The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Greatest Operas, Part VIII

Posted by therebelprince on February 26, 2015

This post is simulcast from my blog “The Annals of Opera”.

In Part Eight of my ongoing series on my favourite operas, we’ve reached the late 1950s, and today we’re going to look at some fairly bonkers composers, and their attempts to push this artform into mayhem and inspiration.

My usual caveats apply: these are only my suggestions of favourite operas (not necessarily the objective greatest ever), and should be taken as such. And, of course, as we’re going chronologically, the number assigned to each composer is no indicator of quality!

51. William Walton (1902 – 1983, English)

Okay, we’re just going to make a little detour before we get to the “bonkers” section of today’s post. Walton was a modernist in his early years but, by the end of his career, he seemed to represent stateliness and tradition – for this reason, he was chosen to compose the theme tune for the BBC’s Complete Works of Shakespeare in the 1980s. His music runs the gamut from pomp to quirk, and both his operas are worthwhile. The first, Troilus and Cressida (1954) – adapted from the Chaucer, not the Shakespeare – has a number of derisive critics (the Walton page on Wikipedia is particularly disparaging), and yet I’ve always found it to be beautiful, almost neo-romantic, and fairly effective on disc (recorded by Dame Janet Baker). Critics who saw the early productions noted that it was unfortunately not dramatically tense enough, perhaps primarily due to the libretto, and its afterlife is very limited, probably because of this fact. More popular, Walton’s one-act opera, The Bear (1967), is a sly comedy adapted from the Chekhov play about a new widow who goes up against a grumpy creditor of her late husband’s, in a battle that quickly and parodically jumps from psychological to physical. It’s very enjoyable in performance. In his operas, Walton was far from an experimentalist, but his compositions neatly fit their stories and characters, making for enjoyable viewing experiences half a century on.

52. Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926, American)

Carlisle Floyd is the first composer on this list to still be living as of 2015. Rarely among his contemporaries, opera was Floyd’s métier rather than simply one of many forms of music. Among his works, Floyd wrote music and libretto for an opera of Wuthering Heights (1958), which unfortunately is quite hard to track down, and his smart, affecting Of Mice and Men (1969) remains fairly frequently performed. It’s Floyd’s willingness to base his operas in American culture and idioms that have made him so highly respected, as they rarely feel “constructed”. Instead, the characters’ music arises from a unified score as if arising from the very nation of America itself. This is particularly true of his masterful Susannah (1955). Drawing its musical inspirations from Protestant hymns and Appalachian folk music, the title character of Susannah is spurned by her heavily-religious community because of thinly-veiled jealousy and lust. Despite her innocence, the court of public opinion has judged Susannah, and her childish desires to see the world outside of “the valley” becomes a plea of desperation. The repressed, charismatic Reverend Blitch becomes her nemesis, but their relationship is far more complicated than that.  The album starring Samuel Ramey, Jerry Hadley, and Cheryl Studer as Susannah, is vital listening.

Intermezzo: the 1960s

So, I’ll probably have to start doing a little recap at the start of each decade from here on. Each decade since the beginning of opera’s history has brought dozens, if not hundreds, of operas whose afterlives have proved short. It’s not that surprising; the same is true of books, films, and plays. Sometimes these works are good but not great; sometimes they speak to a particular concern of the time; sometimes they are primarily a reaction against other art movements and thus have little staying power once their point has been absorbed into the great cultural web. And, particularly with something like modern opera, sometimes it’s just very rare to see them live on stage, or even on DVD. Although it seems like a contradiction – given we live in an era of such powerful audio recording technology – most operas nowadays are tied more explicitly to the libretto and theatrical elements more than ever before (back in the day, a libretto was often an excuse for a composer to write some songs). As a result, just listening to an opera recording can sometimes prove fruitless as a way of getting to know the piece’s full effect.

By way of making a list both for myself and other interested parties, here are a few I’m interested in experiencing: Phyllis Tate, The Lodger (1960); Robert Ward, The Crucible (1961); Franz Berwald’s Drottningen av Golconda (The Queen of Golconda, 1968); Mieczysław Weinberg, The Passenger (1968); Malcolm Williamson, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1966); and Miss Julie (1965) by Ned Rorem – about whom we’ll discuss more another time. Two interesting works are Die Teufel von Loudon (The Devils of Loudon, 1969) by Krzystztof Penderecki, a tale of demonic possession that seems to have won a lot of loathing and a bit of fandom back in the ’60s, and is still awaiting a revival, and The Mines of Sulphur (1965) composed by Richard Rodney Bennett, which I find to be a bit static, but has had a successful comeback of late.

53. Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934, English)

Maxwell Davies, an eternally experimental musician grounded in a true love of classical music in all its forms, also seems like an all-around good guy. I don’t know much about his operas after Taverner (1972) but when you look at his first opera (or, perhaps, solo drama) Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), you can see why a lot of critics shunned works like Walton’s Troilus and Cressida or Samuel Barber’s equally dismissed Antony and Cleopatra (1966). Eight Songs is a 30-minute descent into madness, generally staged with the actor in a giant birdcage, and ending with destruction of (hopefully not valuable) string instruments. Setting a challenge to existing notions of opera, it can also be mesmerising and just a little bit fun. The orchestra includes the digeridoo and the harpsichord, and the baritone performer is asked to stretch his voice with just as much dexterity as those of the instruments. A visceral piece that – perhaps – is ultimately light in its intention, but gripping in its execution. There are some complete performances on Youtube (as below) but it’s very much a festival piece that plays better in person.

Second intermezzo: the 1970s

Unsurprisingly, the ’70s is – like the ’60s before it – an era when most of the new operas fade quickly into obscurity. While the older composers like Britten were still honoured with performances, most new operas continued to be tied to their time, or ignored by the establishment. Sadly, for most of the operas I find intriguing from this period (excluding those covered by composers already discussed), it’s hard to get a hold of good recordings, and almost impossible to see them performed unless you have the good luck to live in a musical hub. So, here’s a bit of a rundown of some ’70s operas of interest, even if in most cases I haven’t heard more than a few minutes of music from them!

Dominick Argento, Postcard from Morocco (1971), with origins in cabaret, in which a bunch of people at a train station interact. It seems to have no plot, instead entrusting meaning to the exotic music and a kind of symbolism. Peter Sculthorpe, Rites of Passage (1973), which makes heavy use of Indigenous dance and culture. There’s also Stephen Oliver, The Duchess of Malfi (1971); Boris Blacher, Yvonne, Prinzessin von Burgund (Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy (1973); Aulis Salinnen, The Horseman (1975); Jack Beeson, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1975); Peter Bellamy’s folk opera The Transports (1977); Anne Sexton, Transformations (1973); William Grant Still, A Bayou Legend (1974); and Thomas Pasatieri, The Seagull (1974).

54. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006, Hungarian)

No retiring wallflower, Ligeti – like so many of the most interesting composers of the mid-20th century – had an enduring interest in music from all around the world, from Medieval styles to the most contemporary of works, including world music. Undoubtedly avant-garde, I would still argue that Ligeti’s music was successful beyond the experimental niche because he remained interested in the ways that music interacted with people – and, by extension, audiences – rather than being a primarily academic exercise in his head of ways to further delight musicologists (like, um, let’s just say a few other composers of the 20th century). For the sake of this blog, Ligeti is noted for his sole opera, Le grand macabre (1978). It is complete flim-flammery and also wonderful, an eclectic satire in which Death – or a man who believe himself to be Death – comes to Breugelland to wipe them out, but becomes caught up their disturbing existences. As they journey to the royal palace, the characters deal with their impending doom, and question whether they are dead already. A series of comic archetypes, vulgar as all hell and yet – like Chaucer or Shakespeare – finding the philosophy within that vulgarity, raise questions of human nature but also questions that can easily be referential to any human event. (Ligeti explicitly wanted Le grand macabre to be staged in the language of whichever country it was being staged in, to bring that ambiguity into focus.) The vocal lines are nightmarishly modern, yet also include references to composers from past centuries. The orchestra includes everything from paper bags and alarm clocks to Japanese Temple-Bells and, famously, 12 car-horns for the opera’s prelude. Nothing like Le grand macabre has really ever existed, whether you think it’s wonderful or just the Emperor’s new clothes (I happen to think it’s both). Opera had certainly come of age: if we didn’t like the opera, it’s the result of the age itself.

55. Aribert Reimann (b. 1936, German)

Reimann is not a composer whom I’m familiar with aside from his modern remaking of Shakespeare’s Lear (1978). Lear (removing the regal title offends me a little as a Shakespeare critic, since King is so important to the personification of Lear, but I suspect that’s Reimann’s point) is in some ways indicative of one school of opera that would continue to the present day: haunting, starkly atonal, interested in characters but almost primarily interested in their psychological existences rather than convincing narrative interaction. What makes Lear stand out from many of them is that its characters do have internal life, if only by virtue of the Shakespearean original. It is not a happy opera – obviously – and, in fact, it’s relentless, requiring utter commitment by the audience and ending, like Strauss’ Elektra, in something approaching exhaustion for both performers and viewers. The score is well-coloured, deeply moving when performed well, and expressionist in parts (not surprising, really, given the centrality of the storm to Shakespeare’s plot). In the 1980s and ’90s, a lot of my favourite composers either brought beauty back into operatic music, or made works so ugly they became beautiful. Instead, Reimann finds the beauty in the ugliness. The signature recording stars Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which is no surprise since Fischer-Dieskau was the one who suggested the subject and subsequently had the role written for him. Anyhow, I just went to find a Youtube clip and spent 20 minutes watching them so, lest I pause at this point of the blog forever, let’s move on!

