Carmen\'s death scene in Bizet\'s&nbsp;<em>Carmen</em>, from the Dallas Opera\'s fall 2013 production
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To Be or Not To Be

Or something completely different? In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny muses on a popular opera theme: Death.

published Sunday, February 2, 2014


Dallas — The opera stage can be a dangerous place, metaphorically speaking, although General Directors work hard to make sure that it is as safe as possible for the human beings performing on the stage. Opera characters regularly endure life-or-death situations that push emotions far behind the norm, and this is part of the power and importance of the operatic art form. Add to that, as I noted in an earlier “Off the Cuff,” it’s not just our imagination—opera truly is addicted to the tragic. This tragedy is often linked to the death of one or more leading characters—sometimes deserved, sometimes not.

Composers and their librettists, over the years, have employed a series of recognizable plot devices as characters wrestle with their mortality, and, in some cases, lose the match. These range from the medically plausible to the ludicrously far-fetched. On the plausible side, we have disease (e.g. tuberculosis in Traviata and La bohème), and a wide range of trauma: swordfights (Don Giovanni), gunshot wounds (Tosca and Massenet’s Werther), stabbings (Rigoletto, Madam Butterfly), suffocation (Aida), drowning (Berg’s Wozzeck), or a spot of poison (Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia)—to name a few. Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking puts the controversial issue of capital punishment and its methods, literally, at the center of the opera.

While we can debate whether a character can actually die of regret (Massenet’s Manon) or certifiable madness (Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress), opera librettists for many years have pushed the limits of an audience’s ability to “suspend disbelief.” My personal favorite in this implausibility “Hall of Fame” is the suicide in Meyerbeer’s L’Africainewhich I saw recently when TDO’s Music Director, Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, conducted a stunning performance of this beautiful but rarely performed work late last year at La Fenice. In this case, the heroine, Sélika, gives up her true love to another and decides that her life is not worth living. She commits suicide by inhaling the fragrance of the Manchineel tree. While the tree is, in fact, poisonous, standing nearby is probably not life-threatening, although the scene as performed by Veronica Simeoni was very moving. Another personal favorite in the world of weird plot devices is the use of poisoned violets in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. In the final act, the heroine Adriana receives a mysterious gift that includes violets; flowers she believes have been sent by her lover. She kisses the flowers, goes bonkers, momentarily recovers her sanity and, just when you spy a light at the end of the tunnel, expires. Theatrical, yes. Plausible—I don’t think so. On the other hand, near the end of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the mere presence of light seems sufficient to conquer the Queen of the Night and her entire retinue.

Since watching characters die—tragically or not, deserved or not—isn’t particularly uplifting, the dramatic context provides important insights into whether the performance experienced by the audience redeems what might otherwise be an unrelentingly downbeat evening. This point, I think, explains why some great operas have not achieved the success they might. Compare for example Verdi’s La Traviata with his Otello; one is a perennial audience favorite and the other, relatively rarely performed. In La Traviata, the audience has come by the end of the opera to empathize deeply with the heroine, Violetta. We admire her noble sacrifice, and regret her unfortunate and underserved death in poverty. At the conclusion of the opera, this empathy produces a sense of catharsis that creates a rewarding emotional experience; we have suffered along with her, and enjoyed some exquisite singing and music along the way.

Photo: Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera
Renee Fleming and Piotr Beczala in Dvorak's Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera, which will be screened in movie theaters on Feb. 8. Naturally, it ends in death.

By contrast, Verdi’s Otello, which also includes stunningly beautiful music, leaves me with the sensation that all is in vain and that evil inevitably prevails. I believe this negative message, no matter how subliminal, will keep this one of opera’s less popular masterpieces. Even Hamlet (the play) inspires more hope for me at the end than Verdi’s Otello. Intriguingly, Hamlet the opera (by Ambroise Thomas) has been produced over the years with both upbeat and downbeat endings. In 2010, the Metropolitan Opera took the bold and admirable step of programming this work, which had not been presented at the Met for 113 years. In his review, the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini noted that the opera has been presented with both a tragic ending, and a revised new one. To quote Mr. Tommasini:  “But for the Met the creative team made some trims and combined elements of both endings so that the ghost reappears, but Hamlet falls dead atop Ophélie’s corpse. It was an effective compromise. And really, what does it matter?” Here’s the full review.

