Reports of the Death of Opera Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Soldier Songs

A scene from David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. Photo by Jill Steinberg, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

Two worthy and penetrating studies of opera take as their premise the idea that the form is dead. In A History of Opera (2012), Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker declare that the genre is “a mortuary” and “a thing of the past” even as they grant that recent decades have seen “a remarkable global increase in operatic activity.” They bolster their mournful claims in part by stacking the deck, paying scant heed to works from the past half-century or so. They sum up Henze, Tippett, and Glass in about a sentence apiece, allot fewer pages to Britten’s operatic output than to Handel’s Rinaldo, and fail to mention Kaija Saariaho at all.

Then again, why kill off opera only once? Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world “stillborn,” “as something outdated.” The notion is tenable given the antiquarian passions that drove the Camerata de’ Bardi and the form’s other progenitors, and the themes of loss, retrospection, mourning, and (would-be) resurrection obsessively revisited in Peri’s Euridice, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and countless other operas throughout the centuries.

Žižek and Dolar propose several candidates for “the last opera,” including three monumental unfinished works: Puccini’s Turandot, Berg’s Lulu, and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. And while they, like Abbate and Parker, acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains “a huge relic” and “an enormous anachronism.”

To my mind, there are two ways to respond to the gloom that permeates A History of Opera and Opera’s Second Death. The first would be to hide the books from the artists crafting and performing new operas lest they get wise to the idea that theirs, to quote Dolar, is a “zombielike” pursuit. The second, jollier and less obscurantist, would be to invite the authors to New York to sample remarkable work of the kind that I have seen and heard in recent months. (Two birds, one stone: perhaps then Žižek really would host Saturday Night Live.) Incidentally, those imps at Britain’s Royal Opera don’t seem to believe that opera is dead. They recently commissioned four new full-length operas for the 2020 season—inspired by the writings of none other than operatic-prophet-of-doom Slavoj Žižek.

Here in New York, on an icy February night following a brutal storm, Experiments in Opera’s New Shorts program played to an overflowing house at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room. With sizzling playing by Hotel Elefant, ten new ten-minute operas, each preceded by a video interview with the composer or creative team, captivated young and old alike. (The audience ran the gamut from children to golden agers, the latter in far smaller measure than typically seen at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.)

Abbate and Parker note that nearly all now-canonical operas were seen as “disposable” when they had their premieres, and that exorbitant costs limit the risks that today’s major companies can take with new works. At New Shorts, no-frills direction by Louisa Proske, Stewart Kramer, and David Levine made plain that effective stagings need not be elaborate or costly. (The same holds true at big houses: the Met’s spare-to-the-bone production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, to be revived in May, is one of the company’s most powerful offerings.) As for the fungibility of the New Shorts operas, only time, that most wayward of arbiters, will tell which ones have legs. Their variety and consistently high quality impressed me, though, and the audience’s enthusiasm never flagged during a program of pithy works that added up to an epic-length evening.

Verdi and Britten celebrate landmark birthdays this year, and one reason why their operas endure is because so many were based on works by major writers, including Shakespeare, Schiller, and James. Two of the most compelling New Shorts operas also draw on illustrious literary sources: Bodiless by Gabrielle Herbst and The God’s Script by Justin Tierney. The latter sheathes in fierce, gorgeously orchestrated music a dramatization of Jorge Luis Borges’s “La escritura del dios,” the story of an imprisoned Mayan priest, sung with command by Jeffrey Gavett, who seeks to decipher a divine message encoded in the spots of a jaguar he sees for only an instant each day. Just as the novella’s narrator tells of “vertigo” and a “labyrinth of dreams,” Tierney’s score circles time and again around the same intervals, its claustrophobic darkness pierced by glistening threads of violin tone or washes of flute over prickly percussion.

Bodiless is a surprising title for a work based on “deconstructed text” by the philosopher Hélène Cixous, whose most celebrated essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” extols the “luminous torrents” and “unheard-of songs” that course through women’s flesh. In her setting, Herbst spins a web of soaring phrases and ululations for three sopranos: at New Shorts performed by herself, Ariadne Greif, and Lucy Dhegrae, all wearing lacy, shredded costumes with intertwining tendrils by Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda. With no discernible action or narrative trajectory, Bodiless seems more rhapsody than drama. That said, its repeated phrase “the roar of light” suggests an affinity with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (“Wie, hör’ ich das Licht?”), an opera whose own static Handlung traces an erotic journey beyond the body, and whose love music, all echolalia and vocal arabesques, similarly eschews singularity and sense.

