One way and another I see quite a lot of contemporary opera. I like a lot of what I see though there are some works where one gets the “I’ll never get that evening back” feeling. But something has been bugging me. Quite a few times I’ve had the feeling that I’ve seen something skilfully put together and admirably performed but it’s left me a bit cold, or maybe a bit empty, where other pieces I’ve felt really enthused by and wanted to go back and hear and see again.
So, analytical beast that I am, I have been kicking around in my head a couple of ideas. They may be completely unoriginal. I’m no scholar in this area, or they might be of interest. It’s a characteristic of my best ideas that I’m never quite sure that I’ve even convinced myself. So any way I offer up a few thoughts and maybe even a little historical analysis to justify them.
The main thought is that an opera has to be more than a play set to music. I’ve sat through quite a few pieces now where one could strip away the music entirely and the book might well have played at Tarragon or Canadian Stage. Maybe this is a problem with playwrights writing librettos. They don’t, they write plays? Dialogue driven narrative pushing relentlessly forward just doesn’t make interesting opera; in part at least because it leaves little room for interesting music. What works for me is when the composer calls time out and begins to explore a more musically oriented, less narrative space. Brian Current’s Airline Icarus is a very short opera but it does this with great effect in, for example, the Pilot’s aria. John Adams, too, I think gets this. Frankly a lot of his vocal writing bores me but he knows to pause for a great chorus or a set piece solo. Think “The workers are the heroes now” or “Batter my heart” or, perhaps best of all, the opening choruses of Death of Klinghoffer.
Perhaps this ought to be obvious. If we go right back into the early days of what we think of as opera today it started out as a narrative declaimed to an accompaniment. Because that, it was supposed, was what the men of Athens did all those years ago. It didn’t last long. Monteverdi, that supreme master, realised that more was required. Look at how his style developed between Il Ritorno d’Ulisse and Poppea. And who would not rather see the latter? Eventually this ossified into the rigid formality of the opera seria and it had to be broken and made more “natural” again. That cycle happened over and over. Verdi and Wagner moved to through composed works but both, in their ways, recognized the need for a big number here and there. Jumping ahead, Britten was a master at it. Structurally, Peter Grimes is quite old fashioned; truly a “numbers opera”, but maybe that’s why it works. Even as relentless a modernist as Reimann had the nous to use texts that allowed him to write set pieces like Lear’s “Blast, Winde”. I’m struggling to think of a piece I really like that is “just” narrative. Even Wozzeck has its set piece moments and very disturbing they are too.
My second thought is that “realism” isn’t a road to relevance, still less interest. Opera is so far from any kind of naturalism that trying to set a kitchen sink drama to music is a pretty fraught exercise. It could be argued that that’s what Puccini did and that seems to work for a lot of people but it may also be why Puccini tend to leave me a bit cold. I don’t like being told what to feel! It’s the works with either ambiguity or a certain universalism that work best for me. For example, of Heggie’s work I’ll take Moby Dick over Dead Man Walking any day. I’m a bit allergic to sermons set to music! Actually I think it’s when there is someting a little world bending that a piece catches my imagination. Take Juliet Palmer’s Shelter as an example. Part of what lifts this out of the ordinary are the elements of magic realism and the warping of the narrative timeline.
What doesn’t seem to matter so much is the thing that some critics seem to obsess on; “whether the music is accessible”. I have enjoyed works ranging in style from Heggie’s almost Broadway like approach to Birtwistle and Reimann at their toughest. The only thing think that matters here is a certain authenticity and a distinctive voice.
I’ve had enough interesting conversations with people I respect to know that in all these areas there are some very varied opinions. I’m not offering up a “formula” for success (hah!) but some ideas that have been bugging me enough to want to put them on paper and see if they resonate with anybody else.