British opera: is it modern enough?
In order to place contemporary opera in an historical context, we must look back for a moment at Brittens’ Peter Grimes. Though set in the 19th century this was primarily concerned with the individual’s relationship and ultimate alienation from the rest of society. At a subliminal level, the music evokes sympathy, prepares us to remain open minded and invites us to judge its protagonist sympathetically. First performed in 1945 and genuinely well received by its audience, it is indeed historical though as Judith Weir (1989) asserts, this remains a contemporary operatic piece. Boyden (2000, p.589) suggests it is ‘one of the masterpieces of post war opera’ and goes on to point out how it ‘depicts the central tragedy in terms of an intolerant society that victimises non-conformity.’ This is an all too familiar story in present times. Philip Brett (1985, p.21) supports this further when he suggests that Grimes is ‘a general representation of the plight of the outsider.’ This is relentlessly echoed in modern society with exploitation and continuing prejudices sustaining otherness and difference. It could therefore be said that Peter Grimes was prophetic in its attention to issues of difference, perceived physical abuse and the treatment of children. Weir (1989) reminds us that we need only open today’s newspapers for similar stories concerning immigration, sexual difference and sexual deviance. In relation to Grimes and Britten himself, parallels can be drawn with the current worldwide attention offered to Michael Jackson during his child abuse court case and his perceived cruelty towards children. Hence, though not strictly speaking a contemporary opera, Grimes has striking contemporary relevance and has stayed the course, being a standard repertoire work in opera houses worldwide.
The boundaries between our perception of opera as a high art form and as popular entertainment are shifting and commentators would suggest, have become markedly blurred with time. This is illustrated by the success of modern contemporary opera which increasingly addresses and responds to a wider audience as well as the opera going public - by innovatively dealing with the everyday as well as controversial issues. Many critics echo the sentiments of Leavis (1930, p.3-11) writing about cultural standards in the 1930s, when they suggest that opera concerning itself with everyday lives is in fact trivialising the genre in the name of popular entertainment. John Eaton (Harries, 1986, p.274) asserts that ‘the mission of opera is to infuse into … society, through the powerful means of music and poetic vision, high values and purpose.’ He goes on to suggest that opera ‘must maintain a certain distance from banal or ordinary life.’ Eaton along with Norman Lebrecht would undoubtedly find Dove’s Flight, which draws inspiration from the familiar cultural text of an airport, rather monotonous. Yet, Dove’s intention was to draw out the myth and magic from the ordinary. Partly based on a true and relatively recent story of a refugee stranded in a Paris airport, for many this setting is highly significant as it symbolises people’s anxiety and excitement at the prospect of new beginnings.
The innovative libretto by April de Angelis is reflective of popular culture and the futility of modern life. Humorous references are made to advertising brands by the older woman, reflecting the significance of modern consumer practices. The characters themselves could be said to embody contemporary concerns. For example, Bill and Tina are hoping to revitalise and repair their marriage with the assistance of a self help manual. In our current cultural climate, this would be considered a very ‘modern’ thing to do. The Minks couple set off to start a new life with a new baby imminent, the chance of a new romance for the older woman and most importantly, hope of a new life for the refugee. I would suggest that the refugee is perhaps the most significant character and that his characterisation also carries an obvious political agenda. His terrifying journey and the way he is subsequently ignored by the other characters could be said to reflect today’s society and our anxieties concerning the influx of asylum seekers into this country. Flight focuses on people’s lives in transit and more specifically, people’s interactions with one another. Writing in The Times, Richard Morrison (16.8.99) states, ‘ operas used to be about love, death, heroes and villains, now they are about waiting in airport lounges for delayed flights …’ and asks ‘is that called progress?’ Yet, he concedes that Flight was ‘rapturously received … sensationally orchestrated … instantly beguiling…’ and perhaps most significantly suggests, ‘Flight will entertain wherever it touches down.’ In other words, it will appeal to a much wider audience within today’s diverse society. It is representative of many operas which to some degree offer a heroic dimension to the ordinary.
