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It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore

The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny explores reimagining newer operas through the three A's: accessible, approachable and avant-garde.

published Sunday, November 4, 2012
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At the end of September, I attended the opening of the National Opera Center (NOC) in New York City. The NOC is one of the most important projects for Opera America, and provides a much-needed audition, rehearsal and performance space in the heart of New York, as well as a library, multi-media support and other services. To commemorate the opening, 70 composers were invited to write a song honoring the occasion; 47 composers submitted songs which have now been released as printed music, as well as on CD. (As a side note, this idea of creating a collection of songs to celebrate an important event or person goes back more than 400 years. The famous collection of English madrigals from 1601 entitled "The Triumph of Oriana" consists of 25 short works by 23 different composers). Back at Opera America, all 70 of the participating composers had received grants from the opera organization over the past 25 years, and they represent a wide range of compositional and dramatic styles.

Seventy composers is a remarkably high number; now add to that the many more young and emerging composers also interested in writing for this great art form. With so much opera being written by so many different individuals, in so many different styles, I gradually have come to believe that the term "contemporary" opera is no longer sufficient; general directors and programmers need a richer vocabulary to classify new works, stylistically, when they are making artistic choices about what to present, and—just as importantly—when they are communicating those plans to their audiences.

To illustrate the challenge, consider two musical masterpieces which had their premiere almost exactly 100 years ago. The first is Igor Stravinsky's breakthrough ballet the The Rite of Spring for large orchestra, which premiered on May 29, 1913. The second is Arnold Schoenberg's song cycle Pierrot Lunaire for soprano and chamber ensemble, which premiered on Oct. 16, 1912. At both of their premieres, these works sparked near riots among audience members! Over time, however, their reputations have diverged sharply. The Rite of Spring has become much more accepted; it's not quite a staple of the core repertoire for the casual Sunday afternoon listener, but certainly a well-accepted and highly respected work. In fact, an extended excerpt was included as a segment in the 1940 version of Disney's Fantasia. One section of the Rite is "The Dance of the Adolescents," which has influenced scores of later works, not to mention film scores.

Pierrot Lunaire, by contrast, remains an enigmatic masterpiece a century after its birth. Based on poetry by Albert Giraud, it relies on sprechstimme, or "spoken singing" which produces an unnerving, unsettled effect. The overall impression to the listener is perplexing, possibly even musically indigestibleyet the work is also unmistakably brilliant.

When making programming choices incorporating contemporary music and opera, I like to use three general categories to ensure that we are fulfilling our mission to present a wide range of compositional styles, while maintaining season and compositional balance. Classifying a particular work requires a lot of thought and discussion, but I rely on the following basic criteria:

  • Accessible – These works are more conventionally melodic, and may be tonal in stretches, or even throughout. They rely heavily on conventional singing techniques, and literal uses of text. Most importantly, they can be absorbed by a casual listener, at least to some degree, on the first (or perhaps second) hearing.
  • Approachable – These works typically require time for the audience to gain comfort. They may be in more radical compositional style, but may also include tonal interludes. The use of language may be more exotic, and they may include more complex singing styles (e.g. blends of spoken and sung text, harmonics, pitches at the extreme ends of the artist's vocal range) and nontraditional orchestral techniques.
  • Avant-garde - These works are much more challenging, requiring more study, and perhaps repetitions, for the audience to achieve a level of comfort; their style may be harder to process, and therefore may be more "cloying" to the ear. They may also include even more nontraditional approaches to orchestral playing and extreme vocal techniques. A true avant-garde work challenges us nearly as deeply on the tenth hearing as it does on the first.

As I noted in an earlier "Off the Cuff," I am delighted that there is greater public acceptance of a range of compositional styles in contemporary classical music composition, but I cannot avoid noticing that there is still some residual bias against "accessible" styles. In my mind, accessible in no way implies superficiality; in fact, an accessible musical style can enable the composer to make a greater impact dramatically because the audience more readily accepts and internalizes the music. It is also important to note that this classification system has no connection to when a piece was composed, nor should it: both The Rite of Spring and Pierrot Lunaire made their public debuts less than a year apart. And I admit that there is some judgment involved, as well as room for debate in classifying works and assembling the season puzzle—which is all part of the fun of programming opera in an age of expanding musical experiences and tastes.

Some examples will illustrate this approach. One recent work that is clearly in the "accessible category" is André Previn's opera Brief Encounter, inspired by the 1945 David Lean/Noël Coward film. The work was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, and premiered in 2009, starring Elizabeth Futral and Nathan Gunn; I found it a moving, theatrical experience with some beautiful music.

Another is Daniel Catán's Il Postino, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2010 with Plácido Domingo as the poet Pablo Neruda and Charles Castronovo as a young postman. The compositional idiom was highly melodic and deeply influenced by Puccini's compositional style, which led to a certain degree of criticism, but did nothing to diminish the opera's popularity with L.A. audiences.

