Saturday, June 6, 2015



from CROSSING by Matthew Aucoin at A.R.T

What's needed to renew opera is new operas. The crisis is very real. These figures are from Opera America. The "main season attendance (not counting outreach, student performances, etc. 4.1 million in 1990), went from 3.6 in 2007 to 2.9 in 2009. This decline is a steady slope since 1990."

In America of all the Arts opera is the most endangered because it's the most expensive. "Regie production", is possibly not the answer anywhere. Those are 
director-driven presentations of popular operas that none the less go in radical directions far away from what experienced American opera lovers are used to seeing. We need a reinvention of the form through its basic unit, the opera itself. 

This has dawned on people for at least the last fifteen years and is getting its annual attention in the press. The New York Times did a big piece on Matthew Aucoin, the "boy genius" who appears to be abundantly gifted as a conductor but who's new opera, Crossing, was just given at ART, the theater at Harvard and was covered widely, including in the New York times.

OSCAR Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia did two new operas in 2015: Oscar by Theodore Morrison, with a libretto by John Cox, which concerns the downfall of the famous playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde. It was jointly commissioned with Santa Fe Opera which gave the world premiere in 2013. And on June 5, 2015, Opera Philadelphia gave the world premiere of Yardbird, the nickname of Charlie Parker, also known as Bird. Music was by the Swiss, Daniel Schnyder, text by Bridgette A. Wimberly. I saw both of these.

Yardbird Opera Philadelphia 

San Francisco will soon give the world premiere of Two Women, an opera by Marco Tutino, to be directed by Francesca Zambello.

Interestingly, Italian conductors provided the impetus for Yardbird and Two Women. Corrado Rovaris, the Music Director of Opera Philadelphia, spoke to the "fusion" composer Daniel Schnyder. They arrived at the idea of an opera that takes place on the last day of Parker's life. Nicola Luisotti convinced David Gockley the General Director of the San Francisco Opera to commission an opera of "lush and powerful" music to relieve the audience of the pains of "modernism" and "musical torture".

But a local spy confided that San Francisco Opera sent out an email advertising a 40% discount on seats for Two Women. Is the issue that people who pay for live performances only want Tosca or equivalent and won't even take a risk on something that has gotten sweaty assurances by all that it will be at worst a dental checkup with lolly-pop and not a painful procedure?

This informant also wondered if Two Women could possibly be worse than Gorden Getty's Usher (words and music by Mr. Getty, an 81 year old billionaire) on a bill with a recent completion of Claude Debussy's Fall of the House of Usher by Robert Orledge in December. This bill has already been given by the Welsh National Opera in June, 2014 to less than a rapturous reception (Debussy left very little, Mr. Getty reportedly remembers too much). 

Nico Muhly writes a lot of music. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned and gave the world premiere of a new work of his called Messages at its last concerts in the Kimmel Center in May, 2015 (I heard it May 16). Afterward, the orchestra's music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin called Muhly "a genius, a great genius!"

Two Boys, Metropolitan Opera
Muhly has written two operas. The Metropolitan Opera gave the American Premiere of Two Boys in the fall of 2013. The libretto is by the distinguished American playwright, Craig Lucas. The English National Opera gave the World Premiere in 2011. Opera Philadelphia joined one of its partners, Opera Gotham, a small but well-funded company in New York, to give Muhly's first opera, Dark Sisters, written in 2010. It was about this time that Muhly was being given the enormous promotion that has been given Aucoin. He has been commissioned by the Metropolitan opera to compose an opera called Marnie for now, for the 2019-20 season.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln Center Festival will give Written on Skin, a new opera by George Benjamin with text by Martin Crimp. Benjamin was a pupil of Olivier Messiaen and is now 55. He works slowly but has composed much beautiful music in a sophisticated contemporary style, which both invokes the past and has many remarkable, personal aspects. Written in Skin had its world premiere -- an enormous success -- in Paris in 2012. It was a sensation at the Royal Opera in London, in 2013 where a DVD was made. Americans will weigh in this July, 2015. 

This summer, Minnesota opera will give the world premiere of The Shining based on the Stephen King novel. The composer is the veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning mediocrity Paul Moravec.

