Composer Libby Larsen (whose Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus premieres at the Minnesota Opera in May) claims that the music in her head represents certain kinds of energies and representative rhythms which resonate with American English. That curious term, "American English," offers the key to understanding one of the most formidable obstacles to creating operas within a contemporary context.
Although perverse thoughts and vulgar sentiments are rampant throughout the operatic literature, when expressed in "American English" such ideas become anathema to conservative operagoers.
Why are contemporary operas like Power Failure and Where's Dick? chock full of sexual epithets? For the same reason that, in Act III of Nixon In China, Chiang Ch'ing turns to her husband, Mao-Tse-Tung, and sings "We'll teach these motherfuckers how to dance!"
"Some people have an attitude about art which insists that it is meant to elevate and should be above daily life," notes composer Stewart Wallace, "but vulgarity and art are not mutually exclusive. When you sing the word 'Fuck,' it gives your work a visceral connection to our daily existence which, dramatically, can be very powerful. It involves a conscious and deliberate attempt at examination by perversion: You twist something on its edge so that you can look at it in a different way. By doing so, the sound takes on a heightened element which makes it very different from the spoken word."
In the opera world, most funding comes from conservatives who find it difficult to tolerate the use of gutter expletives on the sanctified operatic stage. Nevertheless, words like "fuck," "screw," "piss" and "shit" added spice to the librettos of two new operas which received their world premieres last fall. While each opera tried to deal with the problem of alienation in contemporary society, only one really succeeded. Here's why:
THE BITCH FROM OUTER SPACE
One of the more important musical events of the fall season was the world premiere of Sir Michael Tippett's New Year (a co-production between the Houston Grand Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the British Broadcasting Corporation). As England's pre-eminent classical composer, Tippett's attempt to write the libretto and score for an opera in which humans and aliens search for the meaning of life bit off more than the old man could chew. Tippett's well-intentioned plot imploded under its own weight while his attempt to create a libretto that sounded "with-it" resulted in a surprisingly laborious use of contemporary street language.
The result was a rather clumsy and self-conscious new opera which, although extremely well-produced, could not rise to the occasion of its birth. Despite Alison Chitty's stunningly telescopic designs, Sir Peter Hall's direction, and Bill T. Jones's choreography, the two performances of New Year which I attended (including one at which the Duchess of York was present) failed to get me excited about this opera. I found it to be a fairly heavy-handed and tedious work without much music to get excited about. In spite of all the hoopla surrounding Sir Michael Tippett, I could not bring myself to like the opera or see much of a future for New Year.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Krister St. Hill's animated performance as the black outcast and eternally bad boy, Donny. I was totally bowled over by the vocal strength of soprano Richetta Manager, who made her American debut as Tippett's Thatcher-like space bitch, Regan. And I could admire the artistic contributions of Helen Field as Jo Ann, Jane Shaulis as Nan, James Maddalena as Merlin, Peter Kazaras as Pelegrin as well as the work done by conductor John DeMain. But I was not very impressed by Tippett's latest opera.
OLIVER NORTH SINGS THE BLUES
Indeed, I had a much, much better time at the Minnesota Opera, which presented the world premiere of Snow Leopard as part of a co-production with composer William Harper's Chicago-based American Ritual Theater Company (ARTCO). Where New Year was overproduced, Snow Leopard was simply and effectively staged by Rhoda Levine using such simple props as the bright red Jungle Jim designed by John Conklin and two dozen rolling lemons.
Harper's computerized score boasts a rock beat which does more than deliver a driving pulse to support the dramatic action: it keeps members of the audience beating time with their feet for the tense 90 minutes in which Snow Leopard's plot unravels. This opera tells the tale of an American engineer who, after ruining a Tibetan ecosystem by building a huge and unwanted dam, becomes a political liability and is abandoned by the forces he relied upon in Washington. The libretto by Roger Neiboer and William Harper is concisely written, dramatically powerful and effectively uses the language of today's culture to delineate the hero's predicament.
While Snow Leopard was handsomely performed by members of the Minnesota Opera's New Music-Theatre Ensemble, my hat goes off to tenor Paul Pruitt, who sang the pivotal role of the engineer. It's shocking and refreshing to encounter a handsome operatic tenor with an incredibly high range who can sing full force while swinging around on a set of "monkey bars." If anything, Pruitt's intensely theatrical performance in Snow Leopard boasted the kind of vocalism, acting and acrobatics that could easily make Luciano Pavarotti resemble a beached whale from a long lost culture.
As you may have gathered, I like this new opera a lot. Here, at last, is a contemporary work with a brilliant score mounted in a simple, yet superbly effective production. Snow Leopard not only speaks to our culture and the concerns of our times, it is a perfect candidate for videotaped release or performances around the country. I recommend Harper's new work wholeheartedly to one and all as proof that contemporary opera remains a vital pursuit in the arts. Indeed, my only regret about Snow Leopard is that, because it was premiered in Minneapolis's tiny Southern Theater, so few people have had an opportunity to experience this fine and exciting new piece of American art.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 8, 1990.