Learning to Love Modern Opera
Like a lot of people, I learned to love opera by listening to Puccini. There’s a reason why people who rarely go to the opera will buy a ticket to La Boheme and bawl their eyes out at the end – Puccini was a master of isolating the “good parts” (i.e. immediately, popularly appealing) of opera, cranking them up to maximum intensity, and cutting back on everything else. This is extremely difficult for a composer/dramatist to accomplish – several centuries of operatic output have yielded maybe ten works that reliably bring in the crowds now that the form is outmoded. Shakespeare alone has a much better track record for longevity than all the greatest opera composers combined. But there are downsides to loving Puccini. He only wrote a handful of operas and a couple of those are duds. The good ones don’t have a lot of thematic variation (the plots of them could be summed up as, woman falls in love, suffers, dies). If you’re listening and going to the opera with any regularity, you’ll probably get bored of the big three (Boheme, Butterfly, and Tosca) pretty fast.
Of course, there’s Mozart and Verdi and Rossini and Wagner to explore, each with their own rewards and drawbacks. There’s the French and Russian repertoire. But even after exhausting these options, many people avoid “modern” (meaning, post-WWI) opera like the plague, despite the fact that, by definition, it’s the only site of new operatic production. And this is a shame, because it’s one of the most rewarding areas to explore, an entire branch of repertoire that can make you think about what opera should be and what it’s truly capable of when divorced from the popular appeal that used to sustain it.
Aversion to modern opera is easy to understand. The music, rather than being tuneful/romantic/charming, is often highly abstract and difficult to follow. A lot of post-WWI operas have unrelentingly bleak plots, and may also look drab on stage. The fact is that, in the 20th century, opera transformed from being popular entertainment to a niche interest, and opera composers are no longer bound or motivated by the desire to appeal to popular tastes. Alienation is therefore part of the territory.
Some people assume that you need to be musically educated to appreciate this style of music. I think there is some truth to this, but not in the sense that formal or “book-learning” is necessary. I think what’s required more than a study of the principles of twelve-tone music (or whatever) is the willingness to listen widely, and with an open mind. Modern opera won’t get you drunk and sweep you away the way Puccini does, but it can inspire devotion just as intense. So, here are my tips for dipping into opera post-WWI.
1. Give it time. If necessary, wait until you start getting bored with the standard rep. If you put on Bluebeard’s Castle and hate it within the first ten minutes, don’t try to force it and don’t start complaining to everyone within earshot that no one knows how to write pretty music anymore. Put it back on the shelf and go back to Verdi; in a few months you might surprise yourself by giving it another shot and loving it.
2. Look for works “on the border”, or works that wear their classic influences on their sleeve. Salome and Jenufa are examples of the former, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is an example of the latter. If you’re already an opera lover, you’ll have a good grip on the roots of these works and a good basis for exploration. Give Benjamin Britten a listen, save Alban Berg for later.
3. Listen to more baroque opera. This might seem counter-intuitive, but a lot of modern opera is inspired by a desire to return to the relative austerity and technical complexity of the pre-Mozartean era. If you have a good ear for Montiverdi, Gluck, and Handel, you’ll have a better idea of the kind of effect many modern composers are going for.
4. Relish works in the English language. If you’re an English speaker (which you must be if you’re reading this), the English-language repertoire has gotten much vaster and richer in the last century of opera composition. Not only that, but the literary quality of opera libretti has gone way up, and enjoying the textual element of opera is much easier and more rewarding now. This is what struck me about listening recently to Nixon in China – hearing lines sung like “I want to hear the sound of industry borne on the wind” reminds me that opera isn’t only a musical experience.
5. Attend live performances when possible, or rent a DVD. Public libraries often have an excellent selection of opera on VHS and DVD, and something that may not immediately make sense aurally may become easier to understand when put in its proper stage context.
6. Some modern works are actually comedies! Not all of them are about the bleakness of existence. The Rake’s Progress and Les Mamelles de Tiresias are both excellent and lighthearted.
Underlying all of this is one basic principle – try to stay open-minded. If after several listens you hate Richard Strauss, that’s fine, but that’s no reason to also write off Bartok or Carlisle Floyd. If you subscribe to the local company’s season, don’t go to Barbiere but sell your ticket to Lulu because you assume it will be no fun. No one has to like everything, but cutting yourself off from a whole branch of the repertoire does no one any favours, especially not the composers, directors, and singers who are looking for ways to keep opera vibrant and living.