Culture Magazine

Contemporary Opera? Modern Opera? Define, Please

By Galegirl

This afternoon I’m seeing Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s Phaedra, a concert opera composed by Hans Werner Henze, which first premiered in 2007. I’m a little anxious about seeing it because I believe I am neither as fond of modern opera nor concert opera as classic opera performed full-out. I learned from watching musicals as concert pieces on PBS that I don’t even like concert musical theater. That’s because I love being engaged by drama and much prefer being invited to sit behind that invisible fourth wall and enter in.

I will however concede that my favorite production this spring was Séance on a Wet Afternoon presented by New York City Opera, written by composer Stephen Schwartz, and that I was prepared to not love that show either, feeling strongly that I needed to see it instead.

Since that production, I have been made to consider why I liked it so much.  It was contemporary opera with which I have a limited musical vocabulary. One of the things I realized I preferred was the realistic, immediate storyline of Séance. It wasn’t about a bride who goes crazy on her wedding night or a small town opera singer who stabs a police chief with a steak knife. Or a Russian king who goes mad on a throne.

Drawn from a contemporary novel, Séance had characters and a storyline that seemed plausible and that I could relate to.

Lest you are wondering at this point whether I read classic literature, I can tell you that I unabashedly love Hugo, Hardy, Shakespeare, Dumas, and RLS, to name a few. But when it comes to classic opera, while the music is accessible, for me sometimes the storylines don’t grab me, and the whole affair can become what I imagine concert opera to be–you’re concentrating on the music and production of sound foremost and the story is a distant second.

That is probably my limited view of concert opera–which is another reason I’ve opted to see Phaedra. I want to expand my thinking on this experience and my appreciation for concert opera as an art form.

Back to the subject of modern opera or contemporary opera.  A bit of research suggests that anything goes for opera composers in the 21st century. If their musical sound hearkens back to an earlier musical era, then the modern composer’s work is labeled neo-classical or neo-romantic. If they want to skip arias, nothing will stop them. If they want to use atonality or a hybrid musical language such as the contemporary jazz rhythms and sonorities in Berg’s Lulu,  no one will bat an eye.

If such a description is accurate–that anything goes when it comes to opera in the 21st century–then isn’t modern or contemporary opera like a feast–a wonderful buffet–one in which you’re never quite sure if prime rib or pot roast will be the entree but that’s fine because you love both? Isn’t that more fun, more of an adventure than a prix fixe meal where you know every morsel you’ll be consuming in that sitting?

I don’t think I have contemporary opera figured out or completely understand all its parameters. But it’s fun exploring contemporary musical expression. How about you? How do you feel about modern opera? Here’s a clip from Phaedra to stimulate your thinking:


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