|Fat Callas, Barbieri and ... unknown|
After the run down last week, I promised "reviews" or "impressions" of the new works mentioned. For those who happen to trip over this, like baby's first skate left in the shadows on the stairs -- run!!!!
My twin, Albert Innaurato, worked with a small (tiny?) opera company here in the city of turds and Weh where the idiot who ran it, a mama's boy "conductor" who was a lot like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, agreed that for a few years they could try Albert's idea of doing new work in small productions, and developing other new operas. Albert directed a few new operas and worked with a fair number of composers and librettists.
|The Shops, directed by Albert, rehearsal for American premiere|
But in working with all kinds of composers and their librettists (when they didn't write their own texts), Albert realized another art form was largely dead.
None of these people understood that a stage work has to be dramatized. Even though the music is the most important element of an opera and can cover some faults, the "play" being set, must work somehow as a "dramatic action". Almost none of these people knew much about opera. But (though all were phenomenally well educated musically) they and their librettists were totally ignorant about the theater.
They did not understand that in the operas they did know the story was dramatized, not narrated, hinted at or left somewhere in limbo: suspense, revelation, reversal, surprise and resolution happened in front of the audience.
The question Albert would always ask the composers is "what sings to you in this material?" He was always met with incomprehension. He understood that to mean that the composers had no theatrical instinct. They left it up to the librettist and tried to set what they got.
Nixon in China by John Adams set a ruinous precedent. At least a famous title to these composers and sometimes more, they didn't realize that the pretentious concept of Peter Sellars and the ludicrous text of one, Alice Goodman, wrecked a great idea. Sellars having failed in the spoken theater had no idea how to dramatize a story, substituting the bizarre for revelation. Adams, prodigiously gifted and at his freshest, was sabotaged. It was worse in The Death of Klinghoffer. What should have been a powerful dramatization of what Aristotle would have called "the union of opposites" is an easily misinterpreted mess.
Adams knew too little about how operas really work in a theater and his wonderful musical inventions tended to fall flat in context. The composers we still encounter in the opera house and admire had taken the lead in deciding how to present the story they were setting. (Adams is still among the three most produced American composers of opera in the world, but I think that says more for his gifts than the actual works as a whole).
Philip Glass (the most produced American opera composer in the world) was a huge influence on the younger composers. This was not always for the best. The "minimalism" he developed came from within him after rigorous study along more conventional lines, the influence of that great outsider Morton Feldman, as well as his own firsthand exposure to Indian and Tibetan music.
He worked in the "experimental" theater of his time, one that abandoned the concept of "author" for free-associative and imagistic confrontations with time, memory, "truth" conflicting with "pretense". His decisions were organic and essential to him. When Einstein on the Beach was given at the Metropolitan Opera (not produced by that company) a huge audience had a transcendental/puzzling/thrilling experience.
There was the very long parade onstage of the strange, the crazy, the communicative, the obscure accompanied by a remarkable music which only occasionally took an "articulative" place in the proceedings. In the audience the "downtown" arts scene assembled en masse, hipsters attended to get high and groove, the well-heeled and curious were held fast by horror and shock and opera queens stumbled in to be angry ("what, no high notes? No coloratura?")
The apparent chaos on stage was mirrored by the real chaos in the vast, gilded auditorium as people came and went, danced, screamed, fought, tranced out. It was an explosion, astonishing in that staid place and exactly what the then remarkable Robert Wilson (the architect of it all) and Glass had wanted. And that was the point: where was the "opera"? On the stage or in the auditorium or both simultaneously?
In an "opera" such as the masterpiece, Satyagraha, Glass focused his talents but avoided "drama" and narrative altogether except for slight hints and saw to it that the focus had to be on sounds by setting glorious music to Sanskrit!
Since those times, Glass has changed much and even distanced himself a bit from that brilliantly cultivated savage of those early days. The younger Glass was singular, a nuclear blast that mirrored and prefigured a time of rapid change. But he was not someone who founded a school which graduated composers refining and expanding his techniques.
Today, in the new operas that we see, although a straightforward narrative is no longer essential, it is still the most common currency on which a sound "dramatic" structure is erected. So again, even with the few minimalists Albert would ask "how does this technique work for the theater piece you want to make? What sings in you?"
Albert was arrogant enough to think that Verdi in encountering Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse felt that -- in the opera called Rigoletto --he had to set the scene where the venomous jester
rages furiously against the courtiers who have abducted his virginal daughter, the sole love in his life. He tries to break into the duke's chambers -- to save her from being raped. Amused, they stop him. He wrestles with himself (aloud) and then hating himself for having to do it but loving his daughter more, he begs these despicable pigs for mercy on his daughter.
|Rigoletto - Leo Nucci - begs for mercy for his daughter|
I suspect Verdi only had to read that scene to know that the fury and anguish of this outsider throbbed in him and would sing through him. He knew himself as a creator for the theater, and that this strange story, robbed of Hugo's political agenda and multiple ironies could work. And it has for 164 years.
