith Weir, Oliver Knussen and Mark Antony Turnage have all followed the same path.
Perhaps they expected that brevity and small casts would win them more performances. It hasn't worked out that way. With the solitary exception of the ever-popular Cav and Pag, double bills are generally viewed by opera companies as box-office poison. A five- hour Wagnerian epic will fill the house. Audiences have traditionally stayed away from combinations of short operas. Hence the widespread neglect of this rich repertory.
But now Opera North, Britain's most enterprising full-time opera company, has seized the bull by the horns and is staging a spring season of eight of these short operas - Eight Little Greats, as it calls them. They are certainly in good hands as far as direction is concerned. David Pountney and Christopher Alden are the producers, and if you see a double bill, you'll get a staging by each of them.
Strikingly, though, audiences are not obliged to opt for two operas at a time. Tickets for each opera are being sold separately, at half the usual price. So if it's only Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini or Bizet's Djamileh that you want to see, there are seats available for as little as pounds 2.50.
There are signs that the single-opera option is being taken up. …