Opera in Our New World
Listening to music changed this past year. The recordings in your library remained the same, but your relationship with them didn’t. Before March 2020, your record albums were part of the music mix, another, different kind of friend than the one you would go out to see on stage at a club or concert hall. Since that cold, hard spring, though, they are the sum of your musical friends, present and at hand while live music has been absent. Everything has a different meaning and sound when it’s the only music you know will be part of your day-to-day life.
That renegotiation is a personal one. For myself, it’s meant that albums I’ve had for a long time, that I always thought of in a semi-serious way as my friends, ones whose thoughts I could hear whenever I needed to, have been set into relief as ersatz, an unsatisfying stand-in for actual family and friends. And the streamed substitute for a live, staged performance continues to be dispiriting. The plucky attitude of “hey, let’s keep things going” collides over and over again with the reality of putting something on a screen without thinking through the implications of what it means to be in that medium. And like driving a car at high speed head-on into a brick wall, the livestream experience is compressed, flat, and brittle.
Everything has changed for performances, so performances have to change. For opera, this should be an important reckoning as to how the Verdian model is no longer relevant, no matter how fresh the music or timely the topics. The opportunity is here—there’s no stage for a while, just speakers and/or screens. Yet there’s barely been a hint of any thinking (a notable exception being the ideas Joe Diebes outlined in the July/August edition of these pages) beyond putting people, or even just a newscast-like singing head, in front of a camera. The story may be ripped from the headlines or social media, but people being people through generations, these are iterations of millennia-old human aspirations and failings.
This same-old thinking points out a lackluster chauvinism in the opera world. Except for Wozzeck, The Rake’s Progress, Einstein on the Beach, Atlas, and the occasional experimental work, opera has somehow managed to ignore the modernist movement in total (the exception that makes the rule is Robert Ashley, whose librettos assume a modernist literary concept, not to mention the music). Many people on the creative side—I won’t vouch for boards as they are composed mainly of rich people, who are okay with Trumpism if not actively promoting it—are not just well-meaning but sensitive to cultural changes and work very hard to expand the social range of what they consider possible. But their ideas for how an opera can be made, how it’s supposed to work, are aesthetically reactionary, still assuming that linear narrative is the only way. And casting about for the kind of topics that appear in social media and television news misses the lesson of Hamilton (which is through-composed and sung all the way, making it an opera), which is that you don’t need something ripped from the headlines, or the movies, to make a new opera, you need the latest idioms.
The sameness of the thinking leaves a bad taste in a world where everything seems so much the same all the time that it’s hard to know what day of the week it is. This is true even with well-made recordings of well-made recent operas. In normal circumstances, I would be praising the beauty and expression, the sympathy and sincerity of Joe Phillips’s haunting The Grey Land, Missy Mazzoli’s powerful Proving Up, the mysteries of David Hertzberg’s The Rose Elf, and David Serkin Ludwig’s The Anchoress. But things aren’t normal, and my emotional, irrational, but very real reaction is that these recordings don’t belong in 2020. But they are worth revisiting when we can actually sit next to people again, and listen to live music.
What we have right now are recordings, and there have been a few opera recordings this year that are worthwhile precisely because they work with the modern world, they aren’t a recorded simulation of what might be on stage, they are made as albums and work as dramas that can only be heard. They also go far beyond the genre of Western art music—in an age when so many composers are making operas, it’s nice to have works from people who may be reluctant, at best, to identify as classical composers.
But classical music of the contemporary kind is where I want to start, with two related CDs from composer Anthony Gatto on the New Focus Recordings label, The Making of Americans and Wise Blood, the former from Gertrude Stein’s writing and the latter from Flannery O’Connor’s. These are excellent new operas with a multimedia quality—all sound, but instead of trying to replace a staged or concert opera performance, these pieces were made for the recording medium. They use spatial design, multiple production techniques, samples of spoken word (including Stein) and other non-musical audio. The voices are positioned at different heights and depths in the stereo field and that delivers a greater feeling of dialogue than usually heard in opera recordings. Gatto is also skillful with all sorts of musical styles, like a great soundtrack composer, and the music not only moves easily through minimalism, rock, gospel, and brass pieces, but represents and underscores character in exactly the way that makes opera different from musical theater. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the characters and how the music itself can sustain and develop the drama.
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix and Liturgy have followed up their exquisite, savagely beautiful H.A.Q.Q. with Origin of the Alimonies (YLYLCYN Records). This is Hunt-Hendrix’s first full realization of what she calls “Perichoresis,” her personal vision of total art. As audio only, it’s impossible to evaluate that, but this is a powerful, soaring work that, refreshingly, trades text for metal vocalizing. Floating back and forth between minor key acoustic composing and Liturgy’s unique combination of death/black metal and hip-hop beats, this album has a flensing quality, exquisitely honed warm blades of sound and expression cutting deep into the body and psyche, yet with such precision that the pain is the kind that makes the listener a fuller person. Hers is a unique vision on the musical landscape, across all genres, and this opera, in the composer’s words, hovers “in the liminal territory between the music industry, the art world and the contemporary philosophy community … belonging nowhere, only half-comprehensible.” A prescient view of what 2020 has been.
Another prescient work for the way we listen now is Yvette Janine Jackson’s Freedom. This will be released by the Fridman Gallery in January as an album and art object, which itself will exist as a sound installation. The audio portion is two of her radio operas, Destination Freedom and Invisible People. And as radio, the album is a compelling listening experience, beautifully designed for that straight-to-the-brain injection that headphones deliver. This is especially true for the quiet, subtle, and engrossing Destination Freedom, which primes the mind with the auditory illusion of other worlds, of transportation on a slave ship and into outer space. It’s a soundscape into which slides Invisible People, a knotty and fervent argument over homophobia. Using original text and sampled audio, Jackson juxtaposes Barack Obama’s own reluctance to support gay marriage with reactionary attacks on him and on gay marriage, specifically ones that came from the African American community. Ripped from the headlines, yes, but even more this is the lived experience of people who pay attention to what is happening in society that threatens their existence.
Coming in December will be Aqua Net & Funyuns, a music-drama podcast produced by the chaotic-good collective Experiments in Opera. This collaborative drama—five stories in one—was created during the pandemic, and the composers are some of the most skilled on the contemporary music drama scene; Tariq Al-Sabir, Jason Cady, Kamala Sankaram, Michi Wiancko, Aaron Siegel. You will be able to stream or download it on the podcast platform of your choice. Because it’s a podcast, it’s meant to only be heard, like the radio, a broadcast from a remote location. Which is what all the world is right now.