At the age of 103, the US composer remains an incisive critic of modern life, nowhere
more so than in car-crash opera What Next?
You composed What Next? in 2003, when you were in your nineties. Why wait so long to embark on your first opera?
I was asked many, many times to write operas, but I never could think of a subject – I didn’t want one of those standard operas that carries on about some historical or literary subject, like Hamlet or god knows what. I wanted to write about something that seemed to be happening right in the present.
The opera is basically a picture of that particular time and it also reflects the kind of music that I wrote at that time; I don’t think I’d write something quite like that now. It was only because of Daniel Barenboim, the director of the Staatsoper in Berlin, who kept insisting on my writing an opera, that I finally agreed, because I knew that he would give it a very good performance if I wrote such a thing.
How did you come up with the scenario of six people thrown together by and reflecting on a car crash?
I thought that one of the things that everybody, more or less, in the civilised world is concerned with frequently is automobile accidents. I thought that would be a subject for an opera. And that’s the way it began. Early on, I found a store in New York City that sold recordings of automobile accidents, and I listened to a whole morning of them before I started writing the piece, which gave it the percussive introduction – that’s the crash itself.
The characters are in an amnesiac confusion after the accident and gradually have to unravel their lives, which appear to have been quite muddled even before the collision. The end leaves them in a sort of purgatory. Is this a way of explaining your existential view of the modern world?
One of the problems of living in this peculiar period of the world we’re living in is that we’re overwhelmed with information and it’s difficult to make choices. And I think the opera reflects this situation that people are in – they’re in a dazed state; they don’t really know what their relationships to one another are.
Of course the opera exaggerates this, but there’s an undercurrent of ambiguity and uncertainty that I think we live in at this time – well, at least more than in my lifetime that I remember. And the thing is, I wanted people to sing. And the reason is because they are in this abnormal situation, and so they sing. Very, very often operas – especially contemporary operas – really would be better if they were spoken because what they say is not particularly interesting and musically you can’t say, “Open the door” and have it sung in a way that is sensible [laughs]!
From the music you’ve written, you seem to have a lot of affection for these six characters and their flaws.
I don’t know when I wrote this opera, it must have been 10 or 15 years ago. But I was very concerned with the people and what they were like. And I tried to reflect their backgrounds. Rose is a singer and Zen is a Buddhist and "Harry or Larry" is sort of a clown… It doesn’t quite make any sense. So I thought of what those characters were like and I tried to write music to represent who they were, what they were like and how they behaved as well as how they sang. I was only doing what Mozart does so beautifully.
It’s also an opera of reflection, not action, which is unusual.
It is an opera that has a lack of action, that’s true. And I think that the only action we have, aside from the initial crash, is when the road workers come in and change the whole character of the music in the second half of the opera, and they act as non-singers. Being outside of the ambiguous situation and being like ordinary people, they fix the road and pay no attention to the crazy singers that are recovering from the action. I like the idea that they are indifferent to the situation that is represented in the opera.
I’ve heard that Barenboim wanted a second opera. Do you plan to return to the form?
I’ve tried to think of something and I came up with a subject that I ended up disliking very much: there was a period when a great many people committed suicide, and there was sort of a colony of suicidal people. And I got interested in that for various reasons; I had friends who were connected to that. And I started writing an opera, but then decided it was something I did not like and it would make me unhappy to write it. Daniel Barenboim suggested a story of Henry James and I thought it was silly, so I’ll just put up with the one opera – that was it. I’m not going to write another one.
According to the librettist Paul Griffiths, you felt that it had to be a one-act opera because a large-scale work would have been a difficult undertaking so late in life.
Well, the problem with writing an opera is that to find the librettist, to get the libretto written and then finally to write the music is a two-year job, and I don’t want to spend that time on a piece of music. I like to write my song cycles and my chamber music and my orchestral music more rapidly than have that long hang-up. I put it out of my mind as fast as I can.
Are you still composing?
Well, of course I am! I’m 103 years old and I’m writing a sinfonietta, which probably will be played at Aldeburgh in England. I compose certainly almost every morning. At my age there are doctors’ appointments and things to be dealt with, but I try to compose every day. It turns out I don’t get much written, but I try [laughs].
Victorian Opera gives the Australian premiere of What Next? as part of a double bill on August 15–22 at the Melbourne Recital Centre. View event details here.
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