Opera in the 20th Century

December 11, 2004

Turning Off the Lights

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 11:30 PM | Link to this post

This class has truly been a pleasure for me to organize and teach, thanks to the hard work of this group of students. I will do some final cleaning up and reshuffling of the information we have put together here. After that, we will be shutting down as far as regular contributions to this blog go. Thanks to everyone for reading!

For more current information on opera around the world, go to Ionarts, where there is a list of posts on opera.

December 10: Round Table Discussion

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 10:34 PM | Link to this post

For our final class, we invited a panel of speakers for a Round Table Discussion on the topic "Opera in the 21st Century: The Business of Opera":
  • Maurice Saylor, composer, and authority on American opera, and Head of the Catholic University Music Library
  • Dr. Andrew Simpson, professor of composition and composer of the opera trilogy Oresteia, which had its first opera premiered in a fully staged production at Catholic University in 2003
  • Dr. Elaine Walter, professor of musicology, former dean of the School of Music, and Founder and General Manager of the Summer Opera Theatre Company here in Washington, D.C.
Professor Simpson began with a presentation of the work he did on the first opera in his Oresteia trilogy, Agamemnon. The idea of setting Aeschylus's Greek tragedies as one-act operas in English translation was suggested to him by his wife, a classicist. Agamemnon was presented first by the Opera Workshop at Catholic University, in 2001. The budget for this production was roughly $3000, and we watched an excerpt of the performance (from the reduced score). After that experience, Professor Simpson went on to spend a year revising and scoring the opera for full orchestra, while on sabbatical leave in Greece, for a fully staged production that premiered in Hartke Theater at Catholic University on April 25, 2003 (see Joseph McLellan's review for the Washington Post). I was happy to learn that you can watch video Webcasts of all three performances of the opera.

For the full premiere, there was a budget of $33,000, and Professor Simpson admitted that he served ultimately an infinite number of roles during the whole process: composer, proofreader (in which Maurice Saylor assisted), grant-writer, score copier, advertiser, fundraiser, educational and preconcert lecturer, auditioner, coach, rehearsal pianist. The second opera in the Oresteia trilogy, The Libation Bearers, was presented by the Catholic University Opera Workshop this past March, and you can also watch that on video Webcast. While that opera works its way toward a full production, Professor Simpson assured us that the third opera, The Furies, is also in progress.

Maurice Saylor mentioned that he has also composed an opera, Express: a bus ride in one act, from 1983. However, he spent more time describing his interest in the two works by Gian Carlo Menotti that were given their American television premieres by the Catholic University School of Music, The Saint of Bleecker Street and The Consul. In fact, as we later discussed, Catholic University took part in four television premieres for NBC. The films appear to have been lost, but Mr. Saylor does have sound recordings of all of them in the Music Library. He also suggested the Museum of Television and Radio, in New York and Los Angeles, as a resource for broadcasts of hard-to-find American operas. For example, at the museum you can watch the broadcast of Menotti's The Labyrinth, an opera that has only and, in fact, can only be produced in the medium of television, since Menotti effectively made it impossible to stage traditionally.

This led to my question later: what has happened to opera on television in the United States? As far as I can determine, there will be a grand total of one opera broadcast on PBS this season (Otto Schenk's Metropolitan Opera production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, scheduled for April 3, 2005, at 2 pm). I remember how impressed I was, as an undergraduate student working in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the summer of 1990, seeing the telecast of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle from the Met. I still have the set of low-quality videotapes I made that summer. This is not to mention the regular programs like "Hour of Opera" that used to air on NBC, before my time. Why don't we have that anymore? And when will I be able to get the European network Arte from my satellite provider? (Radio broadcasts are great and all, but come on.)

Kevin McCarthy et al., The Performing Arts in a New Era (2001)
Professor Walter approached the topic from her vantage point as an impresario, the general manager of a small opera company. She described a book by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen, Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma: A Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music and Dance (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1966), which by and large correctly predicted the trajectory of opera as a business in the latter part of the 20th century. This has been followed by another book by Kevin McCarthy et al., The Performing Arts in a New Era, published by the Rand Corporation in 2001, which predicted—prior to the September 11 attacks, which have further devastated opera's funding base in the United States—that the wealthiest opera companies and the smallest-budget companies would probably survive but that most of the companies in between those extremes were likely to fail. This prediction appears to be coming true, according to data collected by the Opera America organization, she concluded, which shows that most opera companies are surviving only by running on deficit spending, paying off this year's bills by loans against what they expect to make the following season.

All in all, this was a lively and convivial discussion, followed by wonderful food prepared by the students. Thanks to everyone who was involved!

December 10, 2004

L’enfant et les Sortilèges by Maurice Ravel

Posted by Grace Cho at 4:11 AM | Link to this post

Ravel wrote two operas, the first, described as a comédie-musicale, L'heure espagnole (The Spanish Clock) and the second, with a libretto by Colette, the imaginative L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Enchantments), in which the naughty child is punished when furniture and animals assume personalities of their own. This opera gave a new edge to his music on bitonality and jazz elements. The opera is Ravel’s tribute to his beloved mother, and also resembles the rebellious Enfant of Colette’s Walt Disneyish.
The opera is one act with fantaisie lyrique, a libretto by Colette. The premiere was Monte Carlo, 21 March 1925. After the successful premiere, the opera was first given in Paris by the opera-Comique in 1926. The performances followed in Brussels ten days later in Prague and Leipzig, Viena, in San Francisco in 1930 and also in London. But it was not seen at the Metropoitan until in 1981, when it was conducted by Ravel’s friend and pupil, Maunel Rosenthal.
People criticized Ravel’s music is artificial. So Ravel said, “Does it not occur to these people that I may be artificial by Nature?” Ravel summons up in the opera all the arifices of his transcendent technique to reach both Nature and what is most natural in our childhood selves. Ravel told his friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange that this opera contained everything: Massenet, Puccini, Monteverdi and American musical comedy.


setting a low-ceilinged room in a typical Normandy country house, and the garden. The naughty child is six or seven and his lesson was bored to him. He wants to be haughty out of sheer boredom. His mother looks in to see how he has been working, but he puts his tongue out at her. For this he must have dry bread and no sugar in his tea, and must stay on his own till supper time. Left alone, the child begins his mischief: with cries of joy, he smashes the teapot and cup, tears up his books, pokes the caged squirrel with his pen, pulls the cat’s tail, upsets the kettle on the fire, slashes the wallpaper, and pulling out the pendulum of the grandfather clock. Gazing with satisfaction on the havoc he has wrought, kicking his mathematics primer on the floor, with exhausted, he finally his retired his tormentors, then he drops into the armchair, but wonder of wonders the furniture comes to life. The armchair walks off and dances a sarabande with a bergere. The clock comes forward, unable to stop chiming an thoroughly indisposed. The Wedgwood teapot and china cup dance a fox-trot to appropriate words in English and what may pass for Chinese. The child shivers with fear and loneliness, but even the fire will have nothing to do with him, and expresses her anger in a florid aria “Get Back” it sings, “I warm the good but I burn the bad.” The rebukes of fire and ashes an succeeded by the modal laments of the pastoral figure of the wall paper he has slashed. They are followed by the princess of the fair-tales he has torn, who must leave him for ever. The child sing to her in his desolation, but she disappears. Her place is taken by a little old man, Arithmatic himself, surrounded by his class of Digits. Their crescendo is maddening and the child drops down in a daze. The cat jumps to the window ledge to sing a duet with his lady love in cat-language, during which the child finds himself transported to the moonlit garden. But even there the trees and small creatures-dragonflies, moths, bats and squirrels-conspire against the child who has ill-treated them. They turn to attack him. In his fear and loneliness, he cried “Maman!” In the general confusion a small squirrel is hurt and the repentant

Maurice Ravel's life and works

Posted by Grace Cho at 3:59 AM | Link to this post

He was born. in the Pyrenees March 7 1875. French composer. His family went to Paris when he was three months old. He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1889,and left in 1895.where he was later a student of Fauré. Ravel became a leading exponent of impressionism. Along with Debussy, with whom he had an affinity of style. He suffered for years from being labeled a follower of Debussy. Because Ravel was a passionate admirer of Pélleas et Mélisande.he led French music away from Wagnerian romanticism.

