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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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