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|A grand history of small operas|
Kara Shay Thomson, center, in the opera Erwartung, in New York, March 23, 2011. Opera is often assumed to be just about bigness, but writer Seth Colter Walls provides 10 operas where size isnt everything. Ricard Perry/The New York Times.
by Seth Colter Walls
NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Opera is often assumed to be just about bigness. Powerful voices, huge choruses and imposing orchestral forces dominate our sense of the art form.
Yet overwhelming scale isnt everything.
And at the moment, scale is a particular problem for opera companies trying to manage a return amid the coronavirus pandemic. While grand opera that enemy of social distancing might be impossible for a time, that doesnt mean opera cant work. For centuries, composers have been writing more compact pieces.
The last century, in particular, has seen a variety of approaches to concise classical music drama. What follows below is a tour through the history of the radically short opera something similar in length to an hourlong television drama (or even shorter). You could hear all 10 of the works below in about the same amount of time it takes to watch Wagners Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera.
Claudio Monteverdis Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
Between the first two of his surviving operas, Claudio Monteverdi wrote this stand-alone scene for three vocalists. When it was later published, in 1638, it was as part of a book of madrigals. Though described as a work of dramatic representation, the nature of its publication contributed to confusion over how to classify the scene. (If it isnt several hours long, is it really an opera?)
This short narrative about warriors in the Crusades is, at heart, a tale of star-crossed lovers. (Underneath the helmets of battle, gender identity is obscured.) Agitated, tremolo figures in Monteverdis strings help him ramp up the tension without a long narrative windup.
Director Pierre Audi included a staging of this scene in his cycle of Monteverdis better-known operas and, in an interview in the DVD release, also calls it the composers greatest work.
Arnold Schoenbergs Erwartung
After Monteverdi, it took some time for narrative pith to come back into operatic style. (Even Telemanns one-act Don Quichotte auf der Hochzeit des Comacho requires a full hour.)
But early in the 20th century, experimental music merged with other new forms of drama in shorter works. Schoenbergs flight into atonality was helped along with this mysterious monodrama, based on a text by Marie Pappenheim.
Early on, the female protagonist mistakes a tree trunk for a corpse in the forest only to quickly find another dead body that she takes for her absent lover. Schoenberg deleted some of the clearer dramatic lines in Pappenheims text, making the work all the more unstable and spooky.
Ernst Kreneks Heavyweight, Or the Glory of the Nation
Zeitoper opera of the times was a trend during Germanys Weimar era. In addition to incorporating dances partially inspired by American jazz, works by composers like Krenek also dramatized mass media. This 16-minute burlesque comedy features a scene in which a prizefighter parries a series of questions from a journalist, who mistakes one of the heavyweights objections to his breakfast as an answer to a query. Later, the reporter dutifully sounds out the athlete about his reading habits, only to be told, I have the evening paper in the toilet.
Kurt Weills The Czar Has His Photograph Taken
One of Kreneks rivals on the Weimar scene, Weill was also eager to sketch sardonic moods. And, as musicologist Susan C. Cook has observed, he included up-to-the-minute technologies like doorbells and phone ringers in this score. This comic opera focuses on an assassination plot. (A photographers studio is overtaken by radicals who disguise their gun as the camera.)
Toward the end, Weill has a pair of singers dance to a tango but not one played during performances by the pit musicians. Instead, the singers tango, as they might in real life, to a gramophone recording of Weills music. This Tango Angele became famous as an example of multimedia art. Newer recordings can add a bit of vintage phonograph crackle into the mix to create the right vibe.
Leonard Bernsteins Trouble in Tahiti
Bernsteins acidic opera in seven scenes has been connected to the Zeitoper tradition. But the way it peers beneath suburbias would-be idyllic surface can also be seen as a forerunner of cultural touchstones like Twin Peaks.
During the first scene, a tiff between a husband and wife is occasionally interrupted by a trio of voices, whose harmonies are meant to evoke radio advertisements. Bernstein later reused this short opera as a long flashback within the action of his opera A Quiet Place. It works well in that context, but also standing by itself.
Robert Ashleys The Park
One of this composers most important pieces, Perfect Lives is an opera in seven 30-minute episodes, each conceived for television. Before making the fully produced video version, Ashley recorded two of those episodes as stand-alone works, on the album Private Parts. It includes a 21-minute performance of The Park, in which keyboard and tabla undergird Ashleys monotone vocal performance.
His text is rich in philosophical insight and irony. At one point, when describing the protagonists relationship with a phones dial tone, he softly says, He hung up, very dramatic. But the music hovers gently around these words, transporting listeners to a more reflective space.
John Zorns La Machine de lÊtre
Zorn is a famous workaholic. And some of his scores sit idle for years, waiting for the right interpreter. In this case, a short, textless opera that was finished in 2000 didnt see the stage until 2011, when New York City Opera juxtaposed it with Erwartung and Morton Feldmans Neither.
A recorded version is available on Zorns label, Tzadik. Its abstract and lasts barely 11 minutes, but clearly suggests rising and falling action. The finale is particularly exciting as the star soprano produces bawdy laughter, quick octave leaps and precision coloratura.
Unsuk Chins Le Silence des Sirènes
Chins evening-length adaptation of Alice in Wonderland helped establish her operatic bona fides, but this subsequent scene for soprano and orchestra revealed her ability to spin drama more succinctly.
She blended two different texts to craft the libretto: a Homeric siren song and a portion of James Joyces Ulysses. The best fun to be had here, though, doesnt involve spotting the references to older texts; rather, listen for the swooping interplay between the composers motifs for soprano and a kinetic, quick-changing orchestra.
Adolphus Hailstorks Nobody Know
While this composers works have long been performed by a variety of ensembles, his vibrant work remains too rarely heard on recordings. Commissioned by the Harlem Chamber Players and preserved on a video recording made by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, this 20-minute concert aria dramatizes the scene of Jesus crucifixion, from the vantage point of the penitent thief crucified alongside him.
The varied instrumental writing, for string quartet, has a prismatic quality. Stray bluesy figures and tart chromaticism bring to mind an observation about Hailstork once made by conductor Thomas Wilkins: You hear his upbringing in his music; you hear his culture in his music. But its not on the sleeve.
Jeffrey Young and Paul Pintos Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Patriots, Run for Public Office ...
The verbose quality of this short opera with a long title harkens back to other textually dense pieces, like Ashleys. (Pinto has appeared in multiple productions of Ashleys works.) But this micro-opera is more antic than anything written by the author of The Park.
During Intro, which is the second number in the piece, the candidate-singers proffer a series of slogans: Our politics is a journey. Not a network of schemata. Not good TV! Not your identification. Not a PowerPoint presentation, nor your eco-friendly tote. Not a box to tick! And certainly not a patchwork of platforms on which we but temporarily rest our shiny shoes.
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