Perfect As It Was? No: Things Change

for, May 2002

In the prologue to his opera Little Women, composer/librettist Mark Adamo crystallizes the work’s central dramatic conflict through the sad resonance of his protagonist Jo’s phrase “perfect as it was.” Adamo then astutely frames his opera as a series of scenes in flashback; throughout these, Jo’s Marschallin-like desire to stop time in its tracks regularly recurs. This leitmotif — musical and emotional — repeatedly clashes with the wisdom epitomized in Meg’s aria “Things change, Jo.” The resulting tension clarifies the opera’s multiple story lines and generates its concluding sense of enlightenment.

Is it too farfetched to see in Little Women‘s all-too-human dilemma a metaphor for a more specific sense of crisis in the world of opera today? Among the debates recently raging over the prospects for classical music, the recording industry, and today’s composers, there’s been no lack of pronouncements from the more doom-laden end of the spectrum.

For instance, a recent Financial Times essay (“The Phantom of the Opera” — 25 September 2001) by critic Andrew Clark proclaims the death of opera as a contemporary art form: “To survive as a cultural artifact, opera houses need to communicate with as broad a swathe of society as possible, and the only way to do that is by programming what is already popular and familiar.” Opera survives only, in short, as “a well-preserved corpse.”

This is a complaint, to be sure, heard in various guises throughout the history of opera. Yet today’s vision of a past golden age is shared by a curious assortment of bedfellows — from cultural conservatives to disgruntled avant-gardists — each nurturing a private, bygone operatic utopia that was once “perfect as it was.”

But is the situation really so bad? It might be worthwhile to step back and take a brief survey of where opera — particularly among American composers — seems to be heading of late. While there’s no single emerging trend, several tendencies suggest a relatively healthy state, arguably more fertile than what has been seen in the recent past.

To return to Little Women for a moment, the opera’s high-profile reception — with a PBS broadcast, a record release, and revivals in several opera houses already scheduled — seems an unlikely feat for a contemporary opera, let alone for a first effort in the form. Yet Adamo’s is just one among several ambitious début operas, from composers as diverse as Jake Heggie, Tan Dun, André Previn and the nonagenarian Elliott Carter, to have received attention in recent seasons.

For a while, following the breakthrough success of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a dominant trend in American opera seemed to be stories “torn from the headlines” or based on iconic figures from recent history (Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, Anthony Davis’ Malcolm X and Tania, Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O, among others). Yet the constant quest for an American equivalent to timeless mythology — material durable enough to hold the opera stage over the years — has inspired a striking number of composers to turn to literary classics, as the following new operas demonstrateAndré Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge, Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin, even — amid the farther reaches of the genre — Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from “Moby Dick.”

The tepid reception given some of these works — above all Previn’s treatment of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar and John Harbison’s foxtrot-laden score for Gatsby — does suggest an aspect of superfluity. Does the translation to opera really add dimension or insight to a masterpiece already complete in itself? Yet Adamo’s deft tailoring of Louisa May Alcott’s teeming novel (itself already competing with several film versions) proves exactly the reverse: that the emotional directness and clarification which opera uniquely provides can enrich a story we had thought was already told.

The latter point should be enlarged to encompass the theatrical savvy that has become essential to any new operatic success: in the case of Little Women, Adamo’s sound dramatic concept was nurtured by the lavish attention of Houston Grand Opera’s full stage production. And, like the bulk of these new works, it is truly conceived as a total theatrical experience. Little Women needs to be experienced visually, in stage time, to exert its proper impact. Much of the new opera of our time has likewise incorporated the visual intensity expected by audiences accustomed to film and television.

There’s a similar pattern to be found in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, another opera not consigned to limbo after its high-profile debut (at the San Francisco Opera); there are plans for revivals in New York and Cincinnati, with the premiere recording due out in early 2002. The choice of veteran playwright Terence McNally ensured a fluent, theatrically compelling libretto.

Even more fundamental is the strategy Adamo and Heggie share in their approach to musical language. Both composers tend to be lumped into the camp currently labeled the “New Tonalists,” a rapidly expanding cohort that includes the emerging Cuban-American composer Jorge Martin. Like Heggie, Martin has shown a parallel affinity for the art song (his 15-song coming-of-age cycle, The Glass Hammer, is an impressive accomplishment in its own right and was released on CD in 2001). Martin has more recently undertaken a work based on Thomas Mallon’s historical Civil War novel Henry and Clara, an excerpt of which was presented in New York City Opera’s “Showcasing American Composers” series in the spring of 2001.

Detractors chastise the return to tonal idioms as a backpedaling attempt to curry popularity (a charge that, however frequently encountered, is fraught with self-contradictions). But the key thing to notice on closer scrutiny is that this so-called “New Tonality” isn’t a clear-cut either/or situation. Adamo’s score, for example, cleverly employs atonal techniques to relay narrative scope in his opera’s recitatives, while melody is centered around moments of contemplation.

Heggie — criticized, like most of the “New Tonalists,” for the putative accessibility of his music — began with a lyrical sensitivity well suited to song forms. Yet his full-length score for Dead Man Walking astonishes with its cohesive ability to spin a web of restless tension, jump-cutting from simple gospel melody to brutal, percussive attacks. And John Adams continues to explore new hybrid possibilities for tonality, as in his quasi-opera/oratorio El Niño, which restores a sense of exploration and challenge to the experience of hearing new music without alienating his audiences.

Moreover, the paths forged by avant-garde composers of the 20th century have hardly been abandoned outright. Consider another debut opera: Elliott Carter’s aptly titled What Next?, whose score pursues the composer’s unique musical discourse while presenting a nonlinear, Samuel Beckett-like story about a car crash and its aftermath.

And among contemporary European composers, countless hybrids of the old — and now (save in certain quarters) intensely unfashionable — “avant-garde” with neotonality, minimalism, and sheer instrumental ingenuity continue to crop up. Danish composer Poul Ruders has received lavish praise for his Margaret Atwood-inspired opera The Handmaid’s Tale, while Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (in collaboration with filmmaker Peter Greenaway) constructs such hypnotic, oddly compelling bizarreries as Rosa: The Death of a Composer and Writing to Vermeer. Andriessen’s score blends a kind of nervous minimalism — preempting the style’s tendency toward predictability. Violent, Stravinskian rhythmic distortions and frosty harmonies gather like a poisonous cloud; vocal styles draw on both jazz and high opera.

But perhaps the most celebrated of new European opera composers to emerge recently is the Englishman Thomas Adès, whose Powder Her Face created a sensation — and a backlash. Yet even from the limited perspective of less than a decade, it’s clear that Adès is more than the privileged recipient of fawning attention. His ironic morality tale takes a Nabokovian delight in the rich possibilities of his evocative musical language. The composer’s detailed portrayals of character and mood add depth to the tabloid fall-from-grace story that was the opera’s germ.

And consider this: both Adamo and Adès — composers who are strikingly dissimilar in aesthetic orientation — make significant reference to material from Der Rosenkavalier in their respective first operas. Perhaps raiding the Straussian larder — in particular, a work that itself was once considered regressive, proof of creative fatigue and retreat from a washed-up enfant terrible of yore — can be seen as a sort of emblem for the continuing nourishment provided by the tradition as new creative paths are explored.

As former editor of Opera News Patrick Smith observes, “it’s clear that we’re in an in-between time. We don’t have anything radically new — but the important question is whether [the new operas] will be viable. The fact that so many young composers are writing operas and are actually having them produced shows that the form is alive.”

Thomas May is the author of  Decoding Wagner: an Invitation to His World of Music Drama and  A John Adams Reader. He is based in Seattle.