The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Greatest Operas, Part X

Posted by therebelprince on March 12, 2015

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

Welcome to the final instalment of my series on the greatest operas of all time. We’ve come a long way from the precious melodies of Handel and Monteverdi, through empires and fads, world wars and ideological upheavals, and now we reach the 21st century. These last six composers – as well as my brief thoughts on a few others – surely only represent the tip of a musical iceberg. There are undoubtedly many other operatic composers working in their own countries, earning a reputation amongst musicians and musicgoers. I hope that – should I revise this list in ten or twenty years – I will have many more names to add from this era. (And, of course, as I’m only profiling composers who have made prominent strides in the specific field of opera, this shouldn’t be taken to be a survey of composers as a whole!)

Please feel free to comment across the ten weeks on composers, operas, and recordings that I’ve missed. I’m always keen to expand my knowledge, and there is so much more out there to be found.

65. Thomas Adès (b. 1971, British)

The first undoubtedly Generation X member of our list, Adès has thus far written two operas, and they’re two of my favourites. Powder Her Face (1995), a high-camp epileptic fit, is set in a hotel room, as a post-decadent Duchess lives out a mix of delusion and devastation, accompanied by two mocking servants. Instruments such as the harp and the accordion, as well as the maid’s stylised, rhythmic laughter, give the piece a kind of melancholy cabaret. Admittedly, Powder Her Face is a young man’s opera. It doesn’t represent so much subversion of the medium as the disinterested, somewhat juvenile joking of the young. But, in an age when most “great” composers in English-speaking countries make their opera debut in their 30s or 40s with adaptations of the Great American Novel, this definitely made a statement. It’s been well-recorded on disc by the composer, but I’d recommend starting with the DVD (starring Mary Plazas as the Duchess) which gives you a much better sense of how the score intertwines with the libretto.

A far greater work, and one featuring fewer scenes of fellatio, is The Tempest (2004). The world hasn’t exactly been crying out for more adaptations of Shakespeare, but Adès and his librettist, Meredith Oakes, find a frail beauty on this storm-ridden island. The excitingly dissonant orchestral writing is particularly affecting, but the composer also shows his skill in uniting voice with character. The fiendish coloratura role of Ariel is written almost absurdly high, while the plaintive Caliban is the opera’s most touching. The roles include a countertenor for the spiteful jester Trinculo, contrasted with the traditional – almost lyrical – duet for the newly-met lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. The composer’s third opera, an adaptation of the Buñuel film The Exterminating Angel (because, of course it is) will premiere in roughly 2017.

66. Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952, Finnish)

In 2016, Saariaho will become the second female composer to have a work staged at the Metropolitan Opera in its long history. And the first since 1903. It seems ridiculous, yet I’m sure the numbers are similar for non-white composers. Those statistics reflect the changing state of opera as we enter the 21st century. Thankfully, the talent is now being nurtured – and emerging – to prove that the generations born in the late 20th century contain great wealths of talent that are neither white nor male (homosexuality is the only one of the three “big ones” of bigotry that has never precluded great composers). It’s exciting to imagine what will happen as my own generation takes the opera stages, where such barriers are considered far less important.

I mostly know Saariaho’s instrumental works, but her first opera, L’amour de loin (A Love from Afar, 2000) is basically a masterpiece. It’s the story of two people in Medieval times who fall in love without meeting – or seeing – one another. Told almost entirely through sustained solo vocal writing, and interpolated with moments of electronic music, it’s a lush and hypnotic piece that more than justifies its languorous running time. While Glass’ rhythms reflect social and cultural thought, Saariaho’s rhythms represent the personal and philosophical. Dawn Upshaw and Gerald Finley have recorded the work on DVD and, if you can stand something different, it’s worth seeking out.

Final intermezzo: contemporary operas

As with all of our recent decades, there are a number of operas worth mentioning that fall into either of two camps: operas that I haven’t yet been able to properly experience, but would like to, and operas that are worthy of note but aren’t perhaps the masterpieces their composers are capable of.

