Opera Is Weird

A cogent piece in the New York Times about new operas, or, at least, excerpts thereof. Tommasini does an interesting analysis of the snippets' musical impression/content, which is always interesting since the music is all new, and thus the critic's first hearing. Furthermore, the commentary has much to say about the medium, and the state of the medium, of opera today.

Empiricus has some thoughts on this, too. Or so he would have me believe.

Sampling of New Dishes, Some Still Being Seasoned

Though the struggling New York City Opera has been mostly absent this season, it was in the center of things over the weekend. On Friday night and Saturday afternoon it presented Vox 2009, its 10th annual showcase of excerpts from new operas performed in concert by City Opera singers and the City Opera orchestra. The operas are typically works in progress or completed works awaiting proper productions.

It's good to see the City Opera's dedication to new works does not flag in the face of its struggles.

For the free showcases on Saturday afternoon, the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at
New York University was packed.

Also very encouraging.

Four of the five works presented on this occasion represented deliberate attempts by their composers to push the boundaries of the opera genre, for better or worse.

I'm a bit confused; did the composers express the desire to push the boundaries "for better or for worse," or is that the assessment of the situation by the critic? Let's find out!

In video interviews that preceded each performance, and in program notes, opera was described as the ultimate medium for musical exploration, and conservative gatekeepers were deplored.

"The Deploration of Conservative Gatekeepers" would make an interesting name for...something. But what?

So the upstart composers want to challenge the ultimate medium, possibly to the chagrin of the aforementioned Gatekeepers. How'd that work out? What are the criteria? What, properly, is opera (besides, possibly, the "ultimate medium")?

Of course, if opera tells stories through words and music, there is only so far you can push it before it becomes something else.

Hm. That's a large conditional. Is opera about stories? I'll concede the words (or, at least, singers) and music, for now. What are stories about? This is thick and sticky stuff.

Figure 1: Opera is like raw maple syrup

Also, how far can one push it before it becomes something else? Furthermore, what would it become? Not-opera? Is operatic intentionality, or performance in an opera house sufficient condition to be opera? What about a narrative ballad country song that uses words and music to tell a story? Perhaps if it were in an opera house?

These issues are perhaps more syrupy than the intent of the article. In fairness, let's see what point I was belaboring.

And experimentation should be no excuse for poor craftsmanship.

Ah, another issue altogether. However, is poorly crafted opera still opera, or is it something else?

Take “Invisible Cities,” with music and libretto by Christopher Cerrone, adapted from the novel by Italo Calvino. The opera tells of the emperor Kublai Khan, who, fearing that he is losing hold of his vast kingdom, listens to reports from the young explorer Marco Polo, who has traveled its remote and fantastical regions.

That sounds opera-y enough for an opera plot. Lots of potential subtext, issues to explore and all that. Imperialism, Empire, Death, Loss, Culture, Hegemony. Good stuff.

Also, not for nothing, potentially cool sets. Costumes. Characters, more or less well-known. Sort of a story, with words and music.

All of our lives lead to decay, Mr. Cerrone said in the video interview. His opera, he added, is about “finding a certain joy in that.”

Whoah. Check out Composer Bringdown over here. But still...

In his orchestral score Mr. Cerrone uses a prepared piano and electronic instruments to evoke exotic sounds and an ethereal atmosphere.

Hmm. For all of the potential topics, this smacks a little of Orientalism.

Figure 2: You make Edward Said Sad

But either way, why am I "taking" this example to support the opening of the article? About new opera?

But in the 30-minute excerpt, the dramatic pacing was static and the vocal writing cumbersome.

That sounds like a problem regardless of genre. Or, more particularly, illustrates that "experimentation [is] no excuse for poor craftmanship," so I see, or rather, read. Technical issues can foul one up in any medium.

When the text is sung, the vocal lines are almost continually slow, sustained and ponderous. When things pick up, the words are almost always either spoken or chanted in monotones.

This sounds like a stylistic critique; however, if the vocal writing impedes the delivery and/or comprehension, it is also a technical one. Also: ouch!

The composer Anne LeBaron approached text-setting much the same way in an excerpt from her opera “Crescent City,” with a libretto by Douglas Kearney.

That does not bode well, by these criteria...

In the story an imagined city (a metaphorical stand-in for New Orleans) is trying to recover from a devastating hurricane. The characters include ghost cops and a voodoo queen.

Again, potentially opera-y, no?

Strange things happen.

Like a statue coming to life and inviting you to dinner?

Ms. LeBaron, who salutes renegade composers like Meredith Monk and John Cage,


who upended the opera genre, seems to think that by using electronic gadgets and drawing from vernacular pop genres she can make her score automatically experimental.


But the vocal writing is like a cliché of pompous contemporary opera excess,

Perhaps it's a stylistic parody? Camp? Deliberate cliché?

with lines full of sustained chanting and pointlessly complicated leaps.

