View from the East: Don’t Look Back


Greg Sandow
Greg Sandow
Photo by Melissa Richard

I

I’m going to talk about the extraordinary program the New York City Opera calls Showcasing American Composers, or at least about its artistic impact, though simply as an event, and as a service to composers, the thing was amazing, a word I wouldn’t use lightly. Excerpts, 40 minutes long, or so, from 11 new operas were performed with full orchestra – let me repeat that, with full orchestra – on seven afternoons in May. For that, the company and its funders deserve a medal, or maybe the Nobel Prize. It’s hard enough to get a new opera heard, and when you do, it’s usually with piano. How often do you get to hear your orchestration?

But before I get to that, I want to talk about the technique of composing operas, something I do myself, and therefore take a lot of interest in. I wanted to start by saying that writing operas is tricky, but that’s not quite right, because in some ways, it can be easier to write an opera than an instrumental piece – apart, of course, from the sheer amount of work involved, the endless details, the collaboration with a librettist, and the huge number of things that can go wrong (though sometimes blissfully right) in rehearsal and performance. But in the happy time when you’re merely composing the work, its dramatic continuity can suggests musical ideas, so you always have some sense of what’s going to come next. I find writing instrumental music harder.

And yet there’s a knack to writing operas, and, as if to prove that, many of the best-known opera composers never wrote much else: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Massenet. (Though I’d bet Rossini and Wagner could have written anything they set their minds to.) On a lower level, in the standard repertoire, come Giordano, Ponchielli, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea, Humperdinck, and others – and, at the other extreme, three top composers who wrote operas, but didn’t seem to have the knack: Haydn, Schubert, and Dvorak. In the past century, we’ve seen more composers –

it’s a nice long list: Debussy, Berg, Strauss, Janacek, Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Henze, Louis Andriessen, John Corigliano, Stephen Paulus, William Bolcom, Phillip Glass – who’ve worked successfully in both opera and instrumental music. Maybe this is at least in part because of something that’s largely been forgotten. After Handel and before Wagner, opera and serious instrumental composition largely went down separate paths, especially in the early 19th century, when opera was called “popular” music, and symphonic works were “classical.” (This, in fact, is the origin of the term “classical music,” which came into use in the first half of the 19th century. It wasn’t used, as many people might think, to contrast composed music with folk or popular stuff, but to distinguish high-class symphonic and chamber works from the “lesser” music heard in the opera house, or at concerts by popular virtuosi.) But later on, Wagner created a revolution by writing operas with the texture of symphonic music, and the gap between opera and “serious” music got much smaller. Opera now could be musically serious, and symphonically inclined opera composers had an easier time.

And yet the old dichotomies still hold. Here in America, we’ve had opera specialists like Menotti, Douglas Moore, Robert Ward, and Carlisle Floyd, marked by a seemingly instinctive sense of theater, and then we have Copland, with far more compositional strength, whose operas sit lifeless on the stage.

So opera composition really is a special knack. Above all, if you write an opera, you have to rise to this occasion, not just once, but every time something important happens in the drama you’re setting to music. In an instrumental piece, by contrast, it’s really not a problem if one movement isn’t quite as strong as the others. In fact, it’s almost inevitable that all parts of a multi-movement piece won’t be equally strong, but that doesn’t mean your work won’t be happily performed for years, or even centuries. Does anyone think the third and fourth movements of the Eroica symphony are as striking as the first two? Does anything in the John Cage String Quartet in Four Parts match the breathtaking stasis of the third movement?

But if you write an opera, you can’t drop the ball, or at least you can’t drop it at the most important moments in the drama. In Lucia di Lammermoor, there’s one duet – between Lucia and the family priest, Raimondo, at the end of the first scene of the second act – that dips below the level of the rest of the piece. But that doesn’t matter, because the duet is dramatically irrelevant. Lucia’s brother wants her to marry someone she doesn’t love, and confronts her, at the start of Act 2, with a forged document (such a wonderful 19th-century device!), which convinces her that the man she does love is “wicked” and “cruel.” Later, toward the end of the act, she’s led like a sheep to the hated marriage contract, which, crushed and near collapse, she helplessly signs.

These two events make emotional sense exactly as they are, but between them comes the scene with Raimondo, ostensibly so the priest can add his own persuasion (“do it for your dead mother’s sake”), but, more realistically, to give the bass who sings the largely ungrateful role something extra to do. It’s dramatically superfluous, so it doesn’t matter that Donizetti punted it; for generations, in fact, the duet has been cut from performances, and hardly anybody notices. But if the music where Lucia signs her marriage vows were weak – or, even worse, the music that caps the second act, when her not at all faithless lover suddenly appears, and accuses her of infidelity – the opera would collapse. (One reason why Verdi’s lesser operas – or Donizetti’s – don’t work so well is that crucial scenes might not have good music.)

