Modern Opera’s Literary Success Story

When Opera Australia mounted Andre Previn’s operatic version of the classic Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire in 2007, it was the fourteenth production of this opera since its premiere in San Francisco in 1998. Production venues included New Orleans (very appropriately), San Diego, Strasbourg, St Gallen, Turin, Tokyo, London, Dublin and Washington, as well as several smaller venues in the USA. This is a remarkable achievement for any opera, never mind a new one, particularly within ten years of its premiere. Much the same can be said for Opera Australia’s most recent foray into contemporary American opera, Carlisle Floyd’s version of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, presented in Sydney in July 2011; this is another opera which has had an impressive series of productions since its premiere in 1970. A third new American opera, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s adaptation of the great Herman Melville novel Moby-Dick, has just been triumphantly staged in Adelaide in a co-production with the Dallas Opera and several other American companies. Heggie’s most celebrated opera, Dead Man Walking, with libretto by Terence McNally based on Sister Helen Prejean’s account of a prisoner on death row, also performed several times in Australia, has had many productions since its premiere in 2000.

Opera is booming—not only the endless revivals of Butterfly, Figaro and Boheme, but new operas are ubiquitous, and more often than not are based on prestigious works of literature. Contemporary opera, once regarded with horror by most opera audiences, is enjoying a renaissance, particularly in the United States, a trend reflected to a lesser extent in Britain and Europe, but, sadly, perhaps not as much in Australia. Of course, all is not rosy in the opera world, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that this revival in the 400-year-old art form rests largely on composers and librettists once again turning to celebrated plays and novels for their sources and audiences fervidly embracing the results.

Opera as an art form has been written off more than once, but particularly so in the decades after the Second World War when a high modernist aesthetic held sway in the concert halls and music institutions of the Western world. Pierre Boulez, composer, conductor and a leading light and polemicist of modernism, once advocated burning down all the opera houses. Opera was seen as an art form with little relevance to the “real” world outside. Boulez, of course, went on to conduct the centenary Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1976, regarded by many as the greatest production of Wagner’s mighty epic.

Many postwar operas tried valiantly to disguise the fact that they were operas. The art form’s fundamental strengths in terms of character, dramatic situation and conflict, and, above all, beautiful singing, had no interest for many composers who preferred to treat the voice as just another—often unreliable—instrument, and dramatic coherence as an irrelevance. Naturally there were exceptions to this and some remarkable works emerged that shifted the boundaries of the form.

However, in parallel with these trends a few composers retained the fundamental forms that had served opera well since its inception and created works that have found a secure place in the repertoire. Carlisle Floyd is a good example of a composer who, since his first great success with Susannah in 1955, has gone on to create a series of works that have been performed consistently in the USA and elsewhere, and at the age of eighty-five made his first trip to Australia to attend the performances of Of Mice and Men. He shows no sign of stopping and is currently working on a new opera.

Undoubtedly the most notable of successful postwar opera composers is Benjamin Britten, whose major operas are still performed all round the world and whose centenary approaches in 2013. Britten would be the most performed postwar composer; significantly, most of his operas are based on adapted literary works rather than “original” librettos.

What is most heartening is the almost unprecedented burst of creative activity in the last twenty years; in the USA alone, more than 300 new operas have been produced. This trend became apparent as early as the late 1970s when opera composers began to rebel against the dominant modernist musical aesthetic and embrace melody once more. Composers, in collaboration with a younger generation of excellent librettists, started writing works that singers wanted to sing, and many new works from this period were blessed with casts that featured some of the best singers of the time. This is a trend that has markedly increased, and many of the top singers of today clamour to take part in the world premiere of a new work.

Of course writing and staging new operas is a notoriously risky business, with just the difficulties of getting a new opera onstage extremely daunting. In the unlikely event of even getting that far, the chance of receiving subsequent productions is limited. The number of new operas staged during the last fifty years which have had a sustained life is relatively small, unlike the endless re-stagings of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss. However, this has been changing, particularly in the Britain and the United States. 

