New Operas: A Nonprofessional's Perspective

     A nonprofessional opera-goer views opera differently from a professional musician or critic, and a nonprofessional's point of view is as valid as a professional's from which to offer an opinion on new operas.  After all, we nonprofessionals form almost all of the audience for opera, and without an audience there would be no opera.

     Opera is a powerful art form.  It provokes strong responses from its aficionados, and we do not hesitate to express our opinions on all things operatic (have a look at the reviews of opera recordings on websites like  We don't always agree, but on the subject of new operas I suspect that my opinion is representative of the vast majority of true opera-lovers.

      What is my point of view?  I'm a long time opera-goer and have attended countless opera performances, both in this country and in Europe.  I'm also an amateur choral singer and have sung with many choral groups and regional opera companies, mainly in the metropolitan New York area but also, while I was living there, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and London, England.   I've performed complete operas, sung a whole lot of opera choruses and even appeared in a couple of Metropolitan Opera performances in non-singing roles (i.e., spear carrier).  And, of course, I've read a great deal on the subject.

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     Opera as a Vocal Music Genre   Opera is primarily a music genre, or more specifically, a vocal music genre.  The creators of many of the newer works being presented in opera houses today seem to have lost sight of this elementary fact.

    Too often, opera companies are commissioning, and opera houses are being used to stage, what are essentially theatrical works.  Indeed, one currently active composer (John Adams) has referred to his own work as "contemporary music theater", presumably to distinguish it from what most of us think of as opera.

    In contemporary music theater, music has a more important role than in a film, to be sure.  And the structure of opera may be observed, with an overture, sung dialogue, arias, ensembles and choruses.  But the music appears to have been added to a story line selected for its theatrical values, as is done when making a film.  If this is indeed the approach, the goal is a theatrical work, and the music is there mainly to support the drama.  Perhaps this is not surprising if theater directors like Peter Sellars are dictating the direction the genre is taking, rather than composers.

    Richard Wagner was the major composer who most conspicuously sought to integrate music and drama, and he thought otherwise.  He also was a prolific writer, and from his writings we know that he considered music to be primary, that drama served to enhance a musical experience, not the other way around.  I think he had it right.

    What is opera?  It is the classical music genre in which a drama is set to music, staged and sung.  From its beginnings as an art form, it consisted of arias, ensembles and/or choruses, musical expressions reflecting the singer's reaction to the dramatic situation, the singer's inner feelings or feelings the singer wishes to project – love, coquettishness, seductiveness, desire, wit, joy, sorrow, remorse, anger, vengeance, martial bravery, resignation, piety and much, much more.  Vocal music conveys human feelings like no other medium.  Successful operas are built around story lines that provide opportunities for the singers to express human feelings.  Much the same can be said about the Broadway musical, except that it is a popular, rather than a classical, music genre.

     In early operas arias, ensembles and choruses were separated by either spoken dialogue or recitative during which the story line advanced.  (Broadway musicals and, while not intended to be staged, Bach's Passions follow essentially the same pattern.)  As opera developed, this break-up of the musical flow, which resulted in loss of dramatic flow and an overemphasis on vocal virtuosity, was replaced with sung dialogue and a richer orchestral presence.  Nonetheless, arias, ensembles and choruses remained at the core

    Some subjects lend themselves to vocal music better than others.  It is no accident that so many outstanding Requiems have been composed.  True, a Requiem is not an opera, even though Verdi's Requiem has been called his greatest opera.  Based in the inspiration it has given to so many composers, it can be argued that the Requiem service of the Latin church is its most positive contribution to Western civilization.  (The Pope might disagree.)  In any event, the words of the service cry out for musical expression.

      The stories in operas can be less sublime.  In his early years Verdi worked with some truly awful librettos, but he always saw the potential for vocal expression in the librettos he chose to set and frequently insisted on changes to create this potential.  Mozart is said to have “bullied” his librettists to give him dramatically shaped ensembles – or arias for the singers who would first perform the opera (e.g., the Queen of the Night's two arias in The Magic Flute).  Wagner and Berlioz wrote their own librettos.