The "approachable category" is a very full one. I would include John Adams' Nixon in China as an important example. While the opera relies heavily on less familiar minimalist musical textures, the work is strongly theatrical and pulls the listener along with both excellent music and drama. Daniel Catan's 1996 opera Florencia en el Amazonas pushed musical boundaries further than Il Postino, and therefore belongs to the "approachable category." Erich Korngold's 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt contains surrealist and dream imagery, while blurring of the lines of reality and fantasy. A work in the tradition of Richard Strauss, its greatest barrier to regular performances is its unfamiliarity on American shores. Nevertheless, it is an outstanding work by a 23-year-old composerand a personal favorite of mine.

TDO's chamber opera last season, Peter Maxell-Davies' The Lighthouse, which premiered in 1980, might have been classified as avant-garde based on the vocal writing and dissonant tonality, but the tonal interludes provided a kind of "acoustical sorbet" to cleanse the musical palette. I therefore include it in the "accessible category." John Harbison's opera The Great Gatsby, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999, employs a similar technique, interspersing songs in 1920s dance style within the compositional flow.

Intriguingly, operatic entrants in the "avant-garde category" span a full century, with regular examples sprinkled along the way. Alban Berg's Wozzeck, composed between 1914 and 1922, stretched boundaries of harmony, vocal technique, orchestration and musical form. A slightly later example, the opera Four Saints in Three Acts was written by Virgil Thomson in 1927-1928 with text by Gertrude Stein. The music is approachable, even bland, but the text and its extensive use of repetition make for a perplexing whole (see a recent production from the Brooklyn Academy of Musicworth watching to the end!). Schonberg's Moses and Aaron, written between 1930 and 1932 still challenges audiences deeply, and this work is unmistakably innovative. Hans Werner Henze, who passed away quite recently, composed the Elegy for Young Lovers, which premiered in 1961 with an English libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. I admire the work for its orchestration and tonal color, yet it is a work that requires some study to fully appreciate. And in 2010, The Santa Fe Opera presented Lewis Spratlan's Life is a Dream. Composed in 1978 and based (incredibly) on a 1635 play by Calderón, the work's spiky and dissonant compositional idiom and disjointed vocal lines requires more than one hearing to process. This, despite a fairy tale setting that is easily understood (and an interesting contrast to Four Saints in Three Acts, which has accessible music and an unquestionably avant-garde libretto).

Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw, which premiered in 1954, sits on the boundary between the approachable and the avant-garde. While not particularly dissonant, its dramatic themes include child abuse and the death of a possessed young boy, which create unease in the audience that multiple hearings cannot dispel. It produces the same queasiness that a strong performance of Verdi's Otello can inspire, but the inclusion of children as victims makes it even more powerfully disturbing.

If I may be permitted some nonoperatic examples, I would like to add two more for consideration in the "avant-garde category." The first is John Cage's work for amplified cactus. Cage produced a steady stream of works that challenged audiences about the nature of music itselflessons that seem fresh to every new generation of listeners; this piece was recreated for the 2012 proms in London, by the way. The second is Edgard Varèse's 1933 work Ionization for 13 percussion players, another personal favorite. The combination of a huge range of pitched, semi-pitched and un-pitched percussion instruments, and the evident degree of musical complexity and innovation in this piece will continue to influence composers and challenge audiences for many years to come.

Faced with such a rich variety of choices, one risk for any classical music programmer is "programming paralysis." What works should we feature, from what eras, and in what styles? And I won't even start on the three-dimensional chess game that casting an opera requires. In my role as General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera, I believe that it is an essential part of our mission to present a wide range of new works, showcase the gamut of compositional styles, and develop, over time, audience awareness and love for the most remarkable musical achievements of the last 100 years. Deciding which operas to present, and when, is one of the most rewarding parts of this job! And one critically important element is making sure that we strike an exciting balance between the accessible, the approachable, and the avant-garde, while convincing you to willingly accompany us on that journey.

◊ Here are some videos from the works referenced above:

The music for Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire:


LA Opera's Il Postino, from PBS's Great Performances:


Part of The Rite of Spring section in Disney's Fantasia:


John Cage playing amplified cacti and plant materials with a feather:


The Dallas Opera's 2012 production of The Lighthouse:


Four Saints in Three Acts at Brookly Academy of Music:


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in His first column can be seen here, the second is here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here, seventh here, eighth here, ninth here and tenth hereThanks For Reading


Jay writes:
Thursday, February 28 at 8:27AM

Is there some kind of presentation or lecture this week in Fort Worth? I heard about it on the radio.

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It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore
The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny explores reimagining newer operas through the three A's: accessible, approachable and avant-garde.
by Keith Cerny

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