In contemporary opera, can less be more?

Trickery with 3D, iPhones and sports doping references are all very well, but might a simpler approach be better?

What makes a good opera? The question has been asked for centuries, yet there seems to be a renewed debate in the last few years. Much of it has been centred around two new works, each dubbed “the future of opera” by the media.

Michel van der Aa’s 3D film-opera Sunken Garden was staged by English National Opera earlier this year. The breathless publicity machine spoke repeatedly of it being “the future” and of its “relevance” to contemporary life. Modern opera’s relevance is a problem much fretted over, but perhaps the problem is the definition of ‘relevance’ itself. Van der Aa’s AV spectacular falls over itself to provide characters and emotions from the ‘now’: iPhones, references to sports doping and contemporary dance music flood David Mitchell’s complex libretto as the audience dons its 3D glasses.

Sunken Garden

However, for my taste, van der Aa’s polymath skills seemed focussed more on the film and stage direction (both of which he did himself) than on the notes on the page. In contrast to his brilliant and subversively wrenching Up Close (also involving video), Sunken Garden merely paints a generically ‘dramatic’ musical backdrop and dazzles its audience with superficial visuals. Slabs of text and time go by with only the scantest hint of musical development, and the vocal lines seem unconcerned with expression of character. Even if they are unaware of how it works on a technical level, I believe that the truly unique part of the operatic experience – the part that moves an audience – rests on the quality of the score.

One of my composition teachers Detlev Glanert, the most-performed living German opera composer, describes the score of an opera as “music pressed into service”. He tailors his scores as seismographic representations of characters and situations on stage. His recently successful Caligula (staged for ENO by Benedict Andrews) is a wonderful example. Fastidious concerns for subliminal ‘classical’ structures (as his assumed Teutonic inheritance from WozzeckDie Soldaten and The Bassarids might suggest) are submissive to the most direct kind of moment-to-moment emotional connect between music and drama.

Technical wizardry of a different kind is offered in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, premiered in 2012. Once again, critics leapt to label it the saviour of modern opera, Le Monde even going so far as to hail it as “the greatest since Wozzeck”. Though Martin Crimp’s lucid libretto is a miracle of concise, hard-hitting character study, the power of Written on Skin resides chiefly in Benjamin’s achievement as a composer. In my view, he achieves most where van der Aa falls short: in the passionately musical, profoundly expressive connection between singers, orchestra and drama. I’m currently preparing to conduct Sydney Chamber Opera in Benjamin and Crimp’s earlier work, Into the Little Hill, so my love of their musico-dramatic world may be biased by immersion, but I find the quality of composition, especially of its harmony, of Bachian perfection. Benjamin’s operas work as a continuum of the inner drama of the processes of music, transforming the simple sounding of notes against one other into an exterior dramatic maelstrom of emotions, capable of the widest range of expression.

Written on Skin

In short, Benjamin dares to create purely musical situations of such precision and expressive power such that dramatic ideas and characters can co-exist and inhabit his world with astonishing ease and naturalness. If this sounds like simply good opera writing, perhaps it is. For what are Don GiovanniTristan und IsoldeBoris GodunovOtelloWozzeckFrom the House of the Dead and Death in Venice but musical vehicles of such complex perfection that their dramatic content can comfortably sit inside their composers’ seemingly unbounded imaginations? And let it be a lesson to us all that writing an opera does not mean taking sides in the battle of past vs present or relevant vs recherché, but creating an art form in which those questions are, in fact, irrelevant.

Sydney Chamber Opera performs Kurtág’s ... pas à pas – nulle part ... and Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Carriageworks, January 17-19 as part of the Sydney Festival


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In contemporary opera, can less be more?
Jack Symonds: Music Director of Sydney Chamber Opera
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