Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Road Report #2: The state of the art form

Premature declarations of death have become a modern comedy cliché – think of Monty Python’s classic “Bring out your dead” skit, or Will Ferrell’s hilariously protracted death scene from the first Austin Powers movie.

We like it when people jump the gun, and we laugh when the down-and-out bounce back and refuse to go quietly into that good night.

And so it gives me great pleasure to write that modern opera, despite the doomsday claims of many, is healthy and thriving.

One sign of its health is the diverse crop of composers and librettists writing excellent works for the stage – more on them in a moment. The other, more important sign is that numerous opera administrators enthusiastically support the production of new works. In fact, of the five opera companies I visited this year, all five regularly perform recent or new operas.

But how can any opera be “new,” especially when the genre itself is often accused of being outdated and stuffy (it was recently called a “wonderful mortuary”)? Composers and librettists have found several ways to bring freshness and excitement to the genre.

The Libretto

One common way to seek relevance in modern opera is to craft librettos around real people and events. Colorfully (and somewhat derisively) termed “CNN Operas,” these works draw interest by reframing, retelling, and sometimes even mythologizing stories from real life. In John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, for example, the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro is powerfully reimagined as a kind of Passion play that explores the tragedy of modern political strife.

But fiction still has a substantial place among opera librettos; many continue to be fashioned from movies, books, and plays (both ancient and modern). And though they draw their stories from the imagination, they still speak to audiences by touching on meaningful contemporary issues. In my first opera, a setting of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, the tragic love story also speaks to modern concerns about gender, power, and sexual identity. And Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, recently staged at the Metropolitan Opera, partly reimagines the classic play as a nature parable, in which the characters’ departure from the island returns it to a state of primeval tranquility.

Over the course of my travels as a Douglas Moore Fellow, every new opera I saw fit into one of these two categories. Indeed, it seems that a vast majority of recent operas do, especially those performed in the major opera houses of North America. To support my point, I whipped up this list of twenty such operas written in the last ten years:

Recent Opera Librettos
Based on Real People and Events Based on a Preexisting Film, Book, Play, or Myth
Theo Morrison: Oscar (forthcoming) Kevin Puts: The Manchurian Candidate (forthcoming)
Michael Ching: Slaying the Dragon (2012) Jennifer Higdon: Cold Mountain (forthcoming)
Robin de Raaf: Waiting for Miss Monroe (2012) Charles Wuorinen: Brokeback Mountain (2012)
Nico Muhly: Two Boys (2011) Douglas J. Cuomo: Doubt (2012)
Philip Glass: The Perfect American (2011) Tarik O'Regan: Heart of Darkness (2011)
Huang Ruo: Dr. Sun Yat-sen (2011) Kevin Puts: Silent Night (2011)
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Anna Nicole (2010) Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick (2010)
Marc-André Dalbavie: Gesualdo (2010) Harrison Birtwistle: The Minotaur (2008)
Philip Glass: Kepler (2009) Ricky Ian Gordon: The Grapes of Wrath (2007)
John Adams: Doctor Atomic (2005) Thomas Adès: The Tempest (2004)

Please feel free to add to these lists in the comments section below!

Is it a problem that modern operas don’t tend toward completely original stories? Somehow, I doubt it; the genre has always embraced well-known characters and situations, from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) to Philip Glass’ Orphée (1993) and onward. As long as librettos continue to tell stories, regardless of their source, that resonate with audiences, the art form will remain as relevant as ever.

The Music

One of the greatest things about being a composer today is the freedom to compose in any style – instead of being judged according to external aesthetic tastes, composers are celebrated for their musical individuality. And, most importantly, notions of a single way forward in music have all but vanished.

This musical diversity is mirrored in the world of opera. George Benjamin and Tobias Picker have little in common, musically speaking, but both have found broad success with their elegant, expressive, and honest works.

Because of this liberal approach to musical style, it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about music in new operas. But one can make some general observations about composers’ attempts to bring freshness to an old genre:

  • Over the past 100 years, operas have gotten shorter. Now, most are of similar length to films, typically weighing in between 90 minutes and three hours. Of course, there are exceptions...
  • There are almost no examples of recent operas that are written in the old “numbers” style of Arias, Ensembles, and Recitatives (separated by applause), though most recent operas contain echoes of these forms.
  • Exotic voice types have made a big comeback. Countertenors, low basses, and coloratura sopranos are appearing more and more in new operas, providing exotic spectacle and undermining stereotypes about opera singers.
  • Composers are using a much wider variety of ensembles for their work, from full and chamber orchestras to live electronics. With these new instrumental combinations come new and thrilling sounds, tailored to an opera’s unique story.
  • Even the term "opera" itself is expanding to include works that don't fit within traditional parameters. As works move out of traditional venues, they increasingly incorporate video art, dance, interactive technology, and non-narrative storytelling.

All generalizations aside, it’s clear that opera remains a fruitful genre for composers, and it seems that the steady stream of new works, which even survived the recent economic crisis, won’t dry up anytime soon. What hopefully will dry up, however, is the tired refrain that opera is a dead art form. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, composers are only one side of the multifaceted world of opera. Come back next week, when I will discuss the other artists who make opera possible.

Composer and pianist Zachary Wadsworth is the 2012-2013 Fellow of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera. For more information about him and his music, visit

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