Has Opera Lost the Plot?
The Weekend Australian
By Matthew Westwood
25 March 2006
We need to hear more opera moments from our own time, but with arias and choruses that lift us so we leave the theatre humming.
This week, the ABC and Opera Australia will begin their countdown on radio of the top 100 opera moments, as voted by about 10,000 music lovers. The final five moments will be revealed in a concert at the Sydney Opera House on Friday.
Review has had a peek at the top 100, and we don't want to give the game away. But it wouldn't surprise anyone to learn that there is not a single aria or chorus among them written in the past 50 years. With the exception of Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, the most recent piece is Nessun Dormafrom Puccini's final opera Turandot, left unfinished when he died from throat cancer in 1924.
It's typical that polls such as this will be skewed towards the tuneful, the pleasingly orchestrated and the familiar. Organisers say that voters had very clear ideas about what an "opera moment" was. They didn't, for example, nominate songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals or the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, even though those composers would have been eligible for inclusion. By far the most represented opera moments were from what is understood as the core repertoire: Mozart through to the late romantic era of Puccini and Richard Strauss.
Operas didn't stop being written after that point: Berg, Stravinsky, Britten and Janacek, among many others, continued to compose successfully for the lyric stage. And new operas are still being commissioned and performed. So why aren't they represented in the top 100?
Some of the blame must rest with the way modern opera - and contemporary concert music, too - is presented. The rate of premieres has slowed to snail's pace. In opera's heyday, when it was pre-eminent among the performing arts, new works were staged regularly. In Opera Australia's seasons, two years might pass between premieres of new work, and the company never stages operas by contemporary international composers. Record companies and broadcasters, in retreading the standard repertoire, help ensure that the audience for modern opera remains small.
But the fault must also lie with modern opera itself. Audiences who like to leave the theatre humming will complain that new operas have no good tunes, few melodies that ingratiate themselves to the ear. That may be so, but it's only part of the problem. Of far more concern is the way modern composers miss the point of writing opera altogether.
One of the more telling signs of decline is the way opera has increasingly grasped at popular culture. Look at the new operas produced over the past decade and there are embarrassing signs of trying to look hip.
Some are tales of celebrity: operas about Jackie O, Princess Diana, Lindy Chamberlain and the Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual proclivities, paraded in a notorious court case in the 1960s, resurfaced in Thomas Ades's opera Powder Her Face.
Others have taken their lead directly from the evening news. The American composer John Adams has virtually made his name in opera with works that sound like headlines in the evening news: the meeting of Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao in Nixon in China, the hijack of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in The Death of Klinghoffer, and the invention of nuclear weapons in last year's Doctor Atomic.
Also in the US, Jake Heggie took the story of the anti-capital punishment campaigner, Helen Prejean, made famous in the movie, Dead Man Walking, for his opera of the same name. In Australia, another movie inspired John Haddock's World War II opera, Madeline Lee.
In Britain, the biggest opera story of the past year has been Stewart Lee's Jerry Springer: The Opera. Even without the protests of Christian groups and the sickening death threats Lee has received - he has been accused of blasphemy - the show would be guaranteed publicity by virtue of its name alone.
You can almost hear the thinking behind it: juxtapose lowbrow chat show with highbrow art form and, voila, opera suddenly looks excitingly new and in tune with the times. Or, to use the awful word beloved of arts bureaucrats, it makes opera relevant to a modern audience.
As if opera - an art form gloriously above the mundane - ever wanted to be relevant. And, anyway, relevant to what?
The problem is not with composers taking a cue from real-life people or the social currents of their times. Mozart and Da Ponte, via Beaumarchais, did it with The Marriage of Figaro, which tapped the ructions that would lead to the French Revolution. Verdi depicted the assassination of Swedish King Gustavus III in Un ballo in Maschera, avoiding censorship by switching the action to colonial Boston (the original Swedish setting was restored only in the 1930s). With Verdi's La traviata, Puccini's potboilerTosca, and the verismo operas of Leoncavallo and Mascagni, composers attempted to bring the grit of verisimilitude to the opera stage. Locations and situations were suddenly more recognisable to opera audiences, sometimes shockingly so. From the tabloid drama of a Sicilian village in Cavalleria Rusticana, it's not such a great leap to network television and Jerry Springer.
