Tagged: Musicals

Sondheim: “Big Problems” in Contemporary Opera

I had the great pleasure this evening of attending the Mirvish-produced Evening with Stephen Sondheim, featuring the man himself being interviewed by critic Robert Cushman. Because I was raised on American musicals and continue to love them to this day, the works of Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Cole Porter, Gershwin and the rest are embedded deep in a primal place in my brain, along with Sondheim, a titan of the genre. His work meant, and continues to mean, so much to me – as much as opera does. Sondheim is probably the most operatic of the major musical theatre composers, and opera is of course an older sister to that genre, so when the question “would you ever write an opera” was posed to him, I perked up my ears.

Throughout the evening he’d acknowledged the debt of modern musical theatre to opera – how the transformation from “number”-based musicals to more integrated ones mirrored how opera had transformed itself a century before; and how opera composers have always known the ways that music can be used to convey subtext.

But when asked if he’d ever compose an opera, his answer was “no”, because he believes that the current institutional structures in place for premiering new works cause the work to suffer.

He explained that he views the audience as a collaborator, and that the process of modifying a work based on audience response is indispensable to him. Without being able to have several performances (several nights in a row, with a consistent cast) in front of a real audience, observe where they’re rapt and when they’re bored and then tweak accordingly, he believes that no new work can truly succeed. “For this reason, most contemporary operas have big problems,” he concluded (I paraphrase).

His complaint put me in mind of this John Terauds blog post, discussing an Opera America article that I (sadly) have not read. “The System is Set Up to Fail New Operas” is its provocative headline, and though the reasons are different, the underlying sentiment – that there’s something strangely clinical, detatched, and unexciting about the way we approach new works – is quite similar.

Can Opera Ever Really Be “Accessible”?

Back when I was an avid reader of rec.music.opera in the late 1990′s, there was a discussion about why modern opera composers write in such opaque musical styles rather than the sweet, soaring, melodic style of the most popular opera composers. “Where is the new Puccini?” someone wondered.

“The new Puccini has been around for a while,” went my favourite response. “His initials are ALW.”

I was reminded of this exchange (the initials, of course, stand for Andrew Lloyd Webber) when reading Opera Rat’s discussion of the state of opera criticism.

Opera is operating right now in a vortex of inaccessibility. Classic operas are performed so often that the conversation about them is dominated by subtleties. Newer operas are dominated by music appreciated mostly by experts. And opera in general is all but neglected except in the specialty press.

I think this is all unquestionably true. The standard repertoire gets boring fast if you attend the opera with any regularity, and the newer works will sound strange to ears that haven’t been to music school and attended Modern Music 101.

So, can opera ever be popular again the way it was in previous centuries? Are new operas with tonal, hummable music the way to bring in fresh blood?

The truth is, it’s already been done, and the people who are doing it (Webber et al) have adapted the operatic form into something else that sells a lot better. And that’s because opera, in its traditional form, is Kind of Weird, and really wedded to a particular time and culture – and that’s actually part of its idiosyncratic appeal.

Let me explain.

What makes Phantom of the Opera, say, different from La Traviata? The snarky among you would be inclined to say, “Verdi wasn’t a hack”, but that’s dodging the question. Webber’s late 80′s magnum opus features a lot of the characteristics we associate with opera – stage drama set to music, mostly through-composed, arias for each character meant to show off the singers’ voices, ensemble numbers, high-drama plot with murder, etc. It even, as I recall, features pastiches of a Verdi chorus and an 18th century bedroom farce. So what’s different?

Mostly it’s the style of singing. The singers are trained for Broadway or opera-lite (a la Brightman and Bocelli) rather than opera houses. They use microphones. The vibrato isn’t too heavy, and the overall sound is more palatable to people used to pop vocals. Frankly, most people find operatic voices something of an acquired taste (except, perhaps, when they sing a few ethereal high notes on a movie soundtrack).

Contemporary stage dramas set to pretty, hummable music? We’ve got Webber and the Les Miserables collaborators at the low end, and better quality stuff like Sondheim at the high end. Most of it is very accessible, and people who will never see the inside of an opera house happily fork over truckloads of money for it.

And that’s okay. I’m happy to consider Steven Sondheim as Strauss’ (or Massenet’s, or whomever’s) heir. Sweeney Todd is amazing.

The parts of opera that haven’t been passed down to contemporary romantic musicals are mostly the parts that would seem weird and awkward if they were to appear in a contemporary work.

And thus, I give you Weird Things About Opera:

1. Recitative. If understanding the words is so important, why not just speak them? And what’s with the harpsichord?

2. Foreign languages AND translations from same. If it’s in a foreign language, it’s in a foreign language, and that’s a barrier to accessibility in itself. Translations often seem awkward – the wrong syllables are emphasized, the wrong words are emphasized, and the dirty secret is that hearing the words sung in an unfamiliar language often has the happy effect of obscuring their ridiculousness. Plus, even if you have a brilliant translation, chances are you won’t be able to make out the words anyway when they’re sung. I’ve seen works performed in English that required supertitles.

3. Some people are really disconcerted by seeing a conventionally unattractive singer playing a romantic lead. I find this unfortunate, but that’s beside the point. People who don’t like opera love to joke about “the fat lady” and her presumably screeching voice. Older singers, heavier singers, singers who are a different age or race from the character they are playing – all a part of the operatic tradition as we know it, and all potentially alienating to neophytes no matter how transcendent their voices. Despite this effect, I think this is one of “the good parts” of opera – for what other performers, especially today, can we truly say that talent trumps appearance?