But all of this came from the composer. He bullied his librettist into giving him what he needed, only as many words as would do the job, clarify the situations, re-enforce the characters.
I could multiply examples -- Mozart somehow understood (identified with?) the multiple ambiguities in Cosi fan tutte. Perhaps he knew something about circles where the trading of sexual partners went on?
Mozart defied the bullying Archbishop to whom he was bound and ran to Vienna, facing poverty rather than service, a choice that confronts Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, and yet I bet he also identified with the endlessly randy Cherubino and even with the sexual urges of the count. I think he fell in love with Susanna as Figaro does, understood the nostalgia and sorrow of the Countess. Again, one of the few great writers who could manage librettos, Lorenzo da Ponte, erased the political and autobiographical obsessions of the playwright, Beaumarchais, and omitted a lot of the intrigue in the play. But knowing Mozart he captured the essentials for what would sing through him.
Albert shut up! He (?) will talk your ear off and I'm sure you get the point. In the new operas that have surfaced recently, one finds the same problems that Albert did in that tiny, horribly run company.
Yardbird was by far the most successful of these recent operas, both with the audiences in Philly and with reviewers. It was a wonderful experience and is a good candidate to have a life beyond its next engagement at the Apollo Theater in New York.
|Brownlee and Brown - mother and son in Yardbird|
But there were problems with the libretto. Bridgette A. Wimberly, credited with text, did provide singable lines, and the composer, David Schnyder took them and ran. But, where was the drama? If you didn't know anything about Charlie Parker, known as Bird or Yardbird, you were lost. Impressionistic "poetry" touched with sentimentality doesn't tell a story, establish character or motive or add up. Wimberly had no idea how to make clear just who the characters were, and felt no obligation to fashion a dramatic arc leading to an inevitable climax, not just a cliched ending ("you mean we've been seeing Bird's last seconds alive as he, OD-ing, sees his life flashing in front of him? Why, fancy that!").
In our America, I suspect quite a lot of people won't know who Bird was, or about Birdland (the people around me at Opera Philadelphia's Oscar only knew the name, Oscar Wilde.Though well enough off to afford expensive seats and presumably educated, they knew nothing of his life). Many opera-goers may not even have heard of Birdland or know much about the great history of American jazz.
But somehow Ms. Wimberly and Mr. Schnyder think everyone will know who Charlie Parker was, how he lived his life, how he died and who was important to him. And some fool will say, "but this is opera, we don't need to know". But we do. Opera and theater are both about the immediacy of effect, they are about this second, and the next and the next. If one has to wonder, "who the hell is that?" or "what is going on?" then the opera loses its impact.
This is not a sermon against ambiguity, fantasy, abbreviation, dream sequences, poetic flights. Of course, the life of Bird, like that of Oscar Wilde, would have to be compressed and abbreviated to work in a play, let alone an opera. But just who those white women were and why they had such an interest in Bird is important (and in real life they were interesting people not just female voices to make an ensemble). Why is Bird a junkie, what is his mother doing in the ghostly Birdland? And if you're vague about Charlie Parker are you going to know Dizzy Gillespie? Will you have a notion that they invented bebop, or even know what that is and how it sounds?
Making a libretto, like writing a play, is solving a puzzle. Ms. Wimberly and Mr. Schnyder clearly wanted a tight 100-minute work, one that flowed. So the challenge was to make clear in a theatrical shorthand, what was going on. (The Baroness "Nika" a remarkable jazz age character in New York, is just a lady in a fancy coat in the opera but dramatizing her impact might have made for a richer evening. The scenes between Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were musically wonderful and very well performed but if you aren't really sure who they were and what their relationship was those scenes didn't "land".)
Archetypal scenes work (Bird and his mother -- although the fantastic Lawrence Brownlee and the charismatic Angela Brown may have had something to do with that) and Schnyder's process, licks from Bird worked into musical cells that combine, intersect, invert and a rhythmic certainty that creates a strong forward movement help the emotional "feel" of the piece, stretches of harmonically enriched bebop are gorgeous to hear. But a scene where Bird and some others wander about in straight jackets in a weird light with no explanation at all, despite the powerful musical interlude under it, had some people around me tittering. (Bird was arrested for drug use after he set a hotel room on fire and institutionalized for a time but who knew from this?)