In 1915, Ravel enlisted in the French army as a truck driver, but was invalided out after 18 months. Two years later, his mother died and many of his friends felt that this was a blow from which he never recovered. For the last twenty years of his life, he lived a solitary existence, broken by visits from friends, concerts in Paris and foreign tours. As a result, he composed more slowly than ever and for his second opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, took five years from 1920-25 to compose an hour’s music. In 1927, at the age of 52. he began to show signs of a brain illness, Alzheimer's disease or the budding tumor. Shortly after completing the two piano concertos in 1931 and for the last four years of his life, he was unable to compose. Not even sketches remain of his last operatic project, a setting of Delteil’s Jeanne d’Arc, in which he intended to ‘bring out Jeanne’s peasant simplicity and her brutal, warlike side.’ Finally, the brain tumor killed Ravel during brain surgery in Paris on December 28 1937.

His works:
He composed highly original, fluid music within the outlines of classical forms. Ravel excelled at piano composition and orchestration, often scoring his own piano pieces and works by other composers. Among his piano compositions are Pavane pour une infante dunte (1899), Jeux d'eau (1901), Gaspard de la nuit (1908), Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), and Concerto in D Major, for left hand (1931). His orchestral works include Rhapsodie Espagnole (1908) and Bolero (1928); he is also known for his orchestration of Modest Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1922). Other works are the song cycle Shazade (1903), the chamber piece Tzigane, and ballets such as Daphnis et Chloé(1912), Ma Me l'Oye (1912), and La Valse (1920).

December 03, 2004

Olivier Messiaen's St. Francis of Assisi

Posted by kyoung-hee jung at 11:05 AM | Link to this post

St. Francis of Assisi by Messiaen

  • Messiaen was first and formost a compser, but he was also a brillant organist and pianist a broadly educated and perceptive theorist, and a popular teacher. His pupils include some of the most famous names of European modernism, including Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Kurtag.
  • Messiaen was born in Avignon, the son of Cecile Sauvage, the opet, and Pierre Messiaen, a translator of Shakespeare. From 1919 to 1931 he studied the organ (under Marcel Dupre) and compostion (under Paul Dukas) at the Paris Conservatire, where he himself worked from 1942 as professor of aesthetics, theory, and analysis. In 1955 a course in musical philosophy was established for him.
  • He was the organist at La Trinite in Paris from 1931. Messiaen created a kind of music that was as indebted to Gregorian chant as it was to the sounds of created the Javanese gamelan, that combines the meter of Greek verse with the sacles of Indian ragas, and that connects Debussy's and Skryabin's layerings of fourths and fifths with the principles of serial music and with bird songs from around the world. The foundation for all these components is a cosmogony fed by the mysticism of eastern Asia and European Catholicism.
  • Messiaen presented his aesthetics in a tract published in 1944, Techniques of My Musical Language. One of the high points of his career, and a key work of the epoch as a whole. was his Turangalila Symphony, commissioned by the Russian-American conductorSergey Kussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His opera Saint Francois d'Assise (St. Francis of Assisi) was also enormously influential. In it he put an end to the western distinction between the sacred and the profane, restoring to opera its ancient, cultic dimension.

A key operatic work

  • Messiaen was one of the most influential and unusual representatives of French music in the 20th century. His ethically and religiously motivated approach is evident in his work. Rolf Liebermann's suggestion of writing an opera for Paris came as a surprise to Messiaen, and he at first rejected it. Later he recognized the opportunity it repersented, and he worked on the opera between 1975 and 1983.
  • The premiere at the opera (under Seiji Ozawa) was considered by the composer to have been true to his intentions. However, with a performance time of 4 hours and 15 minutes, a huge orchestra (120 payers), and a chorus of 150 voices, and includes large woodwind and tuned-percussion sections as well as three ondes martenot, all providing resources for the vivid amplified birdsongs that underline and punctuate the score.
  • It has became customary to perform individual scenes, as in Salzburg in 1985 with Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau. There was a concert performance of the entire work at the Opera Lyon in 1988, with the Opera Lyon in 1988, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Kent Nagano, before Peter Sellar's production was performed to great acclaim at the Salzburg Festival in 1992.
  • St. Francis of Assis is no piece of secret or Catholic: it is an artwork in which the apperance of the Divine is articulated-under the most trying of circumstanced and with the utmost integrity-as an expression of freedom, joy, and fearlessness.
  • Messiaen's music, with its fluctuation rhythm, and chromatically dazzing harmonies, achieves the simultaneous expression of the tangible and the comlex. At the center of the opera is the scene in which St. Francis preches to birds. Accorging to Messiaenbirds proclaim God's love and love for God. With their help it is possible to approach divine truth, proceeding step by step through a natural world that is always accessible to our senses.


Opera in three acts and eight scenes

Libretto by Olivier Messiaen

Premier: 29 November 1983, Paris

The composition of the opera occupied Messiaen from 1975 to 1983. it came to surround many of techniques he had evolved since the beginning of his creative life.

Act 1: Francis is traveling with one of his monks, Brother Leo, and teaching him the meaning of 'perfect joy', which in a long monologue he says is to be found in the acceptance of suffering while thinking of the crucified Christ.

Then Francis and his community are discovered at prayer, and the saint sings verses from his Lodi delle creature.

Finally he meets a leper in great physical and spiritual distress. He tries to teach him acceptance, but he is rejected, until an Angel appeares and sings that God is love. francis, realixing that he has not loved the leper sufficiently, embraces him and bring about a miraculous cure. After Francis can learn patience and penitence. The act ends with a choral epilogue.

Act 2: The Angel returns to knock emphatically at the monastery door and question the monks about predestination. One responds angrily; another gives answer, and the Angel leaves.

He appears, to Francis, who is ar prayer. On his viol he plays a celestial melody at which Francis faints. Three brother come to find him, and he awakens, saying that if the music had continued longer his soul would have parted from his body.

He is with Brother Lasseo, identifying the birds, to whom he preaches, praising their gifts of flight, of freedom, and of being able to sing wordless music, like the angels. He blesses them, and after a moment of silence there begins a great bird concert, with different instruments and ensembles playing different songs out of synchrony. The birds then fly off, making a great cross in the sky.

Act 3: it is at night, and the orchestral becomes somber, falling to owl calls and severe 12-note patterns. Francis prays that before his death he may feel in his body and heart the anguish of the crucified Christ, and the chorus responds with Christ's words of acceptance of his sacrifice.

Francis bids farewell to the birds, to the city and to the community. He hears the nightingale singing in the darkness, which suddenly become light with the appearence once more of the Angel and the leper, both come to assist him at his death. He prays for the blinding light of divine illumination, and he dies. Brother Leo remarks on the silence of his going, and the monks depart, taking the saint's body. The opera ends fortissimo with a huge choral of resurrection sung and played.

Alfredo Scnittke's "Life with an Idiot"

Posted by kyoung-hee jung at 10:15 AM | Link to this post

Life with an Ldiot by Alfredo Scnittke

The Text and its author
  • Vicot Erfeyev, born in Moscow in 1947, has emerged with startling suddenness from the shadow of Soviet literature.
  • In 1979 he and a number of other young writers conceived the idea of a yearbook, entiled Metropol, which they intended as a forum for uncensored literature. The resul was instant dismissal from his opst and expulsion from the Russian Writers' Union, so that he was able to publish only few of his schlarly writings on literature until 1989. His novel Russian Beauty, which had been written in 1980-82, and an anthology of shoet stories from the 1980's were both published in 1990 and brought him immediate international acclaim. Bothe voulumes have sussequently been translated into tewnty languages.
  • His short story, Life with an Idiot, was written in 1980 and predates Russian Beauty. It remained unpublished and unpublishable at the time with Frofeyev languishing in obscurity, few people in Russia suspected the literary critic's literary important at this period.
  • In 1982 he began to read his stories to a circle of close friends. When Gorachev came to power in 1985, Erofeyev was finally allowed to give public readings of his writings in libraries and clubs. One of these readings was attended the potential of Life with an Idiot as the basis for an opera libretto.
  • Erofeyev's highly original story, with its complex cross-cutting techniques, narrative intrusions, filmic approach to its subject and sudden shifts of perspective, tells of a married couple who, as an absurd punishment, have to accept an idiot inot their lives. Their choice falls on one Vova (Lenin;s nickname), who undermaines and deatroys their lives and , as a result of bestial sexual and murderous practices, finally drives them to madness and death.
  • While Frofeyev was turing his short story into a libretto and Schnittke was starting his sketches for the opera, he persuaded the brilliant head of the Moscow Chamber Theater, Boris Pokrovsky, to produce the finished work.
  • In Life with an Idiot we are in fact looking for a new culuture not by changing people but by creating conditions will allow Russian people to lead normal lives once again and became normal pepole from a social opint of view. It;s a mixture of tragedy and comedy. As a result of absurd policies and a bad social system we've lost all feeling for reality in Russia. We don't know where reality begins and where it ends. The idiot is our reality.

