Franz Schubert is undoubtedly one of the greatest composers of piano music, symphonic music, and songs of all time. Why is it, then, that his operas are virtually unknown?
A number of great composers chose not to explore this genre: Brahms, Bach, and Mahler, never wrote operas, although they all had contemporaries who wrote dozens of them; and Beethoven only wrote one. All of these composers composed for voice quite well, but never showed any deep interest in opera. Brahms even said that he would 'sooner marry than write an opera' (He did neither). Schubert, however, was oddly stubborn in his insistence to compose operas.
Schubert completed 11 operas, and worked on even more, leaving them unfinished. Some of his operas were moderately successful, such as Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp), but the vast majority, if not all, of Schubert's stage works, have not stood the test of time the way that his symphonies, songs, and piano pieces, have.
Operas were especially popular in Vienna and across Europe at the time, so a good opera could pay pay very well. This is one explanation for Schubert's many operatic attempts. Mahler was already very successful as a conductor, and Beethoven, who was also quite famous and therefore not in need of money, wrote only one opera (Fidelio, a project which arguably frustrated him more than any other!). Mozart, on the other hand, poor during most of his life, wrote many operas. Money was quite a motivator, it seems, to compose operas. Unlike Mozart's, though, Schubert's operas are almost never performed.
Schubert's commercial failure does not imply that his operas are all mediocre. When discussing Schubert's longest opera Fierrabras, a flop that convinced Schubert to give up opera for good, Aidan Lang, the former general director of the Seattle Opera, said, "Schubert was one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, yet there are only two arias in two-and-a-half hours of music. The whole opera has been conceived in terms of vast blocks of end-to-end ensemble: which are incredibly rich in their musical development, but at the same time make the opera a total nightmare to stage."
A possible explanation for the failure of Fierrabras is the poor libretto. "The libretto may be the last word in leaden, medieval gibberish; but Schubert responded to the challenge in the only way he knew - at top speed. The score encapsulates the excitement of being forged at white heat." (The Guardian, 2000). Unfortunately, the music doesn't quite make up for the libretto, at least according to Viennese opera-goers at the time of the premiere.
It is not necessarily sad that Schubert composed so many unsuccessful operas. In only 31 years of life, Schubert composed some of the greatest masterpieces ever created by Man. His operatic miscarriages are therefore forgivable. Hopefully opera houses can put on one of his operas in a final attempt to bring Schubert the opera success he always wanted.
A performance of the overture to Fierrabras, conducted by Claudio Abbado:
Fun Fact!: A 17-year old Schubert attended a performance of Fidelio, selling his school books to purchase a ticket.