This August, Santa Fe Opera will give the world premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, another veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner, text by Gene Scheer. It will then be given by Opera Philadelphia in February, 2016 and by the Minnesota opera in 2018. All three companies co-commissioned the work. This kind of sharing, of productions and commissions, has become commonplace in American opera since 2000, it's considered a survival tactic. Higdon is a former composer in residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra and teaches composition at the Curtis Institute.

More will occur; there is clearly a determination to create a repertory of new and recent operas that can be produced often and attract a public. The rather chilling insistence that a new opera should be "lush" and "powerful" suggests that as in all things in fecund America today, soon to be renamed Koch Country, there is a large element of philistinism. Higdon and Moravec are conservative composers (although Higdon is talented), and Morrison who wrote the hopeless Oscar, composed it in a very derivative style (Benjamin Britten).

The late Daniel Catan (Florencia en al amazonas and Il Postino among others) and the very much alive Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking among many others) write in a quasi Puccini style and have been praised for it. Opera News, a worthless rag run by a bunch of fools has used the phrase "movie music" as praise. So why not just show Robin Hood on a huge screen in the opera house? It has a "lush" score by Erich Korngold, as does Gone with the Wind, with its famous score by Max Steiner. 

When I've heard Catan and Heggie they've reminded me of how daring and challenging Puccini actually was. When La Boheme was first given in New York it was called a "tuneless sewer". A great diva of the time, Nellie Melba, who wanted to sing Mimi, nonetheless had to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia after the opera, to be sure her fans came and stayed. But within a few years of its world premiere in Turin, in 1896 it had been given in an amazing number of opera houses and by 1900 was a massive worldwide hit.

Teresa Cerutti Italian sorpano dancing as Salome

Salome by Richard Strauss was considered musically cutting edge and shocking in its subject matter. It had its world premiere in Dresden in 1905. Within two years, it had been given in 50 other opera houses. It was withdrawn after one performance by the board of the Metropolitan Opera on moral grounds in 1907. The review quoted by the Metropolitan Opera Data Base contains the following "There is a vast deal of ugly music in "Salome"-music that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a course (sic) file.." The writer was the appreciable Henry Krehbiel in the Tribune.

But Salome was a hit when performed by Oscar Hammerstein's company at the Manhattan Opera house. Hammerstein also had hits with the more difficult Elektra and the elusive Pelleas et Melisande by Claude Debussy.

When new, Puccini, Strauss and their operatic competitors were not heard as "lush" at all. Now, we can hear much of their music that way (but not Elektra's confrontation with her mother, sections of Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten, or parts of La fanciulla del west or Turandot).

Wozzeck by Alban Berg has been given at the Metropolitan Opera 67 times, that is more often than I Puritani, Nabucco, Porgy and Bess, La Rondine, Rusalka, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Dido and Aeneas.

Wozzeck had its world premiere in 1925. It was a scandal and a sensation and became enormously popular in German-speaking countries, and then gradually elsewhere in Europe. It made Berg an international celebrity. The Nazis stopped that in 1933. However, Leopold Stokowski had given a staged performance in Philadelphia in 1931. Extended fragments were broadcast in England in 1932. The complete opera was given in concert in London in 1934. It was given at the Rome Opera in 1942 despite the Gestapo by Tullio Serafin with Tito Gobbi. After World War ll it began slowly to become a repertory item all over the world. The Metropolitan Opera was late doing it in 1958 and frightened too. It was an enormous success. No one would call Wozzeck "lush" or suggest that it was essentially background music.

But we are in a culture of distraction. The goal behind doing new operas has been in part to lure "the young" back into the opera house. But we know that in America at least, the average person under thirty is looking at three screens at once. Attention jumps back and forth to multiple entertainments as well as real life situations happening simultaneously.

As someone who deals seriously in press for "high art" put it to me (and he is in his early thirties), young people "curate their own entertainment today". They don't leave it up to stodgy opera companies or symphony orchestras, or theaters, or ballet companies to organize elaborate seasons and sell them subscriptions. They decide on what they're in the mood for and indulge that for as long as they're interested, moving on to something else with the lightening speed our amazing technology allows.

In a country that despises the well-being of a huge percentage of its population, education, science, rationality, all the arts, one can't expect American youngsters, even those from "good backgrounds" to know anything, to have a frame of reference, to concentrate for long, to retain information, to know much of anything other than what is hot right now, what is "happening" that the corporations are using to make massive profits while deadening their brains.

