John Cage’s Europeras 1 and 2 were scheduled to premiere at the Frankfurt Opera House on November 15, 1987. Three days before opening night an unemployed, former East German resident broke into the building, looking for food, and ended up setting a fire that gutted the place. Cage’s reaction was:
I think it shows very clearly that this society is in transition, we hope, to another society in which there won’t be that great separation between those who have what they need and those who don’t. I haven’t seen the man or talked with him, but it seems he must not only have been hungry but somewhat out of his mind. It’s not his fault, but the fault of the whole society. The opera in society is an ornament of the lives of the people who have. [emphasis added]. I don’t feel that so much with my work, but with more conventional operas, it’s clearly an ornament that has no necessary relation to the 20th century.
Or, as we like to say these days, this is why we can’t have nice things. Even with the vast wealth of this country, which for all my life I have been hearing is the greatest in the world, we can no longer have things that are good for most of us and thus good for the country: reliable and inexpensive public transportation, decent wages and job security, good and affordable education, a pension, a future for our children. Instead we have the creation of the contemporary equivalent of what we always had prior to the late 18th century; feudal lords, landed gentry, the right of primogeniture, all ably abetted by the 1%’s political courtiers.
In the 21st century these good old atavistic ways are surging forward with a vengeance. The post-WWII global rise in prosperity increasingly appears as a complete outlier from the course of human history, which has been predominantly a story of incremental economic growth, endless wars, ethnic, religious, and racial antagonisms, and feudal politics. But opera fans, look on the bright side: opera may be returning to it’s own old form as entertainment, not merely a reflection of the self-regarding and self-rewarding tastes of the very few very rich.
While my hopes, such as they are, for the future continue; the possibilities for opera have been running through my head since the middle of September. Courtesy of Visit Philadelphia and Opera Philadelphia, I spent a few days in that lovely city attending some of the opera company’s inaugural O17 Festival performances (as well as an enjoyable, and at crucial moments emotionally powerful, theatrical dance performance, Kink Haüs, from Gunnar Montana at this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival). I was impressed with what Opera Philadelphia was doing, and came away thinking that, beyond what I saw and heard on stage, the company had workable ideas.
Workable, perhaps better in Italian (the lingua franca of opera) as fatibile, do-able. In the world of opera (and traditional classical music in general) there is a desperation on the part of administrators to find workable ideas that will produce successful stagings, bring in audiences, and allow the company to live for another season. Only most of these administrators don’t know what they’re looking for (and the boards that oversee them know even less), and are easily led by the nose with buzzwords and trends that mostly have to do with digital and social media. They are looking for new sales techniques.
What they should be looking for are new ideas about what to put on stage, and where those stages might be. The size of the audience that can afford to buy a seat on the board is still far too small to fill the house. The ultimate judgment of success is not development money―for proof of this, see the top-down destruction of the original New York City Opera, the “People’s Opera,” and Gotham Chamber Opera (a former partner with Opera Philadelphia). Success is best judged by how many people actually see a production, and how it affects them. O17, which in a handful of works covered an enormous range of expressions and aesthetics, with performances in medium to small-sized spaces, was successful.
O17 melded new thinking with transparent intelligence about their own purpose and values. I saw three stagings―The Magic Flute, Elizabeth Cree, and War Stories―out of five total (the company also premiered Daniel Bernard Roumain’s We Shall Not Be Moved, about the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house, and The Wake World, based on the story by Aleister Crowley and staged by the brilliant director R. B. Schlather in the Barnes Foundation). Two were excellent, demonstrating the triumph of the new, and stood in contrast with the third, unsuccessful opera, which was stuck in the old.
The newest thinking came through in The Magic Flute. The production, from the Komische Oper Berlin and co-produced by LA Opera and Minnesota Opera, was one of the finest opera stagings I’ve seen, and a rival to Julie Taymor’s production at the Metropolitan Opera. It transformed Mozart and Schikaneder’s comic story about magic and the Enlightenment via our own contemporary magic, the movies.
Except for the costumes and some minor props, the staging was completely projected in the sense that video was not only overlaid against the singers and the back wall, but was used for all the scene setting and storytelling. It was interactive in that the singers hit their exact marks and moved in complete synchronization with the images.
