OPERA NEWS - The New Masterpieces
Twenty-five years ago, brand new operas were few and far between. Today, we find them everywhere. I've seen eighty-three world and U.S. premieres of new operas since the beginning of 2000 — a remarkable number, considering that, with one exception, they were all seen in the U.S., and I don't include the two dozen or so revivals of recent, pre-2000 works. What is more, I'd be interested in seeing about half of them again.
Which ones are the best? I asked a sampling of knowledgeable operagoers to choose. Some could base their opinion on only a small number of pieces; others had seen many. The only restriction was that they not include any opera in which they had been personally involved. Will these be the works that stand the test of time? Only if someone puts them on again — and again.
Michael John LaChiusa
Composer, librettist, lyricist
Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar [heard on recording] has to top everything. It's spectacular in so many ways — rich, beautiful and exciting. I love it! It's romantic and filled with passion. I like the experimental harmonies, and the rhythms are always surprising. It's all about texture and layering — a thrill ride from beginning to end. And Dawn Upshaw is splendid on the recording.
Runner-up: Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Euridice, if we can count that as an opera. He captured the soulfulness of the characters, and it was playful, too, with a great deal of humor, which is hard to do in music.
Artistic Director, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland. I remember how vividly it's orchestrated, and it was a haunting production [by Achim Freyer]. It was not at all what I expected, and I found that refreshing. It had some fantastic choral writing, as well, and it was very original in its approach to the story. Curiously, I don't think it's been done in the U.S.
Runner-up: I admired much of Doctor Atomic but found the world-premiere version a bit congested with an overwrought, sometimes tedious libretto. While I didn't care for the Met production, I thought the revisions made for a better overall experience. I admired the orchestrations, and the vocal writing was very good.
General Director, Seattle Opera
Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is a flawed work but the most engrossing of the new ones I've seen. It does what an opera has to do — it takes a good text and expands it, makes simple words have greater meaning and creates some powerful characters. I would have put Doctor Atomic first, except for the fact that the singers are amplified, and I am utterly opposed to that. I was completely swept away by Doctor Atomic. The orchestration was marvelous, and as a Wagnerian, I felt that the musico-poetic-dramatic synthesis absolutely worked. But I was shocked when I found out that the voices were amplified, and that eliminates it for me.
Bang on a Can's Lost Objects. I love those three composers [Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe] individually, and their collaboration with each other, and with a big-time period-instrument orchestra [Concerto Köln], was musically fascinating. And what was happening onstage, using a mix of different art forms, was ravishing. It had an idea line, or a feeling line, rather than a story line, and the music was the bedrock of that. It's a meditation on lost objects in life and what they mean. The music makes the intangible connections. It serves as a model of how you can do that with projected words, film, lighting and movement.
Runner-up: Conrad Cummings's The Golden Gate. I saw a DVD of a semi-staged performance with piano that knocked me out. It was really honest and full of feeling. I was caught up in the story and the people, as if I were watching a movie.
My favorite is Ricky Ian Gordon's Grapes of Wrath, which I heard on recording. I liked that it was extremely theatrical and heartfelt. I respond to his writing a lot — he's wonderfully talented! I'm anxious to go back and discover more in it. I'm eager to hear whatever William Bolcom writes next. I loved A View from the Bridge [world premiere in 1999, just outside the decade]. It's odd that in New York, being the center that it is, we don't get the opportunity to see that many new operas. The regional houses commission operas, but they don't go anywhere else.
Executive Director, Richard Tucker Music Foundation
The Tempest, by Thomas Adès, which I saw in Santa Fe. It achieved what it was supposed to — it was musically interesting and theatrically viable. I don't go out of my way to see new pieces. When I do see them, I like the cutting-edge ones. Most of them are too bland. Adès writes in an interesting new medium, and he does it effectively. I'd like to see what else he does, and that's not always the case.
Louis Andriessen's La Commedia. Written as Louis's wife, Jeanette, lay dying, Commedia is a divine-less comedy that is about death in the here and now and the only paradise we can know. I think what struck me the most is the extremes of expression — from utter hopelessness to the sweetest children's chorus imaginable that lifts the blackened spirits without a trace of nostalgia.
I can't come up with one runner-up and will have to list three — Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland and John Adams's Doctor Atomic. I was at the premieres of all of them. And I can't leave off Philip Glass's Waiting for the Barbarians or Lou Harrison's Young Caesar either.