But to see really high musical stakes in an opera, just look at Die Meistersinger, where Wagner’s story hinges on a song that – as we’re not just told, but shown, in the reactions of everyone who hears it – is just about the most beautiful music anyone has ever heard. Wagner has to write that song, of course, and how well he succeeds (not just in the beauty of the music, but in something else the story specifies, that the song is in a brand new style) is one measure of his greatness.

The song, first of all, really is uniquely beautiful, especially when you hear it in its proper context, in the third act of the opera, where, even after hours of elaborate and gorgeous music, it still sounds new and fresh. And that’s not all. The character who sings the song – Walther, an impulsive young visitor to a conservative town – improvises it, so Wagner writes music that sounds as if it’s improvised. But the song also is supposed to follow a traditional form, then break with it at one important point, and so Wagner has that challenge, too, which of course he aces.

And even then there’s more, because we hear the song three times, first when Walther improvises it for the poet and cobbler who’s his mentor, again when he repeats it for the woman he loves, and finally when he wows the whole town in a singing contest. Wagner, really flying now, makes the song much grander the third time out, as if Walther, his heart swelling with inspiration, improvised more freely when he got before his largest audience (or, more flatteringly, when he needs to make a big impression, because if he doesn’t win the contest, he can’t marry the girl). The effect is unobtrusive – you might not remember that the song had gotten fancier – but also overwhelming, as the music sweeps through a triumph that serves not just as the dramatic climax of the opera, but also as the anchor of its musical form.

Wagner tends to ground his operas in large-scale repetition, most famously in Tristan, where the huge love duet in the second act is interrupted, and then returns (or at least its music does), this time with a proper climax, as the famous Liebestod, as the opera ends. But he also does it in the Ring, where the sunburst of Brunnhilde’s awakening in the last act of Siegfried is recapitulated near the end of Gˆtterd‰mmerung, just before Siegfried dies, and thus supplies the music for a double climax (even though the two stages of the climax come in separate operas; the Ring is a gigantic structure). And in Die Meistersinger, Walther’s Prize Song forms a triple climax, bringing the piece home to the key of C major in which it began. Anyone who makes one aria carry that much weight is a great opera composer – and Wagner does it with a tune so simple (at least before it grows new branches when it’s sung the third time) that Walther could just as well whistle it, as he walks down Nuremberg’s medieval streets.

In opera, there are large and small occasions; a composer has to rise to every one. So in Pelleas et Mélisande, a single note of recitative – with a shadow falling on a melody – can turn a moment sad or fearful, In Otello, Verdi lets us know exactly when Iago makes Otello jealous, because the cellos play an E sharp, marked piano, but unmistakably a thrust of pain. (And what’s more remarkable is the timing – and the shifting emphasis – throughout this scene, which runs, with one long interruption, through most of the opera’s second act. I sang Iago once, and felt that Verdi had gone ahead of me as actor and director, composing the best possible staging of the text, and that my job was not to interpret the words myself, but to understand how Verdi had interpreted them.)

When Wozzeck sings “Wir arme Leut,” deep in the first scene of Berg’s opera, we know we’ve reached the heart of his conversation with the shallow, flighty Captain, because the music plainly bears that weight. In Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, the many repetitions of an upward scale in E bring the opera to a peaceful close. In Norma, Bellini’s troubled priestess sings just these three notes:


And time stops, as the strain intrigue and betrayal resolves into serenity. Not, of course, because the notes themselves are special (obviously they aren’t), but because Bellini knows how to lead up to them; because he knows how to place them in the soprano voice; (high enough to rivet our attention, but not so high that they carry any strain); and finally because the orchestra, having built up to this moment stressfully, drops out, leaving the singer, her voice framed by silence, to command the stage alone.

Which brings me to another job opera composers have to do – they have to write well for the voice. In everything I’m writing here, I’m thinking of composers’ education, and how none of this is commonly taught. There are two things involved in writing operatic vocal lines: setting words to music, and knowing what the many types of operatic voices are. Writing for the voice can be done realistically (so the words fall from the music with the natural flow of speech), or it can be stylized, as Stravinsky loved to do, and as the three Bang On A Can composers did (at least to my ear) in The Carbon Copy Building, their joint opera. I’ll talk here about realistic vocal settings, because that’s what most American opera composers write. (And also because it’s easier; each stylized vocal setting makes its own rules, but all realistic vocal writing – Webern‘s just as much as Verdi’s – seems to work more or less the same way.)

