Overview

Some operas of the past ten years (1998–2008)


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Since this book was originally published in 1998, there has been a spate of new operas, especially, but not exclusively, in the United States. A significant—and puzzling—change has taken place geographically. Throughout the Romantic (1830–1900) and late-Romantic (late 19th to early 20th centuries) periods, Italy and Germany, with composers such as Verdi and Puccini, Wagner and Strauss (to name just the greatest) were the founts from which sprang most of the operas which have survived into the 21st century and which will no doubt continue regularly to be seen and loved by audiences worldwide. But since the death of Puccini, no major popular opera composer has emerged from Italy. As the 20th century drew to an end and the 21st century began, the United States of America and Great Britain have been the source of many new operas of note, with Finland and Germany in the picture to a lesser degree.

An interesting feature of these operas has been that most of them have been based on subjects which would already be familiar to the general public: a book, a play; a film; a news story, for instance. One might say ‘Twas ever this’. A surprising number of these operas have had a large degree of popular success, many of then receiving several new productions in their first year. And there has been no shortage of established first-class international singers who have been willing to learn the new roles in order to take part in these productions.

In this appendix I have selected a dozen works from the long lists available and have concentrated on those operas which have, so far, proved popular and successful judging by the number of new productions they have received and the fact that they have travelled to other countries. To introduce these maybe unfamiliar works, rather than concentrating on the characters I have given far more detailed synopses than the standard repertoire received in the rest of the book. I have included the casts who created the roles at the world premières.

I am very grateful to the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Little Women) and the English baritone Simon Keenlyside (The Tempest) who have been kind enough to find the time in their already overcrowded schedules to write about their experience as creators of one of these roles.

L'amour de loin

(Love from afar) (Kaija Saariaho, b Helsinki, 1952). Comp. 1999–2003; lib. by Amin Maalouf; 5 acts; f.p. Salzburg Festival, 15 August 2000, cond. Kent Nagano; dir. Peter Sellars.

12th cent., Aquitaine, Tripoli, and at sea (the story is based on the life of one of the earliest troubadours, Jaufré, who wrote to a faraway lover in Tripoli): Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye, weary of the pleasures of life, yearns for a different love, but feels that it is unlikely that he will find her. His friends tell him that such a woman does not exist. A Pilgrim, recently arrived from abroad, tells Jaufré that he has met such a woman whereupon Jaufré spends his time thinking only of her. The Pilgrim returns to Tripoli and meets Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, and tells her that a prince-troubadour whom he met in France calls her his ‘love from afar’ and serenades her in his songs. Clémence begins to dream of this distant lover, wondering if she is worthy of his devotion. When he again returns to Blaye, the Pilgrim tells Jaufré that the lady now knows about him and Jaufré decides that he must go to meet her. But Clémence, unwilling to live constantly waiting, prefers their relationship to remain at a distance. Nothing daunted, Jaufré sets out somewhat apprehensively to meet his ‘love from afar’. En route he worries so much about the future and how she will react that he becomes very ill, and by the time his ship arrives in Tripoli, he is dying. When they land, the Pilgrim rushes off to see the countess and tell her that Jaufré has arrived and that he asks to see her, but is close to death. Jaufré is brought to the citadel on a stretcher, and recovers somewhat when he see Clémence. They confess their love for each other and embrace, then Jaufré dies in Clémence's arms. She feels responsible for his death and enters a convent. Her prayers are ambiguous: is she praying to God or to her ‘Love from afar’?

Cast for world première:

Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye, a troubadour Gerald Finley (bar.)

The Pilgrim Dagmar Pecková (mez.)

Clémence, Countess of Tripoli Dawn Upshaw (sop.)

Caligula

(Detlev Glanert, b Hamburg, 1960). Comp. 2004–06; lib. by Hans-Ulrich Treichel, based on a play by Albert Camus; 4 acts; f.p. Frankfurt, 7 October 2006, cond.: Markus Stenz; dir. Christian Pade.

Caligula is a young, good-looking Roman Emperor. The death of his sister Drusilla, who was also his lover, changes his outlook on life, causing a mental and moral collapse. He disappears, returning three days later, depraved and determined to change the order of the entire universe. He is convinced that ‘men die and are not happy’. As the Emperor, he has limitless power: he brings in brutal laws and orders Helicon, his former slave, to bring him the moon. His wife, Caesonia, is appalled by his actions, but still loves him. But the senators, observing Caligula's increasingly obvious madness, are conspiring against him. Caligula surprises them at their secret meeting, rapes the wife of one of them and forces another to drink poison. The only one to defy him is the poet Scipio, who is not frightened by Caligula's threats. At a celebration, Caligula appears as Venus, having decided to marry the moon. He forces all his guests to worship him. Helicon has found evidence of conspiracy by the state procurator Cherea but Caligula destroys the evidence and sets Cherea free. When Helicon is unable to bring him the moon, Caligula senses his impending death. Suddenly Caligula's death is announced, much to the relief of the senators who have resolved to put an end to the tragedy the Emperor is causing. Then the Emperor reappears—the news was a trick. Caesonia attempts to persuade him to change, and in response he demands her death as the ultimate proof of her love. She consents to be strangled by him. This last act is too much for the senators, who overpower and kill the Emperor.

Cast for world première:

Caligula, Caesar Ashley Holland (bar.)

Caesonia, Caligula's wife Michaela Schuster (mez.)

Helicon, Caligula's slave Martin Wölfel (counterten.)

Cherea, State Procurator Andreas Hörl (bass)

Scipio, a young patrician Kristina Wahlin (alto)

Mucius, senator Alexander Fedin (ten.)

