For 25 years opera failed to create new masterpieces. Now the barren years may finally be overby Tom Sutcliffe / July 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Why call it Jerry Springer: the Opera? It’s a musical, not an opera-or, to be accurate, a revue sketch stretched to breaking point. But who knows what an opera for today should be, anyway? The Battersea Arts Centre’s opera festivals have included all sorts of shows that wouldn’t strike opera buffs as the real thing. Yet Tom Morris, the impresario who delivered Jerry Springer to the National Theatre, seems to have tapped an audience eager to sample shows like Tourette’s Diva, in which two would-be opera stars flow with piercingly sung obscenities.
Is there any difference in principle between operas and musicals? Both depend on music and words and acting. The postwar director of the Komische Oper in east Berlin, Walter Felsenstein, employed the term “music-theatre” for opera, operetta, musicals-the lot. Felsenstein proved that opera was not just a costume parade for adorable vocal canaries, but could be an argumentative kind of total theatre.
Yet these days, in Britain especially, the idea of opera is taken to be a bit of a joke (which is the point of calling it Jerry Springer: the Opera). The institutions of traditional opera, meanwhile, can’t reconcile their high aspirations with their even higher costs. In the mid-1990s, the Royal Opera House was subjected to extreme pressure by the Arts Council of England to end its all too frequent reliance on deficit funding; and now it is the English National Opera’s turn. Unlike musicals, opera has almost never made money and, despite subsidies, ticket prices remain very high. The operatic event is stuck in a bourgeois social calendar: Glyndebourne alongside Ascot. Opera in Britain amounts to just six permanent companies, compared with Germany’s 83. No wonder there isn’t a cadre of experienced British managers to draw on. ENO’s new artistic director, Sean Doran, is no different from his predecessors Peter Jonas, George Harewood and Stephen Arlen, in never having run an opera company before.
In the US, the decline in ticket sales after 9/11 showed how vulnerable opera could be. San Francisco Opera has made a third of its staff redundant, cut millions of dollars from its budget and remains fragile. A dependence on rich sponsors or sellouts at high ticket prices is not a solution. The only way to maintain the audience for live theatre, opera, dance and classical music is through an increase in subsidy. But subsidies have to be justified, meaning audiences must be enticed.
The crucial way of doing that has to be through the creation of new masterpieces. So why aren’t there more contemporary masterworks maintaining opera’s vitality among the live performing arts? Over the last 25 years, almost no new opera has become an essential part of the repertoire. The first three quarters of the 20th century were not short of quality or quantity, boasting Puccini, Richard Strauss, Jan??c ek, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Berg, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ravel, Zemlinsky, Barber, Bernstein, K?lm?n, Leh?r, as well as Britten and perhaps Tippett. The subsequent failure rate of new operas in the latter part of the 20th century was unprecedented. In the 1950s, many composers became convinced that Sch?nberg’s kind of atonal modernism, although ill-suited to song, was the only option for the future of music. But audiences didn’t want plinky-plonk modern operas. After Britten’s death in 1976, there was no serious composer left with a continuing record of operatic success.
English-language opera is a relatively modern phenomenon that faces few disabling challenges from 19th-century masterworks. But the attempt to create viable contemporary forms has resulted either in backward-looking operas from US composers such as Carlisle Floyd and Dominick Argento, or in the thin minimalism exemplified by Philip Glass, who has never reached a critical mass of popularity. At the other end of the scale is the popular but musically unoriginal new romanticism of Andr? Previn, whose A Streetcar Named Desire is performed at the Barbican from 25th-27th June, conducted by Previn himself.
Above all other operatic contenders since 1985, it is the rich minimalism of John Adams (whose El Ni?o is also at the Barbican) which has come closest to achieving the holy grail of new opera-musical seriousness, real popularity and contemporary relevance. Adams’s Nixon in China is a contemporary classic. In 2001, San Francisco Opera’s new boss Pamela Rosenberg decided to drop Andr? Previn and instead commissioned Adams to write Dr Atomic with the same team of librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars that created Nixon as well as the controversial The Death of Kling-hoffer. Adams’s trilogy is also proof that current affairs can be the material of major opera. Dr Atomic is about the Faustian nuclear compact and The Death of Kling-hoffer has got under many American skins, because it is thought to be too uncritically pro-Palestinian.
There are still those, like the pianist Alfred Brendel, who believe neither in minimalism nor the new romantics, and who are on the lookout for an authentically fresh and modern form of opera. And there are composers who are coming close. Jonathan Dove’s Glyndebourne opera Flight, wittily set in an airport waiting lounge, has certainly been popular, although it is somewhat lightweight (it is being staged this June by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Missouri). Sophie’s Choice by Nicholas Maw sold out at the ROH last November, even if the critics hated it. Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie (both at ENO) do not perhaps achieve Adams’s grail, but are modern enough to please even Brendel and prove that weighty material in new opera need not be box-office poison. And Thomas Ad?s is following up the cleverness and virtuosity of his successful Powder Her Face with The Tempest, premiering next February at the ROH.
It is also possible that in London new seeds are being sewn. At the Almeida Theatre, from 17th-26th July, the Genesis Opera Project (funded by Morgan Grenfell vice-president John Studzinski) will show three short workshopped operas by a trio of almost new teams from Canada, Ireland, and Australia: Sirius on Earth by Paul Frehner, Thwaite by Jurgen Simpson, and The Eternity Man by Jonathan Mills. Perhaps one of the new Studzinski works will be a hit, although a number of Almeida Opera’s events in recent years have scarcely deserved the name-in the sense that they didn’t involve singing, which is surely the sine qua non of opera.
In its first two centuries, opera’s fascination was with power and love, with Greek myth or dynastic history. Then in the 19th century, opera cautiously began to address the worlds of ordinary people, albeit with a focus on individual emotions. In the 20th century, opera in the hands of Jan??c ek and Britten took up the cause of the oppressed or victimised, but also explored the minds of the criminal and the insane in Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Opera is good at conveying fantasy and the distorted world of the imagination. But its distinctive genius is confessional, the ability of characters as they sing to unbutton their emotional essence. Making that intimacy credible requires high-class music song. There is some evidence that new opera composers are starting to provide it.