The challenge is to solve a puzzle not create a "well made" play or even a complete narrative, it's being sure that we know precisely what we need to know, no more, and not ever in a wordy way, to enter this world and be moved by the outcome.
But Schnyder, who is 53, is one of the two composers of new operas who has developed a personal style (the other, very different, is the amazing George Benjamin, at 54 also a mature artist, in Written on Skin). Though influenced by "bop" Schnyder uses his own sense of how to build melodies, use complex chords to enrich them, employ classical forms to unite the work and he can write both soaring vocal lines and "scat" -- seeming to arise spontaneously from the ongoing musical discourse of the 14 instruments in the pit (from which Schnyder elicits gorgeous and surprising textures -- as an ironic gesture he does not use Bird's instrument, the saxophone).
Some flabby transitional moments aside the music is magic and may allow the work a triumphant progress, whatever Albert (and I) may think of the libretto.
|Oscar and Bosie in life|
Oscar presented earlier by Opera Philadelphia was everything that seems wrong with "new operas" written in America. Albert -- my guest for the evening and too large to fit into the small seats of the beautiful but old-fashioned Academy of Music -- was transported back to the conversations with those composers in the tiny opera company.
He wanted to ask the composer, Theodore Morrison (at 77 one expects he knows his own mind), what sang to him in the libretto presented to him by the very experienced John Cox (a director but functioning as librettist here)?
The opera started with Walt Whitman. What was he doing there? Well, Oscar made a point of meeting him as did many English Uranians of the time but in the opera we didn't see their meeting (which doesn't seem to have been momentous). Walt was there to narrate -- speaking, not singing (sad that Dwayne Croft got only a few chances to show off a still lovely baritone)!
Now, in a play or an opera this is a bad sign. Yes, "show don't tell" is a cliche but it's true. An audience needs to see transactions between characters and learn from them what the creators want to demonstrate; telling them is not nearly as effective.
The idea was to set Oscar up as a celebrity so his fall would be more painful. So we got David Daniels for whom the part was written speaking the curtain speech Wilde gave after the sensational first night of his play Lady Windermere's Fan. Why? And why all this speaking? Twenty minutes in, one was wondering what the opera was about.
Yes, one understands, it's theme was the downfall of a celebrity of the time, a homosexual icon. But how interesting is that? Those who know the sad, sordid tale and its awful end hardly need this carrying on and those who don't know much or anything won't care. What would make them care, empathize, even understand Oscar?
Albert, being full of himself would have pointed out to Mr. Morrison (a very distinguished man) that NOTHING sings like love. And nothing sings more heartrendingly than thwarted or blighted love. Oscar was in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, a younger man. Where was he in this opera?
Apparently influenced by Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, Morrison and Cox had decided to make Bosie a dancing role, as Tadzio is in the Britten work. But Tadzio is 14 and he never speaks to his stalker, Aschenbach.
But Bosie was 21 going on 80 when he met Wilde. Unlike the poet, he was a pervert, having come up through the English "public" school system and enormously experienced in the ways of procuring boys for hire, and the homosexual underground that provided ways for men to meet for sex when sex between consenting adult males was against the law and severely punished.
Oscar was married and a father but naive and found himself passionately in love with the empty headed, selfish and sybaritic Bosie whose appalling father would trigger the events that brought Wilde down.
Now, perhaps in a play one might suggest how shallow Bosie was, how spoiled and superficial, though at the same time highly taken with Wilde, like a wild child who has found a teddy bear to cuddle and torment.
That ambiguity is hard to deal with in an opera (that would take a Janacek who wrote his own texts or the Britten of Turn of the Screw supervising a kindred spirit), and perhaps it's not the point Cox and Morrison wanted to make anyway. So why not make Bosie a character who sings, who interacts with Wilde? Why not show their passion, both romantic and sexual? If one is going to show a "past" before Wilde's troubles, why not a love scene between the two men?
Wilde was 37 when they met -- older than Bosie but there would hardly be the awkwardness of his being taken with a young boy. Shouldn't we see at its height the passion that Wilde never denied and which destroyed him? And what calls for music in an opera more than a passionate profession of undying love? Bosie, who lived until 1945, rewrote his life extensively, downplaying both the emotional and physical aspects of his involvement with Wilde. But perhaps at that moment he did respond to Wilde's unquestioning, unconditional love.
Instead, in Oscar, Bosie danced and danced and danced. There were no scenes between him and Wilde.
