At a showcase of new opera and music theater last night, prosaically titled On The Edge!, a cross-section of new pieces and works-in-progress were presented by American Opera Projects, Center for Contemporary Opera, Encompass New Opera Theatre, and Music-Theater Group. Master of ceremonies Janet Coleman capably underscored the excitement of the evening, and for a moment she seemed caught up in the imminent edginess about to take place on stage, promising the audience “brand new, original music theater composed by really brilliant, young composers.”
Her statement proved to be no hyperbole as far as the music was concerned. Most of the work that evening was indeed brilliant. My pet peeve is that word young, because as it turned out, there was quite a lot of grey hair on stage during the pre-performance banter between the creators and Coleman. Fact is, the four composers featured range in age from 37 to 72, hardly young in my book. Maybe the Y word accidentally slipped out with the avalanche of new, original, and brilliant—some of the most popular buzzwords of contemporary classical music.
If you think about it, the fossil fuel of classical music and opera—the pieces that audiences keep coming back to hear over and over again—were composed by an impish Austrian who died at the ripe age of 36. Did Mozart set some sort of precedent for youth worship? Considering that most grant and commissioning opportunities these days are only available to composers under the age of 35, it seems a clear line can be drawn between young and old. But then again, mature work is sometimes created in youth, and elder composers are often praised for works exhibiting youthful energy.
And with today’s popular music created and consumed by a dominantly tween demographic, it seems the concert hall crowed is left pining for a similar fountain of youth. Somehow the sum of these bizarre contradictions still allows us to label middle-aged or just outright old composers as young. It makes no sense to me. I mean, how old is young anyway?