The concept from the theater group 1927 combined German Expressionist silent film with Betty Boop-type animation. Tamino (Ben Bliss) was the hapless hero; Pamina (Rachel Sterrenberg) was Louise Brooks; baritone Jarrett Ott was done up as Buster Keaton for Papageno; the Three Ladies were Roaring ‘20s vamps; Monostatos (Brenton Ryan) was Max Schreck in Nosferatu, and the Queen of the Knight (Olga Pudova) was an astonishing, giant human-spider hybrid.
Not only was this utterly compelling, it was a true honoring of The Magic Flute. Opera was entertainment for everyone all the way through the late-19th century―and this opera (which we now celebrate as high art) was specifically made as an entertainment for lower class audiences, not the haute-bourgeoisie and aristocracy―now supplanted in our imaginations by the movies. Outside of the turgid psychology and aesthetics of Wagner, opera as a whole never made a claim to profundity or self-seriousness. It was meant to make people laugh, to excite and move them, to tell stories. That was the 19th century Verdian model.
The populist attitude of that model is still welcome, but I chafe at new operas that use the plot-based, linear narrative form that has been around for centuries. We’ve had more than one hundred years of experiments and innovations in narrative form in prose, theater, and the movies. Recent vintage is little guarantee of new thinking.
The world premiere of Elizabeth Cree fit directly into the 19th century, and on top of that it just wasn’t a good opera. A melodrama by composer Kevin Puts, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel about a Victorian-era Jack the Ripper-type killer, it seemed doomed from the conception.
There were two crippling problems, one conceptual and the other technical. The story from Ackroyd strives for an importance and historical resonance beyond mere thrills, using witnesses like Karl Marx who have absolutely nothing to do with anything—it cripples itself with the past. And Puts could not structure things into a functioning opera: the music had no drama, there were too many scenes in too few acts, and the opera never established a coherent tone. (There was also the confused―and to some likely infuriating―gender politics: abuse turns a character into a lesbian, and her sexuality is an essential component of the realization of her insanity.)
War Stories made the past as immediate as the present, and the present as profound as the past. This is a hybrid production that starts with a staging of Monteverdi’s early 17th-century madrigal Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, and then responds with the early 21st-century I Have No Stories to Tell You, by composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch.
These are war stories, the first the tale of a Christian and Muslim soldier who love each other, with Tancredi then killing Clorinda in battle when she is disguised as a man. I Have No Stories to Tell You is mainly a mono-drama, with a soldier back from some war unable to sleep, plagued by memories (each one a singer) and reluctant to tell her husband, and even herself, the truth of what happened. Or perhaps she simply can’t―a rare and profound spotting of the unreliable narrator in the operatic context.
One thing these stories tell us is that after four hundred years we continue to both make things and kill each other, as we always have, as we always will. War Stories is art that goes right to the gut, that uses dark beauty to impress upon us ugly truths that, despite this country being in its sixteenth consecutive year of waging war, are a topic of unconcern for the country as a whole.
This was enhanced by the stagings by director Robin Guarino in two different spaces inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, galleries of simple, graceful beauty. Il combattimento was performed in a tiny, rebuilt medieval court, the audience not only surrounding the singers but in danger of being knocked over by them. The principal performers, bass Craig Verm and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall, made everything vivid and searing: battle fatigue, horror, the melancholy inevitability of violence. On the steps of the museum’s Great Hall, underneath Saint-Gaudens’s breathtaking statue of Diana, Hall’s sublime singing and dark, Renaissance beauty were almost unbearably affecting.
That was the last performance I saw. Afterwards, I walked back to the hotel along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, past Rodin’s The Thinker, past all the illuminated windows of the Barnes Foundation that allowed one to catch glimpses of Cézannes and Matisses, past all the public art, including the Swann Memorial Fountain, made by Alexander Calder’s father Alexander Stirling Calder, past images that embody the fundamental ideas that are supposed to drive America’s purpose and values. It all made O17 particularly promising and poignant. Where in New York, money is stitched into the skin of everyone and everything, and progress is all about what gets torn down and put up in each vacant lot, Philadelphia holds onto the public display of the Enlightenment. A local guide described the Parkway as Philadelphia’s Champs Elysée, but that’s unfair to Philly. Paris's boulevard is a gaudy shopping mall when not supplanted by a military parade, and it culminates in a monument to martial conquest.
America is supposed to be different. We’re supposed to be about our ideas and values, what we make and how we treat other people, not about what we can afford to buy, who our parents were. We’re supposed to be enlightened. For a few days, O17 ensured we were.