Yes, the elderly idiots on the various opera lists dislike "difficult" music, which is only difficult if you're brain is deadened by age and seventy years of listening to Tosca and Adriana Lecouvreur hundreds of times ("I have 300 performances of Norma," one of these fools bragged on a list. But could he read a piano/vocal score of Norma, or even a few arias from it? Of course not.) 

We've betrayed ourselves, those of us who are old; we've allowed this country to be bought and the brains of our young to be crushed. And we argue over Milanov and Callas and Tebaldi as though it were eternally1958.

Zambello and Gockley looking to produce a "lush" opera where perhaps no one has to strive to understand what is going on, are old too. Whatever they may really believe, and they are both the tough survivors of many a battle, they think assuring an audience that it can come to the opera and not work, even doze to pleasant sound is a way forward.

But I will end by quoting Flannery O'Connor: "Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.” But an opera impresario will say, "Nice. Now how do you pay for it?"

This, alas, is part one. I've heard many of these operas, read the scores of others and of course have irrelevant opinions. But that must wait for --dare I call it -- part two?


  1. First of all welcome back! I’m a coot, 50 years of opera-going behind me. I’ve seen countless TOSCAs, AIDAs, SALOMEs. I still like them and other “standards” but crave novelty. I truly believe new works are desperately needed to keep the artform going. I make it my business to pay for tickets and go to new, contemporary works when performed/premiered: the most recent being Thomas Adès' THE TEMPEST and Nico Muhly’s TWO BOYS. I enjoyed both evenings. The nagging “reality-check” questions I invariably come away with are: 1) Will this opera be picked up and performed even semi-regularly by multiple companies? 2) Will they still be performing this opera 25, 50 or 100 years from now? My answers are usually, no. There seems to be a prominent “success d’estime” factor for the first run but I don’t foresee long, healthy futures.

    1. Thanks, Paul. You ask the crucial question. I agree with you and think that one reason there have been so many commissions and performances this past fifteen-twenty years has been understanding that you have to try often to find those works with staying power. Also, that in all performance forms the more opportunities a creator has the more he or she learns about what works. I can think of only one composer whose first try was a sensation. That was Monteverdi, who created opera as we understand it now in 1607 with L'Orfeo. (It's a more powerful and more remarkable than Peri's somewhat earlier Euridice, written in 1600), L'Orfeo is still performed and is an amazing creation by a supreme genius. But Mozart had a long apprenticeship, twelve operas before creating a work that is to a degree a repertory staple, Idomineo. Haydn arguably one of the most astounding composers olf serious music in history wrote eleven operas that are virtually never done. Wagner finished two operas and had three "false starts" before writing Rienzi. But if one considers that rather rare in performance, it took him a number of attempts and completions to get to The Flying Dutchman. Verdi wrote two operas given at La Scala no less before Nabucco, his first to remain in the repertory. Thirteen operas followed, some of them rewritten later before he had his great international hit, Rigoletto. Wagner had the advantage of being a musical director when young, and learning from the birth pangs of other composers. Beethoven experienced an earthly version of Hell before coming up with a version of Leonore, called Fidelio, that worked and lived on. We can both think of many operas by Rossini and Donizetti that have not become repertory staples, though the dread of living opera lovers for anything new has prompted revivals, some acclaimed for a time before the opera is forgotten all over again. It's true that Berg's first opera, Wozzeck is a masterpiece and became part of the repertory fairly early and easily despite its difficulty. Britten had written a lot of film and incidental music and tried a musical comedy, Paul Bunyon, before having a triumph with Peter Grimes. But we can only think of the massive numbers of operas given in Paris from say, 1825-1900 to realize how few survive, even those that were very successful at birth. Or think of the rather large circle of Puccini's Italian contemporaries known for only one work. Or think of Richard Strauss' rivals, composers such as Korngold, D'Albert and especially Franz Schreker, who wrote at least three stunning operas but are only rarely encountered today (all three wrote hits).

    2. This is part two, Paul: The same is true of plays. And think of the several hundred musical comedies from 1900-2010 that either flopped out of the gate, or were successful for a time only to be forgotten (and some of these, The Rodgers and Hart works, the Weill works, so much Kern are really wonderful).

