Contemporary Operas Are Grim

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Contemporary Operas Are Grim

Post by Ralph » Wed Dec 06, 2006 11:47 am

From The Toronto Globe & Mail:

Nothing to smile about
What's stopping contemporary opera composers from cracking a few jokes on stage?

ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN

'Ifeel secure that I can make people weep," said James Rolfe, whose 1999 opera Beatrice Chancey (with text by George Elliott Clarke) told a brutal tale of slavery in 19th-century Nova Scotia. "I'm not sure I can make people laugh."

A lot of other composers feel the same way. The culture's awash in comedy -- comedians like Jon Stewart and Cathy Jones even give us the news -- but at the opera, serious drama rules.

Last spring, for instance, Tapestry New Opera Works produced six short operas (15 minutes each), as a way of giving the composers and librettists a first shot at opera with minimal risk to themselves and the company. Only one (Binoculars, by Richard Payne and Joseph Maviglia) was a comedy. The others were deadly solemn miniatures about such things as suicide, AIDS and sex slavery.

Scan through the big names of opera over the past century, and the ratio is even more skewed toward gravitas. Janacek, Britten and Richard Strauss all wrote at least one important comedy, but spent much more time on tragic subjects. It's hard to find any laughs in the stage works of Alban Berg, John Adams, Hans Werner Henze, Harry Somers and Philip Glass.
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The Globe and Mail

In this context, it seems a minor miracle that Toronto will see two productions of operatic comedies within the next three weeks. Tonight, the Canadian Opera Company opens a double bill of William Walton's The Bear (based on Chekhov's short play, with libretto by Walton and Paul Dehn) and Rolfe's brand-new The Swoon (with text by Anna Chatterton). Toronto Operetta Theatre launches a production of Candide on Dec. 30.

The COC, of course, has just finished a date with Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, weeks after Opera Lyra's Ottawa performances of Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Both works stem from the traditions of opera buffa, a popular comic form developed in Naples. Unlike court opera (opera seria), which dealt with classical themes and tragic situations, Neapolitan comedy was about the hurly-burly of ordinary life. It mixed serious scenes with farcical ones, was often satiric and had spoken dialogue written in local dialect. It was frisky, low-class, and distrusted by the church.

In time, Neapolitan comedy exerted its influence on all the opera stages of Europe, but it travelled with a guilty conscience, because so many of the people involved (including Rossini) felt they should be doing something with more cachet. By the middle of the 19th century, operatic comedy was adopting the tone and subjects of serious drama, as Offenbach did in The Tales of Hoffmann.

Operetta developed in reaction to this more serious kind of comedy, eventually becoming the dominant form of opera as amusement. By the 1930s, however, the operettas of Lehar and the Savoy comedies of Gilbert and Sullivan had lost ground to pithy, American-style musicals, and never regained it.

Changes in musical language made it harder for opera composers to be funny in the 20th century, though as many film scores show, it's easier to get people to accept advanced-sounding music when they've got an entertaining story to follow. But even composers who don't mind writing a hummable tune find that opera singers can be scary people to cast in a comedy.

"Comedy's risky," James Rolfe said. "Singers are trained very much to make a lyrical, beautiful sound. Agility is not emphasized as much."

It's possible to write comic timing into an operatic scene, he said, but most comedy still requires some kind of real-time comic instinct.

"You have to trust your performers more," he said. To keep things rolling, he's "working a lot with momentum, of various kinds. There's a lot of quick changes and fast tempi. It doesn't linger in one place for long."

By contrast, a lot of classic, dramatic operas deliver their biggest thrills while lingering over reflective arias. The challenge, for anyone who has tried to write comedy in the opera house in recent times, has been to be funny and also to leave room for the depth of spirit that permeates Mozart's comedies with Lorenzo Da Ponte, and that opera fans and opera composers crave.

Bernstein and the posse of writers who worked on Candide (including Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur and Dorothy Parker) tried to build a bridge between opera, operetta and the American musical, and though the music is good and story often funny, the overall engineering has never been quite right. Successive rewrites have taken it from Broadway (where it opened in 1956) to opera houses and back again. Toronto Operetta Theatre is performing a 1999 revision made for the Royal National Theatre in London, with a new book by John Caird and new pit-band orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin (who won a Tony for Urinetown).

