Friday, November 23, 2007

Back To Tonality

While opera audiences crave the familiar sounds of well-known arias, one of the biggest problems they face when first encountering a contemporary work is the simple task of getting accustomed to the sounds of new music. Composers who try to prove their brilliance as orchestrators are often tempted to go for the big bang when composing a new opera and, during the period when atonality, electronic noise and musical mayhem reigned supreme, a singer's voice was often treated by an operatic composer as little more than a nuisance factor.

In the period from 1958-1960 (when a world premiere was included in each one of the New York City Opera's seasons) NYCO received a special grant from the Ford Foundation to bring in composers and librettists who were themselves at work on new operas. "Because many composers don't know enough about what makes opera tick, these people were permitted to sit in, walk around, get in our hair and ask whatever they wanted to know -- just to see how an opera is formed. But I don't think any of those people ever came up with a viable opera. Most of them had been encouraged by Schoenberg and Berg, who write cruelly for the voice," recalls conductor Julius Rudel, "and music has to hit your heart and your emotions. Not just your cerebral reactions."

Back in those days, there was no program in place (other than City Opera's Ford Foundation grant) which would allow composers to work directly with the people who produce opera on a regular basis in order to better understand the art form as they began working on a new piece. In recent years, however, the process of workshopping a new opera has gained favor and both the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Canadian Opera Company have instituted important Composer-in-Residence programs. Thanks to OPERA America's "Opera Into The Eighties And Beyond" program (OFTEAB), more than 300 pre-commissioning grants, explorations fellowships (which allow general directors and senior staff to see performances of contemporary works, visit exhibitions and meet with various artists), team-building grants (which encourage short-term residencies by a team of composers, librettists, designers and directors) and development grants (which help cover the cost of getting a new opera to the point where a work-in-progress reading can be presented) have been awarded to American and Canadian opera companies.

The results have been quite interesting. Among the operas premiered in recent years, Nixon in China, Casanova, Joruri, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Three Sisters have all exhibited a noticeably higher level of sophistication and stageworthiness (not to mention a stronger set of musical values). Two works which received their world premieres in November (The Aspern Papers and West of Washington Square) were particularly newsworthy for their lack of cacophony and each composer's dedication to scoring orchestral parts very heavily for strings. What I find most interesting about this phenomenon is the evidence of a distinct return to tonality as composers discover that there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing lyrically for the human voice or, God forbid, writing music that actually deserves to be sung!


Shortly after Thanksgiving, Opera San Jose presented the world premiere of Alva Henderson's West of Washington Square. Based on two short stories by O. Henry, Henderson's work demands an extremely intimate setting and, in this respect, San Jose's 530-seat Montgomery Theatre was a perfect fit. Since this tiny jewel box of an auditorium has precious little wing space, Ken Holamon's rotating set did a superb job of altering moods while moving the puzzle-like unit set just far enough to accommodate the plot's dramatic needs. Alas, when required to portray older people, the high energy level of Opera San Jose's young artists occasionally worked against them in such a small space and, with only a tiny stage to work on, large gestures quickly seemed dangerously out of scale.

If there was a noticeable difference in quality between the two acts of Henderson's opera, there are several reasons why. The first act of West of Washington Square was composed nearly a decade ago and, since then, Henderson's skill as a composer has increased tremendously. The libretto for the second act was written by veteran poet Janet Lewis instead of by the composer and her skill with words obviously outshines Henderson's. Therefore, while Act I (based on O. Henry's short story entitled "The Last Leaf") occasionally seemed like an uncomfortable production of an opera written by a grad student for his university's opera workshop, Act II (based on "The Third Ingredient") was an infinitely more polished product which would make a nice curtain-raiser for a darker contemporary piece like The Medium or La Voix Humaine.

As the aging Mr. Behrman, Ron Gerard delivered a nice cameo to which Janis Wilcox offered a strong foil as the skinflint landlady, Mrs. O'Gara. Douglas Nagel's passionate Paul was neatly balanced by Elizabeth Enmann's Kate (Enmann also sang the role of Helen in Act I). I was most impressed with the performances of Susan Gundunas as Cathy and Eilana Lappalainen as Anna. Lappalainen's voice and stage presence grab an audience in a way that is quite rare for a young artist and this talented soprano could have a very interesting future ahead of her.


There is much to recommend Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers (which received its world premiere from the Dallas Opera, was taped for delayed broadcast on PBS and will be presented in January 1990 by the Washington Opera) and, while attending a performance of its premiere production in Texas, I was pleasantly shocked by the lyricism and gentility with which the composer adapted Henry James's novel. Who knows? Maybe we are heading for a kinder and gentler society after all! In any case, Argento's unabashedly romantic and old-fashioned opera offers its singers some very good music which sits comfortably on the audience's ears.

This new opera contains two juicy female leads and Elisabeth Soderstrom scored a huge personal triumph as Juliana (the opera singer who had been living with Aspern at the time of the composer's mysterious death). As her shy spinster niece, Tina, Frederica von Stade found a role ideally suited to her dramatic strengths and brought it to life with great skill. Neil Rosenshein's impulsive composer, Richard Stilwell's opportunistic lodger and Katherine Ciesinski's radiant Sonia offered strong contributions to the evening. But The Aspern Papers is really a show for the two women singing the roles of Juliana and Tina and the result was a handsome artistic achievement for both von Stade and Soderstrom.

While I was especially impressed by John Conklin's atmospheric unit set and the clarity of Mark Lamos' stage direction, one thing seemed very wrong with this premiere: the size of the theatre in which Argento's opera was staged. The 3,500-seat State Fair Music Hall in which the Dallas Opera performs is a cavernous barn frighteningly ill-tailored to the intimate demands of an opera about delicacy, vulnerability and deceit. I suspect that, when staged in the Kennedy Center's 1,150-seat Eisenhower Theatre next season (or edited for television) its theatrical impact will be much more powerful. I'll let you know a year from now.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 9, 1989.

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