My first thought is that text doesn’t have to be set in parlando or recitative style to be realistic. It doesn’t even have to march with one note to each word; in fact, the peak of the art might be writing melodies that have their own compelling life, and yet flow as easily as speech. In Bellini’s I Puritani, the tenor’s entrance aria starts with two lines of simple Italian poetry:

A te o cara, amor talora

Mi guidò furtiva e in pianto

(O beloved, love once led me

To you secretly, and in tears.)

Bellini writes a yielding and heroic melody that stretches these words over three long bars of slow 12/8 time. Later repetitions add still more fioritura, and nobody, even in the relatively simple first statement, would speak in such a langorous, elongated way – and yet still the music perfectly preserves the normal rhythm of Italian speech. You can feel this, if first you say the words with proper stresses:

a TE o CAra, aMOR taLOra

mi guiDÒ furTIva e_in PIANto ["e" and "in" are glided together]

Then sing them to Bellini’s melody, which sets the words so naturally that you still might think you’re speaking:


Among current American opera composers, Dominick Argento sets words the best, I think (and I’d love to offer an example, if only I could do it without special permission), though André Previn also did it smoothly in A Streetcar Named Desire. From abroad, Britten wasn’t bad (and Purcell was wonderful) but the champions at setting English to music are – is anyone surprised? – people in pop and on Broadway. Open any collection of Gershwin, Sondheim, or Cole Porter songs, and you’ll find music that fits words as naturally as Fred Astaire dances. Or, what’s even better, not quite naturally, but with easy artifice:

The sun comes up,

I think about you.

The coffee cup,

I think about you.

I want you so,

It’s like I’m losing my mind.

This is a deceptively not-so-simple Sondheim lyric – note the extra foot in the last line – set to deceptively not-so-simple music, from Follies. There’s not an American opera composer alive, I fear, who could set these words as naturally as Sondheim does. (As an experiment, try it, then compare your version with the original. I’m disqualified, because I know the tune, but I’m sure I’d be abashed.)

And many opera composers, including some of the more famous, don’t set words so well. Listen to any new pop album; the words and music sound like they belong together. Listen to a new opera; can you really say the same thing? I’ll grant that pop composers, setting simple, rhythmic lyrics, face a softer challenge, but they rise to it; in any case most operas have relaxed moments, where setting words to music ought to be easy. Opera aspires to lofty heights; how can it reach them, if the composers writing it can’t do the simple things as readily as any kid with a garage band? (Maybe Previn sets words well in part because he’s worked in jazz.)

As for voice types, any true opera fan knows what they are – lyric soprano, spinto soprano, dramatic soprano, and so on, through all the varieties of mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses. The categories aren’t unambiguous, they can’t define absolutely every singer’s voice, and they’re not formally codified (except in Germany). Yet everyone in the opera world understands them, and they’re essential for anyone who wants to write singable vocal music. Take the Bellini excerpt I quoted earlier; the easy top A toward the end, just touched in passing, marks this as music for a lyric tenor. A heavier tenor voice would rather sing A’s with some meat in them, as in this familiar slice of “Nessun dorma” (from Turandot) illustrates:


But then even the F sharps in the Bellini passage more subtly require a lyric tenor, who can phrase through them without sounding as if he’s shifted into overdrive, which a heavier voice would have to do. By contrast, Otello’s overpowering first entrance in Verdi’s opera


almost defines a dramatic tenor voice. A lyric voice can’t muster emphasis that low, but a heavy voice – the kind the part was written for – can all but shake the walls of an opera house.

To write operas, you need to know all this. One composer I knew in graduate school wrote a song cycle for tenor which made at least one climax around the E flat just above middle C; that’s too low for any but the heaviest tenor voice. And you’ll shoot your opera in the gut if you require violent declamation at the bottom of a soprano’s range, something only a heavy voice can easily do, and also want floating high A’s like the ones in “Mi chiamano MimÏ” (from La Bohème), which only a lighter voice can sing with the proper radiance. (To study the contrast, open a score of Turandot and compare the roles of Turandot, a vocal heavy, and LiÐ, much lighter. If you want to hear what happens when someone sings out of their proper fach, to use the German word for these categories, listen to Piero Cappuccilli, a baritone, sing Masetto’s angry aria, written for a bass, on the old Giulini recording of Mozart‘s Don Giovanni. He sings the notes, but can’t spit them out with the proper emphasis.)

