I have recently come across this article written by an opera critic Robert Thicknesse in the previous issue of Opera Now magazine. The article discusses the eight worst contemporary operas of the year - it is both sad and funny and I thought could maybe sparkle a discussion here. I was reading it with great interest particularly because am in the middle of writing a short comic opera, which, am now worried, might be eligible for the next black list!
[reprinted here with kind permission of Robert Thicknesse]
"It’s been a vintage year for new opera in Britain… not! So here, for all who have sweated, suffered and sworn through the patronising, camp, pompous and almost universally musically worthless offerings of the past months, is a trip down memory lane.
Least painful, probably, was Anna Nicole (Turnage), whose uncertainty of aim – contempt or pretend sympathy? – stymied the composer to the extent that his real voice came over only in a couple of orchestral interludes; the rest moved so slowly it did no favours to a libretto that needed to be sung double-quick to get away with jokes you could see staggering towards you over distant hills. It would have been better if scribbler Richard Thomas, jovial celebrant of the tawdry, had written the music as well. This was a vulgar spectacle, which looked as though it had been directed by Graham Norton and designed by Jeff Koons, with old auntie Covent Garden vajazzling herself to get down with the kidz.
Our next suspect is ENO’s Duchess of Malfi (Torsten Rasch), another show that at least went to the trouble of trying to cover up the threadbare with a truckload of theatrical bullshit, as a masked audience wandered through a darkened office block in east London witnessing snippets of melodrama and randomly-generated music, and being bullied by actors – and does it get worse than that? This was a vastly over-promoted Haunted House children’s party, and God only knows what kind of hole it made in ENO’s budget.
Somewhere in the same bracket comes Damon Albarn’s navel-gazing thing about his y’know, Englishness, Dr Dee. Its exceptionally vague dramaturgy was livened up by Rufus Norris’s hard-working production, full of visual trickery and even a nice raven. Some pleasant music, a bit of pastiche polyphony and minimalism, and a big drum solo; Damon sat on a shelf making vague gestures towards the action and mumbling his way through mystic songs, like Spinal Tap in Stonehenge mode. Best read up on the Doctor before you go, if you go.
Kommilitonen! blew into town on a warm fart of self-righteousness as two cosy old lefties, Peter Maxwell Davies and David Pountney, daringly invited us to hiss at Nazis and Cultural Revolutionaries and did a lot of posturing in an agit-propera with an infantile approach to moral complexity. Still, Davies is a real composer, if no longer particularly radical, and Pountney put lots of effort into making his own work look good. The final cry of “Freedom!” takes the Les Mis prize for this year’s cheesiest bathos.
Davies’s old mucker Alexander Goehr returned to opera, never his strong suit, with Promised End, boldly going where better composers had feared to tread in taking on King Lear. This was terrifically dry, dull and dated, a lesson in how to destroy promising words with terrible word-setting and alienate an audience who strive to find some emotional connexion with the characters on stage. Elsewhere, Goehr’s music was spikily lyrical, though uninterestingly scored.
That was a gloomy evening, but James Macmillan’s Clemency was worse. The ideas were promising – hospitality, terrorism, bargaining with God, a bit like a night in a British seaside hotel – but issues raised do not equal issues explored, and the soundworld of big retro unison string tunes à la Vaughan Williams and Macmillan’s urgent rhythmic drive were not enough to sustain a flagging interest, or even the will to live.
That finally seeped away during Luke Bedford’s drivelling Seven Angels, a dank evening where one felt one was slowly drowning in a musical bog while being bombarded with soggy frogs in the form of Glyn Maxwell’s empty, orotund poetastery, this time on the radical subject of how we are, like, doing really bad things to the ecology, and co-opting poor old Milton for the purpose.
At this unhappy end of the market, optimism clings to such formulae as: “Well, that was incredibly boring, but it wasn’t too irritating,” not something one could possibly say about Two Boys, composed by perky little Nico Muhly, a composer in urgent need of a slap. A discarded episode of some police procedural set to the most derivative score of second-hand Glass (or was it Adams – does anyone care?), with a gloomy, clunking staging, any marginal quality in the evening was provided by the stalwart Nicky Spence: a nice lad, but seeing him wanking in close-up was not previously on my list of must-dos – even though it neatly summed up the only thing most contemporary opera composers excel at."
I had a conversation about opera with Leonid Desyatnikov.Desyatnikov is one of Russia’s most prominent composers and since 2009 the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre.His opera Rosental's Children, based on the libretto by the highly controversial fiction writer Vladimir Sorokin commissioned and staged at the Bolshoi Theatre made an enormous and scandalous success.One of the opera reviewers described: ’’Here, Mozart is a clone brought to life at Doctor Rosenthal's laboratory. With the government subsidies for cloning and stem cell exploration, as well as for other areas of basic research, cut off during Boris Yeltsin's presidency in the early 1990s, clones of Mozart and other great composers-such as Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky - find themselves loose on Moscow's streets, exposed to the murky post-Soviet reality, memories whereof are still fresh for many Muscovites.’’The Russian State Duma accused the opera of being ‘pornographic’ and promted an investigation after its premier.Nevertheless, the opera received a Golden Mask Award.
Elena Langer:Can we please talk about opera?
Leonid Desyatnikov: Why opera?
EL: Because of your Rosental's Children, because you are the artistic director of an Opera House and because I have ulterior motives as I have just finished writing my own full-length opera and am very keen to discuss various aspects of the genre.Do you think you could describe what opera is in one sentence?
LD:This is too difficult!I can only offer a banal answer – a pinnaclein the history of European culture.
EL: Is opera a story told through music, singing and movement?
LD: No, it doesn’t necessarily need a story.There are many wonderful operas in which nothing really happens. Take Saint Francis of Assisi by Messiaen, or any baroque opera…If a composer uses mythology then the story lacks suspense.The development of the plot becomes unimportant as everybody knows what is going to happen.
EL: At least we now have established what is NOT important and that is the plot!
LD:Of course – look at Tristan and Isolde orSzymanowski’s King Roger….In any fiction film many more events take place than in an opera.
EL: What is important then?
LD: Well, what isimportant is that it creates some fit of passion, some metaphysical, otherworldly psychological human state expressed through music.Opera shows us characters in such emotional states that are otherwise impossible to express but through music.
EL: It is the only genre where we can hear the thoughts of several characters simultaneously…
LD: Yes, true, but we can’t hear the text in 95% of cases!Instead, we see a special moment, where a few characters are shocked. At least I personally always remember those kinds of bewitched moments.‘I’m frightened’ (‘Mne strashno’), for instance, from the first tableau of The Queen of Spades or the finale of The Marriage of Figaro.So after all, it doesn’t matter what they are saying, it matters what they all are feeling during those moments.Music is able to tell us more than the text in this situation.The characters are still, like in a child’s play ‘statue’.The depth of their feeling is interesting – the ensembles are not about what you see, but what you don’t see, about the inner side of life.
Excerpt from Desyatnikov's opera 'Rosental's Children'
EL: Could you name your 5 favourite operas?
LD: Five favourite operas for a professional composer would not be enough. Your favourite opera is the one, where you revel with each note, which you know by heart from beginning to end.There are music-lovers, who could sing each character’s lines from their favourite operas.
EL: True! My grandma could sing huge bits from Traviata and Eugene Onegin although she wasn’t a musician.
LD: Probably, you could only be so faithful to opera if you are a music lover, not a professional composer.Opera for me and should be for you, a kind of back garden, which you can’t regard with reverence. We have to cultivate this back garden because we are its owners.
EL: But I still regard Wozzeck or Lady Macbeth of Mtsens with reverence…
LD: As a matter of fact, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk doesn’t touch me much.Actually, the same could be said about Wozzeck. Although, the culmination moment in the d-minor invention couldn’t leave anybody untouched.The problem is that I know this opera from inside out - for a few months I was living with it.(Wozzeck was recently staged at the Bolshoi Theatre – EL).So it is really hard to be emotionally shocked by something that you know so well.My perception of it is not fresh enough.
EL:I’m always amazed by the German counterpoint, the intensity and richness of it.I don’t think you could find that level of counterpoint in Russian music.
I would like to update you on a festival in Moscow called Homecoming - a series of chamber music concerts. The idea was that the young top classical musicians who where educated at Moscow’s best music schools and subsequently settled in Europe return to Moscow every winter to play together. The festival, which started as a small group of friends making music to their pleasure, gradually grew into a major event on Moscow’s classical scene. Newspapers, programmes on national TV and Radio extensively cover it every season. The festival has its own devoted audience; when the house is full, people stand through the concerts or sit on window sills – in Russia they are not as conscious of safety rules!
Each year the Homecoming Festival commissions a new piece from a young contemporary composer –Dobrinka Tobakova, Ed Bennet and Brian Irvine are among the names you might know. Sometimes, European musicians are invited to join - this winter they have a British soprano Anna Dennis, who is going to sing Ades’ Life Story, Stravinsky’s songs and my own Two Cat Songs. Whatever new music Homecoming features, it is cleverly put in a context which allows a quite traditionally-minded Russian audience to digest it.
As well as premiers, the Homecoming musicians perform varied and eclectic programmes consisting of music of all possible epochs and styles. Each concert has a unifying theme. This season, for example, two themes are ‘Counterpoint’, with music by Guillaume Dufay, Webern, Schostakovich, Glinka, Reger, Schnittke and Beethoven, and ‘In Nature’ featuring works by Coelestin Harst (1698-1776), George Crumb, Stravinsky, Giacino Scelsi, Latvian minimal composer George Pelecis.
The concept of mixing contemporary music with other music is obviously not new. Still, I believe it is one of the best ways to create an exciting programme. Besides the programming, I think the success of the new music within the festival is due to the prodigious musicality of the performers, who bring exactly the same level of precision and interpretative refinement to their renditions of contemporary pieces as they would to a Schubert song or Beethoven string quartet.
For more information, visit the Homecoming Festival page on its Artistic Director’s website: www.romanmints.com