Opera, Real and Surreal

Three operas featured at New Works Forum
Three new operas show­cased at Opera America’s New Works Forum: l-r, The Sum­mer King, Judg­ment of Midas, Dog Days

Opera per­mits us to go into a world that is not real.”

This was spo­ken by Nicole Paiement, artis­tic direc­tor of Opera Par­al­lèle, about halfway through a pan­el dis­cus­sion of sto­ry­telling in opera at Opera America’s New Works Forum, held last week in New York. I was there because Judg­ment of Midas, the new opera I’m involved with, was sched­uled for a show­case performance—an excerpt with singers and piano.

I heard these words with a sense of relief and recog­ni­tion. After this, oth­ers in the room acknowl­edged that many opera com­pa­nies have got­ten into a “qua­si-nat­u­ral­is­tic groove,” devel­op­ing new operas that share with much of tra­di­tion­al opera a straight-ahead, scene-by-scene nar­ra­tive arc.

It’s been almost forty years since the 1976 pre­miere of Ein­stein on the Beach, with its shock­ing mix of enig­mat­ic text, Robert Wilson’s hyp­not­ic move­ment and the propul­sive sound of Philip Glass—and it’s been eighty years since Vir­gil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, sung to a blithe­ly out-there libret­to by Gertrude Stein. Since the ground­break­ing Ein­stein, new opera and music-the­ater have staked out a wider range of pos­si­bil­i­ty for the sto­ry, or in some cas­es, the text that goes with the music. Operas like John Adams’ Doc­tor Atom­ic, about the first atom­ic blast, expand the sto­ry with diver­sions into poet­ry and myth, while Anna Nicole bor­rows TV talk-show for­mat and flash­backs to cre­ate a large-scale ver­sion of the would-be Pop god­dess.

At the New Works Forum, Nicole Paiement described an upcom­ing pro­duc­tion planned for her Opera Par­al­lèle in San Fran­cis­co, a mash-up of Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel and the Baroque-era Les Mamelles de Tiré­sius by Poulenc, which sounds—well, I can’t even imag­ine how this will turn out, which makes it pret­ty inter­est­ing. In some ways, a lot of new opera has more in com­mon with Baroque opera, with its sto­ries of myth­i­cal heroes, gods and god­dess­es. With Judg­ment of Midas, the libret­to I wrote offers a place where Greek gods inter­act with present-day humans. In the libret­to for Vio­let Fire, I tried to cre­ate a dream-like space in which the events, peo­ple and visions expe­ri­enced by the inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la could inter­min­gle.

Peo­ple still respond to the big char­ac­ters and pas­sion­ate sto­ries that are the stuff of tra­di­tion­al opera. But it may be that now, with our lives marked by a dizzy­ing inter­play of the vir­tu­al and real, we need art forms to reflect that mul­ti­plic­i­ty of experience—the feel­ing of liv­ing in dif­fer­ent real­i­ties. That kind of mul­ti­plic­i­ty is cod­ed into the struc­ture of opera, with its syn­the­sis of sto­ry, move­ment, visu­als and the human voice at its most pow­er­ful. You could see this mul­ti-lay­ered approach as stretch­ing back to the ear­li­est human sto­ry­telling, which com­bined rhythm, move­ment, cos­tume and voice to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence of a greater, expand­ed real­i­ty shared by humans and gods.

I came away from the New Works Forum recharged and inspired by the work of some gift­ed artists in the field, and the ded­i­ca­tion of the opera pro­fes­sion­als who want to see new work hap­pen. Here’s to the mak­ing of crazy, weird new operas that help us make sense of our strange, fast-chang­ing world.

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