The difference between then and now is that the great composers understood opera to be a musical - not a documentary or biographical - art form. In writing Ballo and his other operas, Verdi drew on the musical resources of aria, recitative, ensemble and chorus and knew the special function of each. Recitative is where the story unfolds, but the aria is where feelings are allowed to take flight. Verdi was a politically engaged composer, but not to the extent that he allowed polemic to interfere with a good tune.
By comparison, Moya Henderson and Judith Rodriguez's opera Lindy took the Chamberlain case so literally that it failed to engage as musical theatre. The subject would appear to be rich with possibility: the witch-hunt of an innocent woman and the uncertain relationship European Australians have with the continent's interior are just two themes that could have been given greater dramatic power. Yet the opera had its characters singing from a court transcript for a libretto.
Lindy fell into the same trap as the documentary or "verbatim" plays that have become fashionable in recent years. Theatre is a product of the imagination, and one where an audience is invited - and usually consents - to suspend disbelief. The closer a dramatic work comes to documentary realism, the more limited its potential for theatre.
It's the same with opera, but here the gap between life and art is even greater, by virtue of the fact that opera demands people sing.
For different but not unrelated reasons, Adams's Klinghoffer also fails the test as opera. The opera is contentious because Adams and librettist Alice Goodman do not overtly condemn the Palestinian terrorists who hijack the ship and murder the tourist Leon Klinghoffer. The libretto, although based on an actual event, rises to a poetic language that removes it from prosaic history and the music is powerfully expressive. But Klinghoffer is less an opera than an oratorio, British critic Paul Driver points out, because the action is described rather than shown.
The difficulty with opera, then, is to simultaneously present the drama of human interaction and the private moments of feeling that are given expression in aria.
Opera and music theatre seen recently at the Adelaide Festival shows how difficult this is to achieve. Jonathan Dove's Flight is among the more successful of contemporary operas, having been staged repeatedly in Europe and the US since its premiere in 1998. It has the novelty of being set in that most modern of locations, an airport, but Dove - who spent his apprenticeship writing arrangements of Mozart and Rossini - also understood the historical conventions that underscore a successful opera.
So why did Flight fail to lift off? The ensemble set-pieces were deftly handled, even if the humour seemed forced. The orchestral writing was attractive, if reminiscent of Adams's opera scores. But Dove didn't provide enough arioso opportunities for his characters to sing themselves into an emotional life. It was difficult for the audience to feel for them.
The music-theatre piece by David Byrne on the life of Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, came much closer to a kind of operatic truth. The piece was nowhere near the complete theatrical experience promised in the festival brochure, and nor is it an opera: its music is for drums, keyboard and guitars rather than orchestra. But in the 20 or so catchy songs that made up the show, more was revealed about Imelda's inner life - her love of dancing, but also her need for affection and acceptance - than about any of the characters in Flight.
It's unlikely that some future top 100 opera moments will count Here Lies Love among them. Those special moments will perhaps always be Norma singing herself into a moonlit rapture in Casta Diva, the stirring patriotic chorus Va Pensiero in Nabucco, a tenor and a baritone consecrating their friendship inIn the Depths of the Temple, or first tender, unspoken declarations of love between Mimi and Rodolfo inLa Boheme.
If opera is to thrive as a living art, we need to hear more opera moments from our own time. Opera houses can do more to bring contemporary stories to the lyric stage. But there is an imperative for composers, too, to renew and refresh their commitment to the art. An aria, or a chorus, that is tuneful to one opera listener may not be tuneful to the next. We only ask that it lift us out of ourselves and for a few minutes leave the everyday world behind.