Wednesday 3 October 2012

The chance to fail, but fail constructively

Alberto Franchetti. Photograph by Giovanni Artico circa 1906.
Alberto Franchetti.
Photograph by Giovanni Artico
circa 1906.
Have you ever heard of the Italian composer Franchetti and his best known opera Germania. I hadn't until called upon to review a DVD of the opera. But he wrote 10 operas in the space of just over 40 years.
Recently I was having a conversation about contemporary opera, always something that interests me, and how a new work was only a partial success. And I wondered whether nowadays we give composers of new work the space to try and fail.

The new opera in question had been given a moderately prominent premiere. When this happens it seems to me that there is the danger that the composer might either become disheartened if critical comment was too negative, or simply think that the sheer fact of getting the piece performed in such a prestigious venue was a reflection of success and that the piece worked well. In both of these cases, the composer does not really learn about the nuts and bolts of what makes a good opera.

We seem to be living in an era where quite a lot of new opera is created, but that few pieces are making it into the regular repertoire. One of the things that worries me is that we have lost the ability to provide composers with an environment where it is acceptable to fail, and that you simply go on to fail again better. It is worth bearing in mind that an experienced composer like Richard Strauss wrote two complete flops before getting things right. Wagner took two operas to get into his stride as did Puccini, and not every one of Verdi's operas would be worthy of further investigation if we didn't know the composer was Verdi.

This set me off wondering about what the hit rate was in previous generations of Italian operas. Puccini died in 1924, but the Italian opera machine continued relatively unchanged until the war. So I did a bit of digging in Wikipedia, not exactly a definitive source. But for the years 1900 to 1950 I found 24 Italian composers with a total of 157 works listed. These 157 include around 14 well known works (8 by Puccini, 3 by Menotti, Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero, Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and Buson's Doktor Faust). This is a success rate of under 10%. If you bear in mind that there were probably far more works written and performed that we don't know about, and you can see that the chances of success are quite slim. Apart from the geniuses like Puccini and Verdi, most composers seem to have been able to hit their stride only once or twice in a career.

If you look at the end of the 19th century, only 17 composers show up writing a total of 112 works. Of these around 35 are well known, but this includes Verdi's 29 operas. Still not a wildly good hit rate and the list should probably include rather more unknown composer. If you remove Verdi from the question then you get a far lower hit rate, less than 10%.

What this shows us is that, even in opera's heyday, the majority of operas had a very short shelf life. It was acceptable to produce one and go on, hoping that the next one would be the one. Partly this was because the opera going public was interested in new opera, it was the new operas of the season that caused the excitement. When Caruso made his first recordings, the composers whose works he chose were all either living or only recently deceased. Even the popular Neapolitan songs, now staples of the lighter tenor repertoire, were generally written and arranged by living composers. Today, new operas are the exception rather than the rule in major opera houses. You have a lot of new opera and music theatre in the more fringe venues. But take a significant theatre, and its a different story. This means that when a composer does get a high profile performance, and you end up with rather too much riding on it.

Also, nowadays few composers learn the nuts and bolts of writing opera from the bottom up. (Who ever heard of copying out scores to learn how a piece is constructed). And new opera performances tend to be rather a big deal. Despite the workshopping procedures that most companies provide, I wonder whether we are giving new opera composers enough space to fail.

For those of you of a nerd-ish disposition, here is my list of composers and how many operas they wrote in the period 1900-1950. Alfano (11), Boito (1), Busoni (1), Casella (3), Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1), Cilea (2), Dallapiccolla (2), Donaudy (4), Franchetti (6), Galeotti (2), Ghedini (6), Giordano (14), Leoncavallo (20, includes his operettas), Malipiero (11), Mascagni (9), Mascheroni (1), Menotti (7), Montemezzi (9), Pizzetti (12), Puccini (8), Respighi (9), Rota (11), Wolf-Ferrari (15), Zandonai (13).

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