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.

COC’s Alexander Neef Interviewed in Opera News

Posted in COC by cToronto on January 25, 2010

Here’s an interesting Opera News interview with the COC’s General Director, Alexander Neef. The article takes particular note of his youth, suggesting it might help him attract younger audiences to opera (was he the one responsible for choosing the hipper-than-thou Drake Hotel to host the Opera 101 night a few weeks ago?).

Of particular interest is his praise for the openness of Toronto opera audiences:

What’s really interesting about the public here — and this is something I like a lot — is that people are very open to things that they didn’t know before, and they give you a chance to convince them that it’s actually good to do it. They just come in, sit down and build an opinion. They’re not opinionated before they come in. It gives us a lot of freedom in programming. Last season, our ’08–09 season, consisted of War and Peace, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Rusalka, Bohème, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Simon Boccanegra. Apart from War and Peace, which was everybody’s favorite, we got the most feedback for Rusalka and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were the productions and pieces that everybody really got excited about. I thought that was really interesting.

It might be possible to read those first few sentences as slightly condescending – Toronto audiences don’t care what you put in front of them; just put it on the program and they’ll always listen politely. But it’s true that in Toronto, the seats fill up just as quickly for War and Peace as they do for La Boheme. When I was a regular attendee at Edmonton Opera, they would sometimes make an effort to mount less well-known, more challenging works, like The Rake’s Progress,  the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, and the homegrown Filumena. There would be plenty of empty seats in the theatre those nights, and a small exodus at intermission. Occasionally there would even be an angry letter to the newspaper accusing EO of abandoning its base.

It’s great that the COC is willing to not only include operas like War & Peace in its programming, but put its full weight and resources behind them. The three operas he mentions were indeed the most memorable for me that year.

How I Got Into Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on January 25, 2010

If you count Gilbert & Sullivan (and here, I will) the first opera I attended was the Rossland Light Opera’s Pirates of Penzance. I was around seven years old, and a fledgling pianist who greatly enjoyed my Classical Kids tapes. Evidently my mother decided I was capable of sitting quietly for up to an hour, and off we went. She gave me a few pointers on the plot (including explaining the often/orphan joke) and a large bag of candy, and at the end of the evening my initiation as an opera-goer was complete. A few days later we ran into the actor who played Frederic at the post office, and I recognized him and was amazed. My mother told me that if I liked to sing, one day I could join a singing group just like that.

After that comes a large gap. I loved Broadway musicals but wasn’t very interested in opera – the vocal style seemed heavy and strange, and it put me off. I was still playing the piano, and I saw the odd ballet and stage play, but no opera.

Eventually, around the time I got to grade 10 (we had moved to Edmonton by then), I reached the level in my piano playing where the Royal Conservatory of Music required me to study music history. The introductory course covered the Romantic era, and La Traviata, Carmen and Die Walkure were on the syllabus. Something went “click” in my head, and I put away my Broadway CDs. I studied the course material like a maniac and started spending all my money on symphony tickets.

The music course hadn’t told me enough about opera. I convinced my mother to buy me a copy of Opera for Dummies, figuring it would be the quickest way to get up to speed. Though co-written by a computer professional, it contained useful information about the major operas and composers, vocal types, the importance of Maria Callas, and so on. Before long I had the book and accompanying CD committed to memory.

The first “real” opera I saw was Il Barbiere di Siviglia, at Edmonton Opera. By this time I was pretty far gone. I took opera box sets out of the public library three or four at a time and listened with libretto in hand. Opera went round and round in my head all day. I spent a car trip with my parents listening to Act II from Tosca over and over on my discman. After a few underage drinks, I was pretty likely to start singing opera in the middle of my friends’ parties. My favourite singer back then was Ruggero Raimondi. I followed the conversation (but rarely posted) on rec.music.opera, and began to believe my knowledge was hopelessly inadequate, and that because I didn’t live in New York I’d never get caught up.

My obsession continued unabated most of the way through high school and university. Edmonton Opera’s four (then, when the recession hit, three) operas a year I supplemented with video performances from the library. I started taking singing lessons, and spent a good part of the lesson just talking about opera with my teacher.

At some point a few years ago, I ran out of steam. Perhaps that’s how it goes with most teenage obsessions. I moved to Toronto and had the opportunity to go to the opera more frequently, and then I spent a year in NYC and had a chance to see live some of the performers whose recordings I’d been listening to for years. But even though I attend the opera more frequently now than I did as an Edmonton neophyte, much of the fervor has gone. Now, I rarely sing opera in the shower or listening to it while cooking dinner.

I’m not quite sure what happened, and whatever it was, I think it’s a bit of a shame. This blog is, in part, an effort to get some of that excitement back. Because when I see something amazing like the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle or Karita Matilla’s Jenufa, I’m reminded that it’s all still there.

P.S. In honor of that first night at the “opera”: