Some help from my American friends?

I believe in new opera. I think it’s vital to the survival of the genre and I like quite a lot of it. Most of what I like has come from European or British composers or John Adams. I love Reimann’s Lear and Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and Sariaaho’s L’Amour de Loin.  I’m equally impressed by Nixon in China and, maybe to a lesser extent, Doctor Atomic.  All of these, it seems to me, lie within the range of idiom of contemporary symphonic or chamber music.  I’ve had much less luck finding contemporary American opera, Adams aside, that I enjoy or even find interesting.  I loathed A Streetcar Named Desire and five minutes of Adamo’s Little Women had me reaching for the barf bucket.  It’s a combination of cloying sentimentality and music that sounds like South Pacific minus the good tunes.  It’s certainly not the sort of music one could imagine hearing at a symphony concert. Am I missing something?  What should I try to see if I want to see intelligent, musically interesting contemporary American opera?

29 thoughts on “Some help from my American friends?

  1. Have you seen the film of Death of Klinghoffer? I’m not sure it works on stage but it is a fantastic opera film – and I think I can guarantee no cloying sentimentality,

  2. You’re probably right though I’m less enamoured of new opera than you are. I haven’t seen the Minotaur, Lear or L’Amour de Loin so I can’t comment there but I’m inclined to agree with the poet, Robert Graves, who once wrote that real poetry is about love and death. Opera, I think, when it’s really good is about that too. But modern composers don’t write about love and death. Well, maybe death but not in the context of love. Maybe they can’t. Death in the context of love just doesn’t happen much any more. Though it certainly holds its interest as witnessed by the continuing popularity of the classics.

    I haven’t seen, though I’ve heard a bit, of Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, but frankly, my interest in a crummy American president’s trip to China is minimal so I can’t get excited about watching it. I suppose I should. Your interesting posts may convince me yet. But why can’t modern composers write some good tunes? I think they’re afraid to. Probably afraid of the sentimentality you point out. It’s too bad. But the old operas are carrying on.

    • Lear, of course, is about love and death. As is Reimann’s more recent Medea which I haven’t seen. In a way so is The Minotaur though that’s really more about what it is to be human; an interesting theme. L’Amour de Loin is entirely about love and death! All of which perhaps proves your first point while undermining the second!

      There are some good tunes in contemporary opera. Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic have some. The opening chorus of Nixon is very hummable. Admittedly the idioms of Birtwisle or Reimann are not so melodic!

      • I like Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic not so much — that little two-note figure he uses makes my teeth itch after awhile. I liked Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (though not a great choice for the Met who commissioned it), thought the adaptation & music, taken in the aggregate, yielded some interesting results. I had friends who walked out of it, though 🙂

        Jake Heggie’s stuff has been kind of a shrug for me, but I haven’t seen/heard Moby Dick yet, and would really like to. Ditto Wuorinen’s Haroun & the Sea of Stories.

      • I’ve been wondering about Heggie too. Dead Man Walking sounds like something I would loathe and Lotfi Mansouri’s praise of Heggie in the context of dissing German composers doesn’t increase my confidence level.

      • It’s a truly extraordinary operatic, musical, and philosophical achievement, which makes all the enormous amount of crap that’s been written about it hard to bear; most of it stooping to the intellectual level of Heather MacDonald, which when that comes from the likes of Richard Taruskin is kind of pathetic.

      • I managed to find some Herneyhough to listen to. It’s a disk with The Fall of Icarus and Etudes Transcedentales on it. Is that the style of music in the opera? I rather like it but can’t see any major North American house doing a piece like that.

      • Sure, if you liked the Etudes then Shadowtime isn’t going to be a problem. Is it the Brenda Mitchell recording? I love what she does with the piece, it really shows the beauty of the vocal writing.

        As for Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, I was left squirming in my seat by the end. And not because of the lethal injection.

      • It’s the Mitchell recording. I’m pretty sure I would have the same reaction to Dead Man Walking. Have you seen Anna Nicole? I ask because it seems yo me that Turnage is trying for US style “accessibility” but ends up with the same degree of clying sentimentality with a big dose of British condescension thrown in.

    • I find Turnage’s music interesting when he isn’t preoccupied with drawing attention to himself. So not very often. But I did watch the BBC4 Anna Nicole broadcast and find your observation very pithy. In content and style it was nothing more and a great deal less than Jerry Springer the Opera (shameful confession: I saw that live) incompetently ‘arted’ up for Covent Garden.

  3. I was really impressed by Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna; it was clearly operatic in scope and style and I can see symphony orchestras playing music from the piece. It was amazing on stage, though.

    I would also echo the Glass recommendation though (based only on seeing Satyagraha at the Met last fall) but note that while it was fascinating even in the house I was not always sure what was going on (as it was non-narrative.) There are several scattered performances of a production of “Einstein on the Beach” going around; maybe you will get a chance to see one of them?

    • Time for a revival of Akhnaten, too, now that we’ve got all these countertenors around. Weak second act but pretty cool first act. That Einstein comes to NYC in the Fall.

  4. I’ve never seen the Satyagraha DVD you mention, but if it’s the one from Germany (I think?) I’ve heard it is not a satisfactory representation of the work. The Met’s recent production is a marvel, and I’m hoping will be released next year – although the video somewhat muted the staging’s intense theatricality. I adore the work, ditto Akhnaten, Einstein and Galileo Galilei. But I haven’t seen one of my other favorites (maybe a guilty pleasure?) mentioned: Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. It’s a bit long-winded (especially the last act) and famously/shamelessly borrows from just about everyone/everything. But the music, the performances (Teresa Stratas!) and the production have stayed vividly in memory (I saw it live twice at the Met), and I cherish the DVD release.
    PS We agree on Nixon in China – and that Streetcar is awful. I thought Gatsby was dreadful also.

  5. P.S. Jake Heggie! How could I forget? Responsible for Dead Man Walking, Moby Dick, and more (including The End of the Affair, another beloved novel I’d love to experience as opera.) I’ve actually yet to hear an opera of his in its entirety (help me out here, institutions of NYC!) but I love his song cycles a lot.

    • I’ve wondered about Heggie. All I’ve heard is Julie Makerov singing Alas! Alack!. There was a recent Calgary production of Moby Dick with a mostly Toronto cast but I haven’t bumped into any of the folks involved recently to see what they think.

      • I managed to catch about 45 minutes of Moby Dick on the radio on Saturday. It was a fairly crappy car radio and it was just 45 minutes but I’d definitely go see it if I had a chance. The music is a bit “film soundtrack” but it does rise above that at least some of the time.

  6. THERESE RAQUIN is very good and had a splendid production by Francesca Zambello a few years back; so is EMMELINE (very good) – both by Picker. I didn’t think I’d care for DEAD MAN WALKING (Heggie) either, but when I saw it in Orange County a few years back, I was blown away, stunned into near-immobility by the final curtain. It’s profoundly moving and well-written. Same for MOBY-DICK, which makes up for starting off slow.

    Do you not consider Carlisle Floyd to be “contemporary”? He might be too lyrical a writer…. While SUSANNAH is frequently performed, and rightly so, COLD SASSY TREE is superb, and THE PASSION OF JONATHAN WADE is a superior work to the first mentioned; best of all, though, is OF MICE AND MEN, which remains one of the finest theatrical memories of my extended theatre- (and opera-) going life.

    • I’d willingly try any of those if the opportunity came my way. Part of the problem is that, Adams and Glass aside, few American composers get performed much outside the US which means that the chance of there being a DVD us small as the Met seems to pretty much monopolise the US DVD scene (cue rant about lack of real public broadcaster etc).

    • I’ve now listened to all of Cold Sassy Tree. I enjoyed it though judging by the laughter on the recording I was missing a lot just listening. I’d definitely go see it if I had the chance.

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