Of all postwar opera composers Benjamin Britten is by far the most successful in terms of gaining more than just a toe-hold in the current opera repertory, but he has been dead for thirty years. The staple fare of most opera houses consists overwhelmingly of operas from the late eighteenth century—Mozart—to the early twentieth century—Puccini and Strauss. The “long nineteenth century” still casts a long shadow indeed.

Britten is the only postwar opera composer who has successfully and consistently challenged this hegemony. There are several reasons for this, not the least being Britten’s collaborations with excellent librettists and his success in achieving optimum performing conditions, largely due to forming his own company—the English Opera Group—which premiered many of his operas. However, even more important than Britten’s sure grasp of operatic dramaturgy and his unrivalled genius at word-setting is the fact that Britten’s music is accessible—a loaded word, but apt.

Britten’s music is predominantly tonal, unlike that of many of his immediate contemporaries, and he had the ability to write extremely well for the voice. The fact that his life-long companion, Peter Pears, was an idiosyncratic but highly accomplished tenor, contributed in no small way to the fact that singers find Britten’s operas very rewarding to sing despite their musical and dramatic complexity. Britten loved the voice, his mother being a fine singer, and early on learned an important lesson: the classically trained human voice is much more than just another musical instrument. Too many modernist composers saw the voice as a quasi-instrumental means on which to hang an often political agenda, if not a narrative, a strategy which frequently denied the unique power of the operatic voice to move and inspire us through its intrinsic beauty.

Britten was in many ways an anomaly during the three decades after the war when his operatic work was conceived and first performed. During his lifetime he was frequently accused of musical conservatism; Stravinsky, a composer who himself incorporated a wide variety of idioms in his own work, accused Britten of eclecticism, describing him as a musical “kleptomaniac”. Britten’s riposte was cutting: admitting that he liked Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, but adding, “everything but the music”!

It was perhaps what was regarded in his lifetime as his “conservatism” that has been the major factor in the continued flourishing of Britten’s operas. Seen as reactionary by many of his peers, Britten is paradoxically acknowledged by many of the most successful contemporary opera composers as a great model and influence, and his operas offer examples of successful musical and dramatic strategies for aspiring composers and librettists. The highest compliment aspiring opera composers can receive is to have their work described as “Brittenesque”, and both Floyd and Heggie have acknowledged Britten as a mentor. Floyd says that Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Britten’s Peter Grimes were his great models: 

What I admire above everything else in both … is that, with all their undisputed theatrical and dramatic effectiveness, there is no compromise of musical values; no purely “effect writing”, no aimless passages of orchestral punctuation, no setting of dialogue only one step removed from actual speech (the easy way out), no overly facile accompaniments for the vocal line. In other words, there is no evasion of their responsibilities as composers, no slackening of musical discipline: at all times one is aware of distinguished craftsmanship. 

Jake Heggie commented that while writing Moby- Dick he found the looming presence of Britten’s Melville opera, Billy Budd, almost an obstacle. There are certainly traces of the earlier opera in Heggie’s work, not least the revelatory moments for Captain Ahab which echo similar moments for both Claggart and Captain Vere in Billy Budd. Scheer and Heggie’s “solution” as regards the presence of the narrator is as ingenious as the one devised by Britten and his librettist E.M. Forster with a prologue and epilogue as frame delivered by Captain Vere as an old man looking back at the events portrayed in the opera. Melville’s novel Moby-Dick opens with one of the most recognisable lines in literature—“Call me Ishmael”—and this is the line that closes the operatic version with a sense of circularity as the opera ends with its beginning.

W.H. Auden, a highly accomplished librettist, made the following rather contentious comment: 

The verses which the librettist writes are not addressed to the public but are really a private letter to the composer. They have their moment of glory, the moment in which they suggest to him a certain melody; once that is over, they are as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general: they must efface themselves and cease to care what happens to them. 

While Auden is being somewhat facetious here, there is truth in his statement. The libretto is a curious artefact, existing in a twilight zone similar to a film script, but its importance should not be underestimated in the success or failure of the opera. It provides the framework, the dramaturgy and the inspiration for the composer who must then allow the music to propel and expand the dramatic situations and characters. The adaptation of literary works requires great skill, as much in working out what to leave out and what to include, while at the same time not being a slave to the original work but allowing it to find a new existence on the lyric stage.

