Opera’s Contemporary Boondoggle

Having sat patiently through the SF Opera’s premiere of Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne, a brand-new opera from a most unlikely source—Stephen King’s novel-then-movie—I am ever more certain that contemporary opera is on a fast track to nowhere.

There is no faulting the actual production itself: the SF Opera is a world-class, can’t-beat-it-if-you-try company that deserves every plaudit and accolade shied its way. The stagecraft was superb; the design splendid. The orchestra turned in its usual first-rate performance. The singers gave as good of dramatic performances as they could under near-impossible circumstances.

But those circumstances, oy those circumstances. There is no staging brilliant enough to rescue Dolores Claiborne from its own futility. The problem is easy to identify, a piece of cake to describe, and a total sonofabitch to solve: contemporary opera’s fixation on real-life drama is a recipe for instant failure.

Opera requires singing, and singing takes more time than talking. Because everything is being sung, operatic situations must move slowly. People must react slowly, move slowly, act slowly. If an abused wife vows that her husband will never, ever hit her again, should she do so within the confines of compound meter and an 8-bar phrase structure, she’s going to sound more silly than threatening. Nor can the scumbag husband stand there mutely, waiting for the music to get around to his line before he calls her a bitch. Just standing there, waiting for the music to come your way, is the critical boondoggle in contemporary opera.

That is, contemporary opera that is based on contemporary, or at least reasonably real-life, stories. Were contemporary opera to return to misty, mythic stories about Minerva and Jove, none of this would be a problem. Minerva can look on grandly for hours while Jove holds forth in richly rolling tones. How much time does Fricka spend standing there motionless while listening to Wotan, anyway? As long as the subject matter allows for a holiday from quotidian reality, there’s a chance for an operatic setting to work. But let’s ix-nay the police procedurals or real-life dramas in real-life vernaculars. Opera doesn’t do plain quotidian worth a damn.

The only composer I know who could approach a real-life situation and make it work operatically is Benjamin Britten, but then only within strict limits. Peter Grimes works, I think, largely because it partakes at least as much of archetypes and myths as it does of real-life people and situations. The alternate-universe world of a ship at sea provides Billy Budd with a dreamworld that keeps everyday reality at arm’s length. The various quasi-operas such as Curlew River exist almost entirely in mythological terms, without a concrete here and now. Even Death in Venice is largely a hallucination, made all the more compelling by Britten’s decision to use a dancer rather than singer for the boy Tadziu, and to provide him with faux-gamelan music.

Earlier opera composers and librettists recognized that black-and-white, no-escaping-it daily reality was unsuitable to the genre’s inherent absurdities. Only by setting their stories in exotic locales, and involving the characters in fantastical, improbable, or just plain inexplicable escapades, could they ensure that essential disconnection between reality and opera. Wagner was perhaps the all-time champion when it came to understanding what was and wasn’t suitable for operatic treatment. Consider the emphases on Celtic mythology, medieval German history, and Christian symbolism that run through so many of his works. Not for one second would Wagner have ever considered making an operatic scene out of a business transaction between a woman and a bank teller. But precisely one such scene—and a crashing bore it is, too—occurs in Dolores Claiborne.

Opera without glamor—even of the louche or seedy variety—makes little if any sense. Searing drama ripped from today’s headlines can make for compelling spoken theater, but not opera. Anything ripped from today’s headlines cannot survive being portrayed by people standing around mutely waiting for their turn to sing. Real-life means real-time, and time is something that can never be real in opera.

Then there’s the problem of modern opera’s lack of musical substance, but that’s a topic for another essay.

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