Hm. I'm not sure whether this is a stylistic or technical complaint; sounds like both.

Like Mr. Cerrone, Ms. LeBaron resorts to patter or speech when the text needs to be gotten through quickly.

So...didn't really like it, eh? What else?

Jonathan Dawe’s “Armide,” with a libretto by Heather Raffo, was inspired by Lully’s French Baroque opera of the same title. In fact, Mr. Dawe refashions stretches of Lully’s score with modern music twists in this work, which sets the story in postwar Iraq, in 2019. Mr. Dawe describes his opera as “Baroque music on steroids.”

That seems...unnecessary, but it's hard to say. What was it like?

But when transforming old music into something new, it is not enough to rewrite the original with a lot of wrong notes, extraneous harmonies and wandering inner voices, then throw in some orchestral craziness.

Double yikes. Someone brought their critic's pen today.

The last work showcased was by far the best.

What was different? Was it a story with words, and music, too? Less inept, more conservative, or both?

“A Bird in Your Ear” by the composer David Bruce and the librettist Alasdair Middleton is a fairy-tale opera about a nightingale and a privileged young boy, Ivan, who yearns to know what the birds are saying. After saving some baby birds from a severe storm, Ivan is granted his wish by their magical mother.

Sounds like an Oscar Wilde short story for some reason. And potentially loaded with fairy-tale opera conventions...

Mr. Bruce found a model for this work, he said, in Stravinsky’s dance cantata “Les Noces.”

Figure 3: Before fonts had been standardized, chaos reigned

In what way?

The story is told through short scenes with connecting narration.


The music, rich with imagined folk tunes, undulant accompaniment patterns and vibrant choral writing, is delicate, tartly tonal and lucidly orchestrated.

That sounds positive, if possibly less musically challenging. Hm, competent, fairy-tale opera, lucid, "tartly tonal" (?).

The characters are enchanting, and the vocal writing mostly effective,

In light of the other works reviewed, "mostly effective" is high praise indeed.

except for Mr. Bruce’s often flawed prosody,


the art of setting words to music in a way that conveys the natural patterns of speech.

Yes, that.

It may not have been the best decision to have the narrative sung, for the most part, by a trio of women. The words are sometimes garbled by elaborate three-part harmonies.

A small technical critique.

In context on this long afternoon of excerpts, “A Bird in Your Ear” offered an object lesson: it is better for an opera to be skillfully written and imaginative, however conventional, than to be experimental and inept.

It "is" better, especially if you're a young (relatively) unknown composer getting reviewed in the Times. Ineptitude cannot open new doors easily. The price for being unconventional, though, is sometimes clumsiness with new ideas or materials.

Perhaps that's what some of what opera "is", or has come to be. Chamber music concerts, their audiences, venues, and culture, seem to be generally more forgiving than the opera culture. It's not easy to get opera commissions if your name's not already on the lips of the Board of Directors; it's much easier to get chamber music heard.

Opera is more than the sum of words, music, and stories, skillfully wrought. It carries cultural, economic, and artistic baggage that's difficult to contend with, especially for new works.


Empiricus said...

There's one thing that kinda set my grill on fire, if you're the type who likes to be challenged:

"Of course, if opera tells stories through words and music, there is only so far you can push it before it becomes something else."

Can't you tell a story through action? Through mime? Through puppets? Does it "of course" tell a story? Is anti-opera opera? If not, what if the anti-opera tells a story through words and music?

Or maybe, I'm pissed off at the assumed certainty, "of course."

I'm betting that this is the kind of thinker who thinks that there is something edgy about John Adams. But, then again, does the subject make it edgy?

Is that the only facet where edgy is tolerated? Or is the operatic institution that can't tolerate risks of any kind, other than the subject matter?

Putting butts in seats is one thing. But I'm not sure it's the sustainable thing.


Sator Arepo said...

Well, I thought that was the most presumptive bit, too. I was just on my way somewhere else rhetorically and so only stopped to smell it.

I wonder if the Cage and Monk works that "upended the opera genre" properly [sic] count as opera or not?

I need a good file pic for a can of worms.

And some coffee.

Christopher Cerrone said...

Thank you for taking a minute to show that this review was not too much more than a personal criticism of style.

Also, it should be noted that there were no "electronic" instruments in my opera, on the journalistic end of things.

Yuval Sharon said...

This was hilarious and right on the money! Thank you for writing it!

Sator Arepo said...

Hm. Thanks, gentlemen. And thanks for reading...

It's always interesting to read the first impressions of new works, and opera especially comes loaded with so much, uh, loaded extra-musical stuff. Plus all of the musical stuff, too.

And the input of the composers is always welcome too. Clearly I did not get to hear the works, so (unfairly) the only impression I get of the opera scenes is the NYT synopsis that (perhaps unfairly) had certain expectations about what "opera" means that may or may not have anything to do with the works in question.

E has more on this, too. Where is that rascal?