    The right story line can and should contribute to the musical result.  In the classic repertory, three opera librettists stand out.   Hugo van Hofmannsthal was one of the preeminent German-language poets, dramatists and essayists of his time, and the six elegant librettos he wrote for Richard Strauss led the composer later to say that they drew from him the finest music he had to give.  Arrigo Boito, who wrote the librettos for Verdi's two last operas, Otello and Falstaff, was an opera composer in his own right; perhaps his most instructive libretto was for La Gioconda, an opera by a second-tier composer, Poncielli, which has a highly-improbable, melodramatic story line but provided its composer with the vehicle for his best-known music.  Lorenzo da Ponte had a truly collaborative relationship with Mozart and wrote the librettos for three of the composer's most successful operas, but he wrote 25 more for lesser composers that are largely forgotten.

    It is the composer who really matters.  Mozart composed in many musical genres, but he began composing operas at the age of 11, completing 22 during his short life, and married the sister of an opera singer.  Wagner and Verdi composed little other than opera.  Wagner served an apprenticeship as a chorus master in a regional German opera house and went on to become music director of another company and a highly successful conductor.  Verdi grew up almost in the shadow of La Scala, became a church organist (later a choir director) at age 10, began composing vocal music at age 15 and married an opera singer.  All wrote early operas that were not mounted in major houses and were not great successes, but they helped their composers to find the right compositional voice.

    Operas Being Presented Today  To get my opera fix, I subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera.  This gets me better seats, but there is a downside – the seats are to the particular operas that are in the series to which I have subscribed.  Because having good seats significantly enhances the enjoyment of a performance, it's usually a good trade-off.  But occasionally it has meant a long, unenjoyable but nonetheless expensive evening at a performance I'd rather not have attended.

    Peter Grimes was on my Met subscription in the 2007-08 season.  I had never warmed to it, but I decided to give it another shot – and was disappointed again.  The problem isn't the subject which I think is a good one for opera – how an intolerant community destroys an unsocial man (lots of opportunities to express human emotions).  Nor is it Britten's inability to write well for the voice, because he has produced some excellent choral pieces.  Perhaps he doesn't have drama in his bones.  I just don't find the vocal music in Peter Grimes to be very moving.  The best music in the opera is instrumental, Britten's tone painting of the English east coast.

    Adams' Doctor Atomic was on my subscription in the following season.  This is on the unlikely subject (for an opera) of the development of the atomic bomb.  The only piece by Adams that I had heard in its entirety was Hallelujah Junction, a two-piano piece which was on the program of a concert in which I was singing a choral piece.  I heard it enough times to know that I didn't like it and repeated hearings wasn't likely to change that.

    In his gracefully-written autobiography (which is also entitled Hallelujah Junction), Adams describes an epiphany he experienced listening to Wagner's Götterdämmerung while driving in his Karmann Ghia in the Sierra Nevada mountains – that music can connect with its listeners viscerally as well as intellectually and that Wagner made the intensity of his emotions palpable to the listener.  (I may once have had a similar, if less profound, experience when I drove my car into a snowbank in the Green Mountains of Vermont while listening to Sibelius' Finlandia). 

    Had Adams developed a compositional voice that would move me in the way he was moved by Wagner's music, or would my reaction to Doctor Atomic be like my reaction to Hallelujah Junction?   After learning as much as I could about it and listening to some (admittedly short) excerpts that were available from various sources, I decided not to risk it.  I swapped the tickets for less desirable seats to an opera I knew I would enjoy. 

    Shortly before the Met premiere of Doctor Atomic, a first-page article appeared in the Arts & Leisure Section of the Sunday New York Times by the newspaper's chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini.  He observed that opera companies are seeking to attract a new, younger audience with works that try to meld operatic elements with “theatrical dazzle” and concluded that most new operas are “just plain bad”.   He asked why.  Perhaps the question to ask is whether many of these works should even be considered operas.

    The Tommasini article commented on two new operas that had premiered a few weeks earlier at the Los Angeles and San Francisco Operas – The Fly, based on a hit science-fiction film by the same writer/librettist and composer, and The Bonesetter's Daughter, based on an Amy Tan novel about three generations of Chinese women.  The composers of these works – Howard Shore and Stewart Wallace – are both successful composers, but of what?

    Shore is primarily a film composer, best known for his music for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Wallace has written in a variety of musical genres, including opera (the best known of which is Harvey Milk, which is about a gay elected official and for which the term CNN opera was first coined) but little other vocal music.  (The term “CNN opera” is applied to works on contemporary events or societal issues.) 

