It’s difficult to write an opera

Recently I was fortunate enough to see two newly composed operas by European composers Brice Pauset and Marco Stroppa. They’re quite big over here, those two. The former was L’Opéra de la lune premièred at Dijon Opera, and the latter was Re Orso premièred at Opéra Comique de Paris (commissioned jointly with IRCAM, I believe). The styles of composing, the materials used, the global forms, all these were very different. The two works were linked though by their attempts to do politics, and perhaps also their concern with language.

I know Brice and think he is a fabulous homme, and François assures me that Marco is too. I enjoyed much of the music of Brice’s opera, but I didn’t really think it was greatly successful, and I certainly didn’t take to Marco’s work.

L’Opéra de la lune

The libretto for this is one of Jacques Prévert’s. I don’t know his work too much, so I can’t comment on that aspect of things. Suffice to say that it is the little story of a child imagining a world (on the moon) without war, where people live in harmony and make an opera of the moon together – which is much better than the Paris opera, since it transfigures all of reality in a kind of super-Gesamtkunstwerk. Ok. Prévert wrote it only a few years after WWII. The utopian vision is already a bit wrong, since it doesn’t begin to show the stages that would be necessary along the way. But it is right about one thing: the Marxist vision of a communist future where labour hasn’t disappeared, but has become artistic and non-alienated.

Unfortunately, Pauset chose to reinforce the bad part of this in his music. Maybe he couldn’t have done otherwise, since it is a child who dreams, and so the idealism is perhaps unavoidable. Anyway this is an ideological problem that becomes a musical one. Pauset chose to insert various different 19th century settings of Goethe’s poem ‘An den Mond’ throughout the work. This was very frustrating initially, but I thought I’d give it a chance. By giving it a chance it become both more and less tolerable. More tolerable since he stuck to it, and I like people who stick to simplistic structures, it often means that the structures start to justify themselves. Less tolerable (and to a much greater degree that the more tolerable) because it became increasingly apparent that the German Lieder were supposed to signify the ideal world – and they were sung by maternal and paternal super-egos. An absolutely regressive image of the future!! Musically it was annoying because the song entered and exited with nothing but the most obvious, and short, transition and the song was varied only by it being slightly differently set by the various German composers, and that made for a very static and directionless image of the future. It also meant that, as I said above, the past and the future are not linked. So it is hardly dialectical. Must it be so? Yes. I think it must be so.

Perhaps Brice was being critical? Communism is (still?) too rooted in its German past? Even if this is so, I don’t see how it is in anyway interesting.

More interesting, from a musical point of view, and from a political one too, was Brice’s use of the Kinderszenen of Schumann. These he wove into the work almost unidentifiably. This allowed him to create emerging and fleeting points of harmonic repose and consonance in his otherwise noise-filled and ‘dissonant’ harmony (in fact Brice almost never makes ‘dissonant’ music… not to my ears). There was a fluidity to this treatment that was appealing.

The global form I thought was relatively decent as a starting point. Three ideas circled: narration by a comedian acting as a psychological double to the boy, dialogue between a chorus and a tenor acting as a psychological triple of the boy, and then a Lied sung by one of the superegoic figures. This is subjected to a progressive disintegration or mixing by about just over half way through the opera. Still, I could not hear a line of development running through the work, and despite the increasing mélange of the ideas, the Lieder still remained apart from the rest, and the narration was in no way ‘musicalised’, so it could not develop musically. The only real development was that of the progressive humanisation of the chorus from accusative and alienated to just about one with the boy Michel Morin. This was a little naive too, in any case. At a certain point in their humanisation, the chorus breaks out into a demented form of La Marseillaise, the words having been replaced by the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto: a spectre is haunting… One can take from that what they will with regard to the ‘national question’ in imperialist countries. François was not impressed when I told him of this.

The vocal style of the tenor-cum-boy was interesting. It consisted of a highly ornamented but very simplistic ascending line that was very consonant but atonal. Its relationship with the orchestra I thought was wonderfully handled, and its development if we could call it that into the child’s half-forgotten moon-melody was perhaps the most musically interesting aspect of the work, the phrases were so well-constructed yet so awkward. The vocal style of the chorus was based on a splitting of the consonants and the vowels. I thought it was quite beautiful, and will take it on board for thinking. François didn’t like the idea, because he wants to hear all the words – I’ll get to that in a later post, perhaps.

Re Orso

This opera annoyed the hell out of me. But I didn’t have the courage to say so until François and I left the building very quickly so he didn’t have to talk to anyone and tell them his opinion and then told me his opinion that he didn’t like the opera. He said it with a repeating caveat that he is very fond of Marco in general.

There were a couple of reasons for my not liking the opera. A lot of these were confirmed, clarified, or given when I heard François rant about how he did not like it later over a beer.

Firstly, the political or ideological question. The plot was based, as a mirror opposite to the Pauset, on the sordid exploits of a mad despot in 10th century Crete (curiously played by a black countertenor). Two problems. One, the obsession with “pouvoir” as François said, what is it for? Everybody knows that the psychology of those in power is terrible, and that they commit horrid crimes. Two, the ‘voice’ of the people that emerges at the end is farcical. It does not represent the will of the people in its movement of self-determination, but merely a moralist posturing after the self-slaughter of the wretched king. It is more right-wing populist than left-wing and liberatory. This was musically confirmed by the use of the accordeon in the final scene to accompany ‘the poet’ (the poet of the people or the people’s poet?). Again a regressive musical image of liberation…

Next, and I’m hurrying along now because I have to do other things, the music was entirely subordinated to the drama. There was no chance of a musical idea that could traverse the whole work, or a line of development that could go through the work. It was a collection of scenes and the music was made to serve a function in each of them. Hence this allowed for some very pedantry music like a dull tango. The vocal lines were in turn determined by the function of the language, without a great musical sense, from what I could gather.

Musically, the electronics wasn’t properly integrated with the music. It risked becoming sound effects. And I think it did become sound effects. There was a moment when what verged on a counterpoint between voices and the rhythm and melody of the electronics was emerging, but it didn’t quite make it. Maybe this is an inherent problem to the electronics-instruments division, something I’ll discuss in the next post with regard to today’s session with François on his work Duelle.

François thought the staging was too gratuitous, and on reflection I agree. A lot of distracting running around and screaming and lighting things on fire. A big spectacle that distracted from what little music was there. Maybe you think I’m a prude?

François was interested by the use of a mechanical piano which was wheeled out onto stage and became a mix of music and drama in itself. But for me even that was a bit lame. It was all effect and not really music and it had nothing on the kind of use of the player piano that Conlon Nancarrow shows, and it was wheeled out on stage and acted as a little divertissement, but did not connect with the music in the pit very well.

In sum, things to think about. Unsuccessful operas, I’d have to say. But it is true that there have been more unsuccessful operas than successful ones and it is also consequently true that the opera form moves very slowly and accepts new things at a slower pace than other forms. A supplementary question emerges around the relationship between opera and politics today. It is true that, because of its history and class position opera is not an ideal vehicle for being set in relation with emancipatory politics, but it is also the composer’s best available vehicle for doing so. The holy grail in a sense. So one must attempt to make a successful opera, politically and musically, I think. A job for another time. I’m well aware of the assured failure that awaits me if I attempt such a thing too soon. It’s hard to write operas. You have to think about so many things.

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