My congratulations to San Francisco composer colleague Erling Wold on the premiere of his new opera Mordake. This is not a review, and so I’ll stop short of providing a lot of detail.Read More...
In the course of researching (read: obsessing over) Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, I came across a Hungarian film adaptation of the piece on YouTube. It’s annoyingly divided into fourteen segments, but anyone familiar with the piece or interested should take a look.Read More...
I’d like to alert Bay Area readers to the upcoming performances by Berkeley Opera of my two favorite one-acts, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. These two composers are not particularly known for their dramatic works, but each work reveals the composer’s complete mastery of music for the stage. An evening consisting of both of these works is not to be missed.Read More...
BLUEBEARD Well, we’re here. This is my castle. JUDIT This is your castle? Kinda creepy. BLUEBEARD Yeah. You sure you want to come in here? JUDIT Yeah. BLUEBEARD Well, okay then. JUDIT So, like, what’s with the seven doors? BLUEBEARD You don't want to know. JUDIT Open them up. BLUEBEARD Um, I don't think so. JUDIT Aw, come on. Just one? BLUEBEARD Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you.
More to come.
Sometime last year I struck up an email correspondence via this blog with poet/librettist Karren Alenier, whose opera with composer William Banfield Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On was premiered in 2005 in New York by Encompass New Opera Theatre. Karren has written a very entertaining book about what it takes to see an opera project through from concept to production.Read More...
Last night the BBC Symphony premiered John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, and my spies tell me you can still listen to the stream for another week. Go here and look for Prom 50. More info on the concert is available here. (You’ll also hear Copland’s Billy the Kid – Suite and Adams’ Century Rolls.)
Now, it’s no secret that I didn’t care for the opera as an opera, but I did think the music would be worthy of a concert version. So, let’s find out!
Last year I was very hard on John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic. I wanted to like it, but, while I admired the music, I was disappointed in it as drama. Having now seen the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of Adams’ new opera A Flowering Tree, I’m very happy to say that it doesn’t share most of the problems I found in Doctor Atomic. I was an Adams early adopter, and an obsessed fan in the 80′s, so I was relieved.
This is a beautiful and admirable work, and it’s the first of John Adams’ theatrical works that actually “works”. I think the reason must be that this is the first one that has, you know, a plot. The music is rich and colorful, and chock full of delicious Adamsy goodness. The music is so effective, and yes, dramatic, that I wasn’t nearly as irritated by Peter Sellars’ staging as I would have been otherwise. Much has been made, with good reason, of Adams’ musical depiction of the main character’s transformation into a tree, which occurs four times in the opera. In each case, the context is different, and Adams paints each transformation in a different way, the final one being a literally spectacular payoff at the very end of the piece.
Painting. This is what Adams is extraordinarily good at in his operas. The final tree transformation joins the hair-raising arrival of Air Force One in Nixon in China, The “gymnopedie” depicting Klinghoffer’s slow-motion descent in The Death of Klinghoffer and the final moment of Doctor Atomic as great examples of how Adams’ can create music that, when combined with staging and lighting, tells a story that words cannot.
Again, this was a “semi-staged” production. About a third of the stage in Davies Symphony Hall was dedicated to staging, with a platform cleverly placed above the orchestra for some of the action. The staging used an interesting, and sometimes very moving, convention of having a dancer shadow each of the characters. Unfortunately, there are several long orchestral and choral passages that were, I guess, unstageable. During these passages we’d have the singers standing or sitting motionless and the dancers doing very little. It’s still unclear to me what the significance of some of these passages is in terms of the storytelling.
A Flowering Tree also makes use of a narrator, which can be problematic when it comes to staging. What do the characters do while the narrator is singing? Like Doctor Atomic, whose libretto was slapped together from “found materials”, this suggests some sort of fear of having to actually write for the characters, which I find puzzling and disappointing. But in this case, Sellars handled this fairly well, I thought. I guess there was so little happening anyway, so the narrator fit in somewhat naturally.
