What is opera? (Final installment of the 2010 VOX Blog)

[Ed. Note: This is the final installment of Julian Wachner’s backstage blog for the 2010 New York City Opera VOX readings at NYU’s Skirball Center. Click here, here, and here to read his earlier posts.—FJO]


I’m back in Washington DC after driving to my best friend’s father’s funeral in New Haven Sunday night—a wonderfully joyous 4 hour African-American Baptist event—and then to DC on Monday in the humidity of almost rain. My car gave me an extra little gift of having the air conditioning stop working just as I got into Lincoln Tunnel, so I had a very windy drive down with the sun roof and windows open.

VOX seems likes ages ago…I’ve returned to my Mahlerian life as a conductor here. I’m now in the midst of arranging Handel’s Dixit Dominus for brass sextet; ah, the life of the “practical” musician.

So the ramblings of a multi-hour car driven person follow. The final blog should always be the serious one, right?

Anyway, some final thoughts on the last two weeks… Let’s start with Michael Gordon’s Acquanetta, as I purposely left it off my last blog because I was going to spring board into a rather lengthy discussion of the whole Bang on a Can phenomenon and how that movement and reaction against the uptown mainstream opened the floodgates of possibility into what is now verging on a sort of “Pop Art” (in the Warhol sense, not the Lichtenstein) movement where genre defining categorizations are barely discernable and one wonders which form is being appropriated and by whom and in what direction. Without malice or judgment—it is actually a fascinating process to attempt to deconstruct the current in-vogue compositional product, for example is the use of Styx/Van Halen/Bowie-like riffs and progressions meant to be ironic, or is it meant to sound new in a so-called “classical” environment? In any case, I have decided NOT to spring board, but rather to say thank you to these pioneers of downtown-ism and to just appreciate the freedom we now have to write anything we want. To Forrest Gump a bit: My teacher Lukas always said, “Write the music you love; anything else will be utter failure.” Gotta love those obvious statements; that phrase kept coming back at me all week.

Other final thoughts: Was this a successful festival? Absolutely. Ten works of an incredibly varied nature and interest were unveiled before an enthusiastic audience. Friendships were made. Discussions were had. Food was eaten (in too great a quantity) and connections were solidified.

OK – here is the big issue:

The major question looming over everyone the entire week was the right one, not stylistically or aesthetically based but completely practical, WHAT IS OPERA?

When one sits down to write an “opera” versus a “theater piece,” “performance art,” “oratorio,” etc., does that person consciously say to him/herself: “I’m writing OPERA – a form created (or “reborn”) in the 16th century through a misunderstanding of Greco-Roman theatrical praxis in antiquity, and subsequently developed by the greatest of composers: Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, the Bel Canto composers, Weber, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Britten, and most importantly the brilliant Richard Strauss”? Do we consciously recognize this as a genre that requires a dramatic narrative that is perceptible by performer and audience alike? A genre that enables the simultaneous expression of a multiplicity of human emotions through the careful and clever control of contrapuntal textures ranging from duet through octet and beyond? A genre that takes as its foundational principle the beauty of the singing voice and what that technically sophisticated instrument has been capable of through the ages, and is now capable of through the various extended techniques currently in use? When we composers sit down and type in the phrase “An Opera….” at the start of our score, do we feel the weight of Nozze, Elisir, Giulio Cesare, Bohème, Carmen, Rosenkavalier, Wozzeck, Peter Grimes? Do we feel the pressure of that immense responsibility? This became the major question even though it was only hinted at in the two panels, murmured about in receptions, and obliquely brought up by singers looking for interpretive direction. I think that it’s O.K. that the question remained implicit, for it rang stronger in its hushed tones. So the question remains: Does the genre OPERA need to be connected to a lineage or can that history and tradition be rejected in the name of discovery and innovation?

What happens now with these ten works is of course a larger subject, but what does happen may shed some light on the major question. For example, how does the industry and its national service organization, Opera America, get involved in fostering this flurry of creative output recently stamped with the approval of what was in very recent history and will soon be again the flagship company of regional operatic production? How do we ten composers with a public profession for the love and desire of creating OPERA and of seeing our work on the main stage of a regional opera company make that happen? Do the major figures and leaders of the member companies of Opera America recognize the work of what was presented at VOX as “OPERA” and worthy of interest and further investment? I think the answer to the larger question lies somewhere at the axis point of industry reaction to this very important, unique and courageous undertaking by New York City Opera, and it will be interesting to see how this leviathan of an issue plays out.