The Compoer and his opera

  • Alfred Schnittke had known Erfeyev for many years and was familiar with a number of the writer's works. Both lived in Moscow, both found their careers impended on the grounds that they were dissidents. Schnittke was pervented from travelling and from having his performed and had difficulty obtaining and publishing music.
  • Schnittke has now come to be regarded as one of the great musical figures of the late 20th century. This position of per-eminence he owes above all to a compositional method notable for its polystlistic approach, with a wide-ranging use of past and present styles are combined in a whole variety of different ways.
  • It is clear from Schnittke's origins that several culture groups overlap in his thinking and character ("I feel myself to be German, Russian, and Jewish, I can see my religious beliefs as Catholic, Jewish or Orthodox").
  • He was born in 1934 in the central Russian town of Engels. His mother was a journalist of Russian extraction who had been born in Frankfrut am Lain. No one in the family had shown musical talent and his own interest did not develop until 1946. Soon after he srarted taking piano lessons. In 1948 the family moved to Moscow, where Schmittke ttrained as chorus master.
  • In 1962, Schnittke was appointed instructor in instrumentation at the Moscow Conservatory, a post which held until 1972. Thereafter he supported himself chiefly as a composer of film scores; by 1984 he had scored more than 60 filmes.
  • His two new operas, Gesualdo, and Historia von D. Johann Fausten were unveiled in Vienna (MAy 1995) and Hamburg (June 1995) respectively.
  • It was around 1985 that Schnittke heard Erofeyev read his story in Moscow and told friends of its suitablility as the basis for an opera, although years were to pass before the idea had fully matured and demanded realization. He began with the vocal score, which occupied him during the winter 1990/91. On completing the short score in the early summer of 1991, Schnittke began work on writing out the full score. He had almost finished the first act when he suffered a second severe stroke, which pervented him from working for three months. Miraculously he was able to begin work on the second act in early October. His son Andrey and the composer Wolfgang Nicklaus worked on the piano reduction. Singers were from in Moscow, New York, Cologne and Rotterdam, as well as the conductor was from in Paris and the producer in Moscow. The hard work paid off and the opera received its first performance in Amsterdam on April 13, 1992.
  • Schnittke spoke about his opera in public two days before the permiere; "I've been writing music for more than forty years, but I'd always dreamt of doing so. The fact that this opera has now come to fruition is source of immense joy for me. It marks a new srage in my life, a stage which is full of new plans and new challenges."

December 02, 2004

Daniel Catán's "Florencia en el Amazonas" (1996)

Posted by Lindsay at 1:29 PM | Link to this post

Daniel Catán, Composer
(Biography e-mailed to me by his agent)

Although Mexican-American composer, Daniel Catán, has composed in a number of genres, he is particularly known for the intricate beauty of his operas. Sung in an elegant Spanish, his operas are rich with long-spun, mellifluous melodies supported by delicately luscious harmonies and dramatic orchestration. Catán is a master storyteller, capturing the poetic ideas of the text in the music. His works embody a kind of traditional originality,' one that embraces all operatic traditions from Monteverdi to Alban Berg but at the same time refreshingly contemporary and highly individual.

Daniel Catán has recently finished his third opera, Salsipuedes, for Houston Grand Opera.

With the San Diego Opera's American premiere in 1994 of his second opera Rappaccini's
Daughter, based on Octavio Paz's retelling of the Nathaniel Hawthorne story, Catán became the first Mexican composer to have an opera produced in the United States. Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, who was in attendance at the world premiere of Rappaccini's Daughter in 1991, offered to work with the composer on his next opera. That was the beginning of a collaboration with Marcela Fuentes-Berain, who Márquez suggested as a librettist for Florencia en el Amazonas, an opera inspired by Márquez's writing. Florencia has
been since produced in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Bogotá, and was revived by the Houston Grand Opera (the original commissioner) in early 2001. In Catán's words, "I set out to write beautiful music for a story of the journey to transcendent love; it concerns all of us who have lived love with all its intricacies, subtleties, wretchedness, and glorious happiness." Critical reaction has confirmed the success of Catán's intentions, with such comments as: "Bewitching;" "A landmark;" "Its
voluptuousness seems as honest as it is beautifully crafted;" "Hypnotic;" "In a word, beautiful"--all coming from the press.

Catán has also written works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and film (Bruce Wagner's "I'm Losing You"). En Un Doblez Del Tiempo (A Fold in Time) had its premiere in 1982 by the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (led by Sergio Cárdenas); it was later recorded by the Mexico City Philharmonic with Eduardo DiazmuZoz (FCM Vol. 3 CD SDX 21232). Catán's chamber piece Encantamiento, a haunting work for 2 recorders (also for varying combinations of either treble or bass instruments) has been performed worldwide by soloist Horacio Franco.

Born in Mexico City in 1949, Catán studied philosophy and music at University of Sussex and Southampton and received graduate degrees from Princeton University.
Returning to Mexico City, he took the post of music administrator at the Palace of Fine Arts, where he became more deeply related to singing and opera and the whole magical world of the stage. The 1998 recipient of Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera's Plácido Domingo Award now resides in Los Angeles.

In the hands of Daniel Catán opera becomes the first of the arts. The French painter Eugene Delacroix defined great art "ingenious artifice that expresses or pleases. Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas is the embodiment of that definition.

Considered a work of great beauty and power, Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonasis the composer's second opera. Loosely inspired by Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, the opera follows the story of Florencia Grimaldi, an aging opera singer who embarks upon a steamboat journey down the Amazon River. As the journey progresses, the boatis beset by pink rain, foul waters, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. As Florencia and her fellow travelers are carried deeper into the jungle, they experience various revelations, until
finally the diva's spirit is transformed into a vast, emerald butterfly.

In many ways, Florencia is a culmination of Catán's previous work -- an early piece for soprano and orchestra, Mariposa de obsidiana ("Obsidian Butterfly") was based on a poem by Octavio Paz, and his first opera, La hija de Rappaccini, was inspired by another tale of a magically transformed beauty, Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" as retold by Paz. First produced in the United States by the San Diego Opera, La hija de Rappaccini was critically acclaimed, and brought Catán to the attention of the Houston Grand Opera in 1994. (It also
brought him to the attention of Gabriel García Márquez, who had seen the work's premiere in Mexico City, and expressed interest in working with the composer.) Looking to commission a Spanish-language work to reflect the city's increasingly Latin character, HGO director David Gockley, in cooperation with opera houses in LA, Seattle, and Bogotá, asked Catán to produce a new work, an opera that celebrated the "artistic, musical, literary, and visual aspects of Latin America" as well as being "the most beautiful opera in the last fifty years."

Given this marvelous opportunity (and not to mention somewhat daunting challenge),
Catán turned to the works of Gabriel García Márquez for inspiration. Failing to find one isolated story that suited his needs, he decided to borrow a few themes from Gabo's work in general, with an emphasis on Love in the Time of Cholera. Gabriel García Márquez agreed to the project, given the condition that the libretto be penned by his protégé and filmscript collaborator,Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Using a river-voyage down the Amazon as their setting, Catán and Fuentes-Berain plunged deep into the lush world of "magical realism" and crafted a story about love, redemption and transfiguration. The opera premiered in Houston on October 25, 1996 to wide acclaim, and then made its way to the LA Opera, the Seattle Opera, and the Bogatá Opera.

It proved to be so popular that the Houston Opera has kept it in its repertory, where it was revived to popular acclaim in the Spring 2001 season.

