Quoted in the New York Times

It's really just my question got answered, but still, my name is in print in the New York Times thanks to Anthony Tommasini's "Talk to the Newsroom."

What Exactly Is 'Modern Opera'?

Q. In the world of opera, there have been a number of new works in the past 10 years appearing on both stage and screen, from John Adams's "Doctor Atomic" and "The Flower Tree," Philip Glass's "In the Penal Colony " and "Galileo Galilei," Judith Weir's "A Night at the Chinese Opera," Damon Albarn's "Monkey King: Journey to the West," Stewart Wallace's "Bonesetter's Daughter," Robert Ashley's "Dust," Dan Plonsey's "Leave Me Alone!," Steven Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich's "Repo! The Genetic Opera."

The diversity is immense and yet is there a commonality to these operas, some thread that would include them all as being opera? Or are there items on this list that you would not include as opera, and why? Ostensibly, my question is: What is modern opera? Can it be defined? If so, what might a modern definition be?

— Chip Clark

Here is his reply:

A. What makes it hard to define "modern opera" is the elusive issue at the core of your question: categories in the arts. You are quite right that from looking at the list of fascinatingly diverse music theater works that you cite it would be very hard to figure out what goes where. What's an opera? A musical? An experimental theater piece? A dramatic oratorio? And so on.

But all the arts wrestle with categories. You need look no further than Sunday night's Grammy Awards, where the sheer number of categories within each genre and sub-genre of popular music discombobulates me. And what, by the way, is "popular music"?

Classical music has always wrestled with categories. Look at opera in the 18th and 19th centuries. Serious operas are supposed to be sung through, we are told. Spoken dialog is a telltale sign that a piece is an operetta, right? Yet, there are profound operas, like Cherubini's "Médée," an opéra comique, and Beethoven's "Fidelio," that have lots of spoken dialog. Mozart's "Magic Flute" is another category-blurring work. That show was written for a sort of low-brow theater that mostly presented crowd-pleasing entertainments. Much of "The Magic Flute," which has spoken dialog, dumb comedy and magic, is very silly. Yet it is also one of Mozart's most sublimely spiritual works. So it's unfair to expect contemporary opera audiences, and critics, to figure out what work belongs in which category when this question has always been so elusive.

And yet, categories are not meaningless. I once wrote an essay in which I tried to explain the difference, as I saw it, between a musical and an opera. Both genres mix words and music. But in a musical, words have a slight edge, words drive the music for the most part; whereas in an opera it's music that does the heavy lifting. This seemed a little more useful a distinction to me than musical complexity, which doesn't get you far. "The Most Happy Fella," by Frank Loesser, is more musically complex than many recent contemporary operas.

Stephen Sondheim is another one who resists categorizing. He is no opera fan, and does not think of his works as operas. Yet, his musicals have been claimed and produced by opera companies everywhere, and understandably. In terms of musical sophistication, harmonic inventiveness, skillfully rendered large choral ensembles, and vocal lines that that give clarity and lift to words through ingenious settings, "Sweeney Todd" is a more accomplished work than the majority of operas from the last 40 years.

So, I'm not sure we need a working definition of modern opera. Still, I think it is helpful for audiences, critics especially, to discern, as much as possible, what traditions, styles and genres the creators of a music theater work are drawing from. For example, it's helpful to know that the composer John Adams and the librettist Alice Goodman think of "The Death of Klinghoffer" as much as a kind of passion, in the manner of the Bach passions, as an opera. That perception helps you orient yourself to the long stretches of the piece that are dramatically static, but rich with reflective, psychologically complex ensembles for chorus and orchestra.

At The Times, we often have trouble figuring out which critic should cover a production that bridges genres. Sometimes what determines this is the place that is presenting the piece. If "Sweeney Todd" plays in a Broadway theater, a theater critic covers it. If it plays at the New York City Opera, a classical music critic usually claims it. Sorry for the dodge, but this is a tough, and fascinating, question.

My thanks to Anthony Tommasini for answering my question, or at least discussing it.


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