Mereia/Lepidus, Roman nobles Anthony Sandle/Werner Sindemann (2 bar.)

Livia, Mucius's wife Katharina Leyhe (sop.)

Four poets Andrés Felipe Orozco Martinez, David Pichimaler, Robert Z. Milla, Avram Sturz (2 ten., 2 bass)

Dead Man Walking

(Jake Heggie, b West Palm Beach, Florida, 1961). Comp. 2000; lib. by Terrence McNally, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ; prologue and 2 acts; f.p. San Francisco, 7 October 2000; cond. Patrick Summers; dir. Joe Mantello.

Louisiana in the 1980s: A teenage boy and girl are in their parked car. The De Rocher brothers attack them. Anthony grabs the boy and then shoots him, Joseph rapes the girl and stabs her. Anthony is sentenced to life in prison, Joseph is given the death penalty.

At the mission, Sister Helen tells her colleagues that she has agreed to be spiritual adviser to a prison inmate. At Angola State Prison the prison warden, Father Grenville, tells her that she has bitten off more than she can chew—the man she has agreed to help is remorseless. Warden Benton conducts her to Death Row to meet the prisoner. De Rocher asks her to speak at the board hearing on his behalf. Sister Helen attends the hearing with De Rocher's mother and two younger brothers and pleads with the pardon board. The parents of De Rocher's victims accuse her of not understanding their anguish. The board refuses a pardon. De Rocher is angry with Helen and rejects her suggestion that he confess and ask forgiveness. As she sits in the waiting-room, she hears the voices of the parents, Father Grenville, Warden Benton, and her colleagues, all telling her to stop trying to help De Rocher. De Rocher's execution date is fixed. Helen has nightmares and Sister Rose begs her to stop working with De Rocher. Helen says she cannot. Together they pray for the strength to forgive De Rocher. The night before his execution, Helen visits him. He admits he is frightened. Again she urges him to confess but again he refuses. Mrs. De Rocher and her two younger sons come to visit Joseph, who attempts to apologize, but his mother stops him, preferring to believe he is innocent. She asks Helen to take a last picture of the four of them together. As Joseph is led away his mother, in tears, thanks Helen for all that she has done. Helen goes to speak with the victims’ parents. The girl's father, Owen Hart, tells her that he and his wife have separated due to the stress they have felt. He is no longer sure what he wants to happen to his daughter's murderer. Helen and De Rocher meet for the last time. When she again asks him to confess, he breaks down and tells her the entire story. She tells him he will find redemption and that she will be with him when he dies. Guards, inmates, the warden, the parents, the chaplain, and protesters assemble outside the prison and sing the Lord's Prayer. As he prepares for death, Joseph asks forgiveness from the parents of the murdered teenagers. He dies looking at Helen and thanking her for her love.

Cast at world première:

Sister Helen Prejean Susan Graham (mez.)

Joseph De Rocher, the murderer John Packard (bar.)

Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, his mother Frederica von Stade (mez.)

Sister Rose Theresa Hamm-Smith (sop.)

Boy } the murdered Sean San Jose

Girl } teenagers Dawn Walters

Howard Boucher, the boy's father Gary Rideout (ten.)

Jade Boucher, the boy's mother Catherine Cook (mez.)

Owen Hart, the girl's father Robert Orth (bar.)

Kitty Hart, the girl's mother Nicolle Foland (sop.)

Father Grenville Jay Hunter Morris (ten.)

Warder George Benton John Ames (bass)

A Motor Cop/First Prison Guard David Okerlund (bar.)

Doctor Atomic

(John Adams, b Worcester, Mass., 1947). Comp. 2004–05; lib. by Peter Sellars adapted from original sources; 2 acts; f.p. San Francisco, 1 October 2005; cond. Donald Runnicles; dir. Peter Sellars.

New Mexico, 1945: Germany has surrendered, but the war against Japan continues. Some of the brightest minds in science are working with Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer to develop the atom bomb, but many of them are wondering if it is morally right to use it on the Japanese. General Leslie Groves is the Army commander of the atom bomb project. Edward Teller finds it difficult to work with other scientists, but he dreams of the success of this weapon. Teller has had a letter from a Hungarian scientist, Leo Szilard, urging them all to sign a letter to the US President Truman taking a moral stand, but Oppenheimer tells them to keep out of politics. A young idealist, Robert Wilson, organizes a meeting to discuss these moral and social implications. He wants them all to sign a petition, asking that the Japanese be warned and given the opportunity to surrender. But Oppenheimer returns from Washington, the decision having been made to go ahead with the bombing of Japanese cities. Wilson is furious. In their home, Oppenheimer and his alcoholic wife Kitty discuss the problems of war and love. There is much pressure on Oppenheimer and Groves to have a successful test of the atom bomb, so Russia will know the Americans have the bomb. On the night of the test there is a freak storm and the meteorologist, Frank Hubbard, warns Groves of the dangers of attempting the test in these conditions. He is supported by the medical officer, Captain James Nolan, who warns of the dangers of radiation poisoning in the event of an accident. On the night of 15 July 1945, Kitty Oppenheimer and her maid Pasqualita are at home with the children. Kitty contemplates the effects of war and death and resurrection. They watch the rain over the distant mountains. The next night, at the ‘Trinity’ test site, the bomb is mounted on its detonating tower and all personnel are cleared from the site. Wilson is at the top of the tower attaching an instrument and Hubbard is at the bottom measuring wind velocity. He is anxious that the wind could scatter lethal radioactive material for miles around. Groves, Oppenheimer and the other scientists are in the observation bunker, worrying about where this could all end. One of the scientists, Enrico Fermi, has been taking bets about the outcome. Groves ignores all this and the weather reports and orders the test launch for 5.30 a.m. The countdown begins, each of them having their own thoughts: in the house, Kitty waits with the drunken Pasqualita who has visions of the dead on the march; Oppenheimer, nervous and exhausted, tries to read poetry but has visions of total destruction and becomes so agitated that Groves fears he will have a complete nervous breakdown. Suddenly, as the time for the explosion approaches, the sky clears, warning rockets are fired and a siren sounds. All are still and silent in their bunkers as the countdown proceeds. Zero minus one. The bomb goes off.