I stress all this, because composers – as far as I know – aren’t taught it. That doesn’t mean that they won’t learn it on their own, but on the other hand, a year ago I gave an informal tutorial to a composer at Juilliard. He’d already written an opera, and had part of it produced, but he’d never learned the standard vocal types, or even heard of them. When we study orchestration, we learn not just the ranges of the instruments, but what flavor each part of those ranges has – we learn the power of the cellos’ A string, and how hard it is for oboes to play their bottom notes softly, as opposed to flutes. But do we ever study voices that way?

Which leaves one last topic for a curriculum in opera composition – how operas are constructed musically. And this, to my amazement, rarely seems to be discussed, even when I’ve participated, as both composer and critic, in opera workshops or in think-tank meetings on the future of new opera. The theatrical construction of operas gets talked about a lot, especially if some new piece doesn’t work. But the problems are most often defined theatrically – a scene moves too slowly, maybe, or there’s too much time between two big events – which makes sense, because the discussions were most often led by stage directors. And yet the composer then has to fix the problems by composing, or recomposing, music. So shouldn’t somebody talk about the musical means – the musical forms, the compositional techniques – the composer might consider using?

There isn’t even much written on this subject, with the stunning exception of Joseph Kerman‘s 1959 book Opera as Drama, now available in an updated edition, and essential reading – despite its high-church point of view – for anyone who wants to understand how operas are composed. Not that, at least in outline, this hard to understand. The simplest kind of opera is as a singspiel, or, translated to America, a musical: Spoken dialogue alternates with songs. The trick then is to place the songs where they work the best.

Typically, the story will advance during the spoken passages, and will pause – for entertainment, or emotional amplification – during the music. Though really “emotional amplification” isn’t strong enough. In opera, we believe what the music tells us, or, to put that differently, if there’s anything we must believe to make the story touch us, the music has to make it real. So even in a musical, the songs can carry deep, strong truth. Put them in the right place, and the drama might ring true. Place them clumsily, and – even if the songs are wonderful – it falls and dies.

In the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time, the songs arise when Fred and Ginger need to speak, but can’t. In Mozart’s Magic Flute, the handsome prince Tamino gets a portrait of Pamina. The orchestra heaves two sighs; he already loves her, and sings an aria to prove it. Because the aria is magical, we believe his love, which means that we believe the opera.

But think how badly some other composer – Haydn, maybe – might have handled this. Three talkative ladies – apparatchniks of the none too humble Queen of the Night – give the portrait to Tamino. Suppose they’d sung a trio first: “You’ll see how beautiful Pamina is!” The trio might be wonderful, but we in the audience are the last people on earth who need to hear it. We don’t care what the Three Ladies think; it’s what Tamino thinks that matters. And if Mozart wasted music on the Ladies, Tamino’s aria could easily sound like an anticlimax.

Operas with secco recitative work much the same way, though of course the recitatives can have a musical life of their own, as Mozart shows repeatedly, letting the harmony wander, for example, when Donna Elvira rants in the second scene of Don Giovanni. Mozart’s musical numbers are, naturally, a little more complex than songs in a musical (though he can write simple songs when he wants to, as he does for Papageno). He tends to write operatic music in sonata form, which, as Kerman shows, makes dramatic progress possible within an aria or duet, as it wouldn’t be in operas by Handel or Bellini. A confrontation can begin in the exposition, reach a climax in the development, and resolve, at least for the moment, in the recapitulation. (Examples are the trio for the Count, Susanna, and Basilio in Act 1 of Figaro, which Kerman discusses, and the trio for Elvira, Giovanni, and Leporello in Act 2 of Don Giovanni.) Mozart also constructs complex finales, where one piece of music leads directly to another, suggesting, at least in theory, that he could have written operas that were through-composed (written, that is, without pauses for dialogue or recitative).

And in fact the history of 19th-century opera is, among much else, a history of how through-composition developed. In Italy, it evolved in stages. First, Rossini accompanied recitatives with the orchestra, not just a keyboard. This made two things possible. The recitative could be varied (allowing bursts of song, or eruptions of orchestral excitement); and, without deserts of recitative between concerted numbers, an entire operatic scene could now be conceived as a single musical unit. The composers after Rossini, most famously Bellini and Donizetti, built their operas in big chunks, each measuring one large impulse in the drama.