Third intermezzo: The 1980s

Opera made a fairly large comeback in the 1980s, arguably with the rise of video and television recordings. Perhaps the baby boomers – having grown up in an era of television and the gramophone record themselves – simply had a greater sense of timelessness in art. Or perhaps, as the Cold War thawed, there was at last time for art – both populist and elitist – to focus on the concerns of the artist, rather than the immediate concerns of the time. Or perhaps, just perhaps, opera companies got more savvy at commissioning works with some level of mainstream appeal. Make of it what you will. Either way, there’s a lot of works from the era that, while not works of genius, were interesting in their time and could still be worthwhile in revival (not that we’re likely to see them often here in the Antipodes).

Interesting works include The Princess of the Stars (1981) by R. Murray Schafer: an experimental work grounded in Native American mythology, which specifically must be performed at dawn in an isolated area by water; Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986); Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986) and a work that merges electronic music with modern material, the ever-interesting Harrison Birtwhistle’s The Mark of Orpheus (1986). There’s Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Gogolian satire The Portrait (1983), Oliver Knussen’s highly-regarded children’s opera Where the Wild Things Are (1984), and Sallinen’s Kuningas lähtee Ranskaan (The King Goes Forth to France, 1984), a textured and sardonic opera that seems to have been very successful in its time.

Growing in my estimation are Saint François d’Assise (1983) by Oliver Messiaen, which is never going to be in my favourite operas but shows the composer’s usual strengths and interest in birdsong and natural sounds to reflect our own existences. I also am quite enjoying what I can listen to of Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe (1980), which adapts the classic play in a slightly parodic fashion. With its traditional arias and numbers, it almost resembles operetta. It’s a certainly a return to “accessible” opera that has seen it rather regularly performed, particularly in America. I’d also like to hear or see Richard Meale’s Voss (1986) which was extremely successful at its premiere.

But enough of this, let’s move on to some composers whose works seem to have made it.

56. Philip Glass (b. 1937, American)

I have a complicated relationship with Glass. His film scores are undeniably alluring. His devotion to “complete theatre”, engaging with his works – for whatever medium or form – as more than just “the guy who wrote the music”, is particularly impressive. There is no Glass opera (and he’s scribbled out a lot of the things) that is just music set to an indifferent text; they’re all pieces of theatre incorporating music. And yet I’m not sure how I feel about his operas. Glass is a musician driven by repetition and “minimalist” compositions (I hate that word “minimalist” since it suggests there is somehow less work involved, and that’s definitely not true of ol’ Phil!), highly renowned but the kind of artist who asks his audiences – and his characters – to succumb to him, rather than succumbing to them. He reminds me of someone like Tim Burton, seemingly working through some kind of obsession, rather than the kind of directors I particularly admire who tailor their work to each individual experience.  Lest I sound bitter, I’m very much not. I’ve met so many Glass devotees in my time. Beyond that, as much as I feel bewildered about his works both before and after, when I’m actually watching one, it is the most enthralling experience one can have in the opera house. Einstein on the Beach (1976) is arguably an opera (the composer would call it so, so who am I to disagree?*). The audience is free to come and go over the five-hour running time, and it makes its plotless, often wordless, point through an almost hypnotic effect on the audience.

(* it’s the same reason Stephen Sondheim doesn’t appear on this list. Sweeney Todd and Passion are masterful, but Sondheim has flatly refuted the notion of “opera”.)

For a long time, Glass’ best opera was perhaps Akhnaten (1983), a formal, ritualistic biography of the titular Pharaoh. Perhaps the reason I preferred it to Einstein was that the structure allowed something a little more linear, but at the same time the processional vibe of much of the opera, in its various languages, seemed to fit with the subject matter. Satyagraha (1979) has something of a plot, but entire scenes pass by in chanting and startling visuals, asking the audience to give themselves over to its shimmering, slowly-mutating chords. Just reading this paragraph, I can taste my ambivalence. I walk out of a Glass opera thinking “well, that was fascinating but I wouldn’t rush to see/hear it again” but then I’m always keen for the next one! As much as I remain ambivalent on the guy, I’m interested to see two of his more recent operas (Glass gets consistently commissioned, so he must be doing something right – or at least enticing enough paying customers): Appomattox (2007) and The Perfect American (2013), the latter of which dramatises the last months of Walt Disney’s life, investigating both the man’s less savoury qualities and the simple, questioning humanity of us all.

I suppose I should close this section out by saying that – yes – my relationship with Glass’ operas is strained. However, my favourite thing about art (be it a sitcom or a sculpture) is how our relationship changes over time. Whether I loved or loathed something 10 years ago, or even five, I often now feel differently. How will I feel about Einstein on the Beach in my 30s, 40s, or 80s? Only time will tell.

Next time, we’ll explore some of the iconic late 20th-century composers, and at least one Gen X wunderkind.


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