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Opera Can Be As Unpredictable and Experimental As Other Arts

The Opera House Is Another Theatre - Andreas Praefcke
Opera may be regarded as ‘high-art’ or ‘heavy’, but it embraces themes worthy of as many ‘low-life’ settings, criminals and psychotics as ‘lighter’ work.

Interpreting ‘opera’ quite generously, it’s possible to look at musical treatments of stories, novels, people and events, myths and legends and conclude that many of them really are the most far-fetched themes imaginable. It clearly doesn’t matter, though.

In early 2011, Britain’s Covent Garden opened a new work, Anna Nicole, about the life of a breast-enhanced Playboy centerfold and television personality who in 1994, aged 27, married 89 year-old oil billionaire, J Howard Marshall II. She died in 2007 of prescription drugs, leaving behind court cases from his family.

As Rupert Christiansen, The Daily Telegraph’s opera critic said in January 2011: ‘opera is in reality no stranger to the stuff of tabloid journalism’. He pointed out that Thaiis is a high-class hooker, Tosca murders the cop who tries to rape her, Salome is a ‘psychotic teenager’ who ‘makes love to a severed head’ while Lulu is a ‘whore who ends a victim of Jack the Ripper’.

Early Works

History World argued that opera stemmed from the 1500s onwards, when Roman plays were performed and needed some interludes of more musical, lighter entertainment to liven things up for audiences. These were gradually given lavish sets, costumes and supported with much singing and dancing. Humour inevitably crept in to many, some based on the old Italian commedia dell’Arte traditions. Thus comic became as popular as tragic operas.

It’s supposed that The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by John Gay was the first English musical, being a loosely-knit story bound with contemporary ‘ditties, tunes and airs’ which would have been familiar to the audience, supporting narrative, buttressing entertainment. This theme was picked up two centuries later by Bertolt Brecht in his Threepenny Opera, in which he took the same criminal characters and set their tale to songs and music by Kurt Weill.

Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle of four operas,or ‘dramas’ as he called them, was based firmly on Teutonic and Norse mythology to create what can only be styled ‘epic’ or ‘monumental’ works with what many regard as operatic sweep of theme, character, and, of course, music. To play the full set takes around 15 hours, usually spread over four evenings.

Beethoven’s Fidelio was set in and around a Spanish state prison; Handel’s Admeto was about marriage hopes, fidelity, disguises and suicides, very similar to the plot of his Alcena. and his Guilio Cesare which added in revenge, and again in Xerxes and Rinaldo. The point is that while the settings in antiquity may change from Egypt to Rome to Jerusalem, the plots are similar, not necessarily strong on dramatic credibility.

It’s the sets, the scale of the productions, the singing and, above all, the quality of the music. As Christiansen pointed out, operas about Princess Diana, Jackie Onassis, Colonel Gaddafi, cosmetic surgery and assorted mass murderers ‘have melted into the ether’. Music drives plot and drama; music inspires composer and audience. The plot is the peg on which choruses, arias and duets are hung.

A well-known fairy story like Hansel and Gretel is familiar to most audiences in advance. It’s the way it’s treated by Engelbert Humperdinck that counts. Themes of love, hope, betrayal, vengeance, disguise, confusion and misunderstanding in classical settings in operas by Mozart, Puccini, Strauss and Tchaikovsky may share similar elements. Their music doesn’t.

More Experimental Ideas

In Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1976), there is no conventional linear plot; it has thematic divisions replacing scenes. As a recognised work in the postmodern cannon, it expects an audience to come and go, picking up whatever they want from its themes. It can last five hours; there is no intermission. It’s based on Albert Einstein, whose vision transformed the thinking of his era.

Nixon in China was John Adams’ clever 1987 experiment in musical and lyrical styles taking the then US President’s visit to what had been a closed country, China, and interpreting it through music. Adams, also called a postmodernist, did not necessarily make any kind of political statement, he just used an original and unusual story line.

With the late 20th century arrival of arts fusion and mixing genres, came a fascination with doing traditional things in an unorthodox way. Glyndebourne Festival Opera in East Sussex, England has, since 1934, had a tradition of audiences dressed in dinner jackets dining in the open air with fancy picnics, during long intervals.

However, al fresco has now become more deliberate and widespread. In 2011, the Birmingham Opera Company planned to stage more ‘innovative and avant-garde from the operatic repertoire’ in unusual venues like warehouses, empty buildings and an ice rink. No reason why not. The use of unusual and non-traditional spaces for public performances of every kind of art form is becoming accepted.

Clearly, opera is the same as neither musical nor soap opera. It is a discrete genre. However, the similarities between taking a story and using music and song (and often dance) to advance plot, characters and the theatrical experience, mean that opera and musical theatre are probably cousins. That kind of cross-fertilisation is what the performing arts is all about.

First published on Suite 101, 11 February 2011.

Photo: The Opera House Is Another Theatre – Andreas Praefcke

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