First chunk of Lucia, Act 2: Lucia’s brother does a number on her. Second, wasted chunk: The priest Raimondo tells Lucia to give in. Final chunk: She signs the marriage contract, and her lover denounces her. The entire opera has just nine chunks (there doesn’t seem to be a formal name for them), which shows how long they are. Each has separate parts; an opening chorus or instrumental introduction, perhaps some recitative, a slow aria or duet, a longish section of unstructured excitement, building toward a climax, and then something fast, normally repeated, which brings down the house. In some ways, this is just a fancier form of the musical theater pattern, where the action advances, then stops dead for a song, then advances again – though here the “set pieces” (arias, duets, ensembles) come in slow-fast pairs, making a chunk a single structure, building toward a close. And the set pieces are connected, by music that never stops.

As time went on, this connecting music got more interesting. Verdi improved it mightily, making every moment sound like structured music. Eventually he threw away the predictable slow-fast pattern, no matter how crowd-pleasing, until, by the time he wrote Otello and Falstaff, he’d evolved a free operatic form that corresponded almost exactly to the shape and pace of the drama. (See the Violetta-Germont duet in Traviata for an impressive early stage of this journey.)

Meanwhile, in Germany, Wagner invented something even more radical, starting with Das Rheingold – opera written with symphonic continuity. Here the momentum comes almost always from the orchestra. Each act is a single span of music; as I’ve already said, whole operas (or even the entire four-opera Ring) have their own large-scale form. Moment-to-moment progress, though, can be quite informal – it follows the text, and while there’s no doubt it works, it’s hard to say why. It’s hard (not that people haven’t tried) to find any solid patterns in it, which gives Wagner’s famous leitmotifs an extra purpose. As everybody knows, they label people, things, and concepts, but they also serve as constants in a sea of ceaseless musical change. In effect, they’re the themes, musically speaking, of Wagner’s symphony. They make the flow of “endless melody” sound grounded and consistent.

Yet even Wagner – if you look at individual moments – uses the same musical devices as everybody else. He writes passages of what, from any other composer, would be called recitative; he writes vocal melodies; he writes parlante passages (where the main musical interest lies in the orchestra, over which the singers declaim), quite a lot of them, in fact, which in his time maddened conservatives, who wanted him to pause for arias.

And in the end, the principles of singspiel still apply. To make even a Wagnerian opera work, you have to know where to place the musical high points. From that point of view, the first act of Die Walk¸re (a good place to start in any study of Wagner) is as easy to understand as any musical. It begins with a burst of energy, a musical tempest that throws Siegmund, hurt and exhausted, into the home Sieglinde shares with the husband she doesn’t love, Hunding. The storm subsides, and won’t develop any long-range energy until the act is nearly over. Instead it starts and stops, showing us how Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love (though they never say so), and then how Hunding comes home, to find subversion brewing in his household. Finally, when Siegmund sings about his love, the music starts to hurtle toward its climax, which it reaches – through an answering solo from Sieglinde, and her convulsive shriek when Siegmund pulls a magic sword out of a tree – without ever looking back.

After Wagner, only Strauss – among well-known composers – used his loosely organized symphonic style. Berg tried to make it rational, reintroducing closed musical forms. All the scenes in Wozzeck, along with many episodes in Lulu, have one, or at least are based on some consistent principle, like the repetition of a single rhythm. The Italians – verismo composers like Mascagni and Giordano – more or less improvised their operas. They couldn’t go back to older operatic forms, but on the other hand, they couldn’t put their emphasis on anything but vocal melody; they didn’t bother with symphonic continuity, but instead invented something new at every moment, following the text.

And then Puccini – maybe the canniest composer who ever wrote operas – found a way to have his formal cake, and eat it, too. Very skillfully, he wrote music with something like Wagnerian symphonic continuity, but made it sound Italian, as if each moment functioned on its own. You can hear him doing that in the tenor aria in the first act of Manon Lescaut, and in MimÏ’s aria in the third act of La Bohème. Both are largely built from recapitulations of music we’ve heard earlier, which makes them episodes in a symphonic flow. But somehow they don’t sound that way; they sound like arias, as self-contained as anything in Verdi.