Cast for world première:

Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist Gerald Finley (bar.)

Kitty Oppenheimer, his alcoholic wife Kristine Jepson (mez.)

Pasqualita, her Pueblo maid Beth Clayton (cont.)

Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the project Eric Owens (bass)

Edward Teller, a quantum physicist Richard Paul Fink (bass)

Robert Wilson, physicist Thomas Glenn (ten.)

Frank Hubbard, meteorologist James Maddalena (bar.)

Capt. James Nolan, medical doctor Jay Hunter Morris (ten.)

End of the Affair

(Jake Heggie, b West Palm Beach, Florida, 1961). Comp. 2004; lib. by Heather McDonald based on the novel by Graham Greene (which was itself based on an episode in his own life); 2 acts; f.p. Houston, 4 March 2004; cond. Patrick Summers; dir. Leonard Foglia.

London during and just after World War II: Sarah Miles, wife of Henry, an important civil servant, and the writer Maurice Bendrix have fallen in love, but he realizes that the affair will end as quickly as it began. He is jealous and frustrated by her refusal to divorce Henry. A bomb blasts Bendrix's flat while he is with Sarah and he nearly dies. She prays that God will save her lover and in return she vows to mend her ways and become a believer. She breaks off the affair with no explanation to Bendrix. Two years later Bendrix is still jealous of Henry, who tells him he suspects Sarah of having a lover. Bendrix engages Parkis, a private detective, to try to discover who this new lover is. It becomes clear that her only secret is her devotion to the Catholic faith and even Parkis has to admire her single-mindedness. Another admirer is the rationalist minister Richard Smythe, who tries to convince Sarah that the God she believes in is a figure of her own making. Bendrix eventually realizes that Sarah made a pact with God when she thought he was dead after the bomb hit his flat. Sarah struggles with her Catholicism, her beliefs slowly increasing. Quite suddenly she develops pneumonia and dies, which totally destroys Bendrix's faith. But he in his turn slowly comes to believe in a God, though not to love him.

Cast at world première:

Sarah Miles Cheryl Barker (sop.)

Henry Miles, her husband Peter Coleman-Wright (bar.)

Maurice Bendrix, her lover Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bar.)

Mr. Parkis, a private detective Robert Orth (bar.)

Richard Smythe, a rationalist Joseph Evans (ten.)

Mrs. Bertram, Sarah's mother Katherine Ciesinski (mez.)

Lancelot, young son Speaking role

Flight

(Jonathan Dove, b London, 1959). Comp. 1998; lib. by April de Angelis, based on a real character at a French airport; 3 acts; f.p. Glyndebourne, 24 September 1998; cond. David Parry; dir. Richard Jones.

24 hours in an airport departure lounge. The Controller watches from her tower. The Refugee has no documents, and cannot enter the country legally, so he is unable to leave the airport. The Immigration Officer is looking for the Refugee in order to arrest him. People start to arrive for their flights and get into conversation with each other. The Stewardess and Steward serve the customers, at the same time having a romantic relationship. Bill and Tina are going on holiday to try to rekindle the romance in their rather dull marriage. The Older Woman is on her way to meet a younger man she met on holiday and to whom she is engaged. The highly pregnant Minskwoman and her diplomat husband are emigrating. Their flight is ready, but at the last minute she is afraid to fly, and Minskman leaves without her. She is distressed to be left stranded. The Refugee offers her his magic stone and tries to console her. The Controller makes various announcements which alert the Refugee to the presence of the Immigration Officer, from whom he must hide. The Controller now announces that because of stormy weather, all flights are delayed indefinitely. The passengers attempt to get some sleep. The Refugee talks to them all, giving each of them his supposed magic stone which will cure all ills, and they all make wishes on it. He and the women all drink too much and as they talk they realize that he has fooled them all and they set upon him, knock him unconscious and hide him in a trunk. Bill tries to flirt with the Stewardess, but then goes off with the Steward to look round the control tower. The Controller has left the tower and gone for a walk outside the airport. As dawn breaks the storm clears and a plane lands. It brings back Minskman, who finds himself unable to go without his wife. Tina is angry when she learns of Bill's flirtation. She hits him so much that he loses his memory and greets her as if they have just met. Minskwoman suddenly goes into labour and her baby is born. At the same time, the Refugee awakes from the trunk. The Immigration Officer at last catches up with him. The other characters try, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Officer to ‘review the situation’. After The Refugee explains why he has no documentation, the Immigration Officer decides to ‘turn a blind eye’ and not to arrest him, but he cannot leave the terminal. Having done all they can for him, Minskman and Minskwoman, with their new baby, fly to his new mission. Bill and Tina decide to start afresh and, with the Older Woman, continue to their various departure gates. Only the Refugee and the Flight Controller remain in the terminal.

Cast for world première:

The Flight Controller Claron McFadden (sop.)

The Refugee Christopher Robinson (counterten.)

