contemporary opera? modern opera? define, please

This afternoon I’m seeing Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s Phaedra, a concert opera composed by Hans Werner Henze, which first premiered in 2007. I’m a little anxious about seeing it because I believe I am neither as fond of modern opera nor concert opera as classic opera performed full-out. I learned from watching musicals as concert pieces on PBS that I don’t even like concert musical theater. That’s because I love being engaged by drama and much prefer being invited to sit behind that invisible fourth wall and enter in.

I will however concede that my favorite production this spring was Séance on a Wet Afternoon presented by New York City Opera, written by composer Stephen Schwartz, and that I was prepared to not love that show either, feeling strongly that I needed to see it instead.

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Since that production, I have been made to consider why I liked it so much.  It was contemporary opera with which I have a limited musical vocabulary. One of the things I realized I preferred was the realistic, immediate storyline of Séance. It wasn’t about a bride who goes crazy on her wedding night or a small town opera singer who stabs a police chief with a steak knife. Or a Russian king who goes mad on a throne.

Drawn from a contemporary novel, Séance had characters and a storyline that seemed plausible and that I could relate to.

Lest you are wondering at this point whether I read classic literature, I can tell you that I unabashedly love Hugo, Hardy, Shakespeare, Dumas, and RLS, to name a few. But when it comes to classic opera, while the music is accessible, for me sometimes the storylines don’t grab me, and the whole affair can become what I imagine concert opera to be–you’re concentrating on the music and production of sound foremost and the story is a distant second.

That is probably my limited view of concert opera–which is another reason I’ve opted to see Phaedra. I want to expand my thinking on this experience and my appreciation for concert opera as an art form.

Back to the subject of modern opera or contemporary opera.  A bit of research suggests that anything goes for opera composers in the 21st century. If their musical sound hearkens back to an earlier musical era, then the modern composer’s work is labeled neo-classical or neo-romantic. If they want to skip arias, nothing will stop them. If they want to use atonality or a hybrid musical language such as the contemporary jazz rhythms and sonorities in Berg’s Lulu,  no one will bat an eye.

If such a description is accurate–that anything goes when it comes to opera in the 21st century–then isn’t modern or contemporary opera like a feast–a wonderful buffet–one in which you’re never quite sure if prime rib or pot roast will be the entree but that’s fine because you love both? Isn’t that more fun, more of an adventure than a prix fixe meal where you know every morsel you’ll be consuming in that sitting?

I don’t think I have contemporary opera figured out or completely understand all its parameters. But it’s fun exploring contemporary musical expression. How about you? How do you feel about modern opera? Here’s a clip from Phaedra to stimulate your thinking:

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Concert Opera, opera trends

6 Responses to contemporary opera? modern opera? define, please

  1. A very interesting post, thanks! And I must say, I’m very jealous that you get to see Phaedra, and will look forward to your review! I really enjoy the intertextuality (if the word may be applied here) of late-twentieth-century opera. (Haven’t heard a twenty-first-century opera yet! YET!) I love the cross-genre referencing, as well as all the playing around with familiar conventions of the “standard” opera repertory (I suppose the discussion of “Is there a standard opera repertory? Should there be?” is for another time.) I got to hear John Adams conduct his “Nixon in China” at the Met this past winter, and loved it (allusions to everything from Mozart to American big band music of the 40s, and Adams’ typical orchestral inventiveness.) Toronto’s COC is doing Kaija Saariaho’s “L’amour de loin” this coming season… I fear that my teaching schedule may prevent me taking the train up to see it, but I’m tempted. Thanks again for the post.

  2. A M Zénon

    Each opera is good for me, if there is drama and passion in the story, the music and the performers. I liked the first clip. The second clip, I don’t know yet, perhaps after hearing and watching the whole opera. I watched the Minotaur is on televison. I didn’t need to think about it. I loved that opera immediately.

  3. John

    “Minotaur” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Opus Arte.

    Here’s the scoop on “Svadba” (spelled it wrong originally)

  4. Well, I love contemporary opera, but I may be a bit biased, being an opera composer myself. You’re exactly right, though- you never quite know what to expect. Contemporary opera can not only be somewhere in the continuum of music throughout the classical style periods, you now have opera borrowing from musical theater and popular music. Also, two operas by the same composer can be drastically different – Turnage’s “Anna Nicole,” mentioned above, is at least a drastically different subject matter from his opera “Greek.” I can’t speak to the music, though, I haven’t heard any of “Anna Nicole.” I share John’s skepticism of composers who are trying too hard to be accessible, though. A composer should always have his audience and performers in mind, but he should make sure he’s enjoying what he’s writing himself!

    And definitely don’t go into a concert opera with a closed mind – if the singers are good enough actors, you might not even miss the staging. Or, the show might be semi-staged after all.

  5. You’ve given me some new titles to research. Specifically “Minotaur” and “Svabda.” So glad you’ve stopped by.

  6. John

    I would definitely go see that. It looks much more accessible than Henze’s “We Come to the River” which I saw at the ROH in 1976. I like to see new works though I’d much rather see them staged than in concert. I confess though that I tend to be a bit skeptical of the genre of contemporary opera that seems to be trying too hard to be “accessible”. I would much sooner see Birtwistle’s “Minotaur” than Turnage’s “Anna Nicole”. Next up for me in a couple of weeks is the world premiere of Ana Sokolovic’s “Svabda”.