Apr/May 2004

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

What!--Not dead yet?

Olga Neuwirth. Bählamms Fest.
Klangforum Wien
Johannes Kalitzke, Conductor.
Kairos 0012342HAI. KAIROS Production, 2002.
Elliott Carter. What Next? And Asko Concerto.
Soloists with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Peter Eötvös, Conductor
ECM New Series 1817.       Munich, Germany, 2003.


Like the novel, the death of opera has often been pronounced. Was Turandot the last real opera? Or was it Wozzeck? But composers continue to write them. Somehow they missed all the obituaries. I have a deep passion for opera, and have recently written a libretto for Marc Satterwhite on the life of Anna Akhmatova (editors note: see current issue, miscellany section!). As I worked on this project, I realized that with the advent of movies early last century, opera, which had been the populist multi-medium genre without peer, was then freed to explore other possibilities.

Given the trappings of the stage and the incongruity of singing with action, opera always seemed more successful when it reached for transcendence and heroics than when it strove for naturalism. But those very incongruities and trappings are at some perceptual level always somewhat surreal and absurd. In fact vibrant productions of 19th repertory pieces as surrealist dreamscapes have been highly successful, perhaps because they release some of the repressed essence of the operatic project itself.

Twentieth century composers and librettists discovered the vitality of expressionist, impressionist, surrealist and absurdist operas often exploiting the very elements of staginess and incongruity inherent in sung theatricals. As a result the genre is probably far less moribund in 2004 than is its cousin the Broadway musical.

Olga Neuwirth (at age 31) produced her Bählamms Fest (The Feast of the Lambs) in 1999 in Vienna, based on a play by Leonora Carrington, written in 1940, just after the German invasion of France. Elliott Carter wrote his first opera in 1997 at the age 89 to a one-act libretto by Paul Griffiths. Neuwirth has been trained in Austria and California in a variety of compositional traditions including central European high modernist serialism, California electronic music, and the writing of film scores. Her opera draws widely and wildly from all these idioms. Carter has established himself as the highly regarded patriarch of American music, despite his dense constructivist individualist idiom.

Both bring to their operatic projects infectious gusto and invention.

Neuwirth's story (impossible to summarize) is a surrealist nightmare of considerable horror, centered on a small group and their misfired attempts to communicate. Carrington was a member of the German surrealist painter Max Ernst's circle and has affinities with his tormented images. The music is variously wrenching, disorienting, haunting and abrupt. The cast performs with utter conviction, and the urgency that underlines almost every line of singing pulls the listener's attention into the work, despite the fact that the booklet includes no English libretto and only the briefest synopsis. One does, however, feel that on stage the work must have an even greater impact, the multi-media aspects of staging (lighting, sets, action) being integral to the total conception.

Carter's story is pure abusurdist opera buffa. Think Ionesco or Beckett. The story (impossible to summarize) centers around five characters and their misfired attempts to communicate. The opera opens with a car crash. People, apparently unhurt, emerge from the wreckage. One group is on its way to the wedding of Rose and Harry or Larry. They stand around the wreck talking about everything but the wreck itself, more often to themselves in monologues than to each other. In the end, it is not clear as to whether anything has happened or even will. Unlike Neuwirth, Carter sticks to a spare chamber music style, with clean clearly enunciated vocal lines. He has great fun assembling his voices in traditional ensembles, duets, quartets, etc., often built on plays on single words and syllable, but these gestures toward communication only serve to exaggerate the misfires and dislocations of chitchat. Throughout, I cannot suppress a wry smile about to bloom into guffaws.

Neuwirth seeks to pull her listener into the mental anguish of her characters through an overblown expressionist exploitation of musical extremes. Carter seeks to hold his listeners a bay to delight in a observing the fun of his character's absurdity.

As opposed as the two works are, both are operas of total musical engagement. Carter's seems to hold up a bit better as an audio experience without staging. But they have parallels, both coincidently and strikingly significant. It is sheer coincidence that each has a moment of crash and exploding glass. Neuwirth resorts to taped sounds to render her crash of glass, Carter uses traditional instruments-with astonishing inventiveness. I would love to see the score for the first 90 seconds of his music.

More significantly, both stories have a reigning matriarch. Mama in Carter and Mrs. Margaret Carnis in Neuwirth. Each is the largest role in her respective opera; each is authoritative and commanding; but each is ultimately ineffectual and inconsequential to the adult children she attempts to direct-particularly her son, who in each opera is inept and aimless.

At the same time, each story has a couple whose relationship is fraught with miscommunication and fundamental failure even to know each other. In Carter, Rose and Larry or Harry (Mama's son), on the way to their wedding, seem as ill suited to marriage as a bicycle is to a fish. In Neuwirth, Philip (Mrs. Margaret Carnis's son) is with his second wife, Theodora, but in his surrealist imaginings, his first wife, Elizabeth, seems sometimes more present (she supposedly is dead) than is his current wife who is with him. Their marriage too seems unbridgeable and rife with angst.

How do we account for works written one year apart from each other, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, from composers separated by almost two generation, using two strikingly different theatrical can musical traditions, having such a core similarity? Surely, neither composer was aware of the other's work-in-progress. Both project a heterosexual couples in doomed tandems of failure, governed by "mamas" who despite grand and sweeping assertions of authority are powerless to guide anyone. Neuwirth (with Carrington behind her) and Carter (with Griffiths to support him) simultaneously project a crisis in the heterosexual and maternal cores of what we glorify as the family just as the culture was moving to the end of one century and forward into the next. This epistemological and ideological crisis is registered as either an internal crises of the psyche or as the external material for witty commentary and laughter. In either modality, the anxiety is palpable and seems to resonate and culturally paradigmatic.

Nope, not dead yet.


Anyone wishing more information about Olga Neuwirth go to www.olganeuwirth.com


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