Florencia possesses the artful beauty of traditional opera; a form that, at its best, values grace, craftsmanship, and lyricism over the sugar-high of instant gratification. Comparisons with late Puccini are inevitable and certainly apt, but much of Catán's score touches upon the flowing Impressionism of Debussy and the vibrant colors of Ravel as well. It also contains some engaging touches quite compelling to the modern ear -- frequent marimbas add a slightly exotic flavor, and the percussion section underscores the music with intriguing Latin rhythms. Catán
scores the opera for a relatively small orchestra, which adds a sense of precision and punch -- the strings never dominate, and each instrument is clearly articulated. The music simply shimmers,occasionally opening up into an expanse of surging sound, floating the vocals aloft on an iridescent wave of color.

Happily, Catán's vocal writing is well-matched to his orchestral fluency. Catán is a
believer in old-school lyricism, and it comes as a delight to hear a work that takes pure,unadulterated pleasure in a flowing, beautiful line. A few critics have questioned whether Catán has really broken any new ground; but in a world where the definition of opera itself has been stretched to include such otherwise praiseworthy pieces as Einstein on the Beach, The Cave, and Jackie O, it comes as a relief to know that someone can still write something that Doctor Juvenal Urbino himself would find immensely satisfying. (Dr. Juvenal Urbino is always
reminded of "the fate of unrequited love" when he smells bitter almonds–he’s a character in Love in the Time of Cholera.) Arioso blooms to aria with an unaffected grace and not a line feels clumsy or out of place. Still, while Florencia's lyricism might represent a welcome return to the Italian mode, there's really no single moment that particularly stands out. But again, compared to the vibrant tapestry of the whole, this comes as only a minor quibble. Florencia is a wonderful work, one that deserves to find its voice through numerous productions.

Its subject matter, too, is worth a few words of praise: it is a delight to see a modern opera so full of innocence and wonder; and if the soprano has to die in the end, then what's wrong with transforming into a giant butterfly? Florencia en el Amazonas stands as a hopeful reminder thatlove, faith, and beauty can be liberating powers in a world all too trapped in its own cynicism and irony.

The action takes place sat the port of Leticia, Colombia and then on the riverboat El Dorado.

Act I
Riolobo, a character who can assume various forms, announces that the El Dorado is
setting off down the Amazon for the opera house in Manaus where the legendary diva Florencia Grimaldi, who has not set foot in her native South America for twenty years, will give a concert. Florencia arrives on the dock incognito to make the river journey. Her motive for this trip is to search for her long-lost lover, Cristóbal Ribeiro da Silva. Twenty years ago, they parted on the river when he went in search of the world's rarest butterfly, the Emerald Muse, and Florencia set
out to pursue her life as an opera diva in Europe. Among the other travelers are the ship's Captain, his nephew Arcadio, the young journalist Rosalba, who is working on a biography about the famous singer, and Paula and Alvaro, a middle-aged couple journeying to hear Grimaldi in hopes of rekindling their marriage.

At dawn as the ship leaves behind the busy port, Florencia reflects on her history and her motives for making the trip. Arcadio and Rosalba grow closer as they exchange confidences. Alvaro and Paula attempt to dine on deck, but exchange only bitter words. Later a card game takes place between the two couples that underlines their differences. Florencia passes a sleepless night and then learns from the Captain that the butterfly hunter has not been seen for many years. Suddenly a storm of pink rain develops. Riolobo calls upon the gods of the river; theinjured Captain calls for help. Alvaro falls overboard as Arcadio takes the helm, and the ship
runs a ground.

Act II
In the quiet after the storm Florencia awakens, wondering whether she is alive or dead. Arcadio and Rosalba rejoice to find they have survived the storm. Paula sees Alvaro's body and laments his death. Suddenly, he awakens and the passengers resume their journey to Manaus.
Florencia and Rosalba argue over the source of the opera singer's talents. Florencia argues so persuasively that the writer realizes the woman standing before her is the diva herself. It is the first of other epiphanies.

The passengers anticipate the end of their journey as the ship's arrival in Manaus is
announced. But suddenly a message comes that cholera has spread in Manaus and no one may disembark. As Florencia collapses, realizing she may never find Cristóbal, her spirit drifts towards his in a mystical transformation.

The following note was written by Catán and was copied from the CD booklet:

My journey down the Amazon, the real and operatic one, began in the studio of my dear
friend Alvaro Mutis. He knows the jungle intimately and has written about it all his life; at the same time he is a great lover of opera. The combination could not be better. We met many times in his studio. Prints of magnificent riverboats occupy the spaces normally reserved for family photographs. It was there that I learned about the dangers of river navigation, and also about the psychological states the Amazon induces in its travelers; the way it conjures up their most secret desires and deepest fears. In the opera, Florencia undertakes a journey that will bring her back to her origins. It is, I believe, the story of the return journey that we all undertake at a certain point in our lives: the moment when we look back at what we once dreamed of becoming, and then confront what we have now become. As Florencia sings her final aria, her voice, her song and she herself, become intertwined with the image of a butterfly. She breaks through her cocoon; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings. Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other. The image of the butterfly, supremely beautiful from the moment of its birth, is overtly present at the end of Florencia. But it is an image that has been present in my mind as I composed several of my works. I have asked myself why. I think it is my way of understanding the moment when something is no more, my way of transforming it, like when I finish an opera, and say good-bye to characters that have lived with me for so long and have taught me so much, that grew out of me so I could be born out of them, that are, in the end, indistinguishable from myself.

November 25, 2004

November 25: Thanksgiving Holiday

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 1:00 PM | Link to this post

Of course, we did not have class this week. I direct you to a post at Ionarts (The Phoenix, November 23) on the reopening of La Fenice opera theater in Venice. You will recall our discussion about the choice of opera for this event, Verdi's La Traviata, which I characterized as a missed opportunity. You can read more there. I have also posted some comments on other opera DVDs that you might find interesting (More Opera and Music on DVD, November 18).

Michael Nyman's musical style for 'The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat'

Posted by Grace Cho at 10:57 AM | Link to this post

Nyman’s opera, ‘The Man who Mistook his wife for a Hat (1986),’ based on the book by Oliver Sacks, amply demonstrates his musical style in its use of variation and modular form. And this work also describes lyrical vocal lines over restless, chugging, repetitive phrases and doublings of tonal primary-colored chords within regularly repeated harmonic blocks. Besides, unexpected metrical shifts and harmonic angularities suggest a curious conjunction between Stravinsky and rock and roll.
Even though he expresses on his knowledge and experience of American minimalism, his distinctive elements for his musical language set it apart from those influences. He has spoken of his more’ intuitive’ approach to process, in which ‘the ear rather than the process is the initial and final arbiter.’ Moreover, the prominence of the bass in his music, as well as suggesting the influence of rock, creates a harmonic stability and rootness more characteristic of the European tonal tradition than of American minimalism. It is this often curious confluence of classical harmonic functions and rock rhythms and textures that provides Nyman’s music with a rich and effective fusion of the codes of high and popular art.

November 19, 2004

Messiaen's "Saint Francoise d'Assise"

Posted by Lindsay at 10:20 AM | Link to this post

I first must apologize for what I'm about to do, but I've had zero time to come up with anything original or interpretive because I'm so swamped; so instead, I've decided to post bits and pieces of some good things I've seen regarding this opera.

* * *

This is the article on Saint Francois d'Assise by Paul Griffiths that one can find in New Grove.

Saint François d’Assise [Scènes franciscains (‘Franciscan Scenes’)].
(‘St Francis of Assisi’).
Opera in three acts by olivier Messiaen to his own libretto; Paris, Opéra, 28 November 1983.

The work is in eight self-contained scenes, each further subdivided into small units, often placed in repetitive patterns. The solo vocal writing suggests plainchant (though the modes are Messiaen’s own), and the sense of a liturgy is enhanced by a monumental chorus of 150 voices. The orchestra is on a similar scale (120 players), and includes large woodwind and tuned-percussion sections as well as three ondes martenot, all providing resources for the vivid amplified birdsongs that underline and punctuate the score. Each scene is the exposition of a single moment in the saint’s life, omitting the conflicts of his early years to centre on his faith and attainment of grace: there is no dramatic continuity either within the scenes or from one to another; rather they are single, static and separate, like a cycle of stained-glass windows.

