Opera in the 20th Century

November 11, 2004

Making Opera Relevant

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 11:18 PM | Link to this post

Any of you students who saw the latest productions from the Washington National OperaIl Trovatore and the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda—please feel free to post comments about the productions here. There are reviews of both productions at Ionarts (from October 25 and November 8, respectively).

One of the topics we have been discussing this semester is how opera lost its connection with larger audiences in the 20th century, as the idea of the rare "contemporary premiere"—usually of a work rarely, if ever, to be produced again—became the norm for new operas. Perhaps the opera world—composers, librettists, impressarios, singers, conductors, all of us—should take a lesson from music theater, as discussed in Sarah Crompton's recent article (Tune-and-toe: Musicals are still calling the tune, November 10) for The Telegraph (thanks to ArtsJournal for the tip):
If you stop to think about it, the survival of the musical as an art form is one of the miracles of the 21st century. Musicals are expensive, complicated and old-fashioned in their unreal mingling of song, dance and theatre. They are also incredibly hard to pull off successfully. Yet the form not only survives but thrives. Three of the major theatrical openings of the season - The Producers, which opened last night, Grand Hotel and Mary Poppins - are stage musicals based on films. A staggering 63 per cent of all West End tickets sold are for tune-and-toe shows of one sort or another. [...]

This, I suppose, shows the resilience of the form. Although its basic construction - sing a bit, dance a bit, talk a bit - has changed very little in the past 60 years, the subjects covered and the stories told have been transformed. The musical is now able to embrace everything from Stephen Sondheim's dark examinations of the state of America to shows such as Mamma Mia, which take their impetus from pop songs. In this respect, Grand Hotel, based on Vicki Baum's book which in turn prompted the famous 1932 film, makes an interesting case history. The show, which opens at the Donmar at the end of the month, was last seen in London in a production, directed by Tommy Tune, at the Dominion Theatre in 1992, after a long and successful Broadway run. Garlanded with Tony awards, this darkly glittering portrayal of the sad lives and soaring hopes of guests in a Berlin hotel in 1928 was loved by some - me included - but branded both too bleak and too sprawling by others. It closed after just four months.
Should opera librettists seek to have the same popular appeal? Some already have, as we have discussed in class. The WNO's choice of a zarzuela is an example of such an attempt, perhaps. An article (Houston opera speaking to the streets: Spanish work keeps company relevant, November 6) by William Littler for the Toronto Star speaks to a similar attempt, the premiere of a new work, in Spanish, at the Houston Grand Opera, Daniel Catán's Salsipuedes (libretto by Eliseo Alberto and Francisco Hinojosa):
It used to be said, in the corridors of Toronto's Opera Atelier, that if people can't pronounce the name of an opera, they won't buy tickets. Well, Salsipuedes may represent quite a mouthful in Toronto but not in Houston, which is not only America's fourth largest city but a metropolis destined to play host, in the not too distant future, to a Spanish-speaking majority. In Spanish, Salsipuedes apparently means "leave if you can." It's an amusing title to top the remarkable list of 31 works premiered by Houston Grand Opera in its half-century history.

Well aware of the demographic direction of his city, David Gockley, Houston Grand Opera's general director, some years ago turned to the Mexican composer Daniel Catán to provide his company with its first specially commissioned opera to be sung in Spanish. The result, premiered in 1996, was Florencia en el Amazonas, based on a tale by the Nobel Prize-winning Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Florencia portrayed a famous opera singer's attempt to return to her roots, sailing up the Amazon to the fabled Brazilian opera house in Manaos. Drenched in the seductive atmosphere of Magic Realism, it became a surprise hit which has not only been revived in Houston but staged as well in Los Angeles, Seattle, Mexico City and even Manaos itself. There is also a two-CD album of the score, taped live in Houston, available on the Albany label.

So when Gockley decided to commission a second Spanish language opera, it wasn't too hard for him to imagine the appropriate composer. Assisted by his two Mexican librettists, Catán has responded with what he calls a dramma giocoso, the very title used by Mozart to identify his Don Giovanni, a score which similarly represents a comedy with serious dramatic overtones. The subtitle for Salsipuedes identifies it as "a tale of love, war and anchovies." Set in 1943, the tale begins with a celebration of the marriage of two singer-musicians from a popular local band to a pair of amorously smitten sisters.
The final performances of this new opera are this Friday and Sunday. However, reviews have not been all that positive, for example, Charles Ward's article (Catán's 'Salsipuedes' sashays rather than struts: It's entertaining, but it doesn't have electricity, November 1) for the Houston Chronicle:
Despite the fervent hopes of Houston Grand Opera, there was no dancing in the aisles for Daniel Catán's Salsipuedes, a tale of Love, War and Anchovies. Instead, Friday's premiere of Catán's warmhearted comedy about ordinary people accidentally caught up in the machinations of a corrupt and delusional dictator evoked smiles, chuckles and good feelings. The ensemble cast sang with splendid enthusiasm and passion. Director James Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer provided a vigorous, colorful production that was perfectly outlandish in look and gesture. Conductor Guido Maria Guida confidently steered an imaginative, rhythmically tricky score using an orchestra without violins or violas. But never did the music provide the electric charge that seemed guaranteed by all the talk about an opera based on Afro-Caribbean rhythms.
One of the more interesting recent operas we will be studying, Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, is being performed right now at the San Francisco Opera: see the write-up at Ionarts. Here are some other posts at Ionarts that are also related to our subject:Lastly, don't forget to tune in to WETA (90.9 FM) on November 20 at 1:30 pm, to hear the WNO production, from last year, of Andre Previn's opera A Streetcar Named Desire.