The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Greatest Operas, Part IX

Posted by therebelprince on March 5, 2015

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

And here we are, for the penultimate chapter of my listing of favourite operas. We’ve reached the ’90s, an era whose works are now receiving proper critical appraisal, and gradually reaching smaller opera companies and – in some cases – DVD releases. It’s a good time for reanalysis of these, primarily still living and working, composers.

blah blah usual caveats apply, read Chapters 1 t0 8, you lazy git…

57. Judith Weir (b.1954, England)

I find Judith Weir, currently Master of the Queen’s Music, to be similar in style to Benjamin Britten. Her work is heavily involved with the theatre and her music has a consistent tone that, however, adapts itself to fit each piece’s milieu. I’m not by any means a Weir obsessive, but her operas are certainly interesting in their intentions. A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987) tells the story of a band of actors in 13th century China telling a story themselves, while the musically-stronger but unusually plotted Blond Eckbert (1994) features some lovely music that often seems to push the audience interest back on to what is happening in the theatre. Like many composers in these last two chapters, Weir’s music is pretty plainly better in a purely musical context, rather than when on the operatic stage. Compared to her modern-day contemporaries, I’m afraid “interesting” is the most jubilant adjective I can apply to Weir’s operatic output, but nevertheless I mean it sincerely.

58. John Adams (b. 1947, American)

Adams is an uncontroversial addition to the list. Fairly consistently amazing, Adams has written at least two – arguably three – masterful operas. Adams’ is a minimalist but his music has great power, and he’s not afraid to let it soar when the text requires it. Working with mostly smart librettists, all of Adams’ works have things to say beyond the subject matter of the immediate situation, yet he manages to create a sense where the characters he deals with (usually character of considerable import) are part of this great tapestry of experience. Doctor Atomic (2005) focuses on the testing of the first atomic bomb, and has some significant power, yet I’m not all that fussed by the libretto. Back in Mozart’s day, the libretto usually existed as an already-known text which the composer either chose or was given. Nowadays, composers and librettists often collaborate in creating, which of course has a lot of advantages. However, I think far too many writers don’t know how to write for music, and even more composers don’t know how to tell a good libretto from a bad one (they’re musicians, not authors). That is not to say I think Peter Sellars can’t write for music, but this libretto is not one of my favourite things. It quotes plenty of poetry, but I’m not sure it’s very poetic in itself.

More successful is the poignant The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) – an angry work that examines the real-life hijacking of a passenger liner by the Palestine Liberation Front, and the tragic aftermath. The opera comes down pretty hard against the Palestinian terrorists, yet a group of idiots famously tried to get the opera taken off the Met’s roster in 2014 due to perceived (that is: deliberately misread) anti-semitism. Alice Goodman wrote the libretto for this intelligent work, as she did for the work that remains Adams’ masterpiece: Nixon in China (1987). Somehow both rebuking and supporting Tolstoy’s “great men” theory at the same time, the work firmly places the Nixons, Kissinger, and the Maos in a historical context, with its most haunting moments examining the gradual realisation of the characters of their own role in things – or, in the case of Pat, the possibility of something even greater beyond them. Nixon’s fascinating opening aria, placing his simple, cabinet-sanctioned act of diplomacy in the context of history, is intellectually heartbreaking. Pat’s second-act aria is a glorious vision of a democratic America opening its soul to whatever lies underneath:

Let the expression on the face
of the Statue of Liberty change just a little,
let her see what lies inland.

This wonderful work has been welcomed into the operatic repertory even if, in my experience at least, the deconstructivist final act tends to exhaust some opera subscribers. One thing I can’t really agree with, though, was Adams’ decision to not include surtitles at the original production (and at the production I’ve seen since, the same decision was made). I understand his desire for the audience to keep their attention on the stage, and his argument that operagoers have lasted for centuries without surtitles but … I just don’t think that aiding your audience to understand your work is ever a bad thing. Perhaps as more opera houses gravitate toward the Met’s choice of having optional surtitles on the back of each seat, our relationship to opera will be able to be both clearer and more individualised. Anyway, enough of that. Seek out the original recording of Nixon in China. Below is Nixon’s opening aria (it’s the little character touches, like Pat so aptly likening the Chinese countryside to the works of Breughel that really slay me):

59. John Corigliano (b.1938, American)

A symphonic composer (and husband of another composer coming up on this list, Mark Adamo), Corigliano has only written one opera of note but, my word, it’s a good’un. A complex and beautiful work set in the decaying theatre of Versailles, where the ghosts of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their court gather to witness a new opera by Beaumarchais, concluding the Figaro trilogy (of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro). Inevitably, then, The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), has a relationship with opera of the past in both a satirical and a straightforward way. Drifting between the ghostly Versailles and the increasingly outrageous events happening in the opera-within-the-opera, the opera features a number of beautiful set pieces, fascinating characterisations, and numerous amusing cameo roles, including the Turkish entertainer Samira (played by Marilyn Horne in the world premiere, and by Patti LuPone in the 2015 revival).