There are three scenes in Act 1. In the first, ‘La croix’, Francis (baritone) is travelling with one of his monks, Brother Leo (baritone), and teaching him the meaning of ‘perfect joy’, which in a long monologue he says is to be found in the acceptance of suffering while thinking of the crucified Christ. Then in ‘Les laudes’ Francis and his community are discovered at prayer, and the saint sings verses from his Lodì delle creature. Finally, in ‘Le baiser au lépreux’, he meets a Leper (tenor) in great physical and spiritual distress. He tries to teach him acceptance, but is rejected, until an Angel (soprano) appears and sings that God is love. Francis, realizing that he has not loved the leper sufficiently, embraces him and brings about a miraculous cure: the ragged, raging victim is transformed back into a medieval gentleman, and he executes a dance of triumph, after which he can learn patience and penitence. The act ends with a choral epilogue.

Act 2 again is in three scenes. In ‘L’ange voyageur’ the Angel returns to knock emphatically at the monastery door and question the monks about predestination. One responds angrily; another gives answer, and the Angel leaves. He appears, in ‘L’ange musicien’, to Francis, who is at prayer. On his viol he plays a celestial melody (it is heard in fact from the ondes martenot) at which Francis faints. Three brothers come to find him, and he awakens, saying that if the music had continued longer his soul would have parted from his body. In scene vi, ‘Le prêche aux oiseaux’, he is with Brother Masseo (tenor), identifying the birds, to whom he preaches, praising their gifts of flight, of freedom, and of being able to sing wordless music, like the angels. He blesses them, and after a moment of silence there begins a great bird concert, with different instruments and ensembles playing different songs out of synchrony. The birds then fly off, making a great cross in the sky.

‘Les stigmates’, the first scene of Act 3, is set at night, and the orchestra becomes sombre, falling to owl calls and severe 12-note patterns. Francis prays that before his death he may feel in his body and heart the anguish of the crucified Christ, and the chorus responds with Christ’s words of acceptance of his sacrifice. An enormous black cross is projected at the back of the stage, and from it come rays of light to pierce the saint’s hands, feet and side, to an immense outburst from chorus and orchestra. The final scene is ‘La mort et la nouvelle vie’: Francis bids farewell to the birds, to the city and to the community. He hears the nightingale singing in the darkness, which suddenly becomes light with the appearance once more of the Angel and the Leper, both come to assist him at his death. He prays for the blinding light of divine illumination, and he dies. Brother Leo remarks on the silence of his going, and the monks depart, taking the saint’s body. But the opera ends fortissimo with a huge chorale of resurrection, sung and played while intense light shines from the place where Francis’s body lay.

The composition of the opera occupied Messiaen from 1975 to 1983, and, like other works of this late period, it came to encompass many of the techniques he had evolved since the beginning of his creative life. If, nevertheless, the work has an imposing identity, that comes perhaps from the block structuring and from the allied use of modes to link the elements, however disparate, so that any musical object can find a place in the divine order.

* * *

Since those sneaky people at JSTOR do not allow users to cut and paste anything, the following citations are two pieces that can be found on the database:

Dingle, Christopher. "Charm and Simplicity: Messiaen's Final Works."
Tempo 192 (April 1995): 2-7.

Pasler, Jan. "St. Francis at the Opera." The Musical
Times 125/1693 (March 1984): 149-151.

November 18, 2004

November 19: Postmodern Opera

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 12:01 AM | Link to this post

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), Saint François d’Assise (premiered at the Opéra de Paris in 1983).

Available at Amazon:
Olivier Messiaen, Saint François d’Assise (recorded in 1999)
This composer's only opera, subtitled "Scènes franciscaines en trois actes et huit tableaux," has a libretto by Messiaen, culled from his reading on the medieval vitae of Saint Francis.

Here are some short quotes from It's a Secret of Love, Jean-Christophe Marti's interview with Messiaen in January 1992, shortly before his death, about his reverence for this opera:
I'd like audiences to be as dazzled by it as I am. It contains virtually all of the bird calls that I've noted down in the course of my life, all the colors of my chords, all my harmonic procedures, and even some surprising innovations such as the superimposition of different tempos, allowing total independence of the different instruments within a non-aleatory, organized chaos under the conductor’s control. [...]

It's true that I don't like neoclassicism: this approach strikes me as absurd, but I am not attacking anyone by saying this. . . . I simply do not understand [Stravinsky's] neoclassical works: but for me, Stravinsky—the composer of The Rite of Spring and The Firebird—remains one of the greatest geniuses. If I were to offer a serious reason for the attacks on my music, it would be that certain people are annoyed that I believe in God. [...]

In short, you have a very new language made up of discoveries and advances, but without any intentional break with the basic, general assumptions of music such as tonality?

Well, here I have to say that for me tonality and modality are no more than words in a dictionary. They are of practical use but by no means indispensable. If you look at history, you'll see that after birdsong, which imitated rain, the oceans and the noise of storms, people began to sing in octaves and fifths, according to the natural distribution of voices; then came modes—pentatonic modes from China, diatonic ones from Greece, and chromatic ones from India. This modal language was used for centuries, because tonality as such didn't emerge until Bach's day, when it was merged with a highly modal and chromatic language. Before him, Monteverdi and Gesualdo were highly chromatic, just as Mozart was later. If you like, tonality proper has existed for only two centuries, and Beethoven strikes me as the only composer who is frankly tonal. With Chopin and even more with Debussy, this famous tonality becomes veiled once again. Beyond these concepts, the only phenomenon inherent to the world of sound and which composers have to take into account is resonance.
As for his approach to musical style, Messiaen had the following comments for 12-tone music:
Dodecaphony, serial music, atonal music, the result is the same: music without color, grey and black. Except to express a terrible feeling of fear and anxiety, I see no emotion in this language, which sought to abolish resonance. I'm afraid that a love of music is missing from such a world. For me, Debussy's lesson is irreplaceable. One could say that Ravel wrote more spicy harmonies, more colorful orchestrations, but he never achieved Debussy's absolute formal freedom. Debussy found an inspired way of blurring the edges of his structures. The term he used to describe it is untranslatable: un sens de flou—a sort of soft-focus effect. I still marvel at it and freely admit that I'd be incapable of imitating it. It was a work by Debussy that made me decide to become a composer, Pelléas et Mélisande. A humble teacher from Nantes, Jean de Gibon, had the inspired idea of giving me a copy of the score when I was not yet eleven years old. I have to say that for a long time I felt I was not sufficiently gifted to write an opera—in this, I'm no different from my contemporaries. I thought that there was no longer any way forward after Wozzeck.

György Ligeti (b. 1923), Le Grand Macabre (Stockholm, April 12, 1978; revised in 1997)

Available at Amazon:
György Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre (recorded in 1999)
Libretto by Michael Meschke and Ligeti, after the play La balade du grand macabre by Michel de Ghelderode. The story takes place in an imaginary country called Breughelland ("run down but nevertheless thriving and carefree"), in an "anytime century." The name of the country refers to the main character of Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, Death incarnate, depicted in Breughel’s The Triumph of Death (oil panel, c. 1562).
Michael Nyman (b. 1944), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (premiered on October 27, 1986, at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London).

Available at Amazon:
Michael Nyman, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (recorded in 1990)
The libretto by Christopher Rawlence is based on a case study by Dr. Oliver Sacks, on one of his actual patients. This is a chamber opera, with an orchestra of strings, harp, and piano, and only three characters, Dr. P, the patient (bass); Mrs. P, his wife (soprano); and Dr. S (tenor), who is the neurologist, Oliver Sacks (author of Awakenings, the basis for the movie of the same name, with Robin Williams).

Nyman read the case study in November 1985, and it formed into an opera in his mind. Dr. P suffers from visual agnosia, that is, he has difficulty recognizing objects by sight, because of Alzheimer’s; he thinks parking meters are people, for example. On the patient's first visit with Dr. S, when leaving, he reaches for his hat but confuses his wife's head with the hatstand (thus the title). However, his singing voice is still intact: in real life, he was a singer and knew Peter Pears. He sings songs from Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe to communicate. There are musical references in the opera to the song "Ich grolle nicht," which Dr. P sings in the couple's apartment, joined by Dr. S for part of it, and Britten's setting of "The Sick Rose," which is the couple's favorite piece, sung by Mrs. P and hummed by Dr. P.