4. The voices. Classical voices are now only heard in the classical music world. Since the introduction of the microphone, that allowed quieter voices to fill big halls, average listeners have preferred their voices softer, breathier, less trained, closer to speech and smaller in range. And this only seems to be getting more and more true – pop voices seem to have gotten breathier and less substantial over time. Operatic voices, to an ear that isn’t used to them, can seem shrill, pushy, and unnatural in contrast. Plus it’s sometimes hard to make out the words. Many people overcome this barrier, and once you overcome it, you’re in for a thrilling experience. But pretending it doesn’t exist is silly.

So, we have a perfectly good modern form popular opera a la Puccini that has none of these problems – the sophisticated musical. Of course new operas should be written, but I’m most interested in them when they’re offering a real alternative to Sondheim et al. I’d rather our crazy modern opera composers kept doing what they’re doing. The world is full of sweet music and it’s easy to find – it’s tougher to find something that challenges me a little, and if that means we sacrifice some accessibility, so be it. The opera I’m most looking forward to seeing next year is Nixon in China. Writing opera in the old style is a bit like writing a new French cabaret chanson – sure, it’s pretty, but is it really giving me anything I can’t get from Piaf and Trenet? Do we need more music for people to lindy hop to?

Where I agree with Opera Rat is in the way the standard repertoire is discussed – mostly concerned with subtle differences between one particular performance and the hundreds of others the reviewer may have seen or listened to. I’d rather talk about what makes an opera interesting or moving – what gives it dramatic and musical force – than analyze the nuances of Gheorghiu’s performance vs. Netrebko’s.

And, part of what makes opera fun is that it’s so different. The emotions are big and florid, costumes are cut for maximum cleavage, it’s a glimpse of a different time and place and it opens up your musical and aesthetic understanding when your ears have been stunted by too much Lady Gaga (or, hell, too much Wolf Parade). The strangeness is what makes it good – otherwise we’d all just listen to Voi che Sapete and Nessun Dorma and dispense with all the troublesome theatrics. The people I know who are interested in opera are interested in it because it’s a little bit strange. If people who might be interested are alienated by snobbery and aggressive fact-hoarding by buffs, that’s bad; but many people won’t be interested at all, and that’s okay. Opera today is a niche interest rather than a mainstream one – alongside other cool things like typography, Werner Herzog movies, and conceptual art. I’d rather have a vibrant, quirky, niche (where people take artistic risks) than bland accessibility.

EDIT: I realized this post makes it sound like I don’t like opera! I assure you, the opposite is the case. I’ve made minor edits to tone down the language.

How I Got Into Opera

If you count Gilbert & Sullivan (and here, I will) the first opera I attended was the Rossland Light Opera’s Pirates of Penzance. I was around seven years old, and a fledgling pianist who greatly enjoyed my Classical Kids tapes. Evidently my mother decided I was capable of sitting quietly for up to an hour, and off we went. She gave me a few pointers on the plot (including explaining the often/orphan joke) and a large bag of candy, and at the end of the evening my initiation as an opera-goer was complete. A few days later we ran into the actor who played Frederic at the post office, and I recognized him and was amazed. My mother told me that if I liked to sing, one day I could join a singing group just like that.

After that comes a large gap. I loved Broadway musicals but wasn’t very interested in opera – the vocal style seemed heavy and strange, and it put me off. I was still playing the piano, and I saw the odd ballet and stage play, but no opera.

Eventually, around the time I got to grade 10 (we had moved to Edmonton by then), I reached the level in my piano playing where the Royal Conservatory of Music required me to study music history. The introductory course covered the Romantic era, and La Traviata, Carmen and Die Walkure were on the syllabus. Something went “click” in my head, and I put away my Broadway CDs. I studied the course material like a maniac and started spending all my money on symphony tickets.

The music course hadn’t told me enough about opera. I convinced my mother to buy me a copy of Opera for Dummies, figuring it would be the quickest way to get up to speed. Though co-written by a computer professional, it contained useful information about the major operas and composers, vocal types, the importance of Maria Callas, and so on. Before long I had the book and accompanying CD committed to memory.

The first “real” opera I saw was Il Barbiere di Siviglia, at Edmonton Opera. By this time I was pretty far gone. I took opera box sets out of the public library three or four at a time and listened with libretto in hand. Opera went round and round in my head all day. I spent a car trip with my parents listening to Act II from Tosca over and over on my discman. After a few underage drinks, I was pretty likely to start singing opera in the middle of my friends’ parties. My favourite singer back then was Ruggero Raimondi. I followed the conversation (but rarely posted) on rec.music.opera, and began to believe my knowledge was hopelessly inadequate, and that because I didn’t live in New York I’d never get caught up.

My obsession continued unabated most of the way through high school and university. Edmonton Opera’s four (then, when the recession hit, three) operas a year I supplemented with video performances from the library. I started taking singing lessons, and spent a good part of the lesson just talking about opera with my teacher.

At some point a few years ago, I ran out of steam. Perhaps that’s how it goes with most teenage obsessions. I moved to Toronto and had the opportunity to go to the opera more frequently, and then I spent a year in NYC and had a chance to see live some of the performers whose recordings I’d been listening to for years. But even though I attend the opera more frequently now than I did as an Edmonton neophyte, much of the fervor has gone. Now, I rarely sing opera in the shower or listening to it while cooking dinner.

I’m not quite sure what happened, and whatever it was, I think it’s a bit of a shame. This blog is, in part, an effort to get some of that excitement back. Because when I see something amazing like the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle or Karita Matilla’s Jenufa, I’m reminded that it’s all still there.

P.S. In honor of that first night at the “opera”:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ7SVMVrick&hl=en_US&fs=1&]