Operas I’d like to know more about include a few that received very good press on their premieres: Gil Shohat’s The Child Dreams (2009), a musically conservative Israeli opera that nevertheless radically investigates the loss of love and innocence in a tragic world event; Tarik O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness (2011); Kevin Puts’ Silent Night (2011); Richard Mills’ Batavia (2001); and Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer (2010), which has been performed in several Australian cities but never at the same time that I have been in them! Also of great interest to me is Iain Bell’s recent A Harlot’s Progress (2013). And then there’s Ricky Ian Gordon’s new opera Twenty-Seven (2014) – he’s something of a crossover composer between musical theatre and opera, and I’d really like to hear this one.

In terms of operas that I have seen or heard, and delighted in: particularly of note is Ainamadar (The Founatin of Tears, 2005) by Argentinean composer Ossvaldo Golijov. The piece details the life of Federico Garcia Lorca, casting the role of Lorca as a female. The memorable premiere recording stars Dawn Upshaw and melds the vocal traditions of Spanish and Jewish backgrounds with that of contemporary opera. The more I listen to Ainamadar, the more I’m enthusiastic for the future of the artform. I’m currently listening to Written on Skin (2012) by the British composer George Benjamin. It’s a medieval love-horror, in which a young boy creating a manuscript history of a family becomes inextricably wound up in a love affair with his mistress. The piece meditates on the ability of words to depict lives, and of love to survive the body, and it’s all very intellectual. I’m quite enjoying it, although I haven’t yet reached a level of intellectual or musical understanding to be as rhapsodic as the 2012 critics, so it remains here in the “maybe” pile.

Slightly less successful, but very popular, are two operas based on classic texts: Our American Cousin (2008) by Eric Sawyer, which presents the death of Abraham Lincoln through refracting layers of past and present, and Ned Rorem’s Our Town (2006). Rorem is a composer whose music I find a bit bookish, but he works with smart librettists to create a complete theatrical experience. Also very interesting is the South Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin, who caused a bit of a stir with her Alice in Wonderland (2007). It’s a piece that owes clear debts to Ligeti – the crazy first staging of the work proves that pretty clearly – and she’s a composer who enjoys the kind of playful approach to music that Lewis Carroll did to his words. I ultimately think the deeply deconstructivist approach to Alice in Wonderland makes it a quite flawed work, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating example of Chin’s talent. (Sadly, the DVD of the production is filmed by some kind of crazy arthouse director who doesn’t seem very interested in what is happening on stage. It’s quite upsetting. The Caterpillar, for instance, doesn’t sing but instead plays an extended bass clarinet solo to communicate, with its words projected onto the stage for the benefit of those in the audience who don’t speak caterpillar. The director doesn’t show us much of this clarinet, nor do they show us any of the words. IDIOT.)

There’s Brokeback Mountain (2014), an adaptation by an older composer, Charles Wuorinen, and already available on DVD. I found this jagged opera very touching and atmospheric but – as one review said earlier in the year – “it’s a hard opera to love”. It’s a good example of the challenges inherent in creating opera nowadays. Whereas the classical composers coupled their structure with clear markers for the audience at every point, many composers now expect the audience to do the work in terms of reading a copy of the score and getting to grips with the construction. For instance, Wuorinen conceives the work so that the leads are associated with different musical pitches, “a whole step apart yet divided by a third tonal area associated with the mountain itself”. Clever though that is, it doesn’t translate to someone watching or listening to the opera without a little aid from the composer. I say this as someone who writes theatre myself: you can interlace your text with as many clever linguistic layers as you want, but they need to be bound together by some kind of surface-level coherence. This kind of ability comes naturally to Adams and Corigliano, to Adès and perhaps Adamo. It does appear at numerous moments throughout the work, and there are other moments of brilliance once you find them (the strikingly tense music that plays even during private romantic moments makes sense once you realise it represents the oppression that bears down on the characters even in moments of happiness). Brokeback Mountain is successful, don’t get me wrong, and it has a thrall over the audience – indeed, by the end of the opera, something truly heartfelt had washed over me; it just reflects the difference between composers who unabashedly subscribe to a “school of thought” and those who are more open to finding their own place within a 400-year history of music.

All of which is to say: The remaining 4 on this list have not yet written a truly “great” opera. But they perhaps best represent the future of the medium – all are American, which probably speaks more to that country’s cultural imperialism than any specific nexus of talent – and I’m taken with their works even if – in some cases – I’m more excited by their non-operatic future than by the works they’re setting to text.