There are sly self-references in this opera, not unlike in Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles. During the first doctor-patient interview in the apartment, Mrs. P turns on the TV and sees Michael Nyman playing the piano on TV. Dr. P recognizes him, saying "That's Nyman. Can't mistake his body rhythm." The moves in the chess game the doctor plays with his patient are sung and could be used to reproduce the moves. Singing little songs is the only way Dr. P can find his way if he is jolted from his ritualized schedule. Music becomes Dr. S's prescription, and at the opera's conclusion we hear Dr. P humming to the final bars of the instrumental postlude, until it ends.

Nyman's most recent opera, Man and Boy: Dada was premiered this past summer at the Almeida Theatre in London, 2004. The libretto, by Michael Hastings, brings together, fictionally, the life of Dada artist Kurt Schwitters and the adolescent Michael Nyman (named only as Michael), who discover that they both collect bus tickets, for collage and collections, respectively. See this post at Ionarts, Opera and Collage, from August 9, for more information.

November 14, 2004

Very Interesting Article

Posted by Lindsay at 5:10 PM | Link to this post

This article recently appeared in the Arts section of the New York Times and I think it could bring about some healthy discussion. (I especially saw it befitting since I spent all that time talking about Shostakovich's Lady MacBeth and the need for certain body types to play roles like Sergei and Katerina.)

Should the Fat Lady Diet Before She Sings?

November 14, 2004
The dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt returns to the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday as Elisabeth in Wagner's "Tannhäuser," and opera buffs are abuzz with anticipation over this popular American artist's first foray into the role at the house. Yet besides wondering how she will sound, many in the audience will no doubt be curious to see how she looks. Ms. Voigt, a large woman, has been dieting, exercising and losing weight. The physical appearance of opera singers became a hot topic last summer, when word came that Ms. Voigt had been forced out of a production of Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Royal Opera House in London. Ariadne is her signature role. But the director of the company's trendy production thought she was too heavy to look right in a black cocktail dress that he deemed crucial to his concept.

Though countless Voigt fans were distressed by this insult to her artistry, the story did stir debate about nagging questions in the field: vocal endowment is obviously the most important factor in casting a role, but is it everything? Shouldn't the element of drama in opera demand that singers look reasonably like the characters they portray? And what about the new generation? Do younger singers who have grown up in a visually oriented age believe that looking good and staying in shape are prerequisites for a career?
Read the rest here.

November 12, 2004

November 12: Opera in Russia

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 1:19 AM | Link to this post

Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) composed more than ten operas, not all of them completed.

Ljubowk k trjom Apelsinam [The Love of Three Oranges] (Chicago, 1921), with libretto by the composer, after Gozzi.

War and Peace (composed 1941-1952) was begun after Prokofiev's return to the Soviet Union. The work was first premiered in an incomplete concert version (eight scenes of first version), on October 16, 1944, by the Ensemble of Soviet Opera of the All-Union Theatrical Society, conducted by Konstantin Popov with piano accompaniment. After a second incomplete concert performance (with nine scenes, on June 7, 1945, by the USSR State Symphony, conducted by Samuel Samosud), Prokofiev continued to revise the opera. After his death, the work was finally staged, in the finished revised version (March 31, 1955, at the Leningrad State Academy Maly Opera Theater, conducted by Eduard Grikurov) and in a restored 13-scene version (November 8, 1957, in the Stanislavsky Operat Theater, Moscow, conducted by Alexander Shaverdov).

Alex Ross, in his review (Prokofiev's War and Peace, The New Yorker, March 4, 2002) of the recent production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (a coproduction with the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, with some pictures available here), called it "the most visually compelling opera production that I have seen in New York in many years." That production was also reviewed by Anthony Tommasini ('War and Peace' Opens; Mishap Raises Concerns, February 16, 2002) for the New York Times.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (premiered at the Leningrad Opera, January 22, 1934), with libretto by Dmitri Shostakovich and Alexander Preys.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), Life with an Idiot (Amsterdam, 1992), first of three operas by this composer: Gesualdo (Vienna, 1995) and Historia von D. Johann Fausten (Hamburg, 1995).

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.

November 07, 2004

Background of 'Nixon in China'

Posted by Grace Cho at 8:14 PM | Link to this post

John Adams grew up in New Hampshire, where was in political environment. So he developed early on a fascination for American political life. Particularly, the city of Concord, where he attended high school, was the nerve central of the presidential primary campaigns which rolled into town every four years. He shook JFK’s hand the night before he won the New Hampshire primary in 1960. His first vote was for the maverick Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 campaign ultimately signaled the resignation of Lyndon Johnson and the slow winding down of the Vietnam War. So it was somewhat of a natural fit when the topic of Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, capitalism and communism should be proposed to him as the subject for an opera.

He was slow to realize the brilliance of his idea. However, by 1983 Nixon had become the stuff of bad, predictable comedy routines, and it was difficult to untangle his own personal animosity because he’d tried to send him to Vietnam. But when the poet , Alice Goodman, agreed to write a verse libretto in couplets, the project suddenly took on an wonderfully complex guise, part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues. All of this centered on six extraordinary personalities in his opera: Nixon, Chairman Mao and Chiang Ch’ing, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger.

Nixon’s 1972 trip was in fact an epochal event, one whose magnitude is hard to imagine from our present perspective, and it was perfect for Peter Sellars’s dramatic imagination. Nixon in China was for the sure the first opera ever to use a staged “media event’ as the basis for its dramatic structure. He understood brilliantly how dictatorships on the right and one the left throughout the century had carefully managed public opinion through a form of public theater and the cultivation of ‘persona’ in the political arena. Both Nixon and Mao were adapt manipulators of public opinion and the second scene of Act I, the famous meeting between Mao and Nixon, brings these two complex figures together face to face in a dialogue that oscillates between philosophical sparring and political one-upmanship.

In Act II, scene 2, a reform dance- The Red Detachment of Women, which the Nixon and Pat saw on 22 February, their second evening in Beijing. Chang Ch’ing who was the wife of Mao began her career as a movie actress and only later enlisted in the party, accompanying Mao on the grueling Long March and ultimately became the power behind his throne, the mind and force behind that hideous experiment in social engineering, the Cultural Revolution. It was at the beginning of 1966 that Mao launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a movement to recall the Chinese people, especially the young, to the revolutionary spirit. It led to horrors no less vile than those in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, was put in charge of cultural affairs and launched a reign of terror in the worlds of education and the arts. Her hatred was directed particularly at European-American cultural traditions and anything that could be stigmatized as bourgeois. As a reason, she introduced the reform dance as a scenario of political significance to the Nixon and his wife. As a representative scene for her cruel character, she interrupts the ballet to shout angry orders at the dancers and sing her credo of power and violence. “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.’

Adam’s first orchestral work, completed in 1980 and called Common Tones in Simple Time(Nonesuch 79144) is a pure and beautiful essay in what one might call extreme or truly minimal minimalism, without melody, and with all other elements such as color, rhythm, and harmony treated with extraordinary delicacy. His music is like Reich’s in the sense that Mozart’s is like Haydn’s but it is also as different from it as Mozart’s is from Haydn’s.
Adams referred to himself as “a minimalist bored with minimalism.” His music is indeed go far beyond the bounds of “Classical Minimalism.” Nixon in China is his second major composition on a text, the first being Harmonium in 1981 for chorus and orchestra, setting poems of John Donne and Emily Dickinson.

At a preview performance in San Francisco in May 1987, Adams joked that Nixon in China was an opera for Republicans and communists. Kissinger is treated without a lot of mercy, but the other portraits seem to reveal something essential of how each character would have seen himself or herself. Therefore he said that this opera is not a political cartoon: it contains elements of both historical and the comic. So Adam and Goodman offer it as a heroic and mythic drama. It is also rare for us to encounter living and real character on the operatic stage.

