Opera in the 20th Century

October 18, 2004

John Corigliano Speaks

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 9:38 PM | Link to this post

John CoriglianoAfter our work on John Corigliano's opera The Ghosts of Versailles in class (see October 8: The Ghosts of Versailles and the posts after it), we were able to attend a lecture given by the composer at Catholic University's Benjamin T. Rome School of Music on October 15, after a composition master class he gave there. After having gone through hell and high water to locate a copy of the Met's production of Ghosts for the students to watch, I was quite happy to hear Mr. Corigliano say first that he had made a DVD copy of the Met production, which he was donating to our music library. His plan for his lecture was to introduce the opera, have us watch some excerpts from the DVD, and then take some questions.

Corigliano described how he told James Levine that he wanted to write an opera buffa. When Levine said that an opera buffa wouldn't work at the Met, Corigliano revised his plan for Ghosts, which would be a "grand opera buffa." He said rightly that the production recorded on DVD had performances from "the best singers in the world at the time," and he mentioned Teresa Stratas (Marie-Antoinette), Håkan Hagegård (Beaumarchais), Marilyn Horne (Samira), and Renée Fleming (first Met role as Rosina). What suited Corigliano's interests in the libretto was "the chance to time travel back to the 18th century," allowing him to shift the style back and forth between neoclassical and modern idioms, not to be bound to one style as Stravinsky was in The Rake's Progress. He likened the quotations from Mozart and Rossini, which are heard in the "world of deranged classicism" of the ghosts, to "subliminal flashes."

As for the music of the ghosts, Corigliano said that it was associated in his mind as he composed it with "clouds, smoke, wisps," and that it was based on a tone row. As different instruments take up the row, the color changes, creating a sort of Klangfarbenmelodie. Aside from the range of styles in the opera, Corigliano said that he believed the opera's success was due to the fact that, in his opera, "the singers are given the music for their voices," meaning not only that he wrote for operatic voices, in general, but also that he adapted the opera for these specific singers. We watched Marie-Antoinette's Act I scene, "Once there was a golden bird," which ends with an extremely high note. Although Corigliano notated the note simply as "highest note possible," Teresa Stratas wanted him to change the score to reflect the fact that she hit a high E at this point in the production. It's a dramatic moment on the video version.

There was not time for many questions. In response to the question on many people's minds, Corigliano responded that, no, he and William Hoffman have no plans to create another opera. The Ghosts of Versailles has had several incredibly successful productions (see notes on the productions in my previous post), all completely sold out. At the Met premiere, Corigliano said, "even Jackie Kennedy couldn't get tickets," although she did eventually see it. In spite of the opera's success, he insisted, he is not going to go through the anguish of creating another opera until Ghosts is produced more often and with more regularity. Houston Grand Opera, he says, thinks of Ghosts as "the Met's opera" and refuse to produce it, although they have expressed interest in a new opera from Corigliano. Plácido Domingo, at the Washington National Opera, likes the opera but will not commit to producing it here. Why should composers labor to produce new operas that will only get one or a few productions? John Corigliano may have a point.