The opera jumped to the night before Oscar was to be sentenced. His friend (also notorious but heterosexual) Frank Harris -- sung by the great American tenor William Burden sadly underused here -- advises him to flee to France as many an Englishman in similar straights has done, for the verdict is sure to be guilty and the penalty, brutal. Oscar refuses but advises the dancing Bosie to flee.
But isn't that a scene that invites music? Perhaps Bosie puts up a (pro forma) objection while Oscar genuinely begs him to save himself, promising they will meet again and Bosie agrees to flee, likewise promising to stay faithful to their love.
Yes, Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labor, put in a cruel prison, and the experience ruined him physically, problems resulting from the labor probably killed him a few years later.
In Morrison's opera, we got a half hour of sounds suspiciously like themes from Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. Oh, yes, Bosie in death mask danced through this too during a completely irrelevant execution. But Opera is full of solo prison scenes where an unjustly imprisoned man cries out his grief, terror, hope.
Not much use was made of the gifted David Daniels but what an opportunity for him would such a prison soliloquy have been!
After serving his full term, Oscar has no choice but to go to Paris. He is destitute. There is a story that Oscar hopelessly walking the streets to see if he could find food saw the coach of the great diva Nellie Melba. He approached her, looking like a bum and said, "Excuse me, Dame Nellie, I used to be Oscar Wilde. I am starving. Can you help me?" Melba, notoriously tight-fisted, gave him all the money she had on her, and some of her jewels and hurried away.
Albert might have told this story to Cox and Mr. Morrison not for them to use but as an example of how one might SHOW Oscar's desperation and the depths to which he had sunk.
There were other opportunities for scenes in Paris: surely, there would be the farewell between Bosie and Oscar, who has never lost his love. In fact Oscar's wife had offered him a modest stipend if he agreed never to see Bosie again, not to "stop" his homosexuality but to get him away from someone she understood all too well. As desperate as he was, Oscar refused. But Bosie had already moved on. They did meet to say goodbye, and I can't understand not wanting to write the scene and music for it of this wrenching farewell. But there was no such scene, nor was there a death scene for Oscar. Cox tried to use as many of Oscar's words as he could, how could he have resisted what some have suggested were Oscar's last words after much suffering: "Either this wallpaper goes or I do?"
Mr. Morrison is distinguished (as is Mr. Cox) but I thought the music lacked variety of color, imagination, a distinctive voice or even (whatever Mr. Morrison might have felt in himself) emotional conviction. It was a clumsy take on an interesting subject, badly and rather stupidly staged, where a fine singing cast and a dancer of remarkable stamina (Reed Luplau giving his all in this bizarre iteration of Bosie), were wasted.
Well, this is Philadelphia where good people come to die (and where the doomed Oscar Wilde met the elderly and rather puzzled Walt Whitman!). So what can you do?
Well, I could end this but I haven't dealt with Matthew Aucoin's Crossing or the work of Nico Muhly, both much younger than the composers I've discussed here.
|Antonacci as the beset mother in Two Women|
But Tutino (61) writes in the style of Renzo Rossellini, the brother of the great director Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini wrote the scores for his brother's famous movies from the mid-1940s, Rome: Open City, Paisan, and others. The score for Paisan goes on and on very loudly. It shows a rich orchestral texture and harmonic procedures of the 1890's with some haunting original melodies plus a few folk tunes adapted to a lush style. He wrote at least 15 operas, many of them given at La Scala. His biggest success was A View from the Bridge, a professional work in a very old fashioned but not ineffective style.
Tutino as far as I could hear proceeds exactly the same way, alternating noisy effusions with "found" music, including a rather haunting folk tune. I can't say more not having seen the work. Rossellini, born in 1908, sounds more spontaneous. Tutino (born 1954) sounds contrived and obvious as far as I could tell. For some well-placed reviewers, the work fell flat.
The whole endeavor seems naive to me. A creative artist can only write for his or her own time. Parody or pastiche may be amusing but has limited expressive uses in serious, emotional material.
Rossellini wrote in a style that was old-fashioned and tired but could still possess some immediacy of effect. Tutino is writing camp and unless the work is intended to be a send-up, it becomes irrelevant. That isn't the same thing as "conservative", it's the same thing as pointless.
The flight into the past so typical of opera lovers today is an embrace of death. Schnyder's style, hardly radical and never unapproachable, or Benjamin's somewhat tougher but utterly fascinating approach, are powerful ways to meet the challenge of opera in a world that is spinning away from the cultural norms that supported it for so many years.
And we so must end. If anyone is still reading, next time I will try a few words about those youthful hopes Aucoin and Muhly. For now -- oh wait! Callas speaks:
On page 269 of the book, Lerman quotes Maria Callas, who he adored: "After fifty, singing is like sex, you never know if you'll make it."