Sadly, The Ghosts of Versailles has had a fairly short afterlife, perhaps because of its highwire complexity, and there is no commercially available audio recording. However, the premiere production is available on DVD, if you can find it. I leave you with not one, but two excerpts to whet the appetite. First, for some stunning Mozartian beauty, here is where Beaumarchais begins to both deconstruct the Figaro operas and attempt to win over the Queen:

And then the loathsome, hideously creepy plotting of Count Almaviva’s dearest enemy, Bégearss (a role for which Graham Clark was nominated for an Emmy):

60. Harrison Birtwhistle (b. 1934, British)

Unlike Corigliano or Adams, Birtwhistle’s operas are unlikely to sell out the Met anytime soon. He is strictly a musician’s musician who delight in music that doesn’t follow any particular rules, and his operas often have the air of abstract theatre. Like Weir, he’s another that I find more “interesting” that masterful, but his works certainly excite. His Gawain (1990) is perhaps the best of his works, although every one of his pieces is destined to live or die based on the individual production. I’d definitely recommend seeing Birtwhistle in the opera house if his works come nearby, but I’ve found his works very challenging to get to know on disc, without an understanding of his intentions – and the director’s. Yet, my musician friends love him, and I can certainly see that his musical tone is both fascinating and mysterious.

61. Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007, German)

There’s a perception (indeed, I’ve espoused it about fifty times during this blog alone) that your common opera subscriber is opposed to change. If your season isn’t Puccini and Mozart, in literal stagings at that, they’ll be sure to write you an angry complaint letter. And lord knows I’ve experienced this directly in the worlds of both ballet and theatre. Undoubtedly it is true of half of them, although I like to think it’s the unimportant half. (I think it was Elisabeth Schwartzkopf who once said that – at any given performance – only 50% of the members of an opera audience are there for the music.) Yet, I feel as if audiences in the ’80s and ’90s were interested in new things, just as long as they were one-off new things, and didn’t threaten the beloved “season”. For instance, there was a real vogue for Chinese and other Eastern opera in the ’90s, The Peony Pavilion being the supreme example. Undoubtedly the weirdest opera of the 20th century is the only work to eclipse Wagner’s Ring in size and scope. Wagner wrote only of the very creation of humanity and the meaning of our constant toil; Stockhausen included helicopters.

Yep, I’m talking about Licht (Light, 1977 – 2003). As a storyteller and a lover of traditional music, I’m never sure how I feel about composers like Stockhausen. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to have a fifty-year career doing what he did in any country other than Germany! Always at the forefront of musical traditions – which can, unfortunately, sometimes be fads – Stockhausen’s work is often inexplicable, using electronic music, site-specific music, and generally destabilising music from its existing context. I’ve no doubt that – by the 22nd century – Stockhausen will be merely a footnote in a textbook, but he’ll be a lengthy footnote.

Licht is a cycle of seven operas that draw on the meanings of the days of the week to raise questions about reality and discuss our existence through mythical figures like Eve and Lucifer. In the operas, parts of the performance are played back to the audience over loudspeaker; dancers interact with taped electronic music; instrument players play while suspended from the ceiling; scenes end outside the theatre; and – most famously – in Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday), four string players ride in helicopters while their playing – influenced by the pilots’ movements – is transmitted to the audience below (all of which is concluded with a Q&A). Aside from the (fair) question of whether taxpayer dollars should be used for companies that choose to stage such elaborate productions – a question being asked around the world about opera companies as a whole – Licht is undoubtedly a staggering work. More than anything else, Stockhausen’s work is a reminder of the extent of music. Like Ligeti (although less deliberately), his work reminds us of the music in the everyday, and also is a timely rebuke to the idea that the lavishly pre-planned pieces of Mozart and his ilk are the only way to “make music”. One of my favourite subjects of the enjoyable-if-underwritten 2014 TV series Mozart in the Jungle was the way it depicted the divide between the lives and desires of the people making music, and the interests of those listening to it. Orchestra musicians sit in the pit during downtime knitting or planning gigs of their own work, while a braindead Broadway audience soaks up someone else’s nonsense. Licht is a reminder that music is being written for, and of, our era – and, thankfully, it seems there’s an audience for it.

62. André Previn (b. 1929, German-American)

A pianist and film composer, Previn has excelled in both jazz and classical, as well as serving as music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His works bridge a wide variety of artforms but, for our purposes, his first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire (1995) is very successful. The tense premiere production, starring Renée Fleming as – unsurprisingly – a remarkable Blanche, and Anthony Dean Griffey as a heartbreaking Mitch is available on DVD. The tendency to adapt existing works is one that’s infiltrated Broadway musicals and films just as well as opera of the last 20 years, but Streetcar is a fantastic work. Previn’s extensive work in film is very evident through the score’s use of instruments like saxophones, but it also knows how to be subtle when need be. I haven’t yet heard his more recent opera – an adaptation of Brief Encounter – but I look forward to doing so.

