All Time Coloratura

Learning to Love Modern Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on July 11, 2010

Photo from Robert Lapage's production of Schoenberg's Erwartung. Photo by Michael Cooper, Canadian Opera Company

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.

Can Opera Ever Really Be “Accessible”?

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on April 8, 2010

Back when I was an avid reader of rec.music.opera in the late 1990’s, there was a discussion about why modern opera composers write in such opaque musical styles rather than the sweet, soaring, melodic style of the most popular opera composers. “Where is the new Puccini?” someone wondered.

“The new Puccini has been around for a while,” went my favourite response. “His initials are ALW.”

I was reminded of this exchange (the initials, of course, stand for Andrew Lloyd Webber) when reading Opera Rat’s discussion of the state of opera criticism.

Opera is operating right now in a vortex of inaccessibility. Classic operas are performed so often that the conversation about them is dominated by subtleties. Newer operas are dominated by music appreciated mostly by experts. And opera in general is all but neglected except in the specialty press.

I think this is all unquestionably true. The standard repertoire gets boring fast if you attend the opera with any regularity, and the newer works will sound strange to ears that haven’t been to music school and attended Modern Music 101.

So, can opera ever be popular again the way it was in previous centuries? Are new operas with tonal, hummable music the way to bring in fresh blood?

The truth is, it’s already been done, and the people who are doing it (Webber et al) have adapted the operatic form into something else that sells a lot better. And that’s because opera, in its traditional form, is Kind of Weird, and really wedded to a particular time and culture – and that’s actually part of its idiosyncratic appeal.

Let me explain.

What makes Phantom of the Opera, say, different from La Traviata? The snarky among you would be inclined to say, “Verdi wasn’t a hack”, but that’s dodging the question. Webber’s late 80’s magnum opus features a lot of the characteristics we associate with opera – stage drama set to music, mostly through-composed, arias for each character meant to show off the singers’ voices, ensemble numbers, high-drama plot with murder, etc. It even, as I recall, features pastiches of a Verdi chorus and an 18th century bedroom farce. So what’s different?

Mostly it’s the style of singing. The singers are trained for Broadway or opera-lite (a la Brightman and Bocelli) rather than opera houses. They use microphones. The vibrato isn’t too heavy, and the overall sound is more palatable to people used to pop vocals. Frankly, most people find operatic voices something of an acquired taste (except, perhaps, when they sing a few ethereal high notes on a movie soundtrack).

Contemporary stage dramas set to pretty, hummable music? We’ve got Webber and the Les Miserables collaborators at the low end, and better quality stuff like Sondheim at the high end. Most of it is very accessible, and people who will never see the inside of an opera house happily fork over truckloads of money for it.

And that’s okay. I’m happy to consider Steven Sondheim as Strauss’ (or Massenet’s, or whomever’s) heir. Sweeney Todd is amazing.

The parts of opera that haven’t been passed down to contemporary romantic musicals are mostly the parts that would seem weird and awkward if they were to appear in a contemporary work.

And thus, I give you Weird Things About Opera:

1. Recitative. If understanding the words is so important, why not just speak them? And what’s with the harpsichord?

2. Foreign languages AND translations from same. If it’s in a foreign language, it’s in a foreign language, and that’s a barrier to accessibility in itself. Translations often seem awkward – the wrong syllables are emphasized, the wrong words are emphasized, and the dirty secret is that hearing the words sung in an unfamiliar language often has the happy effect of obscuring their ridiculousness. Plus, even if you have a brilliant translation, chances are you won’t be able to make out the words anyway when they’re sung. I’ve seen works performed in English that required supertitles.

3. Some people are really disconcerted by seeing a conventionally unattractive singer playing a romantic lead. I find this unfortunate, but that’s beside the point. People who don’t like opera love to joke about “the fat lady” and her presumably screeching voice. Older singers, heavier singers, singers who are a different age or race from the character they are playing – all a part of the operatic tradition as we know it, and all potentially alienating to neophytes no matter how transcendent their voices. Despite this effect, I think this is one of “the good parts” of opera – for what other performers, especially today, can we truly say that talent trumps appearance?

4. The voices. Classical voices are now only heard in the classical music world. Since the introduction of the microphone, that allowed quieter voices to fill big halls, average listeners have preferred their voices softer, breathier, less trained, closer to speech and smaller in range. And this only seems to be getting more and more true – pop voices seem to have gotten breathier and less substantial over time. Operatic voices, to an ear that isn’t used to them, can seem shrill, pushy, and unnatural in contrast. Plus it’s sometimes hard to make out the words. Many people overcome this barrier, and once you overcome it, you’re in for a thrilling experience. But pretending it doesn’t exist is silly.

So, we have a perfectly good modern form popular opera a la Puccini that has none of these problems – the sophisticated musical. Of course new operas should be written, but I’m most interested in them when they’re offering a real alternative to Sondheim et al. I’d rather our crazy modern opera composers kept doing what they’re doing. The world is full of sweet music and it’s easy to find – it’s tougher to find something that challenges me a little, and if that means we sacrifice some accessibility, so be it. The opera I’m most looking forward to seeing next year is Nixon in China. Writing opera in the old style is a bit like writing a new French cabaret chanson – sure, it’s pretty, but is it really giving me anything I can’t get from Piaf and Trenet? Do we need more music for people to lindy hop to?

Where I agree with Opera Rat is in the way the standard repertoire is discussed – mostly concerned with subtle differences between one particular performance and the hundreds of others the reviewer may have seen or listened to. I’d rather talk about what makes an opera interesting or moving – what gives it dramatic and musical force – than analyze the nuances of Gheorghiu’s performance vs. Netrebko’s.

And, part of what makes opera fun is that it’s so different. The emotions are big and florid, costumes are cut for maximum cleavage, it’s a glimpse of a different time and place and it opens up your musical and aesthetic understanding when your ears have been stunted by too much Lady Gaga (or, hell, too much Wolf Parade). The strangeness is what makes it good – otherwise we’d all just listen to Voi che Sapete and Nessun Dorma and dispense with all the troublesome theatrics. The people I know who are interested in opera are interested in it because it’s a little bit strange. If people who might be interested are alienated by snobbery and aggressive fact-hoarding by buffs, that’s bad; but many people won’t be interested at all, and that’s okay. Opera today is a niche interest rather than a mainstream one – alongside other cool things like typography, Werner Herzog movies, and conceptual art. I’d rather have a vibrant, quirky, niche (where people take artistic risks) than bland accessibility.

EDIT: I realized this post makes it sound like I don’t like opera! I assure you, the opposite is the case. I’ve made minor edits to tone down the language.