Two more recent large-scale comedies, John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (with libretto by William M. Hoffman) and Randolph Peters's The Golden Ass (with text by Robertson Davies), tried to be amusing while exploring weighty and even moralistic subject matter. The Ghosts of Versailles became one of the hit shows of the New York season after it opened at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991, and The Golden Ass did brisk business for the Canadian Opera Company in 1999. But no one seems to be in a rush to revive those shows, both of which were criticized by some for being musically superficial. When your standard of comparison is Mozart/Da Ponte, hardly anybody looks good.

In the same way, you might criticize the latest Adam Sandler farce for being dumb in comparison with the whip-smart film comedies of Preston Sturges. But at least both are available on demand. The real problem with new operatic comedy is that there's so little room for new work of any kind in our opera theatres. Without more opportunities to show what the art form can still produce, the opera world will probably go on struggling with itself about whether comedy is as worthwhile as drama, and if so, whether a company is selling out when it gives time to a lightly written comedy, instead of telling us a story we can all cry about.

The COC's production of The Swoon and The Bear opens tonight at Toronto's Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre. Toronto Operetta Theatre's production of Candide runs from Dec. 30 to Jan. 7 (with a Dec. 27 preview) at the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto.
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Post by diegobueno » Wed Dec 06, 2006 12:14 pm

Comedy is impossible in a culture that insists that art and entertainment cannot mix. A composer cannot write comedy when he has to worry about the charge of being a "panderer", and the charge is taken quite seriously by those whose influence will determine the success of his career.

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Post by Ralph » Wed Dec 06, 2006 12:23 pm

diegobueno wrote:Comedy is impossible in a culture that insists that art and entertainment cannot mix. A composer cannot write comedy when he has to worry about the charge of being a "panderer", and the charge is taken quite seriously by those whose influence will determine the success of his career.
*****

I don't believe our (American) society is so schizophrenically polarized. With specific reference to opera, last summer's Mostly Mozart production of Peter Sellars's version of Mozart's "Zaide" is a shining example. A grim story about the evil of slavery, there were also simple comedic moments that lightened the story as when the overseer received a KFC delivery.

Opera afford rich opportunities to offer art and entertainment for engaged audiences.
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Post by diegobueno » Wed Dec 06, 2006 12:36 pm

Ralph:

1) Mozart is not a contemporary composer.

2) His Zaide is a supposed to be a comedy. The production you saw which turned it into "a grim story about the evils of slavery" is just another manifestation of the same tendency I'm complaining about.

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FUNNY OPERA

Post by alex humphrey » Wed Dec 06, 2006 12:44 pm

Funny Opera?

Jerry Springer the Opera! It caused controversy but I personally found the libretto to be extremely witty, it took the piss out (Satirised) of the moral decline of the Jerry Springer show and how people believe him to be God, it attacked the way people go about believing. Reference to how God is only used in an Emergency. The composer managed to mix many styles of music whether it is Baroque opera to Cole Porter. Propper Opera Buffa of the 21st century.

There's good opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage, I wouldn't say it was funny but it was gripping. Try Greek, he's also written the Silver Tassy which is about football (soccer) in Ireland.

Something to think about

Alex
Moved by late romantic/ 20th century classical music i.e. Mahler, Stockhausen, Turnage, Stravisnsky, Shosterkovich. Love watching films by Almoldovar, Lynch, Kiewclowski. Listen to various styles of music. That's my character, you'll know me better through the forums!

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Post by diegobueno » Wed Dec 06, 2006 12:54 pm

Alex,

How's the music of that a Jerry Springer opera? Is it really and truly opera?

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Post by Ralph » Wed Dec 06, 2006 1:08 pm

diegobueno wrote:Ralph:

1) Mozart is not a contemporary composer.

2) His Zaide is a supposed to be a comedy. The production you saw which turned it into "a grim story about the evils of slavery" is just another manifestation of the same tendency I'm complaining about.
*****

I took your remark as applying to the marriage of art and antertainment generally, not just with regard to contemporary composers. To the extent that a Peter Sellars fosters a dynamic commitment to presenting old wine (operas) in new bottles (productions), there is a real element of contemporaneity.

