Tuesday 14 October 2008

If at first you don't succeed

What we seem to have lost, somewhere in the last 70 or so years is the ability of an opera composer to fail, learn and come back for more. Operatic commissions are usually high profile things and and false step in such a spot light is liable to be rather over magnified. I must admit that, when it comes to contemporary opera, I have frequently found myself out of step with many critics. I can think of quite a few dreadful evenings which, when it came to the printed reviews, garnered praise. But as an opera composer myself, it is difficult to be overly critical without implying that you think you could do better.

So when I read the criticism of Dominique Le Gendre's new piece Burial at Thebes premiered at the Globe, I have no idea what really happened on stage there. It would be easy to simply dismiss the new opera as a disaster because of the critical reaction. But critics are not always right. An equally important reaction is that of the audience, but that is rather difficult to gauge. So what do you do? Well generally, I suspect, rely on the judgement of your peers and fellow musicians, which is a comforting way of going on. But not necessarily the best way forward. Opera, after all, is about the art of communication and if the work fails to communicate to the audience then you are stumped.

It is a worrying tendency of modern operas to concentrate on what the composer and librettist mean and want, rather than what the audience want. To give the audience everything they might want is, of course, to risk talking down to them and producing music which challenges no-one. But say simply 'this is what I want, take it or leave it' is foolish as the audience may simply leave it.

What it needs, as I have said before, is some sort of commercial space for composers to try things out without too much pressure. Note the word commercial, I am not sure that workshops and such can ever quite prove the right testing ground. There is too much judgement by your peers and not enough testing in the crucible of audience reaction.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries composers had too cope with pleasing audience and critics. But they were allowed to fail and come back again. Few contemporary composers have the opportunity, or the stomach, to face highly public criticism and simply come back again. I really hope that Dominque Le Gendre does. After all, to get a 2nd opera on at all is a brilliant achievement, and she deserves the opportunity to try again. Don't forget that Richard Strauss's first 2 operas were hardly a success and he was, by then, an experienced composer of concert music.

But there does seem to be slightly odd attitude in the operatic establishment regarding the type of composer needed for a contemporary commission. Sometimes I have heard works by composers who write 'dramatic music', but who do not seem to have the slightest idea about writing for the voice. And composers like Jonathan Dove, who have an extremely interesting body of work behind them, are relatively ignored by mainstream establishment. Having written Flight for Glyndebourne, you would have expected him to get the opportunity write another, bigger work for a main house. Instead he has operated on the fringes, honing his talent and producing fascinating, audience friendly work. Perhaps Dove has risked pleasing the audience a little too much, but his works always challenge on some level or other.

I don't really have a conclusion to this. Its just a musing on an on-going problem

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