November 04, 2004

November 5: Opera and Minimalism

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 10:12 PM | Link to this post

Available at Amazon:
Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach (recorded in 1993)
Philip Glass (b. 1937), Einstein on the Beach

The opera was premiered at the Avignon Festival in 1976, in a production by Robert Wilson (see also the Watermill Center). Wilson was born in Waco, Texas, and was trained principally in painting in architecture. His interest in drama, especially in creating productions of operas and other theatrical works dominated by light, led Eugene Ionesco to label him as "America’s most important dramatist." That production was brought from France and given two blockbuster, sold-out performances at the Met, which were praised by Andrew Porter in the New York Times. It brought Glass immense fame and was the first major exposure of the minimalist style to a broad audience.

Glass has often voiced his opposition to what he characterizes as a serialist clique among contemporary composers: "There was a time when there wasn't this tremendous distance between the popular audience and concert music, and I think we’re approaching that stage again. For a long while we had this very small band of practitioners of modern music who described themselves as mathematicians, doing theoretical work that would someday be understood. I don't think anyone takes that very seriously anymore."

The opera eventually became the first part of an opera trilogy about men who changed the world through their ideas, followed by Satyagraha, on the life of Gandhi (1980), and Akhnaten, about the ancient Egyptian religious leader (1983).

Other resources:
Available at Amazon:
John Adams, Nixon in China (conducted by Edo de Waart)
John Adams (b. 1947), Nixon in China (Houston Grand Opera, 1987). The libretto was written by Alice Goodman, an American who lives in Cambridge, England, based on the actual events of President Nixon's visit to China, February 21 to 27, 1972, to meet with Mao Tse-Tung. Peter Sellars was involved as director/producer from the start and was the one who brought Adams and Goodman together. Adams wanted the libretto to be written in rhymed couplets; it was written in 1985 to 1986. Andrew Porter, reviewing the Houston premiere for The New Yorker, observed that almost all of the character's real-life counterparts could have attended the premiere (the Nixons, Dr. Kissinger, even Mrs. Mao, who was serving a prison sentence at the time, for her part in the Cultural Revolution).

Other resources:See also John Adams, Death of Klinghoffer (Brussels, 1991)The team of Adams, Goodman, and Sellars will premiere a new opera, Dr. Atomic, on the life of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, in September 2005 in San Francisco.

There is a Web site devoted to Dr. Atomic and its upcoming premiere. Thanks to Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight for the link.

October 29, 2004

Thomson's 'Four Saints in Three Acts'

Posted by phil at 12:11 PM | Link to this post

Composed by Virgil Thomson
Libretto by Gertrude Stein
Thomson met Stein, a poet and playwright older and more famous than he, in 1926, when they were both living in Paris. By early the following year they were planning an opera. Thomson, whose musical idiom was born of the Baptist hymns of his Kansas City youth by way of Erik Satie, was drawn to Stein, who ‘liked rhymes and jingles and … had no fear of the common-place’. Her love for artfully constructed verbal edifices using the simplest of means, her contrapuntal interweaving of repeated words and phrases, as well as her childlike abstraction, all defined an inherently musical sensibility. ‘She wrote poetry … very much as a composer works’, Thomson recalled. ‘She chose a theme and developed it, or rather, she let the words of it develop themselves through the free expansion of sound and sense … I took my musical freedom, following her poetic freedom, and what came out was a virtually total recall of my Southern Baptist childhood in Missouri.’
The theme Stein and Thomson chose for their first opera was the lives of 16th-century Spanish saints. ’We saw among the religious a parallel to the life we were leading’, Thomson wrote, ‘in which consecrated artists were practicing their art surrounded by younger artists who were no less consecrated and who were trying to learn and needing to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity, of channeling their skills without loss of inspiration.’
The music was composed between June 1927 and July 1928, but not orchestrated until 1933. Its style was direct and accessible, in the manner of Kurt Weill and other exponents of a folksy leftism in the 1930s but purged of any political subtext. For the première, Thomson’s friend, the painter Maurice Grosser, provided a scenario sympathetic to Stein’s dreamy poetic abstraction, yet offering some clues as to the significance of this enigmatic work.
The first performance, on 8 February 1934 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, was presented not by an established opera company but by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. There was an all-black cast, stage direction and movement by Frederick Ashton and John Houseman and cellophane décor by Florine Stettheimer. The same production was presented that year on Broadway and in Chicago, for a run of more than 60 performances. Despite this success, which established Thomson as an intellectuals’ darling, and which vastly augmented Stein’s notoriety (‘Pigeons on the grass alas’ from the third act became a humorist’s watchword for vanguard silliness), the opera has never entered the repertory of major opera houses. This is partly because Stein’s poetry is something of an acquired taste, and partly because Thomson’s faux-naïf music now seems prescient of minimalism. Its chamber scoring (for an orchestra of about 25, using modest strings) has, however, made it a feasible work for smaller companies. Thomson insisted that the precedent of an all-black cast need not be considered binding, but major productions with white or mixed casts have remained rare, and most companies find it difficult to assemble all-black casts of this size. This synopsis is drawn from Grosser’s scenario; it could not be deduced from Stein’s words alone. The music throughout is an American patchwork of marches, waltzes, hymns and singsong recitative.
Prologue A choral introduction to all the saints, some 30 counting the chorus, but concentrating on the four principals (with St Teresa sung by two singers) and including the Commère and Compère.
Act1 (‘A Pageant, or Sunday School Entertainment’) On the steps of Avila Cathedral This consists of seven tableaux focussed on St Teresa II and revealed through a portal by the drawing of a small curtain. The first tableau shows St Teresa II in an early-spring garden, painting Easter eggs and conversing with St Teresa I. In the second scene St Teresa II, holding a dove, is photographed by St Settlement. St Ignatius serenades the seated St Teresa II in the third scene, at the end of which she rises and asks, ‘Can women have wishes?’ (Stein was an early feminist). St Ignatius offers St Teresa II flowers in the fourth tableau, and in the fifth the two saints admire a model house, a Heavenly Mansion. In the sixth, St Teresa II is shown in ‘an attitude of ecstasy’. Finally, she rocks an imaginary child in her arms: ‘The act ends with comments, congratulations, and general sociability.’
Act2 A garden party in the country near Barcelona The Compère and Commère, dressed in formal attire, observe the anion from the side. A Dance of Angels is performed, St Chavez organizes a game and the Compère and Commère share ‘a tender scene’, observed by the two St Teresas. Everyone peers through a telescope at a vision of the Heavenly Mansion. As all pack to leave, St Ignatius refuses to give back St Teresa I’s telescope; St Chavez consoles her, and remains alone on stage after the others depart.
Act3 A monastery garden on the coast near Barcelona St Ignatius and his Jesuits mend fishing nets. The two St Teresas and St Settlement discuss monastic life with St Ignatius and see a vision of the Holy Ghost (‘Pigeons on the grass alas’, etc.). After a military drill St Chavez lectures the men; the women saints enter, doubt the vision, and are reproved by St Ignatius, who predicts the Last Judgment. After a storm passes, the saints file out, chanting and singing hymns about their future heavenly life.
Act4 The Compère and Commère argue before the curtain as to whether there should be a fourth act. The curtain rises to reveal the saints in heaven. They remember with pleasure their earthly existence and sing a communion hymn (‘When this you see remember me’). The opera ends when the Compère sings, ‘Last act’, and everyone else shouts, ‘Which is a fact’.
Despite its infrequency of performance, Four Saints and Thomson’s music in general have risen steadily in prestige, especially since the waning of total serialism among American academic composers after the 1970s. Thomson’s style is seen now as an anticipation not just of minimalism, but of the entire movement towards simplicity, accessibility and vernacular inspiration that has defined composition in the 1980s and 90s.

October 28, 2004

October 29: Opera in America

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 8:34 PM | Link to this post

At Christopher Hapka's Web site, usopera.com, you can find lots of information on the history of opera in the United States. That history goes back farther and is more extensive than you might think, as you can see in Hapka's Timeline of American Opera, 1845–1995. For example, on September 27, 1855, George Frederick Bristow premiered his opera Rip Van Winkle at Niblo's Garden, in New York, "the first opera by an American composer on an American subject." In the same year, "the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull offers a prize of $1000 for the best original American opera on an American subject." At the time of his death in 1898, Bristow was at work on an opera on the life of Christopher Columbus.