The use of a narrator and the many how-on-Earth-do-I-stage-this moments had me thinking that this might be a better oratorio than opera, but in the second act as the story unfolded I became increasingly convinced. Whereas Doctor Atomic had no plot to speak of, and we never heard from the characters in their own words, this piece has an appropriately simple plot. We understand what the characters want, and we’re routing for them. Given this foundation for the first time, Adams shows what he can do dramatically.
Just came down from doing a bit of bedtime reading to my son. Tonight’s selection was a little on the long side compared to the usual fare, so found myself looking for ways to make it more interesting for myself as well as my son.
I thought it would be fun to see if I could make good decisions on the fly about which words to emphasize, where and for how long to pause, what to do with pitch and tone, etc. Eventually, I realized what it was I was doing:
Not that I was any good at it. I’ve never acted before; in fact, ever since school I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid any form of public speaking. But having been involved with theater for many years, the craft of acting is something I’ve thought about a lot, and I admire people who do it well. It’s harder than most people think.
Meanwhile, during all this I was also thinking about how much fun it would be to do a little semi-staged duet based on this particular book. My “acting” choices were merging into composition choices.
Here’s the thing: to write good dramatic music you need to use the same bone in your head that actors use when they’re doing what they do. Especially in opera, where the performer doesn’t have a lot of room for interpretation, you’re the one making the acting choices.
In a straight play, an actor can trial-and-error dozens of different line readings until he or she finds the “right” one. It can even change from night to night. But, if it’s sung, the composer has already made that decision for the actor, and there usually isn’t much latitude for reinterpretation.
(Hopefully, the composer has given it some thought.)
Since I’m not in New York, I have not seen the Met’s production of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, nor am I likely to. Judging from the reasons given by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times for his disappointment in the new commissioned work, I’d say it looks like something I would admire, given the opportunity.
The production is handsome and sure. Friday’s performance proved enjoyable. Picker’s score contains lush, singable, flowing music, easy on the ear. Gene Scheer’s libretto is, to a fault, literate and considerate of composer, singer and audience.
Yup, sounds like a bit of a letdown. OK, what else…
The décor is appealing, and the comfort level is very high. A veneer of sophistication is unmistakable, as is a certain design imagination.
Right. We don’t like competent stage design. And?
The opera does a strong job of setting the scene. Picker’s inexorable stream of lyric music acts like a society. It has a mind of its own and can’t be stopped. Picker is traditional in his production of arias, duets, trios and ensemble numbers that seamlessly connect to a thread of arioso.
And, we can’t have an opera composer with dramatic skills. No. At least we can hope he’s a crappy orchestrator.
Picker writes expertly for orchestra — his finest pieces are the orchestral scores he produced before turning to opera in 1996 — and James Conlon had the Met orchestra sounding as excellent as ever…
Darn. Nope. OK, now we’re getting to the heart of what Mark Swed’s beef is:
…But Picker has an annoying habit of sounding too much like other composers at times. In “Fox” he came uncomfortably close to “Peter and the Wolf.” Here, a theme reminiscent of the storm music from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” leads off the second act and returns often.
[Picker] pays lip service to social concerns and class differences, but ultimately his is an art of accommodation — to singers stuck in the past, to audiences wanting what they already know and to opera companies eyeing donors’ checkbooks.
First of all, it’s a bit cynical to automatically assume that a composer writes accessible music in order to be appealing to donors. I know, I know, Picker has written more difficult stuff in the past. But he’s by no means the only composer who’s made that switch, and yeah, maybe he’ll switch back, and let’s not read anything into that either.
As for the need to keep audiences and funding in mind, this is just the way it is, and it’s not Tobias Picker’s fault. Here’s a radical idea: Because of the expense of mounting these large-scale productions, maybe grand opera on the scale of the Met is not the place where new ground is going to be broken right now. I, too, wish that donors at that level would be more adventuresome, but it’s not Tobias Picker’s fault that they’re not.
It doesn’t matter if the music is derivative or too accessible, or whatever. If the drama works, and the music successfully supports the drama, and the orchestration is good, and the set is good, and there isn’t a dry seat in the house at the end, then the opera works. Full stop.