67. Tobias Picker (b. 1954, American)

Picker’s a tough one, so I’ll be brief. I think his music is substantial, with a genuine feeling of drive that even the least musically-trained audience member can ferret out. His works – with libretti usually adapted from well-known texts – are layered with yearning characters, all given their moment to shine. I like his Thérèse Raquin (2000) and his debut work, Emmeline (1996) although sometimes it seems as if their characters are all simply musical extensions of the same score, rather than being individual instruments. I thought his more recent An American Tragedy (2005) lacked a punchy enough libretto, but it was the first work in which I truly felt for his characters. Perhaps my problem with Picker is the same thing I had with one of his mentors – Elliott Carter – not to mention a couple of others on this list: he seems so focused on the orchestra that the vocal lines are secondary, or at least underwhelming. And this is why, when his works are done with renowned cast members, they shine much greater than any other. It’s the performance, not the writing, that creates the characters. There have been composers throughout history like this: who are ambitious enough to want to tackle the extended narrative of multiple characters and themes, but whose talent shines greatest in the more freeform medium of instrumental music, or the condensed potency of songs. Still, Picker’s works should all have reasonable theatrical afterlives. They take affecting stories, and tell them in ways that the audience can engage with. It’s an approach to opera that shouldn’t be so unusual but – in the 21st century – really is.

68. Marc-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960, English)

Thus sealing my own fate as any kind of reputable commentator on opera, I boldly place Anna Nicole (2011) on this list.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. It’s ultimately not a work of genius. The music often seems largely accompaniment, only truly breaking free in the instrumental sections; for every bravura aria there’s a passage that seems to misunderstand its relation to the supposed comedy-to-tragedy arc; the libretto is hardly subtle. And the decision to do Anna Nicole as a reality television-inspired biopic was obvious and right, yet it ended up being so wrong: taking a story that was already glossy and impersonal, and rendering it… glossy and impersonal. I can’t fault Turnage and his librettist, Richard Thomas, for their decision but, in retrospect, it was the wrong one.

Still, I really enjoyed Anna Nicole. It is not – as one commentator put it – full of Broadway’s “simplistic writing” (even putting aside the inherent snobbiness in that phrase). It is definitely an opera. But, from reading reviews and Youtube comments, the question seems to be is it what an acceptable opera should be? Look, there’s an argument that opera should be “elite”. Like ballet, or fine art, it is a stylised representation of life or themes, not a depiction of real life. Look for that in film or theatre. And to extent I can agree. It’s true that my favourite operas of the last 25 years are Nixon, Tempest, Streetcar, L’Amour, Versailles – all works that, for all of their musical brilliance, are tales of grandeur or stylised decay. Yet must the satires of Weill conform to the same rules as the lushness of Puccini? Must the frivolous comedies of a Rossini tailor themselves according to the formal rules of a Meyerbeer? Opera – or at least some operas – must speak to the age. If Verdi were writing La traviata in 2015, businessmen would be doing lines of coke off Violetta’s navel. Alfredo would be able to check in via cellphone. To write of a figure of our era, particularly one as lowly as Anna Nicole, but to couch it in – what? Shakespearean glory? It is illogical at best. (One notable Youtube commentator disparaged the production because star Eva-Maria Westbroek had trained for years to end up in plastic breasts singing about drugs. Because apparently this is the 19th century and we only want to see women play queens and goddesses. Please. Westbroek must have enjoyed the challenge or she wouldn’t have signed up for it.)

Perhaps I care so much about this because of the argument of timelessness vs. working artistry. When I listen to the operas of, say, Johann Hasse, I’m constantly impressed. Hasse was one of the most renowned opera composers of his day, but he is rarely staged or spoken of now. His era was full of genres with different ways of thinking and of presenting ideas. His music is still wonderful, but his works don’t speak to our generation. Yet, why should they have to? Why must the success of an individual opera determine a composer’s fate when they are commissioned for their next (to first be staged six years after the commission)? In this era of recorded media, opera audiences have come to expect that every work – and every production – is timeless, rather than good. When I see people complain about Westbroek’s fake breasts, or a (very good) aria that just rattles off the names of drugs, I can’t help believing that their opposition is to anything that threatens their naive belief that opera can remain in the past. I would argue there needs to be a change, certainly. Large opera companies need to partner with small houses to give new works the  premieres they need early in their lives. More composers need to be supported rather than left to wallow for a decade with university companies before they are welcomed into the arms of subscription-based organisations. If anything went wrong with Anna Nicole, it was the fault of a system where audience demands hold too much sway over art, and where houses must commission works – sight unseen – five years before they premiere.