      But when 50 or so musical comedies were being given a season every season on Broadway and it only took about nine months of a successful run for the show to recoup, that was obviously something many, many gifted people tried to do, but only a few managed works that survived cultural changes and the dying off of a commercial theater in this country.

      There needs to be a large repertory of new operas in this country, combining distinction and creative power with practicality of casting and production, and some degree of accessibility to an audience for a percentage to be done often and successfully. At Operabase, one can see how Glass, Heggie and Adams have composed operas that are done relatively often internationally, with Heggie especially popular in this country. So for new operas to endure at least for a time, there needs to be first of all new operas (!) opportunities for productions, more than one set of performances, as much coverage as can be gotten from a dying press, social media and from any other of information spread through America (it's easier in Europe). The more that is out there and getting on, the more at least some will seem to matter and the more inviting they will be to opera companies.

    3. I wonder if, in the United States at least, the relative shortness of most opera companies' seasons doesn't affect this. There's not a lot of room to do new and nearly new operas as often as needed to make it a habit so we don't have to worry about the future of opera with every premiere, if a company is only doing three or four productions a year--and most American companies aren't doing more than four productions. Even an obvious success is going to have trouble making the rounds to capitalize on that initial success if there aren't a lot of rounds to begin with. Not to mention the habit of opera companies of planning everything four or five years in advance!...It's a wonder as much gets done as does get done.

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    5. Couldn't get this to publish comment above, sorry. I'm trying again but won't go on (a good thing!!) Thanks for your comment, and you're right. However, first of all there need to be viable new operas for there to be any hope at all. Secondly, some opera companies are expanding, and also experimenting with "second spaces" where on a small scale, using interns and where possible collaborating with a local university they mount "rareties". These can be Baroque operas or offbeat small-scale operas, but they can also be new operas. It happens reasonably often and is a way in. As more houses succeed doing new works they become more feasible even for the houses with short seasons. But it's not simple and will take time. In Europe important opening nights are telecast, so high profile new work can be seen on TV. I'm not sure the ratings are huge but many people who wouldn't have access to that production but are interested are able to see the work and that's a good spur for the local house to try it, if it succeeds. Also, new work is broadcast with interesting commentary and again, those with an interest can get an idea of the music. The very fact that something new is being done is not so strange. Finally there are many more national papers with big arts sections that write about new operas (and other new art work), giving it profile, so at least people know it's happening and get an idea of the effect it made. I have the impression that even those who read the dreary American opera lists really either have a rigid intolerance or no idea of what's going on in opera. I don't think that's as true in Europe, where it's by no means unusual for even resistant opera lovers to know about and ATTEND new operas now and then. But your point is well taken.

  2. Very nice piece, Mrs. JC. When I first started reading I was somewhat skeptical, thinking about all of the undone works out there from the Baroque era that should be produced (I feel lucky to see any Baroque opera at all these days) but as I continued reading, I was reminded of my younger days before I was an old lady having been involved in the performance of a number of new works and how WONDERFUL that was back in the day. Your enthusiasm has me convinced; bring it on!

    I hope to see Cold Mountain more than once since I have that opportunity this summer (anything will be better than last years' Dr. Sun-yat-sun and the previous years' Oscar) and will be rendering an opinion, though I know nothing of Susan Higdon though she seems to be well respected by most.

    Thank you again.

  3. I understand the dislike of the demand for "lush" operas, but I also wonder if there's anything wrong with asking for it. Audiences, in general, have not been adverse to new music as they have been to challenging new music. But we say - correctly - that new music is essential to the health of the art form, and then we say it must be the right kind of new music. But if a new composer writes in a retrograde style, it's still new music that is more alive and responsive to the times than old music, simply because it is new, and because any new music that is not deliberate pastiche will sound different from older styles in important ways

    It's true that the operas you mention all became popular after enough people got to hear them. But there are other styles of music, such as Schoenberg's, where it was assumed the philistines would eventually come around, and they never did. I'm not saying it was bad music for that reason or that the composers had a duty to drop it when they found it wasn't catching on. There's just a difference between what we might call the Koussevitzky School of new music - music that will make the philistines grumble at first but accept it later - and other types of music where there is something (and we can argue what) preventing a lot of non-musicians from hearing "the tunes" in it.