As to your second comment, several pre-"Zaide" speakers spoke with apparent authority on Mozart's desire to pillory slavery and remarked that he didn't finish the work because he despaired that slavery could be ended in his lifetime. I'm not a Mozart scholar but I was convinced that he did not intend a rollicking comedy.
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Post by karlhenning » Wed Dec 06, 2006 1:30 pm

diegobueno wrote:Comedy is impossible in a culture that insists that art and entertainment cannot mix.
I cannot tell whether I agree or disagree, without deciding what is meant by comedy and entertainment.

We need weirdears and his legendary Deconstruction Equipment :-)

Cheers,
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Post by Modernistfan » Wed Dec 06, 2006 1:32 pm

Henze not funny? His opera "Der Junge Lord," where a young nobleman pushed into high society turns out to be an ape, is a scream. (Get the DG recording with von Dohnanyi if you can still find it.)

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Post by diegobueno » Wed Dec 06, 2006 2:32 pm

karlhenning wrote:
diegobueno wrote:Comedy is impossible in a culture that insists that art and entertainment cannot mix.
I cannot tell whether I agree or disagree, without deciding what is meant by comedy and entertainment.


~Karl
I know we've talked at cross-purposes about this before, but you see the terms "comedy" and "entertainment" have become tainted by their association with the ephemeral offerings of the film and TV industries. As unfortunately so often happens, there's a tendency to react to one evil by embracing the opposite evil. This is particularly true in online discussions where there is little time for nuance. For instance, people react to religious extremism by embracing atheism, or to Wagner idolotry (or Debussy idolotry) by trashing Wagner (or Debussy and his opera) completely.

I see something like that happening in the arts in general with respect to popular culture. High art (and yes I know there are exceptions) has in many cases tried so hard to distance itself completely and utterly from the "Saturday Night Live" kind of comedy and entertainment, that it has lost, in those cases, something essential, which is the ability to laugh, or express laughter.

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Post by diegobueno » Wed Dec 06, 2006 2:54 pm

Ralph wrote: As to your second comment, several pre-"Zaide" speakers spoke with apparent authority on Mozart's desire to pillory slavery and remarked that he didn't finish the work because he despaired that slavery could be ended in his lifetime. I'm not a Mozart scholar but I was convinced that he did not intend a rollicking comedy.
You may have something here. I remembered Zaide as Mozart's warm-up to Entfuhrung, with a similar plot. But here's what Grove has to say about it:
Mozart wrote Zaide in Salzburg between autumn 1779 and mid-1780, perhaps for J. H. Böhm’s touring company or Schikaneder’s, but surely with the National Singspiel in mind. In April 1781 Stephanie rejected it as too serious for Vienna. The autograph is untitled. The source, a Singspiel by Sebastiani, is called Das Serail; ‘Zaide ’ was chosen by Johann Anton André for his 1838 publication, and avoids confusion with Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Schachtner’s libretto was evidently more than a revision, but it is lost apart from incipits in the autograph score. Zaide was first performed at Frankfurt (Mozart’s birthday, 1866), as completed by André, who had added an overture and finale, and with new text by Friedrich Carl Gollmick. Other versions followed, in German, French and English, often with additional music from Thamos, König in Ägypten, K345/336 a
So the spoken dialogue (itself an indication of a Singspiel, at least a comedy-like object, if not a comedy) that Mozart wrote his music around is missing, and a 19th century script is in its place, one which may indeed be a bitter protest against slavery. And even as Mozart wrote it, it was found too serious. Point taken.

Fortunately, Mozart's comedies always have serious issues in the background so they are never merely rollicking comedies.

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Post by karlhenning » Wed Dec 06, 2006 3:06 pm

Two of my thoughts here, Mark, are:

(1) The serious challenge of being funny, in a way which remains funny after a year, after five years, after twenty-five years.

(2) Comedy traditionally is broader in meaning than "funny business." "White Nights" is a comedy, but it is not funny-ha-ha.