Collector

Mark Emerson in Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

At the opposite extreme to Bodiless is Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, a monologue performed with wry brilliance by actor Mark Emerson that layers rhythmic speech over pointillist fragments of melody in a kind of ultimate distillation of stile rappresentativo. The Collector’s colloquial tone, oblique wit, and themes of paraphilia and fixation with ephemera (postage stamps) bring to mind the loopy “pictographic ballad operas” of Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy, the most winsome and intelligent new operas I have encountered in the past decade. Equally droll, WOW by Joe Diebes and Christian Hawkey makes something peppy and exuberant of the superego’s implacable ostinato (“I am ashamed of”), grandly intoned by Jonathon Hampton and Devin Provenzano, juxtaposed with a litany of disgraceful things spoken by Christina Campanella. They range from the usual suspects (“my penis size”) to matters trivial (“what my phone says about me”), earnest (“my hate-filled fellow Christians”), and forthrightly human (“having my butt checked”).

The Mother

Lisa Komara in Jason Cady’s The Mother, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Jason Cady, whose Happiness is The Problem has just been released by LockStep Records, figured as both composer and performer at New Shorts. Sung and acted in dazzling manner by Lisa Komara and Erin Flannery, Cady’s The Mother pairs colorful scoring, sassy rhythms, and sweetly angular melodies with a young woman’s darkest nightmare: being overtaken in art and love by her mother, who morphs by outrageous happenstance from dreary crone to musical prodigy. With Ann Heppermann, Cady also acted in Matthew Welch’s The Three Truths, a robot opera based on a Sufi parable that hints at an elemental unease with the soulless, mechanical underside of vocal virtuosity. Gavett and Anne Rhodes sang with the requisite authority, and Seth Bodie designed the spectacular costumes for Welch’s opera and The Mother.

End Times

Elisabeth Halliday in End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Leaha Maria Villarreal’s A Window to a Door, austerely scored for violin, contrabass, and electronic playback, explores music at the edge of silence. Her voice delicate, her presence poignant, Meagan Brus portrayed its sole character, a young woman who is held hostage—in jail? an asylum? a prison of her own making? Set in a dystopian future of planetary meltdown, End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods shares the off-kilter humor of The Mother and WOW and shifts between the acid musings of an “existential weather woman” and the rants of a fundamentalist reverend, trenchantly played by Elisabeth Halliday and Robert Maril. The last New Short offering, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Hannis Brown’s I am a Fish, probes quandaries of identity with wild vocal writing, admirably sung by Seth Gilman, and a roiling score shot through with the sting of the electric guitar.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline's Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline’s Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Beyond New Shorts, New York has teemed with vital new operas in recent months. One could argue that Out Cold, Phil Kline’s monodrama that had its world premiere last fall at BAM under the auspices of American Opera Projects, is a monument to belatedness with its nods to Sinatra and Schubert, or that those touchstones along with Theo Bleckmann’s lean tone and conversational delivery represent a repudiation of everything “operatic.” But our current thinking about opera is defective, heedless of the form’s intimate currents—Monteverdi’s Orfeo, after all, was performed in private chambers at the Duke of Mantua’s palace—and bound to bloated 19th-century paradigms. Besides, when Kline cites for his boozer’s late-night reveries the Magic Fire Music that ushers Brünnhilde to sleep in Die Walküre, does he not demonstrate the truth of Nietzsche’s claim that Wagner is “our greatest musical miniaturist”? At BAM, Bleckmann was an opera unto himself, singing, dancing, and acting with forlorn elegance and consummate artistry, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble made bright the many bewitching hues of Kline’s poison-sweet songs.

January’s inaugural Prototype Festival, produced by Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison, and Kim Whitener, showcased five new operatic offerings, selling out many performances and garnering praise from Justin Davidson, Ronni Reich, and many others. I missed Timur and the Dime Museum but did cover David T. Little’s Soldier Songs for Time Out New York. Like the bare-bones New Shorts presentations, Yuval Sharon’s uncluttered but potent staging of Little’s 2006 opera refuted the idea that opera companies need to bust the bank in order to galvanize audiences. The unit set—a sandbox—deftly conjured up the landscape on which several recent wars unfolded, and perhaps also the puerile and foolhardy spirit in which certain leaders waged those wars. And the image of blood slowly soaking through the business suit and dress shirt worn by the soldier when he returns to civilian life remains among the most haunting I have ever witnessed in a theatre.

Prototype also gave the world stage premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song, already familiar thanks to its fine Bridge recording and various workshop presentations. Here, too, smart rather than pricey stagecraft carried the day. The revenge-besotted Asakir is as high-strung a leading lady as Verdi’s Azucena or Strauss’s Elektra, yet Rachel Calloway, cannily directed by David Herskovits, made her wild grandeur work in a tiny performing space. And even with the fourth wall mere feet away from most viewers, Alixa Gage’s costumes and Zane Pihlstrom’s abstract set, strands of vinyl tubing aglow with the weird colors of Lenore Doxsee’s lighting, made a credible case for Fairouz’s drama of a family and a wider world undone by violence and abiding rancor. (Gage and Pilhstrom, incidentally, were part of director Gia Forakis’s team for The Kitchen’s poetic staging of Missy Mazzoli’s Song From The Uproar: The Lives and Deaths Of Isabelle Eberhardt last spring.)