Bill, a passenger Richard Coxon (ten.)

Tina, his wife Mary Plazas (sop.)

Older Woman Nuala Willis (mez.)

Stewardess Ann Taylor (mez.)

Steward Garry Magee (bar.)

Minskman Steven Page (bass-bar.)

Minskwoman Anne Mason (mez.)

Immigration Officer Richard Van Allan (bass-bar.)

The Great Gatsby

(John Harbison, b Orange, NJ, 1938). Comp. 1999; lib. by composer, after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald; song lyrics by Murray Horwitz; 2 acts; f.p. Metropolitan Opera, NY, 20 December 1999; cond. James Levine; dir. Mark Lamos.

America, the 1920s: On a visit to Daisy and Tom Buchanan, Nick Carraway meets Jordan Baker. Daisy tells Nick she misses the ‘old warm world’ of her youth. Tom takes Nick to Wilson's garage to meet George's wife Myrtle. When she talks about Daisy, Tom hits her. At a party given by Jay Gatsby, Gatsby asks Nick to arrange for him to see Daisy. Gatsby later recalls their former love, and swears he will win her back. When they do meet again, there is tension at first, but they quickly relax. Meantime, Nick and Jordan flirt. Gatsby tries to convince Daisy that they can be together again. Tom finds them and invites Gatsby to his house. Daisy and Gatsby leave to go to the Plaza Hotel, much to Tom's annoyance. He later tells Daisy she must make a choice. With great anguish, she decides to stay with Tom who contemptuously suggests that Daisy and Gatsby return together to Long Island. Myrtle Wilson, thinking she has seen Tom outside the house, rushes out to greet him. There is a loud crash: Tom, Nick, and Jordan enter, announcing that Myrtle has been killed. Tom identifies the crashed car as Gatsby's, and Wilson is set on revenge for his wife's death. Gatsby tells Nick that it was Daisy who was driving. But Wilson shoots Gatsby. None of Gatsby's former friends bother to come to his funeral, only Nick and his father.

Cast for world première:

Nick Carraway, a stockbroker Dwayne Croft (bar.)

Daisy Buchanan, Nick's distant cousin Dawn Upshaw (sop.)

Tom Buchanan, her husband Mark Baker (ten.)

Jay Gatsby, Nick's neighbour Jerry Hadley (ten.)

Jordan Baker, a golfer, Daisy's friend Susan Graham (mez.)

George Wilson, garage owner Richard Paul Fink (bass)

Myrtle Wilson, his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mez.)

Radio Singer/ Vocalist Matthew Polenzani (ten.)

Tango Singer Jennifer Dudley (mez.)

Meyer Wolfshiem, Gatsby's business partner William Powers (bass-bar.)

Henry Gatz, Jay Gatsby's father Frederick Burchinal (bar.)

Minister LeRoy Lehr (bass-bar.)

Little Women

(Mark Adamo, b Philadelphia, 1962). Comp. 1998; lib. by composer after Louis M. Alcott's novel; 2 acts; f.p. Houston, 13 March 1998; cond. Patrick Summers; dir. Peter Webster.

Set after the American Civil War: In the attic of her childhood home in Concord, Mass., a visit from Laurie, married to her sister Amy, sets Jo on a dreamlike journey through the past.

In that same attic, years earlier, the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) and their friend Laurie are playing. Laurie tells Jo that his tutor, John Brooke, is in love with Meg. Jo cannot believe that Meg would leave home, but when she sees them together in the garden she is upset at their obvious affection for each other. Jo and their wealthy Aunt Cecilia try to dissuade Meg from this marriage, convinced she can do better for herself, but Meg plans to wed the man she loves. The family gathers for the wedding and Meg's parents teach the bride and groom the vows they took at their own wedding. Moved by hearing this, Laurie asks Jo to marry him, but she cannot accept that he loves her and heartbroken he rushes off. Amy follows to console him. Beth collapses in a faint. Jo flees to New York to escape from Laurie and pursue her writing career. She learns in letters from her family that Amy has gone to England where Laurie is studying at Oxford, Beth is very ill, and Meg has twins. In New York Jo has met a German-born professor, Friedrich Bhaer, who takes her to the opera. When they return to her apartment a telegram from home tells Jo that Beth is seriously ill. Jo rushes to the dying Beth's bedside. She later learns from Aunt Cecilia that Amy has married Laurie. Jo is devastated, but Cecilia, believing that wealth will make up for disappointment, makes Jo her heir. Jo retreats to her favourite spot in the attic. The opera ends with Jo back in the attic where she began. She reassures Laurie that they can still be friends, as brother and sister. Left alone remembering the old days, she is brought back to the present by the arrival of an unexpected—but welcome—visitor: Friedrich Bhaer has come to call. See also article by Joyce DiDonato, p. xx

Cast for world première:

Jo } The Stephanie Novacek (mez.)

Amy } four Margaret Lloyd (sop.)

Beth } March Stacey Tappan (sop.)

Meg } sisters Joyce DiDonato (mez.)

Alma March, their mother Gwendolyn Jones (mez.)

Gideon March, her husband James Maddalena (bar.)

Laurie, Amy's husband-to-be Chad Shelton (ten.)

John Brooke, in love with Meg Daniel Belcher (bar.)

Cecilia March, an aunt Katherine Ciesinski (mez.)

Friedrich Bhaer, friend of Jo Chen-Ye Yuan (bar.)