Dating back to Monteverdi – composers have utilised the power of music to express human feeling and emotion. (Goodall, 2000, p.62) Stephen Moens (date unknown) of ‘De Morgen’ asserts, ‘Dove is a virtuoso at writing for the human voice …’ Yet, Lebrecht suggests that Flight is ‘skating gently around our emotions … does not engage the audience.’ (Channel 4, 1999) Many commentators would argue that within the seemingly humdrum constrains of an airport lounge Dove has remained close to operatic conventions whilst also displaying the influence of more contemporary music such as using a tenor in the main protagonist role. He has offered his audience a musical insight into the lives of his characters, a chance of ‘eavesdropping on their dreams.’ (The Flight Bite CD) The musical cues and rich orchestral blends emphasise the significance of the emotional elements and invite kaleidoscopic and visceral emotions from the audience. This is manifested in the breathtaking manner in which the music evokes the Minksman’s undying love for his wife, to the hauntingly beautiful yet terribly sad story of the refugee’s journey. Yet, as Tom Sutcliffe of The Evening Standard writes, ‘the music is instantly graspable … beautiful … optimistic yet poignant.’ Elements of otherness and difference are also exemplified in the music. For example, an exotic Leitmotiv with folk style use of the clarinet and melodic scale is used to define the refugee. Dove’s techniques vary. For example, in a similar way to Britten on occasions, he moves away from the traditional convention of placing a tenor in the important role i.e. the refugee, instead using a counter tenor. Yet, he utilises the storm music in a traditional manner. It could be argued that Dove’s use of both contemporary and traditional devices ensures that the opera is appealing to a wider audience whilst remaining engaging. It achieves this without being too demanding therefore making Flight completely contemporary in the nature of its accessibility. Malcolm Hayes (22.8.99) of the Sunday Telegraph supports this when he suggests the setting ‘could hardly present a more reassuringly familiar world.’ Writing in the Evening Standard, Victor Lewis-Smith (30.9.99) suggests that it could be better appreciated by a lay audience than by a traditional opera going audience and rather like a soap opera, he calls for it to be shown at peak times. This suggests that little cultural capital would be required to appreciate Flight. The intensity and multiplicity of relationships and narrative within opera can be compared favourably with soap operas though many would argue that soaps maintain melodrama more effectively and appear more naturalistic in their settings. However, Lewis-Smith (30.9.99) found Dove’s opera very accessible and applauds his success in creating an ‘accessible art without compromising integrity.’ The majority of Flight’s reviews offer positive responses hence this opera will no doubt remain a popular contemporary cultural form for many years to come.
A further consideration for new ‘contemporary’ opera is the suitability of subject matter and audience reaction. For example, certain operas are created specifically for television. Sir George Christie (Harries, p.313) points out that Glyndebourne’s ‘captive audience would probably be shocked by some contemporary pieces.’ In other words, Glyndebourne maintains a particular atmosphere especially on a summer’s evening which may not lend itself to an extreme or depressing modern opera. I would question the suitability of a production such as Jerry Springer: The Opera being performed at Glyndebourne. However, with the implementation of the Glyndebourne Touring Opera, new works such as Flight which was commissioned in 1998, are now being presented to perhaps more adventurous audiences at regional venues. The touring opera is able to offer cheaper seat prices therefore making it available to a wider audience than the operas shown under the festival opera umbrella. Flight began its run in this way and was so successful that it was officially included into the festival season on the following year.
The Silver Tassie is based on Sean O’Casey’s (1925) play and many commentators would agree that Turnage and his librettist, Amanda Holden have achieved what Lindenberger (Lindenberger, 1998, p. 259) terms; ‘to make contemporary sense out of an older text.’ Bill Bryden, the director reinforces this, ‘we are able … to recreate history … to make it public … to connect our feelings about that time to the audience of now.’ (Interval discussion, BBC relay, 2000) Turnage and Holden have taken a 1920s play and by rewriting parts of the text to replace the dated language, omitting characters, composing the music and using the dynamics of futurist painters in the set design, have placed a new interpretation upon it to enable their present day audience to find coherence and meaning. Not all critics are quite so kind, Tom Sutcliffe (2000) writing for the Evening Standard venomously suggests the opera ‘felt fake,’ that its music is ‘an ill-digested compromise.’ However, I would suggest that what the critics cannot deny is that both the play and the opera are interested in how war grows out of something that is already there in other forms of human interaction. In other words, power, conflicts and struggles arising from sport and battle and relationships. Set in Dublin and France around 1915-1918, this opera is ultimately about war as institutionalised violence but also about domestic violence and the intensity of social interaction and relationships. Hence, this opera holds an enduring relevance to modern times as these themes pulsate through every area of our lives; the idea of mankind at war and the social and political elements which resonate throughout the world and throughout much of contemporary drama in whatever form it takes. Rupert Christiansen (unknown ref) writes, ‘Turnage knows precisely how to hold the audience’s interest and sympathy …’ The Silver Tassie, much like Peter Grimes, also utilises dance to illustrate the relationship between the protagonist and society, inviting the audience to sense the dislocation and witness how people are continuing with their everyday lives despite Harry and Peter’s despair. However, The Silver Tassie is also very different from Flight in many ways, the sheer scale of the opera being the most obvious. Turnage employs a full orchestra and large soloists. It still retains an element of comedy, albeit a different kind of comedy to that of Flight. Critics would argue that there are particular elements that would deem The Silver Tassie non contemporary. Writing for ‘Disability Now’ in April 2000, Bryan Heiser states that it ‘fails to reflect 70 years of attitude changes.’ He is referring to the negative attitude to physical impairment (Harry’s disability and Teddy’s blindness) and asserts that this behaviour would be unacceptable in the 21st century. However, it must be recognised that this review comes from one particular viewpoint and is therefore, perhaps making an assumption that the point of the opera is the way it portrays disability. More positive reviewers such as Andrew Porter, writing in TLS (25.02.00) suggest Turnage’s opera remains contemporary as his subject choice ‘chimes with the times … the heroism and horrors of the First World War.’ Turnage (Stewart, 2000, p.15) himself asserts, ‘here began the mechanisation of death in the 20th century, and that’s why it’s still relevant to us.’ Regardless of our cultural capital, everyone is able to relate in some way to the themes in this opera.