The other Prototype offerings were Paola Prestini’s Aging Musician, a work in progress that happily draws on the resplendent tones of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Bluebeard by the Dutch collective 33 1/3. An unnerving work without live musicians and with 3-D video renderings of corpses, body parts, and other ontological terrors, Bluebeard hovers between the post-human virtual and the Lacanian Real: the material ground of existence, unutterable and horrifying, shards of which can erupt in everyday life. (Quick, someone get Žižek and Dolar on Skype!)

For a “mortuary” and a “stillborn” art form, then, opera seems to be going strong, at least in these parts. In addition to the works mentioned here, recent months have brought new operas by Philip Glass, Victoria Bond, Douglas J. Cuomo, Nolan Gasser, Matthew Harris, and Thomas Pasatieri. The coming months will also bring keenly anticipated world premieres at San Francisco Opera (Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene) and Santa Fe (Theodore Morrison’s Oscar). Glancing beyond NMBx’s purview, Operabase lists some sixty additional new operas having premieres in 2012-13, at least one of which, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, opened to glowing reviews and will tour widely. This season, New Yorkers have also had chances to take in slashingly fine Adès at New York City Opera and the Met, where Nico Muhly’s Two Boys will have its local premiere in October.

Opera, then, seems to me “not completely dead”; in fact, it seems to be doing rather well. Call off the funeral and get in line to see for yourself.

***

Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Marion Lignana Rosenberg. Photo by Maeghan Donohue.

Marion Lignana Rosenberg has written about music, books, and the arts for Time Out New York, WQXR, Capital New York, The Forward, The Classical Review, and other publications. She has also written program notes and essays for Kronos Quartet, The Glyndebourne Festival, and New York City Opera.

10 thoughts on “Reports of the Death of Opera Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Some of us never thought opera was dead. It can certainly be transformed, as these short operas reveal.

    Transformation was critical during the lean years — and make no mistake, they were very lean years. There were Menotti’s Amahl and The Consul in there, of course, and Glass’s Einstein (which now folks claim to have known to be phenomenal back then). My own first opera was right at the beginning of the chamber opera revival, Plasm over ocean in 1977, a half-hour avant-garde/ritual ‘bridge’ opera with unique, hand-built instruments. The unusual presentation brought audiences who, in the 1970s, were unlikely to fill the house for a traditional formatted opera. Chamber opera was unusual enough an event at the time for New Jersey Public Television to cover it with a half-hour feature.

    And yes, it is expensive if any traditional route is taken. My 2011 opera Erzsébet was a 70-minute monodrama accompanied by an ensemble of ten instrumentalists. Three nights here in relatively inexpensive Vermont cost over $25,000 to cover the musicians, venues, director, conductor, designers, etc. Considering how many chamber concerts and even local orchestra performances could be played for that amount, I can (now) understand some reluctance to choose the form.

    Yet based on audience reaction to my own work and the reception of artists with a grand opera approach such as Kaija Saariaho and Daron Hagen, I’m certain the next book on opera will at last cover a few of the masterpieces since, oh, Satyagraha.

    Reply
  2. Beth Morrison

    Thank God someone finally took this on. Those recent publications have been making my blood boil and I have not had the where-with-all to write my own rebuttal. But this is beautiful. Nicely done. And thanks for the shout outs to PROTOTYPE and my shows Soldier Songs, Song from the Uproar, Aging Magician, and Sumeida’s Song (with HERE). New Opera IS the art form of the 21st century– people are just starting to catch on to that. But watch out, it will be a forest fire.

    Cheers

    Reply
  3. Theodore Bale

    Thanks for this nicely written article, and for introducing me to so many new opera composers. I feel it should be mentioned as well that Robert Ashley has been writing the operas of the future for many decades, even if critics and scholars have failed to notice. I’ve seen them at La Mama and The Kitchen, and operas such as Dust, Now Eleanor’s Idea, Atalanta (Acts of God)and Celestial Excursions are obviously masterpieces.

    Reply
  4. Phil Fried

    Even in our time of instant connectedness it seems that some people are so busy preaching to their own choirs that they don’t notice what is happening around them.

    Reply
  5. Montalvano

    The opera is indeed dead. Not dead as a show, but dead as an art. The opera now is just a “show”.

    Reply
    1. Mark N. Grant

      New opera is far and away the most alive art in twenty-first century musical theater. What’s dead as a show is the commercial musical theater.

      Reply
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