Schubert’s Operas Were Failures. Is Their Music Worth Saving?

“I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world,” Franz Schubert, suffering from syphilis and reeling from professional failures, wrote in March 1824 to his friend, the painter Leopold Kupelwieser. Imagine a man, he said, who will never be healthy again, and “whose most brilliant hopes have perished.”

In the same breath, Schubert expressed sorrow over the fate of his attempt at a grand Romantic opera, “Fierrabras,” which had been canceled in Vienna, and that of another stage work, “Die Verschworenen,” which didn’t make it past a private performance. “I seem once again,” Schubert, then 27, wrote in his letter, “to have composed two operas for nothing.”

He wouldn’t return to the genre again. And even after his death in 1828, at 31, when many of his works enjoyed posthumous adulation and were performed widely, none of his theatrical undertakings entered the standard repertoire.

It’s surprising that opera eluded Schubert, who by most counts started about 20 stage works, completed fewer than a dozen and saw the premieres of just two. After all, he wrote some of the most beautiful vocal music in the repertoire: the song cycles “Die Schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise,” and hundreds of beloved lieder like “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Ave Maria.”

And yet the operas remain curiosities better heard than seen, often composed to clumsy librettos and denied the revisions that could have accompanied rehearsals.

A scene from “L’Autre Voyage” at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Stéphane Degout, left, and Siobhan Stagg.Credit…Stefan Brion

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