MEG(Little Women—Mark Adamo) by Joyce DiDonato

As the sixth of seven children (the youngest of the five ‘Flaherty Girls’), my childhood was replete with quarrels, drama, tears that crushed my heart, and laughter that should have caused permanent lung damage due to its raw, unleashed power! When the Houston Opera Studio announced that we would be premièring Mark Adamo's new opera based on Louisa M. Alcott's novel Little Women, I immediately knew that I had the part—after all, I was the theatrical one in the family, I knew the struggle of the family dynamic and the challenge of letting go, and I had walked with my four sisters through thick and thin. There was no question: I was Jo!

The casting call came. In fact, I was not Jo. I was Meg. ‘Oh, great,’ I thought: ‘the older sister, the pretty one, the practical one—NOT the feisty, spirited, rambunctious one—not the passionate rebel. No: the good girl.’ I could not hide my disappointment in feeling I had lost the role I was born to play, and that my moment to shine in the last season of my training period in Houston was lost. As music trickled in, I looked at her music thinking, ‘I know how I would play this if I were Jo—what a great character she is!’ And I went about the business of dutifully learning Meg's notes, feeling sorry for myself that I wasn't singing the ‘other’ part.

Then a funny thing began to happen on our journey towards opening night: this group of young artists who had lived through so much together during the years in the Studio, began to grow closer than ever before. Tears began to flow in rehearsal as emotions were laid bare, hairs began to stand up on end as chords were hit perfectly in tune, and we began to enter into this story with all of our efforts. Additional music would trickle in, and it was trying, to say the least—each of us was stretched to our limits and challenged in ways as never before.

As the opening approached, we were struggling still with some of the musical elements (‘will the orchestra be finished in time?’); aspects of the staging weren't yet gelling in a convincing way; and tempers began to escalate as the nerves grew more restless. (Late night card sessions seemed to be the remedy of choice for us!) But at the same time, and to my surprise, I was beginning to fall in love with my character—the one that was not for me, this ‘Meg’. I began to see her as a young woman of immense strength and wisdom, and of real courage for insisting on following her heart. The scene when Meg stands up to her Aunt March's rigid plan for her life, and actually claims ownership of her future, saying she will marry John regardless of what anyone thinks because she loves him, began to take root in me and, before I knew it, I knew that this, in fact, was my role.

We were all apprehensive as the curtain rose on our World Première evening—for we still didn't feel 100% secure in the music, or in the vocal challenges asked of us and, perhaps worst of all, we had no idea how the audience would receive our efforts. Premièring a work with no performance history, not to mention no guarantee of success à la La bohème, is a truly daunting thing. We all clasped hands and jumped off the proverbial cliff together (secretly thinking that if it was a huge disaster, we'd still meet up for cards afterwards!)

Lights out. (Anxiety) Applause. (Anxiety) Singing. (Anxiety!) And then… laughter. It was spontaneous, sincere laughter, carried generously over the footlights to us on the stage. And then it came again. They were listening! They were laughing! They were GETTING IT! A silent energy began to pass between us all that told us something special was happening—somehow we knew that magic was present. That mystical energy that lifts a performance to the next level can never be planned, can never be rehearsed or forced—it simply arrives unannounced, and sweeps you off your feet. We were swept away that night.

Halfway through Act 1, I stood looking into the tear-filled eyes of Jo (the sublime Stephanie Novacek) and told her, ‘Things change, Jo’, and in that moment, time stood still. Mark Adamo's stroke of genius in this score was underlining the element of change and the sense of loss that people fear and vainly resist—a perfectly universal trepidation that freezes men and women, young and old. I heard the tears of the audience as they let the impact of those simple words, spun out on the soaring vocal line, touch their heart. It was one of the most powerful moments I've ever had on the stage.

We kept telling our story through the characters’ painful realizations of how life marches on: through Beth's hauntingly beautiful death aria, ‘Have peace, Jo’, to the final quartet of melting harmonies fusing both the unity and separation of the four sisters. We singers were four sisters in that moment, but ‘one heart’, and the audience earnestly took the journey with us every step of the way, letting us bring this new American opera, of the classic American novel, to life. It was indeed a great moment.

The Silver Tassie

(Mark-Anthony Turnage, b Greys, Essex, 1960). Comp.1997–9; lib. by Amanda Holden, based on the play by Sean O’Casey; 4 acts; London, 16 February 2000; cond. Paul Daniel, dir. Bill Bryden.

During World War I, ‘somewhere in Britain’: In the Heegan home, Harry's parents are waiting for him to come and collect his kit before returning to the war front. His father recalls his prowess at sport, his mother is waiting outside, Susie is waiting with them. From upstairs comes the noise of Mrs Foran being beaten up by her husband. She takes refuge with the Heegans and her angry husband follows her and they quarrel. Harry arrives home with his friend Barney and Barney's girlfriend Jessie, who used to go out with Harry. Harry has scored the winning goal and brings home the trophy—the Silver Tassie. Harry, Barney and Teddy leave to return to war.

In the trenches The Croucher prophesies doom. A staff officer complains about the doctors as stretcher-bearers carry the wounded to the Red Cross treatment station. A Corporal passes round parcels, including a football. The soldiers start to play a game, but the enemy is advancing and the officer sends them back to battle.