Dona D. Vaughn
Artistic Director of Opera Programs, Manhattan School of Music
Thomas Adès's The Tempest. From the moment I heard the overture, I bought it. The overture just lifted me up, and I thought, we're on a roll here! Usually, it's text that draws me to new operas, but while I was fascinated by the text of The Tempest and how different the characters are from the Shakespeare play, it was the music that got me. I had a big grin on my face the whole time, especially when Ariel sang "Five fathoms deep."
Vice President, Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation
Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin. I saw the Salzburg production in Paris. As Martin Pakledinaz, the costume designer, said to me at the time, we all talk about things being beautiful in the theater, and for once, it really is! The music is sensuous and beautiful, the librettist (Amin Maalouf) and director (Peter Sellars) shaped it theatrically, and Gerald Finley and Dawn Upshaw were just remarkable in creating this very mysterious, medieval, failed love story. The floating towers looked as though the entire Islamic collection of the Metropolitan Museum had been boiled down to two exquisitely beautiful stage elements, and with the entire Châtelet theater illuminated by the light reflected off the water, the glass boat crossing the stage and the sound of the male chorus floating down from the upper balcony, it was very potent.
The most memorable piece I've seen in recent years was K at the Bastille with Susan Anthony. It was a fantastic, rich composition and a great story. I love intellectual exercise, but when it comes to opera, I must say I get much more involved emotionally if there is a great story and fleshed-out characters. K had heaps of that! I wanted to jump onstage and start singing it!
John Adams's Doctor Atomic, which I heard at its world premiere at San Francisco Opera, in 2005, has come in for considerable criticism from listeners who were dissatisfied with aspects of the score and/or the libretto. I found it transfixing from beginning to end. No modern opera has had such an acute impact on me, to the point where I was sweating while I watched it. While it may not be a flawless work, it contains some of Adams's most forcefully eloquent music. Telling the story of the first atomic test with Wagnerian breadth, it is beautiful and frightening all at once.
Runners-up: Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, Thomas Adès's The Tempest.
Poul Ruders's The Handmaid's Tale. This operatic version of Margaret Atwood's futuristic novel, including its sex and violence, was really powerful onstage. Paul Bentley's libretto mixed scenes depicting the grim reality of the prevailing "theocratic dictatorship" with scenes showing a happier past. It was especially effective to have this contrast reinforced by having different singers portray the principal female character. Ruders's music was especially poignant and lyrical when the voices of the two combined, but it also contributed strongly to the atmospheric tension overall. I was rapt for almost the entire opera.
Runner-up: Giorgio Battistelli's Richard III. I find it astonishing that, as far as I know, no opera company in an English-speaking country has taken it up. Battistelli's tense modernistic score was a perfect match for the Shakespeare-based story (with an English text). And Robert Carsen's production was excellent too.
Many of the pieces that stick in my mind from the last decade were interesting new productions of older works. But the one that still stays with me is George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill, which I saw at Lincoln Center. The production values were very simple, but the piece and the performance were arresting. The story — a version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin — was terrifying and beautiful at once. The score was intricate and fascinating, so finely crafted but still with an extraordinary sense of span and dramatic weight. And the soloists — Anu Komsi and Hilary Summers — were stunning.
Marc A. Scorca
President and CEO, OPERA America
I am reluctant to name recent works, since I don't want to show favorites among composers and opera companies. However, there are older pieces that have been revised and produced again to what I consider great success. Marvin David Levy's 1967 Mourning Becomes Electra, which I saw in Chicago (1998) and at New York City Opera (2004). Also, Dominick Argento's Miss Havisham's Fire (1979). Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gave the revised version in 2001. With some revision and perspective enriched by the passage of time, existing works can emerge as real gems of American opera.
The new opera I saw in the last ten years that most excited me at the time was Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick. I never thought I'd say that. But it was certainly the most exciting and satisfying premiere I experienced personally in that time period, and one of the very rare cases I've seen of an opera connecting with an audience and hitting a lot of artistic sweet spots. It was a very smart adaptation, it featured one of the best all-round opera casts I've heard in years, it had a bang-up production — and all of this helped, a lot.
Runner-up: Ned Rorem's Our Town, which I thought was conceived in the spirit of the play and had a touching sweetness.
My own pick? I was enchanted by L'Amour de Loin and moved by Daron Hagen's wonderful Amelia, but I'll put Ruders's The Handmaid's Tale first. This chilling opera took its source material to a new level with music, humanizing the novel's main character and precisely evoking the horror of her dystopian environment. With a suitably grim production in Minnesota, the opera made the book's feminist subject — tyranny over women — immediate and immensely powerful.
HEIDI WALESON is the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal.