Why New Opera Is Such a Hard Sell

2011Symposium_1_2My post today is a sort of companion piece to the one from yesterday. Then, I discussed building familiarity at an early age in order to establish a preference for classical music, and other genres. The same principle of familiarity applies to opera.As I mentioned yesterday, everyone loves a good story, especially if it is one that makes us feel good or validated at the end. A look at almost any opera company’s most popular productions will reveal that gaiety and romance are by far the most sought after elements in a successful opera plot. Whether it is the light-hearted Traviata or Fledermaus, or the tragically romantic Tosca, Turandot or Aida, these well-traveled stories of comedy on the one hand or tragic romance on the other move us in a way most find rewarding.

One of the liabilities of recent concert music in general, and I am including opera here, is that there is precious little in it that is familiar or memorable. Atonality and a paucity of memorable tunes often results in a listener failing to remember much of the work, even if he or she has heard it before. Dramatists over the same period of time became enamored with psychological dramas and stream of consciousness, both of which can leave an audience confused, as it tries to make sense of the illogical workings of a characters impaired logic. Even one of the most successful operas of our time, Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, is born of such psychological pretext and writing. Add to this the fact that the most successful American operas written in the twentieth century have been written by minimalist composers John Adams (Nixon in China) and Philip Glass. The micro-changes that the smallest of musical fragments undergo do not reside in memory the way a Puccini aria or a Richard Rodgers song does, and a sense of perceivable structure in a song, if in fact there is such a thing in a minimalist opera, or in the opera overall, is at the very least hard to come by.

More successful, though still nothing to rival Puccini and Verdi, is John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. With this opera, we have a lesson in simplicity. At its initial performances in 1999 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the work received mixed reviews and was regarded as not quite fully realized. In the ensuing years, Harbison tightened the score, reined in his forces, and created a more powerful vehicle for a concert performance at Tanglewood in 2013. With a more simple musical presentation, and a story that many are familiar with from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel and two cinematic versions, Harbison’s opera succeeds where the others fail. There is more here that is familiar to an audience. The references to early twentieth century American musical styles is fun and recognizable amid a decidedly Harbison sound, and the combination of financial success, romance tap into the basic wants of audiences for heroes who are both fallible and gaudy.

If new opera is to succeed, composers of it must find a way to present what audiences have always, still, and I notationsbelieve always will demand: comedy, tragedy, and romance all in a culturally familiar package. Reinterpreting stories with these elements is what contemporary artists should do, but exploring our inner psychologies, the very thing we may wish to escape from for a few hours at the theater, may be reflective of life, but does not help many cope with and feel good about life, which is something many of us need our arts to do.

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