Harry has been wounded. He is back in Britain in hospital, paralysed from the waist downwards. His neighbour Susie is a nurse. His parents come to visit him, accompanied by Mrs Foran and Teddy, who has lost his sight. For saving Harry's life, Barney was awarded the V.C. He and Jessie come to the hospital, but she refuses to come inside to visit Harry. Released from hospital, Harry, in his wheelchair, is at a football club dance. He follows Barney and Jessie around the room, deliberately annoying them. Susie dances with Dr Maxwell, who attends to Harry when he faints. When he recovers, he asks for a drink in the Silver Tassie. Susie encourages him to sing and play his ukelele. He then wheels himself out to where Barney and Jessie are making love. He and Barney quarrel and Harry is thrown from his wheelchair and they fight on the floor. The fight is broken up by Dr Maxwell and he and Susie lift Harry back into his wheelchair. In sheer frustration, Harry throws the Tassie to the ground and leaves with his parents and the blind Teddy.

Cast at world première:

Harry Heegan Gerald Finley (bar.)

Sylvester, his father John Graham-Hall (ten.)

Mrs Heegan, Harry's mother Anne Howells (mez.)

Susie, the girl downstairs Sarah Connolly (mez.)

Mrs Foran, neighbour Vivian Tierney (sop.)

Teddy Foran, her husband David Kempster (bar.)

Barney, Harry's best friend Leslie John Flanagan (bass-bar.)

Jessie, Harry's girlfriend Mary Hegarty (sop.)

Dr Maxwell Mark Le Brocq (ten.)

The Croucher Gwynne Howell (bass)

Staff Officer Bardley Daley (ten.)

Corporal Jozik Koc (bar.)

Sophie's Choice

(Nicholas Maw, b Grantham, 1935; d Takoma Park, Maryland, 2009). Comp. 2000–02; lib. by Maw, based on the 1979 novel by William Styron; 4 acts; f.p. London, 7 December 2002; cond. Simon Rattle; dir Trevor Nunn.

Set in 1947 in America, and in flashbacks to Poland (1938) and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (1943): In a boarding house, Sophie and Nathan are quarrelling, disturbing Stingo who is writing a novel in the room below. After Nathan storms out, Sophie tells Stingo how she and Nathan first met in a library, where she had fainted and he had cared for her. She told Nathan (a biologist) how she was an immigrant from Poland, where she had been married. Stingo notices a number tattooed on her forearm - she was a prisoner in Auschwitz. Nathan and Stingo become friends. Nathan thinks his Jewish background has influenced his hopes for the future. Sophie tells Stingo how horrified she was when she discovered her father was anti-Semitic and that her husband shared her father's views. They were both shot by the Germans when they invaded Poland.

Back in 1943 Poland, Sophie's friend Wanda tries to persuade her to help the resistance, but she is frightened that if she is caught, her own two young children will suffer. The two friends are arrested and meet on the train to Auschwitz. Wanda tells Sophie to save her children by entering them into the Lebensborn programme and having them raised as young Nazis by new parents. Sophie's 8-year-old daughter Eva dies very soon after arrival at the camp. Sophie acts as secretary to the camp Commandant Höss, who tries to attack her sexually, but is interrupted by the Doctor. Höss is being transferred, and Sophie asks him to save her 10-year-old son by putting him in the Lebensborn programme. He promises to do so.

In Brooklyn, Sophie tells Stingo she never saw her son again. Nathan arrives and accuses Sophie of being a whore. He becomes violent and demands to know how she saved herself in the camps when so many millions perished. Nathan then disappears. His brother Larry tells Stingo that Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic and his background story is all fabrication. The landlady at their boarding house, Yetta Zimmerman, has heard from Nathan, who is convinced Stingo and Sophie are having an affair is set on revenge. Frightened, they leave the house and go to Washington. Stingo wants to marry her and Sophie now tells him the truth about what happened in Auschwitz when she first arrived: she tried to protect both her children, but was forced to choose which one should live and which should die, otherwise they would both be killed. She chose her son to live and her daughter was killed. Stingo loves her, but when he awakens the next morning, she has left and gone to find Nathan. The following day Stingo returns to their boarding house in Brooklyn. Nathan and Sophie have taken cyanide and been found dead together.

Cast for world première:

Narrator Dale Duesing (bar.)

Stingo, a writer Gordon Gietz (ten.)

Sophie, ex-Auschwitz prisoner Angelika Kirchschlager (mez.)

Nathan, her boyfriend Rodney Gilfry (bar.)

Yetta Zimmerman, their landlady Frances McCafferty (mez.)

Librarian Adrian Clarke (bar.)

Zbigniew Bieganski, Sophie's father Stafford Dean (bass)

Wanda, Sophie's friend Stephanie Friede (sop.)

Eva } Sophie's Abigail Browne

Jan } children Billy Clerkin

Old Woman on train Gillian Knight (mez.)

Young man on train Neil Gillespie (bar.)

Rudolph Franz Höss, Camp Commander Jorma Silvasti (ten.)

Doctor Alan Opie (bar.)

Bartender Darren Jeffrey (bass-bar.)

Larry Landau Quentin Hayes (bar.)

A Streetcar Named Desire

(André Previn, b Berlin, 1929). Comp.1998; lib. by Philip Littell, based on the play by Tennessee Williams; 3 acts; f.p. San Francisco, 19 September 1998; cond. André Previn; dir. Colin Graham.

New Orleans, after World War II: Blanche Dubois, a teacher, arrives unexpectedly to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski in their grubby apartment. Blanche is shown in by the upstairs neighbour Eunice. When Stella arrives home, Blanche explains that she has been advised to take time off work for her ‘nerves’. She tells Stella that debts have caused her to lose the family home in Laurel, Mississippi, news which upsets Stella. Stanley comes home. bringing his friends—Eunice's husband Steve, and Mitch. There is an immediate attraction between Blanche and Stanley. But Stanley accuses Blanche of cheating him and Stella out of their share of the money from the family home. He ignores her efforts to flirt with him and tells her Stella is pregnant. Blanche expresses her congratulations and the sisters go out together. The men play poker. The sisters return and Blanche now shows an interest in Mitch. She puts on the radio and starts dancing to the music. Stanley, who is drunk, tries to throw the radio out of the window and when Stella intervenes he hits her. The men drag him away, the sisters go upstairs and the other men leave. Stanley calls for Stella and they go to their bedroom.

Some weeks later, Mitch talks about marrying Blanche, who tells how she married when she was 16 and was disgusted when she discovered her husband was a homosexual. He shot himself. A few months later, Stella prepares a party for Blanche's birthday. Stanley has discovered that Blanche was sacked from her teaching job because of her relationship with a 17-year-old pupil. As a ‘birthday present’, Stanley gives Blanche a ticket back to Laurel. Mitch arrives later that evening, angry with Blanche for deceiving him. She admits she does try to make life look more magical—to make it as she thinks it should be. She confesses her promiscuity and he rejects her. After he leaves, Blanche drinks heavily. Stanley returns from the hospital to find her disorientated and takes her to bed. A few days later, the men are playing cards, and Stella is home with the baby. Blanche has told Stella what happened between her and Stanley. By now Blanche is totally unbalanced and is to be taken to a sanatorium. Stanley tries to comfort Stella and Mitch is upset. Blanche leaves the room with the doctor.

Cast at world première

Blanche Dubois, a teacher Renée Fleming (sop.)

Stella Kowaslski, her sister Elizabeth Futral (sop.)

Stanley Kowalski, Stella's husband Rodney Gilfry (bar.)

Harold Mitchell (Mitch), Stanlery's friend Anthony Dean Griffey (ten.)

Eunice Hubbell, a neighbour Judith Forst (mez.)

Steve Hubbell, her husband Matthew Lord (ten.)

Pablo Gonzales Luis Oropeza (silent)

A Young Collector: Jeffrey Lenz (ten.)

Mexican Woman Josepha Gayer (mez.)

Doctor Ray Reinhardt (spoken)

Nurse Lynne Soffer (spoken)

The Tempest

(Thomas Adès, b London, 1971). Comp 2003–04, rev. 2006; lib. by Meredith Oakes after the Shakespeare play; 3 acts; f.p. London, 10 February 2004; cond Thomas Adès; dir Tom Cairns.

Miranda is upset that her father Prospero has used magic to whip up a storm which wrecks a ship carrying the Naples Court. Prospero explains that years earlier he was usurped as Duke of Naples by his brother Antonio, helped by the King of Naples (Alonso). Prospero and Miranda were put to sea in a boat. They landed on a small island and survived only because the King's counsellor, the kindly Gonzalo, sent them food and clothing. Prospero sends his daughter to sleep. Caliban, the island's rightful ruler, is being kept from his heritage by Prospero. Caliban lusts after Miranda. Prospero banishes him to his cave. He sends for his spirit Ariel, and orders him to revive the ship's passengers and bring them to the island and bring to him the King's son Ferdinand—he wants to make the King suffer, assuming his son to be drowned. When Miranda awakes, she and Ferdinand fall in love. Prospero is angry with Ferdinand, thinking him unworthy of Miranda. He summons Ariel to help him take revenge on the Naples Court. The King is distressed at the supposed death of his son and Gonzalo tries to console him. Ariel adopts the voice of the King's brother Sebastian and insults the King, starting a furious argument. Ariel's voice is heard, and the courtiers are frightened, thinking there are ghosts on the island. Caliban calms them by describing the good spirits of the island who make him feel he's in paradise. Gonzalo asks everyone to search the island to find Ferdinand. Caliban asks Stefano and Trinculo to help him regain the island for himself. Ferdinand and Miranda again express their love for each other. This breaks Prospero's spell on them.

Stefano and Trinculo approach Prospero, and Caliban can see freedom ahead. The King and his entourage have no food and think they will die. The King disinherits Sebastian and names Gonzalo his heir. Ariel's music lulls everyone to sleep except Antonio and Sebastian, who plot to murder the King and Gonzalo and seize power. Ariel first causes a feast to appear, which they all think is manna from heaven, and then causes the feast to vanish, leaving them miserable. Frightened they will starve to death, the courtiers flee to another part of the island. Prospero is beginning to realize what chaos his magic has caused. He summons Ariel to bless the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, who now discovers that his father is still alive. Ariel feels sorry for the King and Antonio, who are demented with fear. Moved by Ariel's feelings of pity, Prospero decides to be merciful and release him from his service. The King and his courtiers enter, and Alonso is astonished to see Prospero, who he thought he had killed. He asks forgiveness. Prospero shows him Ferdinand and Miranda, and Alonso is overjoyed that his son is alive and that Naples and Milan are united. The courtiers are delighted to find their prince alive and their ship repaired. Prospero breaks his staff, determined to give up all his magic powers. He pleads with Ariel to stay with him, but the spirit flies away to freedom. They all leave and Caliban is at last alone on his island.

See also article by Simon Keenlyside on p. xx.

Cast at world première:

Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan Simon Keenlyside (bar.)

Miranda, his daughter Christine Rice (mez.)

Antonio, Prospero's brother John Daszak (ten.)

Caliban, a deformed and savage slave Ian Bostridge (ten.)

Ariel, Prospero's airy Spirit Cyndia Sieden (sop.)

Alonso, King of Naples Philip Langridge (ten.)

Ferdinand, his son Toby Spence (ten.)

Sebastian, Alonso's brother Christopher Maltman (bar.)

Trinculo, a jester Lawrence Zazzo (counterten.)

Stefano, a drunken butler Stephen Richardson (bass)

Gonzalo, an old and honest counsellor Gwynne Howell (bass)

PROSPERO(The Tempest—Thomas Adès)by Simon Keenlyside

Whatever else music theatre is, it occupies the space between the overtly descriptive and literal, and an emotional imaging, an energy, arising from dissonant situations in which people find themselves. What makes music so perfect, is that it so closely resembles life itself: all shadows, no explicit answers, an unreliable plan, a flawed strategy, a dance, a riot.

Tom Adès's The Tempest falls within a musical tradition whose roots are bound up in the source material of Shakespeare's plays. To my mind The Tempest is wonderfully suited to musical treatment. The play is one long gorgeous exploration of the mind, its feet rarely touching the ground of realism. The endlessly twisting and turning phrases of its metaphor are channelled through a simple story.

It is clear that Tom Adès and his librettist Meredith Oakes chose to do something similar to that which Mozart and Schikaneder had done in The Magic Flute, namely to use a relatively plain text as adjunct to the music. Like signposts on a road, these quite simple texts lead us closer to the truth of the matter, where the more complex emotional discussion of the music lies. (Here I hide behind the skirts of Goethe and Beethoven, who both thought much the same thing of The Magic Flute.)

Perhaps there is a difference between how Adès's Tempest relates to Shakespeare as compared to 19th century composers who used his plays. Verdi and his librettist Boito were both champions of Shakespeare (and used great tranches of original text in Falstaff and Otello). The character of Falstaff is, of course, a synthesis of Henry IV parts 1 and 2. Nevertheless the drama, tragedy, comedy, and pathos, is all literal and in real time. I feel that in both Falstaff and Otello there isn't a great deal of character delineation in the orchestral ‘discussion’ apart from that which supports what is being said on stage by the protagonists.

Tom Adès's music is different. Prospero is more akin to Alban Berg's Wozzeck, in that the character delineations are much more sketchy in the libretto. There isn't the same degree of detail in the verbal depiction as there is with Verdi. Perhaps this is because we are in the 20th/21st centuries, post-Freud and Jung, an age of self-analysis if not introspection and that, as a result of this, orchestral commentary upon the psychological state of the characters is greater than ever it was in 19th century opera. How fascinating it would be if we could compare a performances of Hamlet in the 1830s by the most famous Shakespearean actor of his day, Edmund Kean, with one of his modern counterparts. Would the wonderful introspective investigations by modern actors such as Simon Russell-Beale be anything like the same? Similarly, it is interesting to consider the opera Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, composed in 1868 (not so very far from being contemporary with Kean). Full of melodrama and oratory as it is, nevertheless when I sing it I don't sense, either in the character or the orchestral insinuations underneath, the introspection that I expected to find as a result of my exposure to the play. To me, it is altogether a more declaimed and descriptive piece—or it just may be, as with the great works by Verdi, that the 19th century was a different age, where psychological nuance in the orchestra had yet to develop.

Is Prospero a cruel man? I don't find him so. I don't think I'm being perverse to say that he is not a real man at all. The Four Temperaments, the elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, historically suggest the disparate components fighting to control the make-up of one man. To me, Prospero represents all the elements in one man: undeconstructed, and the cloth unteased-out.

Some of the other characters in TheTempest are more obviously representative of one or other element: Ariel—the Air, an untrammelled mind, free to roam to the ends of the Universe and back; Caliban—the Earth, our baser instincts. Prospero himself is like a cracked mirror, looking ever inward, the edges of each shard a different chapter in his life: the Island, Naples, his daughter, brother, Ariel, Caliban, his books etc. —metaphors intended for us all. Prospero is Everyman, if only we have the patience and the wit to notice.

Is Tom Adès's music grateful to sing? It is certainly possible, and serves the drama wonderfully well. The nature of the vocal writing reflects something of the personality of the characters in The Tempest. This is most obviously the case with the astonishing music written for Ariel: so arrestingly high and energetic as to be an exquisite miniature painting of the small airborne spirit.

The music for Prospero follows more or less his changing state of mind. In the first half of the opera it is tricky—great angular swipes on the page, awkward leaps in the vocal line, as befits a bitter man (Prospero!) furiously casting around disjointedly, recalling the injustices done to him, railing over his banishment, the usurping of his power, and the loss of his books. In the second half of the opera, Prospero's music becomes progressively more lyrical and easier to sing. Circumstance, fate, his promise to release Ariel, and his daughter's love for another man overwhelm him, ultimately forcing him to break his magic staff and relinquish control on the Island. The music here becomes tender and yearning, uncertain and yet determined, the vocal line simple and hesitant.

Vocally, the arc of the role of Prospero begins with a single word, a dot as it were. One consciousness: one man and his sleeping daughter. The music strains ever upwards, hefting each note labouriously to a great unstable mass of sound and complexity. Time passes and, little by little, the music returns slowly, hesitantly, to that solitary point again—the self, the Ego.

Is he happy at the end? What on earth does that mean? Only an imbecile smiling at the sky is happy all the time. Can Prospero the father be said to be happy as he watches his only child leave his protection and his sphere of influence for ever? There ought to be ten times as many words for happiness as the Eskimos allegedly have for Snow. No! Acceptance is Prospero's lot at the end of the story. Just as it ought to be at the end of every human life. That was always the deal. Perhaps Shakespeare himself, loosening his miraculous grip on his own wand—the pen—is in this, his last play, alluding to his own mortality?

From A Dictionary of Opera Characters in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Opera.



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