     Adams is best known for his three CNN operas; in addition to Doctor Atomic, these are Nixon in China, which addresses the clash of civilizations during the Cold War, and The Death of Klinghoffer, which is about the murder of a disabled Jewish tourist by Palestinian terrorists.  Adams may have turned away from the excesses of much modern music, but he hasn't found a compositional voice that expresses human feelings in the way that great vocal music can; I wonder whether he is likely to find it if he confines himself to similar subjects.  Doctor Atomic has been promoted and commented upon by both critics and the composer himself more as social commentary than as music; it was even reviewed in the weekly Science Times section of the New York Times.

    New Operas  I sense a desire on the part of the opera-going public to see some expansion of the repertory, which is both limited and dated.  I suspect that that desire is the reason for the box office success of works like The Bonesetter's Daughter and Doctor Atomic, not that there is a new audience.  I hope I'm right, because a new audience attracted to such works would naturally want to see opera houses perform similar works in preference to what I consider true operas.  I think I am right, because few newer operas have had much of a shelf life.  The new audience will come from efforts like the Metropolitan Opera's various outreach initiatives, for example, its HD transmissions in movie theaters, the popularity of which appears to be growing.

    The popularity of opera generally is growing, even as the audience for other forms of classical music is in decline.  The reason has more to do with the increased use of supertitles than with the new operas that are being composed.  I find that doing some homework before arriving at the opera house heightens my enjoyment, but with supertitles I can arrive cold and still know what's going on.  Not knowing what the singers are singing about is a big obstacle to getting into an opera performance.  With them, opera has become very simply the most accessible form of live classical music.

    Given the success of opera as an art form and the apparent desire of opera-goers for new works, what should a contemporary opera composer do? 

    I don't believe that melding serious and popular music, or emulating popular forms of theater art, such as the Broadway musical or film, is the way forward.  Quite apart from the fact that it involves an entirely different kind of vocal delivery, popular music by nature is simpler and has a more immediate appeal.  While certain forms of popular music, such as the jazz song (e.g., Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Ellington), wear well, most do not.  The repetitive structures in Glass's music borrow from popular music, and the novelty quickly wears off.  Classical music has never been totally serious (e.g., the second act of Siegfried, opera buffa generally, almost everything Rossini wrote), but it has a depth or sophistication (Rossini included) such that it takes repeated hearings before it can be fully appreciated, and then it wears well.  There is nothing new about introducing “popular” elements into classical music, particularly opera.

    The new works being presented as operas appear to be to intended to create a new form of music theater that borrows from traditional opera.  The result may be an enjoyable evening of theater, but its staying power will depend on the quality of its music.  The reason we keep going back to hear the same operas (and the same Broadway musicals) is so that we can hear very singable music sung by different singers, occasionally by truly great singers.  If they have some acting ability, so much the better.  (We opera lovers differ on whom we like; I prefer Maria Callas to Joan Sutherland, but that's what makes markets.)

    Use of modern harmonics, or the lack thereof (atonality), has a very limited appeal, although I think the atonal opera Wozzeck is a masterpiece.   I've sung atonal music, and (at least for an amateur chorister) it's hard work for the singer.  It may have a place; Peter Grimes might have been more successful if it had been written as an atonal work; its story has much in common with Wozzeck.  But generally, to the extent that modern music has rejected tonal harmony, it is going nowhere.  That's something Adams and Pierre Boulez seem to agree on.  Contemporary choral music is strongly rooted in tonal harmony, even if it is not Mozartean harmony.

     The starting point has to be the choice of story line.  Even the verismo operas are on subjects that have a larger than life quality.  Successful operas have used librettos drawn from a wide range of sources:  mythology (e.g., Wagner's Ring cycle), other theatrical works (e.g., Verdi's  Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff), other literature (e.g., adaptations of Goethe's Faust by Gounod, Berlioz and Boito) and even historical events (e.g., Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov).  The librettists of successful operas have adapted their sources to suit opera as a medium and the particular compositional voice of the composer.

    Successful choral music is being written, so there is no reason why successful new operas cannot also be written.  They will more likely be written by composers like Arvo Pärt, Osvaldo Golijov or even John Rutter, who are actively writing for the voice, than by one of the composers whose works, some of them first operas, have been presented in recent years by companies like the Metropolitan, the San Francisco or the Los Angeles Opera.  They will be by composers who are committed to the vocal idiom, have developed a compositional voice suitable for opera, have a dramatic sense and understand what opera is – and what it isn't.