Radical opera defies definition

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It seems to me that the only thing The New Yorker Festival’s Radical Opera panel settled last Sunday afternoon at City Winery was that nobody’s quite sure exactly what radical opera really is.

The 90 minute discussion featured director Peter Sellars — who’s so deeply involved with John Adams‘ operas that he’s not limited to directing in the most conventional sense. He helped create the libretto for Doctor Atomic — along with performer-composers Nico Muhly, Rufus Wainwright, and Lisa Bielawa. Nico and Lisa are closely associated with Philip Glass, one of the world’s leading composers of opera, while Rufus, who’s primarily a pop musician, has no prior formal connection to the opera world.

I was hoping that The New Yorkers’ brilliant music writer, Alex Ross, would encourage some spirited debate. (Secretly, I was hoping for some bitch-slapping, if not actual fisticuffs.) Alas, that was not to be. It turned into a very un-radical love-fest and discussion of upcoming projects. I had a livelier discussion with the young composer at my table than anything I heard coming from the stage that afternoon.

Things kicked off well with a performance of part of a work in progress written by Lisa for herself on vocals with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. As she described it later, it’s an operatic piece, influenced by Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse,  that can contract and expand with the needs and desires (through actual balloting) of the audience and the time allotted.

Peter, the oldest of the four panelists, had the clearest and most radical ideas about the needs of the future. He spoke of opera as “shared space. Opera is a record of a generation. And the form itself demands a radical solution.”

Rufus’ opera, Prima Donna, which received its premiere production in Manchester, England, after it was rejected by the Metropolitan Opera in a dispute over his determination to write the piece in French, is possibly one of the least radical operas to come along in quite awhile, judging from the excerpt played at the panel. It’s based on an interview with the great diva Maria Callas, a story that Rufus could “dig my teeth into.”

And Nico’s Two Boys is his “gay opera,” a response to the notion voiced by Rufus that “there’s no gay opera — no opera about two men. It’s never been tackled fully.” Nico said he chose the topic — a true story of a case of gay internet stalking in the North of England — becaus he needed “a story that I respond to emotionally — deeply.”

Peter’s catalogue was illustrated with a clip of the fantastic “Batter my heart” aria from Doctor Atomic — a truly inspiring and moving piece of work. But even that it not truly radical. It fits the traditional notion of opera, and aria.

So what is radical opera? In the end, perhaps its hallmark is failure.

“Opera is littered with failures. These failures are beautiful,” said Peter. “The failure of one generation is the success of another.”


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