For Richard Wagner, another master of the tragic ending, death is often a symbol for transformation. Consider just two examples. In Tristan und Isolde, death represents not only the end to physical existence and suffering, but also a chance for the lovers Tristan and Isolde to unite in another world free of pain. In the Ring Cycle, at the end of Götterdämmerung the flames from Brünnhilde’s pyre immolate the home of the Gods, Valhalla, while the Rhine overflows and washes away the old order, thereby preparing for the new.

Returning now to The Dallas Opera, at our season announcement on Jan. 21, 2014, we announced TDO’s return to five operas in the 2014-2015 Season, including a double bill. If we start with the remaining three operas this season, there is a unique opportunity the savor the "arc" or moral trajectory created by these 18th through 21st century works. I’ve picked just three to mention in relation to these life-and-death issues, but these themes carry into some of the others we have programmed, as well.

For TDO’s next opera, we will present Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers in the Winspear Opera House on February 12, 14, 15, and 16. This opera tells the story of billionaire Simon Powers; nearing the end of his natural life, he elects to download his consciousness to a vast and sophisticated computer system. For readers who may think this is far-fetched, there are serious thinkers working today who are convinced that, due to the extraordinary pace of development in computers, this transition will be possible by 2045. Part of the opera involves the interaction of the title character with the family and business associates he left behind. At the end of the opera, he challenges his beloved daughter Miranda to join him “on the other side.” I won’t spoil the climax, but this theme of personal transformation builds heavily for me on Wagner, and Simon’s now-virtual life provides a new take on being and non-being (in the corporeal sense)—thereby adding a third choice to Shakepeare’s famous line at the beginning of Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.”

In March, TDO will present the Texas premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korgngold’s Die tote Stadt, with Jay Hunter Morris as the lead character, Paul. This work is a personal favorite, and, as the Dallas Morning News’ Scott Cantrell has noted, “No opera ever composed has music more gorgeous, more sumptuous, than Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. In this magnificent opera, Paul is obsessed with his late wife, Marie, and he has turned his house into a “temple of memories,” complete with creepy relics. He meets a new woman, Marietta, who looks remarkably like his late wife (echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo). However, this new woman has a vibrancy and sexual energy his emotions cannot handle, and he ultimately strangles her with a braid of his dead wife’s hair. Without giving away the whole story, this apparent murder, too, leads to a positive transformation of his psyche, and his life. By merely believing he has committed murder, Paul has been able to lift himself, finally, from the despair that has consumed him since the death of Marie.

In February 2015, The Dallas Opera will unveil the world premiere of Joby Talbot’s Everest, with a libretto by Gene Scheer (Moby-Dick). The work will be presented as a companion piece to an extended and self-contained excerpt of Catalani’s La Wally, set in the Swiss Alps. Everest is inspired by true events from the disastrous climbing season of 1996, when 8 climbers died in a single blizzard in their pursuit of the summit. (The overall season was the deadliest on record, in which a total of 15 climbers died). The opera will also address the crippling effect of oxygen deprivation on the human brain, and its impact on decisions that determine life and death for the climbers and their colleagues on the mountain. Without revealing all the twists and turns of the new opera, I believe that despite its tragic themes, Everest will inspire, as well as illuminate, and show that people are capable of nobility even in the face of imminent death. This work, too, incorporates the theme of death and transformation, with some part of the characters living on, even after perishing on the mountain.

As I reflect on the operas and libretti that remain popular, season after season, I believe that these two themes of character transformation and the ability to generate audience empathy are paramount in the long-term success of tragic opera (comic operas are judged by quite different standards). Our audiences must identify closely enough with the characters to be drawn even closer to them, no matter how unfortunate their fate. But there’s something more: In opera, death as a theme must incorporate some after—sometimes quite literally when a character is seen going to heaven; more often metaphorically, when characters’ love or feelings for one another live on; or, in the case of Death and Powers, a man’s soul becomes embodied within a computer, perhaps for all eternity. Whether Simon Powers has been “saved” by his actions or trapped in a system with no exit makes this opera—and the underlying question of character transformation—all the more intriguing. 

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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To Be or Not To Be
Or something completely different? In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny muses on a popular opera theme: Death.
by Keith Cerny

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