Fourth intermezzo: The 1990s

Like the previous decades, there are many operas that I’m intrigued to hear or see, but which aren’t exactly regularly performed. So again, for the sake of completion, here they are: Einojuhani Rautavaara, Vincent (1990); Rodion Shchedrin’s Lolita (1994); Matthew King’s The Snow Queen (1992), which sounds particularly interesting; Alfred Schnittke’s allegory of life under soviet repression, Life with an Idiot (1992); Hugo Weisgall’s remarkably successful historical opera, Esther (1993); and Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons (1994). Then there’s a Romantically-inspired Wilde adaptation, The Nightingale and the Rose (1994) by Elena Firsova; opera’s first lesbian lovestory, Patience and Sarah (1998); Tornrak (1990) by John Metcalf, which includes traditional Inuit folk singing techniques, in deliberate contrast to the parts of the opera set in Victorian England; Robert Morgan’s From The Towers of the Moon (1992) which incorporates Japanese mythology and fuses East with West, as was the vogue; and Gavin Bryars’ Doctor Ox’s Experiment (1998), which divided audiences with its post-modern, soft and slow scoring.

I’m also particularly intrigued by the works of Australian Constantine Koukias, for example his MIKROVION (1994), which involves everything from Hebrew to semaphore, while breaking down the barriers between creating music for theatre and the arts of science, language, and so on. I wouldn’t necessarily define Koukias’ work as opera – it seems more like performance art – but if it helps get him funding, keep on using the word, I say! And finally, there’s McTeague (1992) by William Bolcom, which fulfills two of my nerd requirements: it’s based on the novel that inspired Erich von Stroheim’s legendary film Greed, and it has a libretto by Robert Altman. Um… was it written for me?

63. Tan Dun (b. 1957, Chinese)

A multi-talented composer, Tan made his name with the Western public through his film scores, although his operatic scores have also received considerable notice. He is a fascinating composer by any standards, but he has also become – willingly or no – the poster boy for the expansion of opera beyond the Western scope. Ever since the end of WWII, the discussion of non-Western countries’ roles in theatre and art have been the subject of much discussion and controversy. Both of Tan’s popular Western operas, Marco Polo (1996) and The First Emperor (2006), have played at big houses (the Metropolitan opera, wonderfully, commissioned and premiered the latter). And both exhibit the artistry and ambitions in Tan’s work. And yet, as the uncertain reviews for The First Emperor suggest – see one here and another here – Tan still has a long way to go to merge the two traditions. That is not because he is lacking in talent, but because perhaps what he and his followers are looking for is a fusion not between East and West, but between the East and an old West (or possibly also an old East, for all I know). Still, to my grandchildren, the idea of any kind of cultural monopoly is going to seem ridiculous, and works like The First Emperor suggest we’re finally on the road to that reality.

64. Mark Adamo (b. 1962, American)

As one of the reviews of The First Emperor linked above comments, it’s incredibly challenging for young composers to have major works (particularly opera) staged by big houses. The size and expense simply doesn’t warrant anyone young (and by “young”, I mean under 40) being entrusted with such. And, in today’s era of the “anxiety of influence”, to quote Harold Bloom, a composer can be under immense pressure. If Mozart or Haydn had asked for five years to complete a work, they would have been laughed out of town! “Here’s your commission, have it back to me next month.” Now, operas are routinely commissioned five years out from their premiere (Rufus Wainwright chose not to debut his opera, Prima Donna, at the Met despite being invited to for just this reason — although, of course, he had to fund the recording of the opera through a Kickstarter campaign, so perhaps that’s the inevitable outcome).  Which is to say, Adamo’s two most notable operas to date – Lysistrata (2006) and Little Women (1998) – are adapted from famous texts, which undoubtedly helped to sell their premises. I don’t yet know Lysistrata, but Little Women is a great success. At its more experimental, less tonal sections, the opera can become a little bit insular, suggesting that it’s been composed rather than created, but much of the work manages to sing with a solid dramatic follow-through. Adamo is still young by the standards of musicianship, so I suspect we will hear more from him.

65. Rachel Portman (b. 1960, English)

Finally, for today, another film composer. (The number of film composers branching into opera would suggest that they are perhaps represent the ideal future for popular opera?) I’m not going to wax academic about Portman; you can find the BBC recording of her The Little Prince (2003) below. Watch and smile.

Next week, we’ll finish up my favourite operas with a tempest, a whale, and a few unusual love affairs. It’s opera for the 21st century.


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