It’s received wisdom in the opera (and, more generally, classical music) world that “modern” works are a hard sell. “Modern” appears to mean anything post Puccini plus anything from the early 20th century that’s perceived as “difficult”, like Bartok or Janacek. This is reflected in programming. In the last five years COC has programmed precisely one work written this century and in the last two seasons the most recent works were written in 1957 and 1945. Next year is even worse with nothing written after 1914. It’s no wonder people say the opera house is becoming a museum.
Now I don’t think opera house managements relish this state of affairs. They do it because they feel the audience gives them no choice. I’m not absolutely convinced of this as I know that works like Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Reimann’s Medea have played to packed houses. That said, it does seem to be true that a significant number of season subscribers, especially the ones in the most expensive seats, are quite allergic to anything in the least out of their very limited comfort zone. It’s always interesting to look at those expensive seats and see who hasn’t shown up on their subscription night. It’s sadly true that for a piece like Peter Grimes there are empty seats (and many more after the intermission). It’s particularly annoying because the pieces that frighten off the old fogeys are usually precisely the ones that my younger, less opera experienced, friends enjoy the most. So pandering to the fogeys turns off the new potential audience and thereby reinforces the problem.
There’s another aspect to this that really annoys me. The excuse for this behaviour is the notion that modern music is “difficult”. This was famously exemplified by Robertson Davies’ remark about “owls screeching in a bicycle factory” which might well serve as an exemplar of all that is most depressing about middle brow Philistinism. OK so there was a period when the critical and academic mainstream was deeply enamoured of certain kinds of theory driven music making and that produced works that few people beyond a small avant garde ever came to love. But, and it’s a big but, that experiment pretty much died the death thirty years ago. Most music written in the last few years is far from theory driven and I just don’t see what is difficult in the music of Thomas Adès, Jake Heggie or John Adams. Certainly it should sound no stranger to modern ears than Fidelio or Tannhäuser or Don Carlo did to contemporary audiences. Add to that that the works from the (roughly) 1920-1980 period that have made it into the standard repertoire are by composers who bucked the more severe academic modernist trends. Berg, Britten, Strauss and Henze are in their different ways often intensely lyrical. Why then is there still this refusal by certain sections of the audience to engage with some really wonderful music? I don’t have a scientific answer but the temptation to assume it’s sheer bloody laziness is very strong. In any case it’s very sad because it deprives us of opportunities to see some marvellous operas in favour of a baby food diet of Carmen, La Bohème and Traviata.
What prompted this line of thought was listening to the work of young student composers on Thursday night. It was all exceedingly accessible and the main influences seemed to be Hollywood and minimalism. Probably a sound move if one wants to make a living as a composer but frightening in a way. If twenty somethings aren’t even trying to shock the going on elderly like myself then the world is becoming a very dull place. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to get back to the days when music mattered, to composer and audience alike, enough to provoke riot or revolution?