Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Minimal Is As Minimal Does

Contemporary operas cause trouble. While their novelty may account for brisk sales at the box office, their presence on a subscription series forces conservative audiences (who prefer the more traditional sounds of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini) to deal with new ideas, new language, new sounds and new technologies. An opera like Anthony Davis' X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, confronts traditionally white opera audiences with stark elements of modern slang and racial politics which are inherently offensive to the arch-conservatives in the crowd. Many of today's most devoted opera fans (people who can easily overlook the fact that Violetta de Valery fucked half of Paris in order to earn her wealth) cannot bear the sight of two unmarried people humping on the kitchen table in Stephen Paulus' The Postman Always Rings Twice.

As I say, contemporary operas cause trouble. Sometimes the realities depicted in modern operas hit too close to home for comfort. In other situations, what was once too painful to deal with realistically has reached a point in history where it can be safely reworked and romanticized on the stage. To my mind, the most threatening aspect of most contemporary operas is that they force modern audiences to take risks. The most important of those risks demands that audiences pay serious attention to a composer who is still alive.

For many operagoers, the attention currently being given today's minimalist composers as they tackle the art form has become a particular source of angst. Although Peter Sellars likes to label Philip Glass's operas as "staggeringly stupid" (an accusation which resembles the pot calling the kettle black) Glass's works have been enthusiastically received in cities as diverse as Houston, New York, Chicago, Omaha, Stuttgart, Boston, London and Philadelphia. Next spring Glass's newest opera, The Fall of the House of Usher, will receive its world premiere in Louisville, Kentucky.

However, this fall, two major operas composed by two major minimalists (if such a contradiction can be appropriately employed) were staged by two of the nation's leading opera companies. The results were often lyrical, sometimes stageworthy and, in their respective circumstances, most exhilarating. If nothing else, each opera generated tremendous word of mouth for the company which produced it.


Few modern operas have affected me as deeply as Philip Glass's Satyagraha, which was produced by the Lyric Opera of Chicago this fall in a simple, yet remarkably moving production designed by Robert Israel and directed by David Poutney. This production (borrowed from the Netherlands Opera) matches the strongest elements of ritual storytelling with those of advanced stagecraft. It pairs the ancient sounds of primitive chanting with the modern tones of minimalist music.

What moved me so deeply, however, was the subject matter of the opera: passive resistance. Although Satyagraha deals with Gandhi's initial struggles during the period from 1893 to 1914 to achieve equal rights in South Africa, all I could think of during the performance was what my friends would be doing in Washington that very same weekend. Watching the chorus repeatedly light matches as they symbolically burned their registration cards made me wonder how many VISA cards would have to be snipped before the banking industry understood how its gay customers felt about the U.S. Olympics Committee's blatant bigotry. I couldn't stop wondering how many PWA's would have to burn their cards -- or die -- before our government adapted a more compassionate response to the victims of the current health epidemic.

In Act III, as wave upon wave of protestors marched forward to be arrested, I wondered how our marchers would fare that week in the nation's capital -- and if the organization of such passive resistance by gays would eventually weaken our enemies in Washington. Any doubts about whether or not opera could be relevant to our lives were effectively quashed with the ritualistic intensity of Satyagraha's message.

With Douglas Perry starring as Mahandas Gandhi, the large cast (essentially an ensemble chorus coached by Philip Morehead) gave a spectacular performance of this difficult work and all those involved with the production should be extremely proud of their achievements. David Poutney drew some incredible dramatic work from Lyric Opera's ensemble; special kudos go to the orchestra which, under Christopher Keene's musical guidance, handled Philip Glass's score with great skill.

Speight Jenkins has recently announced plans to produce Satyagraha in Seattle next summer (when the Seattle Opera takes a year off from performing Wagner's Ring). Readers of this column who are planning to visit the Pacific Northwest are urged to make their plans around Satyagraha's performance dates.


The big news on every music critic's calendar this fall was the Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China. With future performances scheduled by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Washington's Kennedy Center, the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels and the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association (not to mention a delayed PBS telecast of the Houston premiere scheduled for sometime next spring) Nixon in China will receive an absolutely staggering amount of exposure when one considers that this is the first opera ever written by its composer.

Because of how Nixon in China was co-produced, this piece will have the strongest chance of remaining active in the repertoire of any opera written during the 1980s. And yet, in many ways, it is the quintessential Yuppie opera: mechanical in its execution, superficially smart-assed in the treatment of its subject matter and often, despite Alice Goodman's superb libretto, profoundly lacking in musical depth.

After one strips away all the publicity value surrounding Nixon in China's world premiere (and the opera's pivotal role in drawing media attention to the operatic debut of Houston's new Wortham Center for the Arts), Nixon in China can be seen for exactly what it is: a composer's first opera. Although John Adams has succeeded in creating many exciting musical effects in his score, there are too many other moments when his writing demonstrates incredible cruelty toward the voice and a dangerous lack of understanding about what his singers can do without harming their instruments. There is a definite talent here; one only hopes that the composer will mellow out with age and adjust his tessituras to a more human scale.

What struck me during the two performances I attended was that (a) Adams seems far more adept as an orchestrator than as a composer; and (b) director Peter Sellars -- who is constantly being hailed as such a theatrical genius -- may well be the Yuppie equivalent of the Emperor's new clothes. Not only did the production suffer from an overwhelming sense of stagnancy, most of Sellars' staging was filled with cliches. His dramatic concept could easily have been trimmed by a good 45 minutes. I often had the feeling that Adams kept breaking down more chords in an effort to elongate the score so that it would last a full three hours.

That having been said, I commend the large cast (and the production staff of the Houston Grand Opera) which did a superb job of preparing and performing the world premiere of such a media-hungry project. I was particularly impressed by tenor John Duykers who, despite the murderous tessitura of his music, triumphed as Mao Tse-tung and by Sanford Sylvan, whose beautiful baritone voice was occasionally permitted to shine through Adams' music for Chou En-Lai.

Elsewhere onstage, Thomas Hammons mugged shamelessly as Henry Kissinger while, as Madame Mao Tse-Tung, the amazing Trudy Ellen Craney proved that no minimalist composer was going to get in her way of singing and acting up a storm (I'd very much like a chance to experience this lady's work in some more traditional repertory). James Maddalena and Carolann Page offered far more lyrical portrayals of Dick and Pat Nixon than most of us who survived the '60's and '70's would ever believe. But remember, folks, this is opera and every director -- including Peter Sellars -- is entitled to as much artistic license as he can muster.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 3, 1987.

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