Cheers,
~Karl
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Post by diegobueno » Wed Dec 06, 2006 3:25 pm

karlhenning wrote:Two of my thoughts here, Mark, are:

(1) The serious challenge of being funny, in a way which remains funny after a year, after five years, after twenty-five years.
Which is one of the reasons why comedy is so difficult. Figaro and Zauberflote are still funny after more than 200 years. A lot of the laugh-out-loud aspect of comedy in opera is going to come from the singer/actors rather than the music itself, but it takes a deft compositional hand to support their efforts and avoid squelching them.
(2) Comedy traditionally is broader in meaning than "funny business." "White Nights" is a comedy, but it is not funny-ha-ha.
I forget who it was that said the difference between comedy and tragedy is that one ends with a wedding, the other with a funeral.

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Post by burnitdown » Wed Dec 06, 2006 6:08 pm

diegobueno wrote:Comedy is impossible in a culture that insists that art and entertainment cannot mix. A composer cannot write comedy when he has to worry about the charge of being a "panderer", and the charge is taken quite seriously by those whose influence will determine the success of his career.
We're seeing the same thing in literature. A realist, liberal-issues-focused crowd conflict with an entertainment-only crowd.

I do think there is such a thing as pandering, but I'm not sure humor has much to do with it. Pandering is offering your audience what they already know because it's safe.

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Post by Ralph » Wed Dec 06, 2006 6:45 pm

diegobueno wrote:
Ralph wrote: As to your second comment, several pre-"Zaide" speakers spoke with apparent authority on Mozart's desire to pillory slavery and remarked that he didn't finish the work because he despaired that slavery could be ended in his lifetime. I'm not a Mozart scholar but I was convinced that he did not intend a rollicking comedy.
You may have something here. I remembered Zaide as Mozart's warm-up to Entfuhrung, with a similar plot. But here's what Grove has to say about it:
Mozart wrote Zaide in Salzburg between autumn 1779 and mid-1780, perhaps for J. H. Böhm’s touring company or Schikaneder’s, but surely with the National Singspiel in mind. In April 1781 Stephanie rejected it as too serious for Vienna. The autograph is untitled. The source, a Singspiel by Sebastiani, is called Das Serail; ‘Zaide ’ was chosen by Johann Anton André for his 1838 publication, and avoids confusion with Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Schachtner’s libretto was evidently more than a revision, but it is lost apart from incipits in the autograph score. Zaide was first performed at Frankfurt (Mozart’s birthday, 1866), as completed by André, who had added an overture and finale, and with new text by Friedrich Carl Gollmick. Other versions followed, in German, French and English, often with additional music from Thamos, König in Ägypten, K345/336 a
So the spoken dialogue (itself an indication of a Singspiel, at least a comedy-like object, if not a comedy) that Mozart wrote his music around is missing, and a 19th century script is in its place, one which may indeed be a bitter protest against slavery. And even as Mozart wrote it, it was found too serious. Point taken.

Fortunately, Mozart's comedies always have serious issues in the background so they are never merely rollicking comedies.
*****

Could you really maintain that view about "Cosi Fan Tutte?"
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Post by alex humphrey » Thu Dec 07, 2006 7:23 am

Talking on a personal level, unsophisticated as it may seem I'm not out to find out what true opera is. Yes I do think Jerry Springer is an opera (should I call it Neo-opera?) because it has the characteristics musically as stated earlier. It fuses other musical styles I admit that and it works. Mark what is true opera? I appreciate you asking the question, I'm interested in what you have to say, because I don't have an answer. I admit it I'm ignorant! Is true opera allowed to be enjoyed? What storyline does it have to have? Is Purcell true opera and Verdi not? It's like Shakespeare are we going to get a true Shakespeare play? Personally Shakespeare can adapt very well to changes that we are going through as human beings. I personally believe that opera has evolved, that's the beauty of it Jerry Springer isn't less of an opera than Philip Glass' Einstein on a Beach or Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. There's also another question that I can't be bothered answering When does opera stop being opera and become a musical, and when is musical theatre opera? As long as it's good why care? I prefer S Club 7 to Brahms!