Unsurprisingly, striking parallels can be drawn between opera and soap opera. Both share a concern for the everyday and not unlike our broadcast drama serials, opera’s ‘fusion of music with universal stories’ is able to bring real life, topical debates into the public arena. (Goodall, p.54) Indeed, this is not a new phenomenon. Dating back to Orfeo, social and politically controversial issues have historically provided interesting material for new operatic productions and as Goodall (Goodall, p.54) asserts, ‘opera has become inextricably intertwined with political intrigue, revolution and nationalism.’ Soap operas consistently bring controversial issues such as teenage pregnancy, homosexuality and domestic violence into the public domain. Many operatic productions also achieve this. This is evident in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival which highlights a terrorism opera entitled The Death of Klinghoffer, performed by Scottish Opera but originally composed in 1991 by American, John Adams (Goodall p.84) who asserts that his opera has dealt ‘very honestly … sincerely with contemporary issues but created a … timeless resonance at the same moment.’ Clearly, the themes addressed in this opera are still incredibly relevant today hence its continued popularity - some fourteen years after its inception. A very recent example, still to stand the test of time is award winning Jerry Springer the Opera, which continues to enjoy huge success in London and has recently been shown on television and viewed by over 1.7 million people, thus attributing it immediate cultural status. Considered by many as highly contemporary; it is a parody of an American chat show and mirrors similar UK shows. Its musical language makes for popular, easy listening. However, unlike soap operas which must adhere to strict broadcasting guidelines, opera can be explicit as Goodall (Goodall, p.68) explains, ‘you can express much stronger, more daring thoughts through the ‘filtered’ medium of singing than … through the raw candour of speech.’ Therefore, there is a far greater freedom of expression within this type of production. In Flight we witness the Minkswoman giving birth, a sex scene between the steward and stewardess and implication of homosexual tendencies of Bill and the steward. Even more overtly and perhaps intentionally as a representation of the sordid nature of contemporary human life, Jerry Springer the Opera exemplifies this to the extreme and despite its success, has been the subject of huge public outrage. Many protesters consider its satirical content and continuous use of foul language (over 3000 expletives) as blasphemous and offensive. Yet, not unlike our contemporary art produced by artists such as Hirst and Emin, the publicity and attention it continues to receive, no matter how negative, only serves to increase its notoriety and iconic cultural status within our society. Turnage also lends credence to this idea of publicity giving status to a cultural artefact such as an opera, when more column space is offered in the reviews concerning him as a person than to the actual opera itself!
There will always be operas which remain firmly within the category of traditional and classical and these will undoubtedly continue to prosper. However, the success of a contemporary opera nowadays does depend on firstly, how well something that was written in the past can be placed in the present. Secondly, an opera that is created today must deal with issues that are relevant to the here and now. Flight’s focus on the refugee and references to sexuality are dealt with in both a comical and a serious way. Springer on the other hand, utilises comedy but offers a satirical approach and I would suggest that Dove expresses the relevant emotions in a safe and comfortable way. The Silver Tassie, with its strong focus on war, patriarchal dominance, disability and domestic conflict is contemporary in the way it addresses these very topical issues and both productions exemplify Goodall’s (p.54) argument that opera ‘lives and breathes in the charged atmosphere of public debate and politics’.
Both newly produced (i.e. rewritten old opera) and newly created (contemporary) operatic production styles are both refreshing and imaginative and as Goodall (p.81) points out, ‘many have energy and relevance that refutes the notion of opera as a form in terminal decline.’ All the aforementioned operatic productions including the notorious Jerry Springer remain contemporary and will undoubtedly retain enduring universal resonance. Even the most modern productions continue to emphasise ageless themes that remain pivotal within our cultural landscape, predominantly that of struggles between the powerful and the powerless as well as war, domestic problems, religion, violence and love. These productions convey the entire spectrum of human emotions from embarrassment through to love, jealousy and pain. Audiences of today are no longer passive. We are able to submit ourselves to the emotional and intellectual challenges of the music and drama of contemporary opera and make resistant readings using our own cultural capital. Once again, drawing parallels with soap opera; these productions have been successful in engaging with modern trends in drama. This is evident in the various forms of opera created nowadays; television opera, opera for children and teenagers and community opera. There will always be something that the audience can relate to within opera; it may be controversial, social, political or just ‘everyday’ ordinary experiences. Opera is a medium without limits!
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Flight, (1999) composed by Jonathan Dove, librettist: April de Angelis, directed by Richard Jones, and conducted by David Parry. The programme was presented by Howard Goodall. An NVC Arts Production for Channel 4, recorded at Glyndebourne in August 1999, first broadcast 5 Sept 1999 on Channel 4. The video was supplied by Jonathan Dove's publisher, Peters Edition Ltd,
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