Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What a New Opera Needs...

I have often quoted Anthony Tommasini when reviewing an opera. He writes for the New York Times and frequently has intelligent insight into a production he's reviewing.

Earlier (on my birthday no less), Mr Tommasini wrote an article about new opera, not a specific review, but rather a look at the recent success (or lack there of) of new operas. I find it most interesting that where he feels new operas have failed in recent years is the music. Both "The Fly" and "The Bonesetter's Daughter" are sited for problems with their scores. The composers of each is lauded for other projects, and given credit for being good composers, but both failed to make the transition from a good story to a good opera.

As the composer for "It Must Be Fate," getting the music right is a big concern for me. One of my prime concerns is taking the story of the three women of Fate, and moving it out of the ancient world into a modern "Sex in the City" context. This means (to me) the music needs to have elements of pop music, but also needs to retain a element of a classic nature. The women of "Sex in the City" were stylish, modern and perfectly comfortable at either a night club or a concert at Lincoln Center. The music of the opera I envision needs to highlight that same flare in The Fates.

"The Bonesetter's Daughter" and "The Fly" were both criticized for lack of "tunes." Part of what I think my music needs is memorable melodies the audience can take with them. The theme to "Sex in the City" didn't start out as iconic, but now it is. If you're a fan and you hear the first few bars you immediately call to mind memories of your favorite moments. I want some of the arias to do the same thing, to have melodies that immediately remind the audience of the opera.

Where "The Fly" went for atonal aspects, I intent to keep stick with the tonal realm. However, there is a lot to be said for the use of cluster chords, as referenced to the Requiem aeternum by Karin Rehnqvist. Her vocal writing is excellent, pulling emotion out of the words and never losing the words in dissonance. The chorus of her requiem highlight the use of drones, doubling voices with string and semitone intervals and their ability to sound beautiful. I need to incorporate more of this type of writing in my choral pieces.

Where "The Bonesetter's Daughter" went for ethnic sounds, the closest I will come will be the use of modes (originally a Greek musical concept). However, my modal writing tends to feel more like jazz than ancient Greek music (I'm not even sure anyone knows what ancient Greek music sounds like). Blending jazz, with classical, urban with opera will be the focus on getting the sound right. There is the danger of trying to blend too much and ending up with nothing (as the reviewer felt after the June 4th preview performance of It Must Be Fate). However, I think this is partially due to the preview being scored for piano only, and our pianist Simon Coverdale had his work cut out for him trying to pull off multiple melodic strands with just two hands. With the right orchestration I think the blend will be heard and very effective.

Other operas I've reviewed that Mr Tommasini didn't mention include, "Repo: the Opera" and "Lovelace: the Rock Opera". One is a film, the other is a live production in LA and both more pop/rock in flavor than people might consider as classical opera. However, the music for both has an edge that gives these pieces a really fresh, new sense. From what I can see, where they fall down is the over use of rhyming lyrics. They are both overtly pop music in style and so fail to get a sense that classical opera achieves. (caveat: I have not actually seen either production, so there could be parts that I have not seen which include this classical element).

Listening back on the Fate preview performance, there are problems with some of the music. We only performed 30 mins, and yet we have enough material for nearly an hour. The music needs to breath more, have more space, time for the audience to hear what's going on and feel the emotion - before it heads off to the next bit. However, some (a great deal-IMHO) of the music works well as it is. The music is sexy and fresh, while occasionally still managing to be operatic and deeply emotional. There are melodies that sink into the back of our consciousness and play over and over again after leaving the theatre. The chorus has power, but needs more. The styles move from one to another with a seamlessness, so the audience isn't really aware of different styles, but a blending of them. This isn't a pop opera, but it should still have pop appeal. It's not finished, but what we have so far feels as if it has what Mr Tommasini says is needed in a new opera. I can hardly wait to read his review...

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