High art/ Low art? I'm going off the question on what is true opera. Maybe there isn't truth in opera because people want to tell a story and are more interested in how they go about executing the story effectively. Maybe they've discovered true opera by accident! Isaac discovered gravity. Don't know passed caring!
Moved by late romantic/ 20th century classical music i.e. Mahler, Stockhausen, Turnage, Stravisnsky, Shosterkovich. Love watching films by Almoldovar, Lynch, Kiewclowski. Listen to various styles of music. That's my character, you'll know me better through the forums!

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Post by karlhenning » Thu Dec 07, 2006 8:31 am

burnitdown wrote:Pandering is offering your audience what they already know because it's safe.
On the one hand, that is probably a serviceable definition.

On the other, what is the solution? -- where is the 'non-pandering balance' between offering the safety of 'the known' (for after all, art is as much continuum as revolution), and taxing the receiver of art with 'the novel'?

Not that you are necessarily endorsing this, but an aesthetic of "novelty at all costs" is an artistic dead-end, too.

Cheers,
~Karl
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If I'm honest I go with the mood!

Post by alex humphrey » Thu Dec 07, 2006 10:03 am

I'm only talking on a personal level I go with the mood, and take the opportunities I am given to see work whether it's new and cutting edge or whether it's safe or to serve an other purpose whether's it working out, clubbing etc.

Example, Mahler is my favourite composer but I wouldn't do a gym workout to his music. Bands like Prodigy, NWA (Straight out of Compton) does that for me, it works to a pulse that I really like. If I want to chill out it might be Moby, Sarte, Groove Armada, Air, Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra. It has a personal purpose. If I feel wound up, it'd probably be Stockhausen, Boulez, Mettalaca, Ben Folds, anger and chaos (particularly the 2nd two unwind!)

I think what I am trying to say is from an audience perspective we decide to experience things on a cognitive level because we want to apply those experiences to our lives so yes it can feel revoluntionary because it feels new and you've not thought about it like that but sometimes you need to ask that question are we listening to the same thing? Are the Sex Pistols the punk equivilent to Shostakovich (just Shostakovich risked more and didn't have Malcolm Maclaran as his manager!) I personally think both are as good as each other.

So do I think there is a solution? It's up to your wallet! You might be able to vote with your feet!
Moved by late romantic/ 20th century classical music i.e. Mahler, Stockhausen, Turnage, Stravisnsky, Shosterkovich. Love watching films by Almoldovar, Lynch, Kiewclowski. Listen to various styles of music. That's my character, you'll know me better through the forums!

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Post by diegobueno » Thu Dec 07, 2006 10:39 am

alex humphrey wrote:Talking on a personal level, unsophisticated as it may seem I'm not out to find out what true opera is. Yes I do think Jerry Springer is an opera (should I call it Neo-opera?) because it has the characteristics musically as stated earlier. It fuses other musical styles I admit that and it works. Mark what is true opera?
I was afraid you'd ask that.

I'll be darned if I know what a real opera is as opposed to a fake one, but if it "works", as you say it does, then it must be real. I was curious about the Jerry Springer opera, but I was afraid it was going a pastiche, and thought it was telling that no one seemed to be able to remember the name of the composer.

If someone put a gun to my head and told me to define opera I think I'd say that opera is a theatrical work involving music and singing in which the music, and primarily the music, tells the story. This is why opera librettos tend to be so simplistic. They have to be, to allow the music to do all the heavy lifting.

There's also another question that I can't be bothered answering When does opera stop being opera and become a musical, and when is musical theatre opera?
According to the definition I've just stated, Sweeney Todd must be an opera, and yet it partakes of so many conventions of the musical that it can't be fully understood outside the Broadway tradition. For instance, an opera composer would have closed Act I with Sweeney's "Epiphany", the dramatic moment when Sweeney's sanity breaks and he vows to enact his vengeance on anyone who walks into his shop. But the musical requires an upbeat ending to the act, and so there's a comic duet "A Little Priest" where Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett make grisly jokes about the various flavors available for their meat pies.

It's complicated. But some people (me for instance) like to ponder things that have no conclusive answer.

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