(The Bohème aria offers an object lesson in how to make that possible: For your less important music, reuse old stuff, but for your killer climax, write something new. Though the Manon Lescaut example is more miraculous, because the aria doesn’t only recycle the duet that came before it, but also recycles parts of itself, and because the only new material comes in short extensions of familiar phrases. It’s fascinating, by the way, to see Puccini construct the first act of Bohème much like the first act of Die Walk¸re, with momentum building only at the end. We start with the four Bohemians kidding around, to miscellaneous music – and then, when Rodolfo and MimÏ fall in love, we get a triple knockout punch, an aria for him, an aria for her, and a duet, all of them unforgettable. Puccini also is the only classical composer I know who uses a Henry Mancini trick, one Mancini boasted of in a book on how he composes – he starts with a tasty musical treat, and then repeats it, with added that makes it sound new. That’s what Puccini does in the quartet at the end of Act 3 of La Bohème, and also in “E lucevan le stelle,” the tenor aria from the last act of Tosca, which begins with a clarinet playing a melody while the heartbroken singer murmurs reminiscences. Then the tenor sings the melody alone, and the effect of hearing the tune as a solo – especially in the fat part of a tenor voice – is so new that it comes as a shock to realize that, formally speaking, the aria is nothing but two just about identical strophes.

If we’re going to encourage opera composition, shouldn’t all this be taught in music schools?

II

And now for City Opera. In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether the operas in this workshop seemed good or bad, to me or anybody else. The service to composers – and the precedent it sets – is beyond belief extraordinary; everyone should be congratulated. (And since the orchestra played so eagerly and well, maybe somebody should give some money for added readings of orchestral works.)

It’s also unfair to judge the operas, since most are still in progress; I’ve promised that I won’t review them. I also need to say that this is the third year of this program – give the company three Nobel prizes – and since I didn’t see the first two years of it, I can’t judge what my impressions of this year’s level might mean. If it wasn’t high, does that matter if last year was better? Besides, by the end I felt like these composers were far more my colleagues than targets for my criticism.

So what I’ll do is talk about the import, artistically, of the operas as a group, since here I feel that I’m on solid ground. I’ve been hearing new operas since the ’80s, when I sat on endless opera funding panels, and the works at City Opera seem not too different, even if two things have changed for the better. New operas in the ’80s mostly weren’t written well, as music, and their idiom was strongly conservative. These City Opera pieces – as if we’d seen a quick American reenactment of the confluence, after Wagner, of opera and symphonic composition – mostly sounded like the work of real composers, who know their way around 20th-century harmony and orchestration.

But they also mostly seemed to share a conservative idea of what an opera is. That doesn’t mean that some of them weren’t strong, and might not be powerful on stage. But as a group, they largely seemed conventional. Most had stories that took place in the past, just like operas in the standard repertoire; and, again like operas in the repertoire, some were adapted from safe, familiar literary works. (Here I should note that City Opera’s Central Park trilogy, which premiered a year ago, was an exception to some of what I’m saying here. It was a package of three one-act pieces, by Robert Beaser, Deborah Drattell, City Opera’s outgoing composer-in-residence, and Michael Torke; each one told an original story set in New York’s Central Park today. And I should make it clear that I’m talking about the effect the workshop operas made as a group. Individual pieces were exceptions to some of what I say.)

From one point of view, there’s nothing wrong with stories from the past, or with adaptations. When Puccini went looking for an opera subject, he’d often choose a current play; so did Debussy. Wagner never wrote an opera set in the time he lived; Verdi wrote just one, La Traviata, and that (along with its not exactly respectable heroine) helped make it controversial. So why shouldn’t our composers be the same? Why shouldn’t André Previn make an opera out of A Streetcar Named Desire, or John Harbison, turning now to well-loved novels, choose The Great Gatsby? (I’ll confess that all but one of my own five operas – four were produced long ago, the fifth is in progress now – are set in the past and based on well-known literature.) The advantages are obvious, quite apart from the genuine love composers understandably have for writers like Tennessee Williams or F. Scott Fitzgerald. The subjects are familiar; everybody knows them; everybody wants to like an opera based on Gatsby, while an opera based on something no one knows about might seem less important, or have less appeal. Thus Verdi wrote Macbeth, Donizetti wrote Lucia (from a once-familiar book by Walter Scott), Mussorgsky wrote Boris Godunov (from the greatest Russian poet, Pushkin), Puccini’s wrote Manon Lescaut, Rossini wrote The Barber of Seville, and Massenet adapted Werther from Goetheand in modern times, we have Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, Robert Ward’s The Crucible, Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Gatsby, Streetcar, Mark Adamo‘s Little Women, and many, many more.

But familiarity can be a problem, too. If new operas aren’t different from the operas of the past, they might suffer by comparison. They’ll go down easily, of course, but the masterpieces in the standard repertory will go down easier, and will almost always prove more memorable.

Besides, does anybody really long to hear Gatsby as an opera? This isn’t a dig at Harbison, who of course (like all composers) should write exactly what he wants, no matter what I or anybody else might think. But the tides of history might be pulling against him. Decades, generations, centuries ago, opera was popular; opera also was contemporary, attractive as both art and entertainment. People liked to hear new operas, which – since opera was a mainstream art – were naturally very like the novels the same people read, or the plays they saw. Opera, in other words, was something like the movies now. We’re not surprised when plays and novels are adapted for the screen; in fact, we expect them to be, and cheerfully debate the adaptations.

But opera now is hardly like the movies. It’s more exotic; it doesn’t count as entertainment (does Entertainment Weekly cover it?), and as a form of art, it’s hardly mainstream. New operas, since they’re not the norm – are more exotic still. So from this point of view it seems a waste to write one, just to tell a story that could far more plausibly be told in print, on film, or on the stage. In a world like this – or so this argument might go – we need operas that need to be operas, operas where the form itself is part of the story, operas that are written because their aesthetic statement couldn’t be made in any other way.

I could imagine, just for instance, an opera that told a story, but not in the usual way – an opera, say, that told four stories simultaneously, as in fact a recent film did, with the screen always divided into four parts. I’ve even seen something similar in a commercial, so it’s hardly an avant-garde notion. It seems natural for opera, since music can easily do several things at once; even in the standard repertory, we’ve got scenes where more than one thing is going on. (There’s the quartet in the second act of Otello, where Iago intimidates his wife Emilia while, elsewhere on the stage, Otello and Desdemona sing separate, simultaneous soliloquies. In the big third-act ensemble from the same opera, Iago, always the odd man out, carries on his own conversations, while everybody else sings of other things. And Mozart, very famously, has three orchestras on stage simultaneously in Don Giovanni, playing in different rhythms, with various characters dancing and singing to each. Why shouldn’t we grow these seeds into something larger, more thorough, and more modern?)

Or I could imagine operas that adapted truly contemporary novels, much as Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, from Bang On A Can, adapted a wry, non-realistic, underground comic in The Carbon Copy Building. Here, though, we bang up against the conservatism of the American opera world, its conservative administrators, singers, audience and – including me, in many ways – its conservative composers. (Of course, this conservatism afflicts classical music in general, but that’s a larger story.) Flip through the New York Times Book Review, and you’ll read about books that sound a lot more challenging – and just plain funkier, and less polite – than nearly any new American opera. (This, of course, all but guarantees that people who thrive on serious contemporary literature won’t have much interest in new operas.)

Certainly the contemporary novels I’ve liked best would stand out drastically if they became operas. I’ll just cite two, one of them Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, which is laced – deliberately overloaded – with references to commercial products and popular culture. In an operatic setting, music that sounds like pop songs and advertising jingles could be threaded through the score, not as occasional quotations, but as the main substance of the music (layered so thickly, when the drama got intense, that they might begin to sound like the novel’s title).

The second novel, Nani Power’s recent Crawling at Night (which I bought after reading a Times review) has a story largely told in flashbacks, as we learn how its two strikingly non-operatic main characters – a lost Japanese sushi chef and an equally lost, alcoholic American waitress – came to know each other. It would be easy enough to start an operatic treatment in their last motel room, and then change the lighting and change the musical tone, to show what happened earlier. At the end we’d return to the sound and look of the beginning, as the waitress, Mariane, leaves the motel, starts to drink again (not for the first time), and disappears.

But that’s too easy, and it would make the opera far more conventional than the novel, which comes off as a desperate collection of fragments. Instead, we might (like the movie with the four-part screen) divide the stage in half, and tell both stories, the chef’s and Mariane’s, simultaneously, maybe making Mariane’s last disaster just another link in a long chain of sorrow, hers and his, which is how it comes off in the book.

That way, we might avoid the pitfalls of conventional adaptations, though characters like these would almost guarantee avoiding them, since there’s almost no way to represent these people – at least no way that’s true to the book – in any kind of normal operatic musical language. (How would they sing? Neither ever bursts forth in straightforward passion.) The chef, Ito, weaves his private thoughts around two things, besides memories: images of food, and passages from classic Japanese literature. Much of Mariane’s inner life comes from drinking and TV. How do you create these different worlds in music, without being obvious (no koto solos, please), and how do you bring them together? (Maybe you don’t.)

And how do you bring the explicit sexuality of the novel (unremarkable, of course, in literature or film) onto the operatic stage, where – despite Salome, where, night after night in opera houses around the world, an overexcited teenage girl kisses the lips of a severed head – it’s all but unknown?

