OPERA - ESSAYS - CONTEMPORARY OPERA
last opera composer to enjoy a mass following died eighty years ago.
Giacomo Puccini left Turandot
unfinished in 1922 but its “Nessun
dorma” (“None shall sleep”) has become an anthem for World Cup
soccer. That popularity depends on the brilliance of the Three Tenors.
Puccini did not write many melodies along with which audiences dare do
more than hum.
Despite this long hike between tunes, every
culture still seeks to assert its independence by showing that it can
make opera. Latvia did it with The
Prodigal Son by Romualds Karlson in 1993 as it slipped loose from
the Soviet Union. Devolved Scotland has just seen Sally Beamish’s Monster.
New Zealand had Jam by Rachel
Clement at Canterbury in August last year. The 2002 Perth Festival
staged Noah from the back
streets of South Africa. A restyling of traditional Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion, was at Perth last year.
all manner of troupes want to attach the logo “opera” to their
physical theatre, Rock band or circus. An exemplar is Tasmania’s IHOS
whose Pulp; an industrial opera
(1997) approached the mill-town of Burnie as its stage. This desire to
identify mass performance with opera is reasonable because opera is the
total work of art, mixing the visual and aural, treating music as drama,
incorporating dance and painting.
Life, My Love, with
words and music by Adelaide’s Pat Rix, works its way from 1900 at
Glenelg, through the terrors of two world wars and depression, back to a
suburban horror in 1975. The State Opera and Theatre have combined with
a ommunity singing group, the Tutti Holdfast Community Choir, comprising
singers with varying physical and intellectual abilities. Under the
direction of Rosabla Clemente, this diversity heightened audience
engagement, and offered the professional leads, Jennifer Kneale and
Brian Gilbertson, opportunities to extend their stagecraft.
The number of Australian operas that get
staged is on a par with the rate of productions for new works across the
world. Since Richard Meale’s Voss
at the 1986 Adelaide Festival, Opera Australia has launched a new
main-stage work every couple of years, including The
Golem from Larry Sitsky in 1993.
need now is for more revivals to allow for reworking. Opera Australia
brought The Eighth
Wonder back just before the Olympic Festival, but could not fund
librettist Dennis Watkins and composer Alan John to improve on their
1995 premiere. Even more deserving of a second round is Batavia
by Richard Mills which got minimal rehearsals last year.
less important are second explorations by a different director. For
instance, it is time for a fresh production of Voss
freed from the worshipful company who hung around White.
condition of contemporary opera across the globe can be viewed through
four essentials: plots, staging, the music and the cash.
One way to soften audience resistance to
unfamiliar sounds is to use a well-loved title, such as Little
Women. Poet Peter Goldsworthy turned to Summer
of the Seventeenth Doll for Richard Mills in 1996. A modern classic,
The Great Gatsby, was adapted
for the Met in 1999. From Spain in 2000 came Cristobal Halffter’s
treatment of Don Quijote.
path to the box-office has been to set subjects relevant to public
concerns, or at least sensational news. The on-stage “re-trial” of
Lindy Chamberlain, for which the real life protagonist promises to be in
the first-night audience, opens in Sydney on October 6 from the pens of
Myra Henderson and poet Judith Rodriguez. Lindy is the first work by women to gain a place in OA’s
subscription series, although women are composing their share of new
operas, here and abroad.
South Australia will offer Dead
Man Walking by Jake Heggie on capital punishment in 2003, a reminder
that Chamberlain could have executed in the Texas of George W. Bush.
No one has taken so
great a battering for his choice of challenging topics as John Adams
whose latest stage work,
is the central mainstage offering at the Adelaide Festival. El Nino relies on the
Apocrypha around the infant Christ story, of the little one, not the
climatic pattern, yet it charts political storms across Latin America.
Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents prefaces the setting of poems about
the Mexican government’s state terrorism in 1968 against students, and
more recently against the Zapatistas. The Virgin expresses the power of
Adams collaborated with the poet Alice
Goodman for Nixon in China (1987) which triumphed at Adelaide in 1992. They got
into trouble with other left liberals for presenting a Nixon more
complex than the paranoid crook he could be.
That squall was nothing compared with the tempest that still rages around their The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), which dealt with the 1985 seizure of the Achille Lauro by Palestinian gunmen, during the course of which a wheelchair-bound US tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, was the only hostage murdered.
After a picketed premiere just after the Gulf
War, Klinghoffer has not been staged in the US of A because of opposition
to letting the Palestinians put their case. Its recent filming by
Britain’s Channel Four will give SBS the chance to screen it here.
Adams’ and Goodman’s offence was in
allowing the killers to sing their “anti-Semitic, anti-American,
anti-bourgeois” passions. Once any opinion is rendered poetic enough
to be set to music it is lifted above its content, as happens to the
malignity of Iago and Scarpia.