Personally, I came away from the past two weeks with a better understanding of where I was and wasn’t successful in articulating dramatic intention in the actual music and singing. Not conducting my piece was truly the best choice, as it allowed me to witness wonderful artists bringing my score to life based only on the notes in the score and the artist’s interpretive curiosity and abilities. Indeed, many choices were made that I had not thought of, and that was wonderful and helpful.

As my final word – unless people start commenting… I would like to thank everyone at City Opera, particularly Beth Morrison, VOX’s new producer. I’d also like to thank Frank J. Oteri for helping get this little blog out to the new music community.

4 thoughts on “What is opera? (Final installment of the 2010 VOX Blog)

  1. philmusic

    Opera is not and never was a monolith. There are and have been many different and successful approaches to it over its history

    The fact is I could say that an opera is a work based on other operas, with a knowledge and study of those works. “New Music Theater” on the other hand can be based on anything.

    Anyway Opera companies have no rules on what they will or will not produce. So many things that are not strictly operas are presented as such.

    (please note that I am not trying to create a value judgment here just trying to define different approaches)

    Oddly it does seem that the folks who study the genre and compose in the operatic style and who would place music, voice, and character at the center of the experience are the ones who are least welcome these days. Then again if you compose a work that can only be performed by an opera company you start seeing the advantage of the new music theater approach. More flexibility for performance.

    Perhaps the reason why folks who compose “new music theater” insist on calling their works opera is they are perhaps unaware of the term or for the marketing advantage. There is an advantage. Opera is a magic word. “Go to the Tableau”? -not bloody likely.

    The fact is trained “sound artists” call themselves composers all the time. Yet its almost impossible for trained composers to compete as “sound artists.” I digress….

    As a composer who has written 3 serial operas, one comedy review, and one children opera, and applied 12 times to VOX and several of its previous incarnations and turned down, don’t get me started on good scansion.

    For me a long post.

    Phil’s page

    Phil’s opera blog

    Phil’s views on opera log in as a guest

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  2. philmusic

    “..Does the genre OPERA need to be connected to a lineage or can that history and tradition be rejected in the name of discovery and innovation?..”

    Naturally it is quite possible for “new music theater” proponents to have zero common ground with “opera” types. They mostly live in different worlds. Since they both compete with each other no doubt disagreements can get testy.

    My point?

    The fact is that all styles have their hidebound traditions even the NMT folks. So, discovery and innovation is not guaranteed to any style or approach. On the other hand neither is a connection to an “operatic” lineage. Not to mention that my view of operatic tradition may not exactly align with yours. My vision of opera’s tradition encompasses innovation. It does not stop with Puccini or the Once Group or with Zimmerman. Music I love. Why else be a composer?

    Anyway, it is just as much a cliche to present as traditional opera an over composed broadway style musical as to present as opera innovation an incomprehensible wall of sound (consonance or dissonance) featuring disjunct phonemes.

    Judge the composition not the style. Ignore the rhetoric.

    I think that each style could learn something from the other. Yet cooperation can only be created when there is enough performance to go around.

    Phil Fried

    Web sites listed above

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  3. philmusic

    As a composer my answer to the question “what is opera” is irrelevant.

    We don’t get to decide. Institutions and gatekeepers do.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s page

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  4. Matthew Peterson

    Phil, real nice to read such a long post from you.

    I’m nearly finished writing my second chamber opera (libretto by myself and Jason Zencka). I call it an “opera” because it has music, theater, and song. It will be premiered here in Stockholm in the fall.

    When I wrote my first chamber opera, The Binding of Isaac, with Jason, neither of us knew a thing about opera. I had never been to an opera, although I’d performed in West Side Story, Into the Woods, and some other “musicals” (which are also operas, according to my definition). Before I began writing that piece in Oct. 2005, I watched Don Giovanni and Peter Grimes on VHS. By the premiere in May 2006, I’d taken an opera history class at St Olaf College and watched my first live opera (Ned Rorem’s “Our Town”) at Indiana University.

    I’m so glad I didn’t have a huge historical context in mind when I wrote my first opera. It was so freeing to be a relative “tabula rasa” and Jason and I just created according to our vision as best we could.

    Now I’m a little older, and having a functional definition of opera is helpful to me, since I want to know what I should tell people I’m writing (a chamber opera? music theater piece?) According to my friend Hans Geförs, opera is,

    music

    theater

    and song

    I won’t try to explain what he meant by that, because I think it’s more beneficial to arrive at it one’s self. I like this definition, especially for a term that has been applied so many different pieces.

    Reply

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