Issue-aware opera

There are a couple of wonderfully self-contradicting statements in this month´s Opera Now editorial: the first states that John Adams´s Nixon in China is the most successful opera of the last 25 years in terms of total performances and exemplary box office. The second states that ” (opera is not) …a suitable vehicle for reductive political messages or social commentary. Too many new operas fail to grasp this point”. How bizarre. One would have thought that Nixon´s tremendous success was exactly that it was topical, timely, issue-aware and marvellously pointed in its social commentary. But the editorial goes on, perhaps more alarmingly, suggesting that perhaps composers themselves are not to blame for the lack of ’enduring’ new work – that publishing houses and opera houses themselves should be more involved in the curation of new works, following the example of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner who apparently were thoroughly open to input from their patrons, audiences, critics and publishers. Opera Now´s conclusion is that new opera, if it is to survive, needs to welcome intervention from these external influences.

The latter assertion seems both to be wild talk and a dangerous proposition. Quite apart from the extreme unlikelihood that John Adams, embarking on his marvellous opera, invited round the opera aficionados of Houston – the city´s Grand Opera gave the premiere – threw open the score and asked ’whad´ya think of it so far?’, the idea that opera can be composed by a kind of committee is surely innately false. When we commission new work, it is an act of trust, of belief in the chosen composer´s skill, imagination and artistry. A brilliant doctor embarking on complex surgery does not ask the patient´s relatives their view on the placement of an organ (…the liver here? Or here, maybe?) Of course, in discussion with the composer, there may be guidelines about length, even about instrumentation – few organisations have the finances to loose a composer on a new Ring Cycle – but when a composer has been chosen, it is because we believe in his/her ability to create uniquely and in his/her own voice.

There are exceptions, of course. Bergen National Opera has just premiered an opera for teenagers with a libretto by Astrid Luisa Niebuhr, who was only 17 when she embarked on the project. Although already a published author, she had never written for opera, so it was important to develop the piece through a series of workshops where the director, the composer and indeed the teenagers who would perform the work had some input. For a young writer – and indeed for many older ones – the fact that a long line of music most often needs only a very short sequence of words is a fundamental lesson. Astrid grasped this brilliantly – and we ended up with a smart, concise text which provoked a remarkably emotional response.

And – pace Opera Now – the opera was clearly social commentary, examining the dynamics of family life, and how the pressure to be the perfect family can splinter into chaos. Brooding on this topic, it is actually quite hard to think of a successful opera which doesn´t address some kind of social issue, from class differences and poverty in La Boheme, sexual politics in Don Giovanni, terrorism in Klinghoffer, and anti-Czarist propaganda in The Golden Cockerel to the endless theatres of war in Handel.

So perhaps what ON´s editor intends is to criticise regie-led productions, where Madama Butterfly is dressed in denim and lives in a waterfront Florida apartment, or Leporello appears as a transvestite. For that, one can hardly blame the composer.

Meanwhile back in chilly Bergen we are heavily into compiling our application for next year´s funding from the Ministry. No room for opinions here, just the challenge of condensing dreams and aspirations into stark words which will fit into a remarkably small box for officialdom to tick. But rest assured, rather than avoiding any issues, we´ll be tackling them head on.

Mary Miller

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