But then even inside a traditional frame, the musical dramaturgy of new operas tends to be conventional. The workshop pieces (along with many other new American operas I’ve heard) tended to be structured like verismo works, making a new departure at every new dramatic beat, often pausing, once a scene builds toward a climax, for characters to meditate in arias or duets. There’s nothing wrong with this; Carlisle Floyd worked wonders with a similar approach in Susannah, though it’s worth studying the ways he keeps his musical momentum going, never seeming to start, then fall off the train and stop, as some of the workshop operas did. But what happened to Wagner’s symphonic structure? To Berg’s integration of closed musical forms (or Britten’s: think of The Turn of the Screw, structured as a set of variations)? Or to Stravinsky’s reimagining of old operatic forms, in The Rake’s Progress? Or, for that matter, what happened to Monteverdi‘s structuring, oddly contemporary after so many centuries, of an opera as largely recitative?

It’s as if we’ve turned our back on operatic history. Some of the composers drew, sometimes nicely, on structural procedures from musicals (one piece was built almost as a series of show tunes), which is one way to adapt to the modern world, though it makes me wonder why American opera also doesn’t draw, with equal delight and understanding, on rock, or country songs, or techno, or hip-hop. How about an opera structured as a concept album, or as a hit song followed by B-sides and dance remixes? (Composers outside the mainstream, of course, may well be doing these and even more wonderful and unexpected things.)

Some of the City Opera composers overwrote, with percussion crashes everywhere. Sometimes I thought, conventionally enough, that “less is more,” and longed for something simple, like Wagner’s evocation of a mountain peak in Siegfried, which is nothing but a single unaccompanied melodic line, played by high, awed violins.

And I wished, maybe unfairly, that more composers took the kind of structural and dramatic chances Puccini takes in the second act of La Bohème. Marcello has been watching Musetta, his former lover, try to turn him on from a distance, in a crowded café. She gets him going, and when finally they come together, the music thunders out her waltz theme. Then, with no warning, it all at once falls quiet (in a passage often covered, in the opera house, by applause), continuing the melody in nothing more than divisi first violins, playing piano, accompanied by harp, pizzicato strings, and triangle. This is like the moment when you look up from a long embrace, and begin to see the world around you. But even that gets quickly swept away, as a military band approaches in the street, brushing the E major love theme aside with a march in B flat. First passion; then intimacy; and then the world outside returns, all in less than a minute. La Bohème premiered in 1898, but, compared to most new operas, that passage still seems almost revolutionary.

More generally, the entire use of music, in much American opera, seems too timid, no matter how forceful any given score might sound, taken purely on its own terms. Here I’m back at my thought that operas, in a world where the form isn’t mainstream, should sound like they need to be operatic. From that point of view, music isn’t just the medium in which an opera is written, but becomes, at least in part, the opera’s subject. (As if we said to our audience: “Let us show you why we want to write more operas.” The answer, for most people outside the opera world, isn’t obvious.)

I remember reading once that Guillaume de Machaut, the 14th-century composer, fell in love with a very young woman when he was very old. That, I thought, would make a touching opera, but only the medieval setting made the story operatic; the same situation, taking place today (and God knows it happens), doesn’t feel like opera, or at least not to me. So I figured I should write the whole thing in Machaut’s style, to make the medieval setting not just local color, but the very stuff of the story. I’ve also imagined an opera about Pocahontas, the legendary Native American heroine from colonial times who, less famously, married an Englishman and spent the last part of her life in England; the music could begin in some kind of Native style, and gradually morph into English music of the 17th century.

Not that I’m saying we should all write operas in ancient musical languages (or, for that matter, in unusual contemporary ones). I’ve used these ideas only as examples, suggestions of one way, at least, that operatic music could take on extra meaning. But we could just as well take off from Berg, and play with musical construction – so that, let’s say, party guests in an opera about the beat generation improvise their party scene, using the techniques of free jazz.

At least we ought to talk about these things. If we learn more about why we do what we do, we might make new American operas better, and maybe give them new life.

***

On the Web, I found this comment by Mark Adamo, City Opera’s new composer-in-residence, on his opera Little Women:

“And I recognized that Little Women itself solves certain problems for the opera composer. The novel itself – part classic, part mass-culture perennial – as well as its young, lively characters in their antique locale reminded me of opera itself these days: an art buzzing with new writing and thinking while still working with resources (the bel-canto trained voice, the acoustic orchestra) that stabilized one hundred years ago. I knew Jo’s wild imagination, her haunting memories, would free me musically to range between abstract and tonal, poetic and vernacular, song and symphonic forms.”

That’s exactly the kind of discussion I’d like to see.