Thursday, November 22, 2007

Contemporary Voices

A music critic once accused Stephen Sondheim of writing inaccessible music -- songs that no one could hum. The composer's response was surprisingly blunt. Anything that is heard enough times can eventually be hummed, claimed Sondheim as he suggested that a musical style of Pavlovian training might attune one's ear to accepting difficult music and embracing it as if it were an old friend.

This concept becomes particularly interesting when applied to contemporary opera for, in my experience, few recent works (with the exception of Michael Korie & Stewart Wallace's Where's Dick?) could ever be accused of possessing hummable tunes. Most are written in discordant styles ranging between Philip Glass's overly simplistic (and numbingly repetitive) musical patterns to electronically produced shrieks, groans and wails that fall one step short of sounding like chalk scratched against a blackboard.

In an age when it has become extremely difficult for contemporary operas to gain a foothold, how does a composer navigate his way down the all but invisible path to popular success? Perhaps the only technique is by trying to compose music with which people can identify on one emotional level or another.


Of all the operas written in the past 50 years, John Adams' Nixon In China has enjoyed the most curious success. Millions have experienced the opera on television and purchased the recording on compact discs. In the three years since Nixon In China received its world premiere from the Houston Grand Opera, it has been performed in Brooklyn, Washington, Amsterdam, Edinborough, Los Angeles and East Germany. As far as marketing a new work is concerned (especially when one considers that Nixon In China is Adams' first attempt at composing an opera), this has become the ultimate user-friendly experience in contemporary opera.

Performances by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (as part of September's Los Angeles Festival) demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that the success of Nixon in China is no mere fluke. Adams' quirky score has plenty of strong moments and, with some slight revisions in the staging by Peter Sellars, the work scored extremely well. The Los Angeles audience reacted with much more humor to Richard Nixon's egomaniacal posturings and, at times, with more sympathy for poor put-upon Pat. Indeed, I found it fascinating to see an opening night performance of a contemporary work so warmly received in a market which has only had an opera company of its own for five years.

Truly fascinating.

The principals remained the same as in the original production. Baritone Thomas Hammons was a perfect buffoon as Henry Kissinger; tenor John Duykers offered a tyrannical characterization of Mao-Tse-Tung, whose fierce intellectual power could derail Nixon's pompous posturings in a split second. James Maddalena's portrayal of the American President has grown into a more cleverly-etched cartoon with each series of performances. As Chou-En-Lai, baritone Sanford Sylvan was again blessed with some of the most gracious music in Adams' score.

The women seemed to be having an off night. Carolann Page's Pat Nixon experienced occasional pitch problems and the usually rock solid voice of Trudy Ellen Craney seemed a bit shaky as Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao), who, in Act III, defiantly predicts "We'll show these motherfuckers how to dance." Paula Rasmussen, Stephanie Friedman and Stephanie Vlahos provided strong back-up as the "Mao-ettes."

This was the first time that Nixon in China was performed with Supertitles and the improvement was obvious: the audience was much more quickly drawn into the piece and stayed with the performers throughout the evening. While Peter Sellars' stage direction and Mark Morris's choreography retained their punch, the most amazing contribution on opening night came from conductor Kent Nagano, who tuned into a lyricism in Adams' music that had eluded the other conductors (including the composer) supervising previous performances. Nagano's obvious appreciation of the score helped LAMCO's musicians discover the rare beauty within Adams' printed (one-dimensional) music and transform it into a more well-rounded, multi-dimensional and truly operatic experience.


I wish I could be anywhere near as enthusiastic about John Casken's new opera, Golem, which received its American premiere as part of Opera Omaha's "Alive!" festival. But, alas, Golem was one of those nightmarish experiences in which one squirms through 100 minutes of musical torture, praying for it all to end.

Golem takes its inspiration from the Jewish tales of a 16th century Rabbi who, through the power of the Cabbalah, fashioned a lump of lifeless clay into a huge humanoid whose invincible strength could protect the innocent. Just as with Frankenstein's monster, his Golem cannot be controlled and begins to experience human feelings. Like Libby Larsen's recent Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, Casken's opera attempts to warn us about the dangers of using artificial intelligence as a means of coping with life's inequities. His score reveals some interesting textures and intelligent craftsmanship. The libretto he crafted in (collaboration with Pierre Audi) shows dramatic potential. But, as performed in Omaha (and I'm not so sure any of the singers should be held responsible for this) the text was completely unintelligible.

That's not to say that, under Richard Pittman's baton and Keith Warner's stage direction, everyone involved with Golem didn't give it their damnedest. John Pascoe's sets and costumes attempted to give Golem a somewhat cinematic flavor. Kim Davis certainly tried to help matters with his special lighting effects. I commend all the performers (Terry Hodges, Gordon Holleman, Jayne West, Douglas Stevens, Thomas Bogdan, Eric McCluskey, Carl Saloga and Martha Kasten) for their dogged professionalism in trying to transform Casken's Golem into a viable dramatic experience. And I applaud Opera Omaha's General Director, Mary Robert, for her courageous attempt to produce a new opera which she and her colleagues felt was an important piece of music.

Still, despite all good intentions, it didn't take long for an impenetrable shield to descend between the stage and the auditorium which prevented the audience from tapping into the dramatic experience. In many ways, Golem might have been better off had it been left as an unformed lump of operatic clay. As one woman muttered while exiting Omaha's Witherspoon Concert Hall, "I feel like I'd have done just as well if I'd have burned my money!"

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 15, 1990.

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