Tagged: Nixon in China

Learning to Love Modern Opera

Photo from Robert Lapage's production of Schoenberg's Erwartung. Photo by Michael Cooper, Canadian Opera Company

Like a lot of people, I learned to love opera by listening to Puccini. There’s a reason why people who rarely go to the opera will buy a ticket to La Boheme and bawl their eyes out at the end – Puccini was a master of isolating the “good parts” (i.e. immediately, popularly appealing) of opera, cranking them up to maximum intensity, and cutting back on everything else. This is extremely difficult for a composer/dramatist to accomplish – several centuries of operatic output have yielded maybe ten works that reliably bring in the crowds now that the form is outmoded. Shakespeare alone has a much better track record for longevity than all the greatest opera composers combined. But there are downsides to loving Puccini. He only wrote a handful of operas and a couple of those are duds. The good ones don’t have a lot of thematic variation (the plots of them could be summed up as, woman falls in love, suffers, dies). If you’re listening and going to the opera with any regularity, you’ll probably get bored of the big three (Boheme, Butterfly, and Tosca) pretty fast.

Of course, there’s Mozart and Verdi and Rossini and Wagner to explore, each with their own rewards and drawbacks. There’s the French and Russian repertoire. But even after exhausting these options, many people avoid “modern” (meaning, post-WWI) opera like the plague, despite the fact that, by definition, it’s the only site of new operatic production. And this is a shame, because it’s one of the most rewarding areas to explore, an entire branch of repertoire that can make you think about what opera should be and what it’s truly capable of when divorced from the popular appeal that used to sustain it.

Aversion to modern opera is easy to understand. The music, rather than being tuneful/romantic/charming, is often highly abstract and difficult to follow. A lot of post-WWI operas have unrelentingly bleak plots, and may also look drab on stage. The fact is that, in the 20th century, opera transformed from being popular entertainment to a niche interest, and opera composers are no longer bound or motivated by the desire to appeal to popular tastes. Alienation is therefore part of the territory.

Some people assume that you need to be musically educated to appreciate this style of music. I think there is some truth to this, but not in the sense that formal or “book-learning” is necessary. I think what’s required more than a study of the principles of twelve-tone music (or whatever) is the willingness to listen widely, and with an open mind. Modern opera won’t get you drunk and sweep you away the way Puccini does, but it can inspire devotion just as intense. So, here are my tips for dipping into opera post-WWI.

1. Give it time. If necessary, wait until you start getting bored with the standard rep. If you put on Bluebeard’s Castle and hate it within the first ten minutes, don’t try to force it and don’t start complaining to everyone within earshot that no one knows how to write pretty music anymore. Put it back on the shelf and go back to Verdi; in a few months you might surprise yourself by giving it another shot and loving it.

2. Look for works “on the border”, or works that wear their classic influences on their sleeve. Salome and Jenufa are examples of the former, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is an example of the latter. If you’re already an opera lover, you’ll have a good grip on the roots of these works and a good basis for exploration. Give Benjamin Britten a listen, save Alban Berg for later.

3. Listen to more baroque opera. This might seem counter-intuitive, but a lot of modern opera is inspired by a desire to return to the relative austerity and technical complexity of the pre-Mozartean era. If you have a good ear for Montiverdi, Gluck, and Handel, you’ll have a better idea of the kind of effect many modern composers are going for.

4. Relish works in the English language. If you’re an English speaker (which you must be if you’re reading this), the English-language repertoire has gotten much vaster and richer in the last century of opera composition. Not only that, but the literary quality of opera libretti has gone way up, and enjoying the textual element of opera is much easier and more rewarding now. This is what struck me about listening recently to Nixon in China – hearing lines sung like “I want to hear the sound of industry borne on the wind” reminds me that opera isn’t only a musical experience.

5. Attend live performances when possible, or rent a DVD. Public libraries often have an excellent selection of opera on VHS and DVD, and something that may not immediately make sense aurally may become easier to understand when put in its proper stage context.

6. Some modern works are actually comedies! Not all of them are about the bleakness of existence. The Rake’s Progress and Les Mamelles de Tiresias are both excellent and lighthearted.

Underlying all of this is one basic principle – try to stay open-minded. If after several listens you hate Richard Strauss, that’s fine, but that’s no reason to also write off Bartok or Carlisle Floyd. If you subscribe to the local company’s season, don’t go to Barbiere but sell your ticket to Lulu because you assume it will be no fun. No one has to like everything, but cutting yourself off from a whole branch of the repertoire does no one any favours, especially not the composers, directors, and singers who are looking for ways to keep opera vibrant and living.

COC’s 2010-2011 Season: Exciting!

Back when my home company was four-per-year Edmonton Opera, the formula for their season planning was pretty easy to figure out. It typically consisted of:

  1. Gilbert & Sullivan in alternate years, with Mikado, Pinafore, and Pirates in rotation
  2. One of Puccini’s “big three” (Tosca, Boheme, Butterfly) alternating with popular Verdi or equivalent cash cow (Carmen)
  3. One generally well-liked but slightly less well-known opera (L’Elisir, Hoffmann, any Mozart comedy)
  4. One “challenge” (The Rake’s Progress, Bluebeard’s Castle)

For someone just getting into opera, as I was in the late 90′s, this season setup was actually pretty good – a chance to see the classics that had taught me to love the form, plus a toe in the waters of “difficult” operas. But as I listened to more recordings and attended more performances, I started to get tired of the same-old and yearned for a little more variety. The COC’s new season appears to be a delight – out of seven operas, the only two qualifying for “cash cow” status are Aida and The Magic Flute, and those are borderline cash cows anyway next to this season’s (dull) Butterfly.

So, what’s on the list?

Aida – I’ve seen this only once on stage, at Edmonton Opera in 1999-ish (or maybe twice? I might have gone to both the dress rehearsal and the “regular” performance for this one). The production involved an enormous golden eagle under which the principals cowered. I hope elephants will factor into the COC’s take.

Death in Venice – completely unfamiliar to me. I’m not the biggest Britten fan but will be excited to see this.

The Magic Flute – possibly my very first “favourite opera”, thanks to the Classical Kids cassette tape my mom bought for me as a young’un. I would start singing the Queen of the Night’s aria at various inappropriate moments. Despite this history, I still feel slightly annoyed when I see parents bringing their young children to “real” productions of this opera. There are long stretches with no dragons,  bird catchers, or beautiful sparkly star dresses, and I’m pretty sure my 8-year-old self would have been bored.

Nixon in China – AWESOME YAY

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jr0i_4jW9w&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

La Cenerentola – meh. I went through a Rossini phase and it’s mostly over now. Still, I’m glad to see a non-Barbiere Rossini pick.

Ariadne auf Naxos – This was the first opera I saw outside of Canada, in Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. Edita Gruberova was Zerbinetta. It was part of a backpacker-style trip to Spain with two friends. Our seats were in the highest balcony, and we could only see half of the stage. The surtitles were in Catalan and Spanish, and I had only a vague idea of the plot. Still, it remains one of my most fondly-remembered operatic experiences. Having only seen opera in the not-acoustically-rich Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, I marveled at how the sound at the Liceu seemed to hang suspended in the air. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing this again.

Orfeo ed Euridice – I’m usually bored by baroque opera (except when Opera Atelier is responsible). Still, someone has to do it. And people seem to like Isabel Bayrakdarian.