The sources on which Britten drew are also vitally important to the continuing success of his operas. He had a wide-ranging and impeccably sure taste in literature. Apart from his many songs which draw on a long list of fine poetry, both English and European—Britten’s ability to set the English language idiomatically is legendary—his opera librettos have their sources in writers such as Shakespeare, Melville, Henry James, Thomas Mann, Guy de Maupassant and others. Britten had the great fortune to work with several outstanding writers and librettists, most notably Forster, William Plomer, Auden and Myfanwy Piper. He was very selective in the use of his sources as well, choosing Henry James’s best-known story, “The Turn of the Screw”, but also a much lesser-known James story, “Owen Wingrave”, for two operas, as well as Melville’s not very well-known and discursive novella, Billy Budd, for an outstanding operatic triumph. Finally and fittingly he tackled Mann’s complex modernist novella Death in Venice. Of course, as an English composer, he seemed predestined to grapple with Shakespeare and produced one of the most enduring and successful Shakespeare operas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a staple of the current repertory and certainly the best twentieth-century Shakespeare opera.

Britten’s operatic career seems to have inspired many of his successors to turn to great literary works as well. It is striking to note how many music theatre pieces staged in some of the major opera houses in Britain and the United States have important literary works as their basis. This, of course, is nothing new, as opera throughout its history has drawn upon literature for the bulk of its librettos—wholly original opera librettos have always been rare. A few examples of recent operas illustrate this literary bias: Covent Garden staged Sophie’s Choice, the novel by William Styron and opera by Nicholas Maw, in 2002; Margaret Atwood’s futurist novel The Handmaid’s Tale, with music by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, was premiered in Copenhagen in 2003.

The Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee saw his early bleak work, Waiting for the Barbarians, adapted for the stage by the ever-inventive minimalist Philip Glass in 2005. Glass has also adapted writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Doris Lessing for the lyric stage. Also in 2005, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell was realised musically by the eminent conductor and composer Lorin Maazel. The Metropolitan Opera in recent years has commissioned and staged operatic versions of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. The list of contemporary “literary” operas is long and ever-expanding. Recently there have been new operas based on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry.

Increasingly, it seems as if opera composers are rediscovering that the cachet of the title of a famous play or novel can do wonders for the box office, a view common in the nineteenth century. A related aspect of this reliance on proven sources is the new phenomenon of operas using popular films as their basis. Some recent examples include Elliot Carter’s opera What Next (1999), based on the Jacques Tati’s classic film Traffic; William Bolcom’s opera The Wedding (2005), based on Robert Altman’s film of the same name; Gerald Barry’s opera of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cult movie The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant also received its premiere in 2005; and Andre Previn leaned very much on the David Lean film of 1946 and not Noel Coward’s play for his recent opera Brief Encounter. Stephen Schwartz, the successful composer and librettist of the musicals Godspell and Pippin, premiered a version of the spooky 1964 Bryan Forbes film, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, this year in the USA, with performances scheduled for Brisbane in 2012. Much of this activity signals an increasing blurring of the divide between opera and the musical. Indeed, if one considers the operatic adaptations of Sophie’s Choice and A Streetcar Named Desire, it is the celebrated films in both cases that have probably had more influence in shaping the operatic versions than the original work. Of course film, not to mention television and film advertising, is shameless in appropriating opera for its own uses! 

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first performance at the Adelaide Festival of the opera Voss. With music by Richard Meale and libretto by David Malouf, the opera was hailed by some at its premiere as the long-sought-after “great Australian opera”; viewed with twenty-five years of hindsight, this still remains a fair call. As far as new operas in Australia are concerned, Voss had a very good run with subsequent performances in Melbourne and Sydney, a television broadcast on the ABC coupled with release on video, as well as a lavish CD presentation which sold reasonably well as opera CD sales go. The critics were generally very well disposed to the opera and it received comprehensive reviews both nationally and internationally, with calls for overseas performances. With these credentials the expectation was that the opera would receive at least one new production in Australia, and, perhaps, several productions in Europe and the USA at some point during the last twenty-five years. What went wrong?