    Now, that style of music is no longer current, so that's not really a problem for opera companies. The problem is that "classical" music is cut off from the currents of music around it in a way that it wasn't in earlier eras, when a composer could not only draw on the prevailing serious music styles, but popular music styles as well. Now the closest you can get is trying to let in more "world music" influences (which often sounds condescendingly exotic, like 19th century French operas) or try desperately to find some way to connect with hip-hop or rock or whatever else. Even movie music, which used to be the big hope a few years ago, has mostly become mood music that isn't very applicable to the stage.

    I suppose I don't have a solution to this, but given that the musical lingua franca of the average operagoer - including the few young ones - is basically Puccini, I can see the argument for building from there. It could be dismissed as unwillingness to challenge an audience, but I think we have a too-rosy view, in hindsight, of past composers and how much they pandered to their target audiences, even the great ones.

    1. I don't think starting from Puccini is the answer. For one thing, the musical vernacular has changed radically in the past century, and many younger composers are more comfortable with it than you may think. Also, there's so much that starting from Puccini leaves out, particularly in an age when we have more trouble getting a competent cast for Tosca and Turandot than we do, say, Semiramide or Rodelinda.

    2. Alas, part 1: I can't agree with you gurkle, though I appreciate your comment. What is the force in someone that compels them to create something as difficult as an opera? It is I think a mistake to argue that what made Puccini -- Puccini -- can be recreated by will, anymore than what made Schoenberg or Boulez or makes Murail can be artificially created. All composers are the products of their own time, as are all artists, even those identified as avant-garde, Puccini, like Mahler like Schoenberg like Debussy were all the products of numerous influences from life as they lived and knew it. These would be biographical facts, their musical and general education, life experiences, what had moved them in the art they practised, what they didn't like or understand and above all those subliminal forces that get any artist to a desk, writing -- a difficult, frightening endeavor -- the outcome of which no one can predict. In Puccini's case he lived in a time when it was possible to be a "commercial" opera composer -- because there was a hunger for novelty, from audiences and thus from impresarios and thus from singers who wanted to be associated with the new hits. He knew that a tune, especially a short one (and it is an argument as to whether Puccini guessed at how important records would become and wrote arias that could be lifted out of the context of his operas and put on a four minute '78 side building in certain "interruptions"). Also he sought to differentiate himself from his Italian rivals by incorporating international "experimental" music into his own work, playing close attention to what caused controversy, how harmonic and instrumental thinking were changing, understanding that incorporating unexpected musical gestures differentiated his operas from the more conventional work of others, but all the same holding on to that gift for a memorable tune.

    3. Part 2, can you bear it? We know the results. They are the results of a very specific set of circumstances in a particular time coming from a particular person with a specific and unique psychology, emotional life and connection to music. You cannot will that result in someone else; another composer has finally to be true to his or her own impulses, experiences, understanding of life, awareness of all the music that he or she has heard and driven to put a synthesis of those unique experiences down, in opera, marrying them to a theatrically effective text (one hopes). Willing oneself to be write like Puccini or Donizetti or Handel or Monteverdi or Wagner or Richard Strauss or Berg will not make the music one comes up with equal to or as effective as theirs. It can only sound derivative, inauthentic and false. Why bother with a lesser "quasi" Tosca when the real thing is right at hand? However "influenced" a composer was, and Bach, Puccini and Mahler (that's a trio!) were highly influenced none the less they came up with music that only sounds like each of them, even when an influence is clear. You dislike it seems "modern" music, although there are many kinds of "modern" music and many techniques. But whatever a living composer chooses to use as his or her means of expression will always come from something mysterious in them, not as a parody or pastiche of stale gestures. By the way, Schoenberg ABSOLUTELY did not want to be a radical. He insisted he was writing melodies as beautiful as any he had heard. And starting with his earlier more conservative work such as Gurrelieder and going right up to later works such as the Piano and violin concerti he wrote gorgeous music. There is a reverse snobbery, even a bigotry where the name alone convinces people they aren't hearing music as voluptuous as any ever written. But his choices also came from within himself, he wrote as he had to. New operas to be effective must have something "authentic" about them. They needn't be provocative or novel for the sake of being novel but they need to come from the deepest part of the creator and that will never be "quasi" anybody else if the composer has talent. Thank you for commenting.

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