You’re free to dislike Anna Nicole. Even hate it. I don’t love it myself. Turnage is brilliant, and I liked long swathes of the opera, but I also had some basic dissatisfaction with both its dramatic impetus and sections of the score. You’re free to dislike this work, but you are not free to dislike modern-day operas, or productions that are set in the here and now. If you feel that way, then you don’t actually like opera. Someone who only watches films from the silent era is a specialist or the dread “enthusiast”, not a film lover. And so it is with our art. #rantover

69. Nico Muhly (b. 1981, American)

So, I basically think Muhly is ace – as both a composer and a human being. He takes such an open approach to music, is beloved by both classical and contemporary musicians as he seeks to unite the forms. He’s charismatic, all-encompassing, and hipster, yes, but also representative of my generation. He is the Gen Y member of this list, for good or ill. He’s also the youngest composer ever to have a work commissioned at the Met (and his next commission for them – rather awesomely – also inspired one of Hitchcock’s most intriguing films, Marnie). Two Boys (2011) is well-orchestrated, and tells a true story of a deeply upsetting game of psychological warfare and attempted murder. Yet, it’s not all that new. The vocal writing is sometimes poor. It’s mostly the libretto’s fault (see my earlier comments on Doctor Atomic for my – admittedly personally biased – thoughts on poor librettists, but Craig Lucas’ contribution to the pageant of Two Boys is woeful). Not just in the patently unmusical dialogue, but the laboured attempts at comic relief, and the talky attempts at philosophy. And that’s putting aside the peculiar Ludditism: yes, we understand that the opera is set in 2001, but old people going online to the interweb is no longer the repository of comic riches it arguably never was.

Tellingly, the best moments are when the libretto is either silent or playing second fiddle to atmosphere. Anne’s gradual realisation of a terrible truth, a sombre night shared together by two boys, the portrayal of the internet, with overlapping choruses depicting the ceaseless chatter of wireless noise. There’s an argument that the story would have benefited from a more abstract treatment. Not quite as far east as Muhly’s mentor, Glass, perhaps, but something that would have inspired Lucas to inject even the tiniest hint of élan into the proceedings. Longer moments of orchestral music are bliss. And, in the final 15 minutes, everything comes together so beautifully, that the beauty is profoundly and deliberately at odds with the subject matter. And there’s the use of boy soprano which absorbs one both musically and viscerally. Two Boys is more sophisticated, more nuanced than Powder Your Face, which got all giggly about sex and was so excited about being different.

All of which is to say: I actually don’t expect every opera to suit my tastes. And I remain a squealing Muhly fanboy. But maybe he should leave the self-serious melodramas to the composers mentioned earlier in the post, and translate his own musical playfulness into opera. And perhaps the Met should commission it.

70. Jake Heggie (b. 1961, American)

Heggie is Gen-X, so really should come before Muhly on my list, but – in some ways – he best exemplifies, for me, the future of opera. Saariaho is an artist choosing to work in the medium, Adès a composer naturally suited to it, Turnage an iconoclast, Picker a classicist, and Muhly – well – best representative of the mixed-genre future of most artforms (the television musical, the multimedia opera, the site-specific ballet: it’s all becoming one great mélange). Heggie, instead, seems to embody a form of operatic writing that embraces modern “classical” music trends while also embracing modern “popular” music trends, but embedding them into a more traditional outlook on theatre-making.

