The Rake’s Progress is one of the few modern operas that has a permanent place in the repertories of most contemporary opera companies. Premiering in 1951 in Vienna, it proved to be one of Igor Stravinsky’s greatest works, and his only full-length opera.
The famed Russian-American composer’s inspiration for the opera came from a series of engravings of the same name he had seen on exhibit in Chicago in 1947. The eight engravings were the work of William Hogarth, the British artist and satirist who often collaborated with novelist Henry Fielding. The engravings told the story of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, son of a rich merchant, whose womanizing, drinking, and gambling across eighteenth-century London led to his incarceration at Bedlam, the infamous lunatic asylum.
Stravinsky wrote the music, but he needed a libretto (the text of a work for musical theater, often opera). He ultimately hired W. H. Auden and Charles Kallman, who had introduced Auden to opera. The two expanded Hogarth’s tale to include a lover for Rakewell, Anne Truelove, whom he leaves for the lures of London nightlife. Rakewell’s good fortune is orchestrated by another new addition, the Mephistophelean character Nick Shadow. The ending, however, remains the same, as the hero still becomes an inmate of Bedlam.
Though his most famous libretto, The Rake’s Progress is but one of many libretti Auden wrote after his notorious, and permanent, move from England to the United States in 1939. His body of operatic work, often neglected by critics when discussing his oeuvre, is considerable, and he ranks among the great librettists of the twentieth century.
Auden’s love of opera, which he famously called "the last refuge of the High Style," was rooted in the freedom from "modernist irony" it offered. Auden felt it was the only area of contemporary drama, as poet and librettist Dana Gioia notes in the W. H. Auden Society newsletter, "in which the poet remained an essential contributor, and opera was the form that gave the poet most imaginative freedom."
With the exception of Auden’s libretto for Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan, which was his first project, the rest of the operatic work he did was in collaboration with Kallman, and included libretti for major composers such as Stravinsky and Hans Werner Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers and The Bassarids). Auden and Kallman also translated The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni, among others, and worked with Bertold Brecht on several performance pieces. Auden also wrote lyrics for more than a dozen songs, narration for two documentary films, and, with Christopher Isherwood, several verse-dramas.