Monday, August 4, 2008

Prima la musica e poi le parole???

Rachel Portman's The Little Prince at Houston Grand Opera, 2003

The August issue of OperaNews features an extent tribute to the eternal question:


It's all about librettos then!

So, OperaNews get John Simon to pick 12 of his favorite librettos, visits poet J. D. McClatchy, one of contemporary opera's busiest librettists, and takes a look at the current read-the-book-see-the-opera school of commissioning.

What i found of most interest though, was the interview to composer Libby Larsen upon the subject " Are words, more than music, the driving force in contemporary opera?"

On Glass' Satyagraha:
"one of the first contemporary operas I'd heard that deal successfully with global issues on a level that is accessible to many people." Larsen was in the audience for Satyagraha this year when it was reprised by the Met. She was still impressed, but not, perhaps, in quite the same way. "I think Glass's Satyagraha is a culminating masterpiece of the end of the Romantic era," she says. In the two decades between these two rather different takes on Glass, Larsen has undergone her own development. The primary goal — to communicate with audiences, to write operas that speak to our times — has remained the same. But for Larsen, the word — the clarity of the word, the specificity of the text, the nuance of the poetry — has taken on paramount importance. What she admired in Glass was theatrical immediacy, seriousness of subject and his embrace of contemporary technologies. But she is now preoccupied with composing what she calls "text-driven" opera. From her current vantage point, Glass's use of an all-but-incomprehensible ancient Sanskrit text seems very much of a different and bygone era.
On what do people nowadays want: Again and again, Larsen voices her pragmatic concern about what people want from music. "People are hard-wired for narrative right now, especially people younger than myself," she explains. "The music they listen to and that they encounter on iPods and other delivery systems is texted. It is very hard for them to experience non-texted music."

On "text-driven" opera: Larsen distinguishes her "text driven" style from what she calls the "iconic wedding of words and text." The latter approach suggests the classic Wagnerian fusion, the sum-greater-than-its-parts melding of music and poetry into an inextricable, symbiotic whole. Larsen's text-driven opera often sounds a bit like what an earlier generation of literary critics would call "close reading." The music is derived directly from the words, following the textual, rhythmic and psychological cues. "That is the composer's first work — you study the words," says Larsen. "You try to understand how strong they are. Do they give you insight into the psychological architecture of the piece? The characters operating in the piece? The musical architecture?" Text-driven opera also raises serious questions about the relative density of detail that the ears can comprehend. Can composers pack nuance into a moving musical line with the same intensity that poets do in a sonnet? Isn't there what we might call the danger of Gesualdo and the Mannerists — the compositional tendency to grotesquerie in a misguided effort to make music hypersensitive to text? Will contemporary opera begin to sound like a twenty-first-century take on Hugo Wolf?

If text-driven opera is the future — and it certainly seems to be the present — the effects in the opera house could be profound. If operas are text driven, audiences need to understand the texts, which may be all but impossible in very large opera houses, especially if the text is complex. There is a solution, she argues, but the opera world isn't necessarily ready for it — amplification, or rather the incorporation of microphones as "companion" instruments into the orchestra.

She does not, she insists, believe that old operas meant for standard, acoustic opera spaces should be amplified. Text-driven music of the past — from eighteenth-century recitative to Benjamin Britten — doesn't need assistance. But for her own work, she wants the immediacy of much of what has become standard in popular culture. That includes music with complex and compelling texts, and whatever technology is necessary to get that text across in all its closely read, densely pondered nuance.

1 comment:

Hariclea said...

Hmmmm.."whatever technology is necessary to get that text across in all its closely read, densely pondered nuance"

Isn't that what theater is meant to do? I don't dissagree about the importance of text but if all that is necessary to ensure the text is immaculate, safe and above all, surely it can do better without the music... Opera is about story telling through music and text. I am afraid I'd rather hear the text on its own that have to struggle between notes, amplification and all that. Oh, and there is the singing.... which is just slightly different that speach..
I believe there is a wonderful argument for supporting spoken text of all kinds with music, as theater often does, but i'm afraid that is not opera. Opera is about singing :-)

I agree though that singing just notes or a text distored beyond understanding and recognition is not opera either...that it is vocal cord exercise :-) Nor will any kind of translation or heavy accent ever sound fully as harmonic as it should, although it is not a capital crime either because it would be far worse to stop trying to present a certain piece just because it will not sound as perfectly as it should.

Neither music nor text are above each other, or should be, in opera... as it is not about delivery of either the score or the text. It is about bringing a story to life, about creating life on stage and streaming emotions from the stage to the audience and back. And it is most touching and closest to perfection when you can no longer consciously separate the word from the musical note, from the look or gestures exchanged by the artists on stage.