Heggie is a remarkable art song composer, whose works have been performed by many of the great singers of the 21st century. It’s perhaps for this reason that I find his characters more internally driven, since he has a great sense of how a single song or aria can carry the weight of a scene. His early opera, Dead Man Walking (2000) draws on a similar tonal quality to that of Two Boys, but does so with a more expressive score and a greater sense of the character throughlines:

Of course, as with so many others in the last few chapters, all of Heggie’s biggest works have been taken from existing texts. It’s a trend on Broadway, in cinema, and now in the modern opera house. Perhaps it encourages lazy audiences, those willing to attend because they’re not scared off by the concept of anything abstract or overly subversive. And it certainly gives an unfair advantage (if we’re talking competitively) over those composers on this list who have chosen to collaborate on entirely new works. Yet it certainly helps houses draw in the general public, and it’s not as if early opera was a well of originality: the great 18th century librettists like Metastasio might have one libretto set as the text for ten or twenty operas! And perhaps pre-written character arcs are exactly what operagoers ordered. I’ve been privileged to write an opera libretto myself, and I firmly believe that small companies should be commissioning new works. But – with the 21st century trend of hiring famous playwrights as librettists, in the hope of drawing in more audiences – we often end up with confused hodgepodges, in which a playwright and composer from vastly different worlds attempt to create something that lacks any unity.

It speaks to something that Heggie’s most recent opera (although he has many commissions, it seems) is an adaptation of Moby-Dick (2010)Moby Freaking Dick. It’s not exactly Thomas Pynchon, but on the list of works that have defeated great artists in the field of adaptation, Melville’s tome is surely up there. Yet, the opera is undeniably a success. The book is vastly operatic, expansive in both narrative and philosophy, finding similar fascinating concerns about nihilism and destiny that give weight to other sea-based operas such as The Tempest and Billy Budd (also both drawn from pre-existing texts). Combine that with 21st century technology and artistic expression, and you have a recipe for great opera.

Yet it’s Heggie, not Melville, who makes the work shine. The music has its own defiant idiom, seemingly influenced as much by 20th century technique as by the more populist film score and musical theatre approaches. It offers vocal writing that works toward singers rather than against. That is not to paint Heggie as some kind of stuffy old man writing “classical opera” while Adès and Muhly spend their days on Instagram. Not at all. I think their various approaches are all valid and exciting, and the three have more in common than they do in opposition. But, if we must make a summation, Heggie seems best poised to usher in a 21st century of opera that carries on the legacy of the last four hundred years while still embracing the future. It’s a theatre comprised of the oldest theatrical rule: compromise. Works that require the audience to open their minds and their ears to textures beyond the norm, to philosophies and surprises and tonal shifts. Yet it also asks the artists and orchestra and opera houses to take a few steps in the direction of the audience. To remember that opera is not sculpture or poetry. It is an artform that shines best when it is using its gifts – recognisable musical structure, weighty emotion, powerful staging – to push its characters further and further into the abyss of questions we all ask, and to transform the audience in doing so.

So, in closing, what have we learned? Dare I say not much. Over the last ten weeks, as I’ve re-listened to, discovered, and challenged 400 years’ worth of the operatic repertoire, the moral of the story seems to be that fandom is a complex, contradictory experience. There is never going to be one answer to what makes a great opera, let alone a great production, performer, or style. And nor should there be: the delight of great art is how our relationship with it changes over time, how incredible performances and stagings can give us insight into the creators of the work, the thoughts of the time, and how these thoughts relate to us in the present day.

I hope that, in my time writing this, I have opened my own mind to methods of performances – and of composition – that were previously unknown, or at least alien, to me. We live in a challenging era for high art, when older works are increasingly championed by the well-fed elite, living artists struggle to make a name as governments truncate their arts funding, up-and-coming performers fight reduced hours and options at every turn, and a third generation is now being born for whom classical music, art, and literature are increasingly obscure topics. And yet, I’m not quite sure which direction we’re heading in. To read arts magazines and websites, I’m inclined to believe that we are at a crisis point, and that – unless arts companies return to their roots rather than hiring lifelong businesspeople in their administrative and directorial roles – the next generation will never experience the true joys of opera. That the onus is now on parents and teachers to see the importance of high culture for their children, even if it is not a subject area with which they themselves are overly familiar. On the other hand, to read the social media feeds of my musician friends and acquaintances is to be reminded that there are thriving artistic and musical communities all around the world, and that both new works and inventive spins on old works are constantly being discussed and created. Perhaps both those worlds exist. Perhaps they always have.

So, for now, I will let those worlds carry on. I will do whatever small part I can to promote the multivarious joys of the artform. Whether in a soaring Puccini aria, a sublime Mozart duet, or the increasingly complex harmonies of the 20th and 21st centuries, opera is a true joy; an art that will – at its best – never grow stale, but remain timeless for all generations.

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