The 1955 novel by Patrick White has been regarded by many as “the great Australian novel”, and its seminal role in the development of an Australian literary identity cannot be disputed. However, the reasons for Meale and Malouf turning to this work go much further than trading on its reputation and its centrality in the oeuvre of a Nobel laureate. Indeed, Voss might be one of those novels which is more spoken about than actually read, and the attempts to film the novel make an operatic saga in themselves! It’s a challenging work, but this brought out the best in its operatic adaptors. White’s novel is very much a post-Second World War work, a fact acknowledged by the author, who describes part of its genesis as occurring  

during the early days of the Blitz, when I sat reading Eyre’s Journal in a London bed-sitting room. Nourished by months spent traipsing backwards and forwards across the Egyptian and Syrenaican deserts, influenced by the arch-megalomaniac of the day, the idea finally matured after reading contemporary accounts of Leichhardt’s expeditions and A.H. Chisholm’s Strange New World on returning to Australia. 

The opera adaptors in their turn have taken up issues that were current thirty years after publication of the novel and which are as relevant today. David Malouf’s libretto is one of the finest in the last fifty years of operatic composition. Using the novel’s non-linear narrative method as a starting point, he and Meale have sharpened the focus on national identity in particular, and what the word Australia really meant in the last decades of the twentieth century. Having now moved more than a decade into the next century, these issues have lost none of their contemporaneity as Australia finds itself in an increasingly threatening world while grappling with the contentious issues of multiculturalism and assimilation. The relationship to indigenous people as well as to the land itself are pivotal concerns of the opera—in some aspects cast in even sharper relief than in the novel.

Of course a great opera is much more than a political agenda set to music, and Voss is a highly effective piece of music theatre which has not been equalled in Australia and seldom internationally since its premiere. The novel’s structure and narrative mode, full of dream sequences and non-verbal communication, are peculiarly suited to operatic expansion and have received a musicalisation which is characterised by some aspects of the astringency of high modernism but couched in a very lyrical, “accessible” and singable idiom. Meale at the time was criticised for retreating from the so-called modernist agenda but, like Britten before him, he found an operatic mode that could speak to a wide spectrum of opera-goers. The public acclamation of the opera at its premiere is testament to this. Surely it is high time for a new Australian production of this opera—perhaps for the Patrick White centenary next year?

It is worthwhile for a moment to contemplate the origins of two important new musical works that reached fruition during 2010 in Australia. Violist and composer Brett Dean, with librettist Amanda Holden and great support from conductor Simone Young, worked for years on their adaptation of Peter Carey’s prize-winning novel Bliss, which was successfully premiered by Opera Australia in February 2010. This was a work that enjoyed all the resources of Australia’s major opera company and justly deserved the plaudits it received both in Australia and in productions abroad. However, another new opera—or musical, depending on one’s point of view—based on Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough with libretto by the author and music by singer and composer Gavin Lockley, has reached the first stage of its journey along a very different path. Unusually, its first step is a recording released by ABC Classics but, as yet, with no professional production in sight. It will be fascinating to follow these parallel journeys in the years to come. Both works deal with ideas of national identity in often profound ways, employing often very different musical idioms.

What about other Australian “literary” operas? Works based on Australian literary works have been relatively few. There have been some small-scale attempts, but without any significant or lasting success. Richard Mills seems an exception with his version of the seminal Ray Lawler play with libretto by Peter Goldsworthy, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which enjoyed success at its premiere in 1996 with a national television broadcast and video; and his recent opera, The Love of the Nightingale, based on a play by the contemporary British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, received excellent reviews at its premiere in Perth in 2007, and will have a run in Sydney later this year. Perhaps it is up to Australia’s writers to provide the impetus for new operas, and maybe it’s time for David Malouf, Australia’s finest and most experienced librettist, to mine the rich vein of his own work for a new opera. Composers should be beating down his door! 

Michael Halliwell is a singer and academic whose recent publications include Opera and the Novel: The Case of Henry James, and a CD of settings of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads. On the staff of the Sydney Conservatorium, he is currently working on a book on the contemporary opera libretto. 

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