OperaShots: Contemporary opera - a conflict free zone?
Warwick Thompson writes on the state of contemporary opera:
‘Drama is conflict.’
I’ll start by screeching that battle cry at the portals of contemporary opera, because it seems to me that plenty of composers and librettists forget it. Or if they don’t, they choose to ignore it without really considering why.
A needs something; B needs it too. Whatever it is – love, wealth, a new frock – they can’t both have it. Now doesn’t that already sound like a situation which could provide the necessary va-va-voom for a lyric drama, whether tragic or comic? Doesn’t it feel – as long as we believe in the depth of the need – like something which will prompt characters to the mad outpouring of sung emotion which is opera?
So why do we see so little new opera based on powerful conflicts? My guess is that we have a baby-bathwater situation. We know – and shame on us all for allowing it to happen – that there’s a fixed repertoire of 150 or so operas which constitute the canon. Might not musicians feel that canon to be a cold dead hand flopping with flaccid discouragement over the compositional enterprise? Naturally, they need to push away the oppressive limb. Old forms are ditched – trio, away! melody, begone! characterisation, hence!- but they find out too late which were the essentials. And for me, dramatic conflict ranks as an essential.
Harrison Birtwistle’s recent hit ‘The Minotaur’ pulsed with it. Ariadne is desperate to leave Crete. Theseus is her only hope, but he’s suspicious of her. Their power battle motors the piece; their need to pour out their emotions through song feels inevitable. Double Tick, Gold Star.
Nicholas Maw’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ had almost none, principally because there was almost always a narrator on stage. If Maw had deliberately wanted to turn the dramatic thermostat to zero, he couldn’t have chosen a better way. See Me After Class and Write Out ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ a Hundred Times.
The director Richard Jones recently used the phrase ‘The Cameron Mackintosh School of Show’ as a shorthand way of describing a certain set of old-fashioned, tried-and-tested theatrical mechanics – a proper development of conflict being among them. He was being ironic, of course, but only partly so. His best work shows that he understands their value very well from a production point of view. But the trick is to know them so well, that you also know what to replace them with if you choose to go down the away! begone! avaunt! route.
And there lies the rub. Composers throughout the nineteenth century had opportunities to experiment. Technique could be learned. Craft perfected. Mistakes made. They could ditch a baby and bathwater one day, and easily find themselves another tot to ablute the next.
Those opportunities exist no longer. One large-scale premiere comes along every blue moon, and naturally enough, a great weight of expectation comes with it. So I say hurrah to all organizations who provide small-scale places for composers to learn their trade. There’s Tête-á-Tête; the Genesis Opera Project; Five:15 at Scottish Opera; ROH2, and all the others. And if they ever need a consultant to bang the can for conflict-rich opera, they know where to find me.
- Warwick Thompson
What do you think? Is Warwick right about the current prospects for contemporary opera? Tell us what you think below and our OperaShots composers will join in the conversation.
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