After September 11, the Boston Symphony
Orchestra dropped some Klinghoffer
choruses from a concert, “to err on the side of being sensitive’.
Adams hit back that not just valium, but tough thinking, was needed to
cope with that trauma.
the furore at home, John Adams was billed as the “Voice of America”
in London in January. Undaunted, Adams is at work on a new opera about
the 1954 decision to produce the Hydrogen bomb at the peak of
The alternative to politically themes was
apparent in Brisbane in 1998 with Thomas Ades Powder
Her Face (1995) about the divorce of the Duchess of Argyll on the
grounds that she was a compulsive fellator of the lower orders. Who
Lots of operas from every age are closer to
oratorio. A plot-driven libretto is one where characters enter and exit
for some reason other than the composer’s inability to spin out their
music. With dramatic tensions in opera thinner than the dying Mimi,
tableaux have returned, as in Phillip Glass’s Akhnaten
(1984) to be given in Adelaide next May. In centuries past, stasis on
opera stages was relieved by theatrical fireworks that are now too
A solution has been to project film over the
performance area as Peter Greenaway did in Adelaide in 2000 for Writing
to Vermeer. Last week, ex-Festival Director Peter Sellars supplied
two hours of screen effects for John Adams’s El
Nino. The roughness of the camera work was in keeping with the
text’s commitment to the Nativity as a myth for the everyday. The
literalism of the imagery eventually spun out into evocations of the
difficulties faced by disadvantaged families. At worse, the film
distracted from the music, was repetitive and failed to point up the
politics within the poetry.
Whereas nineteenth-century opera had aspired
to the condition of cinema, opera scores are now challenged to escape
from being film music, not surprisingly since it is the principal earner
for many composers. The danger is a score of sound effects.
Following a century of formalism and
minimalism, many Western composers have slipped back to Romanticism
without providing much by way of a good tune. Instead, scores have
become as eclectic as listening to radio
which serves up pieces from all periods as a continuous present.
Adams is the grand master of the pastiche. He
composed a rock opera about the Los Angeles earthquake and grounded
other compositions on Bach’s Passions.
The score of El Nino is as
straightforward as Handel’s treatment of scripture yet original, the
“Shake the Heavens” calling the Messiah
to mind only because of its words. In Adams, baroque ornamentation is
rare in the solo lines, but abundant in the layering of voice parts and
in the intensity of the orchestration.
Delicate and plaintive sections alternate
with threats and risks until the longest segment brings a Hallelulah
Chorus for our time in a cold rage against death squads.
The roles pass around the voices so that at
points Mary’s lines are sung by the bass to highlight the power of the
feminine. US bass-baritone Herbert Perry supplied the firmness and
richness demanded to convey the wrongs felt by Joseph and the wroth of
Herod, maintaining clarity if not always adding the cutting-edge.
The dark, rich timbre of Kirsti Harms and the
zest-filled lightness of Shu-Cheen Yu’s completed each other. The trio
of American counter-tenors covered an equivalent vocal range, always
balanced and distinguishable in their tonings.
Underlying these achievements was the choral
splendour of the US Theatre of Voices, directed by Paul Hellier, who
demonstrated his stated aim aural scenery. The Adelaide Symphony proved
once again its mastery of demanding material under visiting conductors,
this time, Alasdair Neale.
The biggest obstacle to mainstage productions
of any opera is cash. Chicago’s Lyric poured a fortune into its 1999
adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A
View from the Bridge. Over A$2m went on the principals and sets;
commissions for composer, librettist and playwright totaled A$250,000.
Australian composers would give years of their lives for that level of
To match their expenses, composers everywhere
seek sponsorship by several companies or Festivals. For example, Louis
Andriessen’s Vermeer at
Adelaide 2000 was a joint commission with Amsterdam. Similarly, El
Nino began its world tour of premieres in Paris in December 2000,
and is already available on CD. In addition, the sets are simplified to
be shipped around the globe.
An alternative to these outlays has been to
turn to chamber-scale pieces, for instance, Andrew Ford’s Night
Letters, or even to monologues with piano. In 1997, Martin and Peter
Wesley Smith adapted their opera about the Timor refugee, Quito (1994), for ABC radio, a still under-used medium, despite the
1947 lead of Menotti’s The
and screens are the stuff of Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928) who has
spent the past twenty-five years completing his Licht
cycle, with one opera for each day of the week. This new creation myth
places Stockhausen as heir to Wagner for more than its hymn to racial
Against all odds, although Stockhausen’s
endorses “the clash of civilisations” thesis, he got into trouble
after September 11, when, out of envy enflamed by admiration, he
referred to the implosion of the World Trade Towers as a work of art, a
spectacle. He forces his ceremonial and ritual theatre far beyond the
proscenium arch, notably in the Helikopter-Streichquartett relayed into the theatre from on high.