Another major event, in 1893, was the Denver premiere of The Martyr, by Harry Lawrence Freeman, "the first known performance of an opera by an African-American composer." Scott Joplin's first ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor, was premiered in St. Louis in 1903, but it has been lost. Joplin's opera Treemonisha, which takes place on a plantation run by freed slaves, was completed around 1907, with a piano-vocal score published in 1911. In spite of Joplin's efforts, the opera was not staged until 1975, at the Houston Grand Opera.

There were some major commercial successes that died out in popularity. Dublin-born Victor Herbert (1859–1924), most famous for the dozens of operettas he composed, such as Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland, composed an American Indian opera called Natoma, premiered by the Philadelphia-Chicago Opera Company on February 25, 1911. Horatio Parker (1863–1919) won a $10,000 prize in a competition sponsored by the Met for his opera Mona. It was premiered on March 14, 1912, but received only four performances. Howard Hanson (1896–1981) premiered his neo-Romantic opera Merry Mount to stunning success at the Met, receiving 50 curtain calls at the premiere on February 10, 1934.

In the same year, Virgil Thomson (1896–1989) premiered a rather different opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, to celebrate the opening of the Avery Memorial wing of the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, in Hartford, Conn. Working with the experimental expatriate author Gertrude Stein (see this excerpt of the libretto, Pigeons on the grass alas), Thomson completed the opera in Europe in 1928. An all-black cast premiered the opera, sponsored by a group called The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, in a production choreographed by Frederick Ashton and directed by the painter Maurice Grosser, who was Thomson's partner. The American hymn tunes that pervade the opera were familiar to Thomson from his upbringing in a Baptist church in Kansas City, Missouri. See these reviews of the premiere:Thomson and Stein's intriguing second opera, The Mother of Us All, on the life of activist Susan B. Anthony, was premiered on May 7, 1947, at Columbia University. (A scene from this opera was performed at the recital by young singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, reviewed at Ionarts on October 11.) Thomson's final opera, on the life of controversial Romantic poet Lord Byron, had its planned premiere at the Met cancelled. It was ultimately first performed at the Juilliard School in New York.

Other resources:

October 27, 2004

Gian Carlo Menotti/"The Saint of Bleecker Street"

Posted by Lindsay at 1:42 PM | Link to this post

Gian Carlo Menotti, born 7 July 1911 in Cadegliano, (Varese) Italy, wrote and produced his first opera when he was eleven. Following preliminary studies at Milan’s Verdi Conservatory, he went to the U.S. on the advice of Arturo Toscanini and completed his compositional studies under Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. His first mature work, the one-act opera buffa Amelia Goes to the Ball, was given its premiere by the Metropolitan Opera in 1938.

Written in 1954, one of Menotti’s major works, The Saint of Bleecker Street, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award. (Another of Menotti’s successes, The Consul, also received both of these awards.) Approached by NBC to create the first television opera, he wrote Amahl and The Night Visitors, a Christmas classic that has received countless performances since its premiere in 1951, reaching a wider audience than any other work in operatic history.

Menotti’s operatic output includes the first radio opera, The Old Maid and The Thief, a second television opera, The Labyrinth; the church operas (Martin’s lie and The Egg); and several opera written for children, including Help, Help, the Globolinks!. In addition to The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street, his major works include Maria Golovin and The Last Savage, which was the first opera by a non-French composer commissioned by the Paris’ Opera since Verdi’s Don Carlo. Other operas of note are Juana la Loca (written for Beverly Sills), Goya (written for Plácido Domingo and produced by The Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center in 1986), and The Marriage commissioned by the Olympic Arts Festival and premiered in Seoul in September 1988.

As his own librettist, Menotti has also provided operatic texts for other composers (most notably for Samuel Barber’s Vanessa), and his literary output includes plays as well as poems, short stories and film scripts. Although best known as an operatic composer, Menotti has displayed great versatility in a wide range of musical forms, including large-scale orchestral works such as Missa O Pulchritudo, First Symphony, the symphonic poem Apocalypse, and concerti for piano, violin, and double bass. He has also written cantatas, such as the Death of the Bishop of Brindisi and written for ballet as well. Menotti also composed the song cycle Canti della Lontananza commissioned by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Five Songs for Tenor and several chamber music pieces including A Suite for Two Cellos written for Piatigorsky. His tremendous record as a stage director includes productions for the Teatro la Scala, The Metropolitan Opera, The Washington Opera, and the opera Companies of Munich, Vienna, Berlin and Paris. Since his historic production of La Bohème at the 1960 Festival of Two Worlds, his staging activities has included Così Fan Tutte, The Rake’s Progress, Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, Carmen, Manon Lescaut, Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro.

Founder of the world-wide acclaimed Festival of Two Worlds in 1958, which also had an Australian parenthesis in the late 1980s an now has definitely settled in Italy, under the name Spoleto Festival, Menotti has discovered and fostered talented young people in virtually every area of the creative and performing arts. Although his Italian citizenship, in recognition of his contributions to the performing arts in America, he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986. He has been artistic director of the Opera di Roma from 1992 to 1994. Menotti not resides in Scotland with his family where he is now planning to create a small opera theatre.

The Saint of Bleecker Street

In a tenement on Bleecker Street, a group of people are gathered outside the bedroom door of Annina, who is supposed to have the Stigmata. They argue about whether she can heal the sick or not; Maria Corona gets into a fight with one of the other women there. Don Marco, a priest, has Annina carried out among them; in great pain, she has a vision of the Crucifixion. The neighbors crowd around her, Maria Corona first among them, but Michele, Annina's brother, arrives and throws them all out, including Don Marco. Michel does not believe in Annina's visions; he is determined to save her from his neighbors' fanaticism. Don Marco warns Michele that he is competing with God for his sister's love.

Later, Annina and her friend Carmela are preparing a little girl for her part in a procession; Carmela confesses to Annina that she has fallen in love with Salvatore and won't be taking the veil with her. Carmela is afraid because she has broken her promise, but Annina is happy for her. Annina describes a vision of Heaven for her neighbors. Maria Corona comes to warn Annina: angry because Michele won't let her take part in the procession, they are planning to come and drag her away by force. Maria Corona describes to Annina the changes that have taken place in her son since the day he touched her during her vision; formerly dumb, he has begun to speak. Michele arrives; he tries to convince Annina that her visions are only hallucinations, but she is certain they are visions from God. Michele wants to prevent her from taking the veil; he is afraid of losing her. As the procession passes, Michele is overpowered and tied to a fence by a group of men, while Annina, frightened and helpless, is carried off. Michele is rescued by his lover, Desidera.
At Carmela and Salvatore's wedding, a young man offers an Italian toast to the bride and groom. When the guests have gone into the next room, Annina enters; she tells Salvatore to be good to her friend. Desidera arrives, looking for Michele; she has been thrown out of her mother's house. She is angry at the neighborhood; because everyone knows she is sleeping with Michele, she is not invited to weddings and christenings, but Michele still is. Desidera wants Michele to take her in to the wedding, but Michele is worried about how it would affect Annina. Desidera is angry and jealous that Michele lets his love for his sister come between them. Michele agrees to take her in; Don Marco tries to prevent them, and their argument brings out the guests. Salvatore accuses Michele of causing trouble; Michele sings a bitter aria of defiance. Desidera accuses Michele of being in love with his sister rather than her. When she refuses to take her words back, Michele stabs her and runs away; Desidera begs Annina to help her; as they pray together, Desidera dies.
Annina and Maria Corona are meeting Michele in a subway station. Maria Corona shows Annina Michele's picture in the paper. Don Marco arrives with Michele. Annina asks Michele to give himself up. He refuses; he says he will fight to the end, even against God. He tells Annina that she is all he has left. Annina in turn tells him that her voices have told her she is going to die very soon; she has decided to take the veil immediately. Michele tries to convince her to stay with him, but she is unmoved. Michele curses her and runs off.
Back in her apartment, Annina, very ill, is waiting with Carmela for word on whether Annina will be allowed to take the veil. Annina is upset because she doesn't have a white dress to wear; Carmela gives her her wedding dress to wear. Her permission is granted, and Don Marco begins the ceremony. The guests wonder if Michele will try to stop the ceremony. As she is being ordained as Sister Angela, Michele bursts in and tries to convince her to stay with him. Annina does not hear him; as the ceremony finishes, she falls down dead.