A few weeks ago, John Gilks shared some thoughts about “that elusive new audience”, in response to assertions by some that the “ small innovative companies create a significant audience for the larger companies”. It may be so, although John’s essay looked at subtleties behind the hypothesis.
Pardon me, as I look at the question a bit differently.
I’m fascinated by the question of popularity, and so I’m coming at the question from the other side, both as curator (or programmer) and composer. Some works get programmed more often, possibly because they’re popular, possibly because they have other advantages such as lower cost or easier to sing. And some works are difficult to produce, less likely to fill seats. The last century has seen many operas that challenge the audience, not unlike what we’ve seen in other media (from orchestral music to visual art to theatre).
What motivates a composer? I don’t pretend to know but some composers have no fear of being intelligible or mainstream, while others would be offended at the thought, so clearly do they aim for something elusive, subtle or difficult.
I am launching into this essay partly in response to Dean Burry’s new CD of his opera Baby Kintyre from Canadian Music Centre, partly in response to two other operas I encountered in the past year. But I am also mindful of these three new operas in the context of popularity as I launch the latest session of my course “The Most Popular Operas” at the School of Continuing Studies, at University of Toronto. What motivates a composer to choose a subject that’s not comfortably mainstream, or that might be called “difficult”?
Perhaps I should give examples. The three topics each succeeded in making someone cringe at the description.
- All it took was to say the title Written on Skin to freak out one person I was talking to. I wish the work were a celebration of the tattoo but no, that’s not the case. I wrote a review.
- I chose not to attend the premiere of Airline Icarus, an opera about a plane crash, because it was the night before I got on a plane to take my longest ever journey. I don’t think of myself as afraid of flying, but when a missile takes off a wing (as in this Korean Airlines crash) and the plane spirals to earth for minutes? Not sure I want to see that enacted, even though I’ve been told by someone who was there that it was very beautiful, a kind of requiem. If I get the chance of course I’ll go see it (and enjoyed the small snippet I saw presented by Bicycle Opera Project).
- The premise for Baby Kintyre is a kind of radio serial, which is very organic considering that this begins as a true story, about a dead baby found by a renovator on the site. Again, I couldn’t help thinking that at least one motivation was to redeem a grotesque news item, to seek something beautiful in the horror of our daily dose of media poison.
I should, however, put this into some context. Operas are often full of gory death. Salome, or Carmen or Madama Butterfly, to name three popular operas, all feature the death of the title role in the final minutes, enacted in horrific fashion. Opera seems to love death, especially when it’s a woman who’s dying, preferably after a long eloquent swan song. La Boheme? Tosca? More death.
Perhaps, then, the puzzle is in how to get from the shockingly new tale, to the older ones that are so popular. But let me set that question aside, particularly because I don’t have an answer.
Let’s look at Burry. The Brothers Grimm is spectacularly successful, Burry having written the libretto before he composed the music. I have to say I have a special fascination for composers who do their own libretto, possibly because I’ve tried it myself, possibly because it’s how Wagner & Debussy worked. I saw a small excerpt this summer presented by The Bicycle Opera Project (who also gave us some of Airline Icarus by the way). I looked the work up online, to try to get some sense of it. While the intended audience may be children, there’s no infantilizing, nothing that underestimates the listener / viewer. I was struck by the wit of Burry’s libretto, the many moments when I was laughing out loud. Comedy is perhaps the rarest thing in operas of the last century. Dark topics abound. One of the two operas I saw on Friday by Gian Carlo Menotti was The Telephone, a comical romp. But such works are rare. I’ve seen a couple of Lee Hoiby’s monologues, including Bon Appetit (where the singer portrays Julia Child) and The Italian Lesson (a snapshot of Ruth Draper). It’s another pathway, a lighter idiom that offers a different sort of reward than one of the dark works I spoke of. I wonder if Burry finds the style of Brothers Grimm relatively easy? He seems to do it so well that it sounds effortless. In going in a direction that’s difficult for his audience, is he also venturing into territory that’s harder for him as a composer & librettist?
And so maybe I’m biased. When I waded into the CD, I felt Baby Kintyre does not sound dark enough for what it portrays, even as its idiom is astonishingly original, those segments like a radio serial. I don’t listen to radio serials so I can’t really comment on that, except that what I understand was that radio plays were often melodramas. Burry’s idiom is again light as quicksilver, and very accomplished. One of the things I find most jarring about modern media is how we juxtapose smiling announcers with tales of doom and death, one moment announcing horrors in the Middle East, the next minute smiling as we hear of something trivial involving a movie star or a bathroom product. The arbitrariness of these juxtapositions is heartless, and the opposite of what we’re accustomed to in the Wagnerian world of opera and (don’t forget) conventional film music of the last century. Reality is capricious, whereas opera and melodrama structures our emotions, building to climaxes and seeking to punch us in the gut. Nothing, however, hits you in the gut like the arbitrariness of reality, perhaps best captured in opera by the blankness of the repeated “hop hop” that ends Wozzeck.
Burry has created a tour de force, precisely because it defies our expectations. But I am still struggling with it. The opera feels too light to me, not possessing the gravitas that such a story should have, or so say my viscera. I believe Burry set out to redeem the story with his tale, and in doing so, while we are given a kind of redemption, it’s not Mahler or Wagner, and indeed, I doubt they or anyone else could create something sufficiently magnificent for the news story. There’s no redeeming such an unfortunate nasty factoid. Did we really need to go there?
But I need to listen some more, perhaps to open my mind somewhat. I didn’t like what happened to Cio-cio san, or to Mimi either. I adjusted. And along the way, the nastiness of those stories, the kick in the gut, becomes a necessary experience, helping us cry. Can one cry for Baby Kintyre, and should one?
I don’t know. I am reminded of those fans of Khatchaturian who hollered for his “Sabre Dance” when he wanted to program something new he’d written instead. Is popularity—and the money that can be made—ultimately something negative that holds back the inventiveness of brave artists seeking to transform their audience? Is popularity sometimes a trap or a worthwhile goal?
Again, I don’t know. But the brave new works and the brave new interpretations of old works will keep coming, and sometimes the audience catches up to what was brave & daring generations ago. Popularity is relative; the best opera can aspire to is perhaps like the litter on the floor after a hockey game or a rock concert, so much smaller. In such a world why not aim high: as Burry clearly has?