A few years ago I attended a group of performances of contemporary opera, where over two days I saw six short pieces, some fully staged and others just work in progress. My companion at the performances was a director and librettist with whom I was planning new opera. After the operas, though we had seen much interesting, innovative and lively work, we felt that little of it was opera as we defined it. Instead we saw a variety of dramatised monologues, music theatre pieces and plays with music (dialogue pieces where the musical accompaniment is of more interest than the vocal lines).
My composing background is vocal and choral music though I have worked in cabaret, written musicals and staged two operas. But as a writer and listener, I am intensely interested in opera, its production, historical development and how the genre is developing in the contemporary world. The problem with being both a critic and a composer is that when you have a critical view of a performed work, it is difficult for this not to spill over and for the composer to wonder whether they could do better. Or conversely, when the critic admires a new work, then it can be difficult for the composer not to feel a little jealous. This is a faulty position to take as each composer is different and the process of creating an opera doesn’t occur in vacuo, it arises as complex sequence of events which involve a number of different participants. Very rarely does a composer simply sit down to create an opera and write exactly what sits in his head.
In the past, opera composers were often part of a system. Opera companies routinely produced new work and young composers had access to professional librettists and a variety of potential outlets for their work. The big effect of this was that the composer could learn from failure and go on. This ability to fail has, largely, been lost. New operas are now rather more major events, much more hangs off them, putting great pressure on composers to get things right first time. The opera commissioning and producing process is complex and difficult to stop. So there is real danger of work reaching the stage which ought to have been radically altered at birth. I’m sure that we have all attended new operas where we have felt that the work ought to have been performed in a radically different form, the feeling that within an uninspiring longer work, lies a fine short one.
In order to help combat this, the workshop system has developed, so new operas are tried out before full production. Whilst this is laudable in theory, I have attended some contemporary pieces which seem to have been workshopped to death; the workshop process having gone from enabling a composer to hear their work, to stifling the innovative and dramatic instincts.
Another problem for the contemporary composer is the lack of experience professional librettists. With the drop in the number of new operas being produced at major houses, there are few people who specialise in writing opera libretti and have the experience to construct a good libretto. In a programme note for George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, his librettist Martin Crimp stated that a successful libretto should feel incomplete, something lacking; the missing element being, of course, the music. Too often modern librettos are all too self sufficient.
Post-war opera has been heavily play based, with stage drama being a strong influence on the operatic form. But few composers and librettists are entirely talented at turning a play into a good libretto . Britten and Pears re-construction of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream is a paragon in this respect. But what often comes out nowadays is what I call the play with music. Vocal lines are cast as continuous arioso and the orchestra comments on and colours the line. Interest is too often in the orchestra and vocal lines seem to chug along, rather than developing memorable dramatics. This isn’t just a case of tonality versus modernity. Composers of both casts have been responsible for producing uninteresting works. In recent years James MacMillan, Thomas Ades and George Benjamin have shown that dramatic operatic work is possible, without talking down to the audience.
And Michael Berkely’s operas written with David Malouf have been notable for the deft way Malouf’s librettos leave plenty of room for the music.
What we have lost is the feeling for opera as a distinctive, known form. In the past young composers worked in an environment where it was clear what opera was. This gave them something to match themselves against; and, if they were iconoclasts, something to struggle against. But in the current environment, composers have to invent the form for themselves. To go back to the operas I mentioned at the beginning, there were examples of composer/librettist pairings attempting to re-invent the form for themselves. But lacking historical insight and perspective, they simply came up with something jejeune. But composers should be allowed to fail and I hope that the composers in question were encouraged to try again, but better.
Two composers whose career path has approached those of opera composers in the past are the late Stephen Oliver and Jonathan Dove. Both of whom have produced a large body of variety work, developing their craft over a period of time. Dove’s opera Flight is successful partly because the form used is historically informed, aware of what operatic form has been in the past. And Dove's career as an opera composer started with his orchestral reductions for City of Birmingham Opera, notably reducing The Ring, down to evenings. A rather modern take on the way composers of the past worked their way up the food chain.
These thoughts have been very much in my mind because I spent a lot of 2010 year writing my new opera When a man knows and then staging it in 2011. Here the critic has to defer to the composer, and is affected by the complexities of the development of opera. Whilst I know that working with an experienced librettist is an ideal, exigencies have meant that I have set my own libretto based on an existing play. And in June 2010 we gave a concert performance of the opera as a form of workshop to try out the work before a full production. Following on from that I worked with both the conductor, David Roblou, and the director, Ian Caddy, to tighten up the piece before the full staging. We had the advantage that Ian Caddy was able to hear our repeat concert performance of the work in August 2010 and use this to inform his views as to what did, and didn’t work. The resulting changes were not radical, but helped to tighten the drama.
So the critic as composer can find himself breaking his own rules. The most that the composer can hope for is that the new work will have a dramatic life of its own, that it will move audiences to laugh and cry in the right places.