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

A week of Opera Europa, Benjamin Britten and two exciting set models


I spent Sunday with Benjamin Britten. Two very different concerts, the first with the inspirational Jan Bjøranger´s marvellous 1B1 ensemble, a mix of high level conservatoire students from Kristiansand, Stavanger and Bergen, mentored by players from those cities´ symphony orchestras (and frequently by top-level European players). Now, the initiative is expanding to include 1B1 ’junior’ – younger players who are developing fast. The core group played Britten´s Lachrymae with violist Lars Anders Tomter as lyrical, sensitive soloist – the viola surely is the string instrument most like the human voice – and a beautiful, thoughtful accompaniment. What characterises 1B1 is, perhaps, the quality of the players´ listening. This music-making is not about bravura or soloistic pzazz, more about true ensemble, emulsified sound and detailed attack.

Then to Collegium Musicum´s concert of Britten choral music, with the brilliant Frank Bridge Variations thrown into the mix, and smartly played. The two Hymns – to St Cecilia, and to the Virgin – were sung with delicacy and lucid sound, followed by Britten´s early work originally written for radio, The Company of Heaven. It´s a strange piece, with somewhat over-the-top texts for speaker and two soloists, but the singing was terrific. All credit, too to conductor Håkon Matti Skrede for a really elegantly designed programme.

Last weekend and the preceding days meant the Opera Europa conference in Vienna, the principal schmoozing event for opera leaders and also a fierce marketplace for production trading. In fact, it turned out to be fun. I missed the introductory speeches – from Jose Manuel Barroso, and by the four Viennese opera house directors whose formidable temples sit decently distanced from each other round the Ringstrasse. Barroso was said to have been terrific, the others alarmingly dusty on new work, and initiatives for children – but on consequent days there were some great interventions on the conference´s weighty theme ’citizenship’. Whether we emerged committed to nobler endeavours is doubtful, but there were some splendid conversations and inspiring meetings.  Welsh National Opera/Bregenz Festival director David Pountney and I did get into somewhat of a brawl over the respective influences of Pierre Boulez and Philip Glass (Pountney was directing Glass´s new opera, which opened Linz´s new opera house last Monday) but order was restored by Musiektheater Transparant´s artistic director Guy Coolen.

Back on the plane on Tuesday night for a meeting at Lithuanian National Opera re possible co-production, and a showing of the set model for our new Fidelio by Vilnius-born director Oskaras Korsunovas, which we open at the start of November. The model is superb, a structure of bars and columns on three tiers, with the orchestra enclosed on the stage, and broad steps running down into the pit, where Florestan lies in chains. Oskaras´s concept looks at freedom in the widest sense, and it is clear that his thinking goes far beyond his own personal experience of growing up in an occupied country. It´s good, too, to meet all the LNO team in their astonishing canteen, which looks like the dining room in a small 60s cruise ship – and also to eat outrageous chocolate cake with Audra, Oskaras´s touring manager and a long-time friend and colleague.


In Bergen, another director, designer and set model are waiting – the team for this September´s All about my Family. This is altogether another story. Teenage librettist Astrid Louisa Niebuhr has taken the ’perfect’ Bergen family and lifted the lid on their orderly life. The emerging chaos is both chilling and entertaining. We will work in tiny Logen, and the issues are all about placing the musical ensemble, making the set effective yet uncluttered, and clothing the family in question  – particularly the teenagers – in believable garb. How to predict what H&M will be showcasing this autumn?

Mary Miller

April 15, 3013