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OperaShots: Contemporary opera - a conflict free zone?

By Royal Opera House

10 March 2010 at 4.00pm | 2 Comments

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.

Find out more about the 2010 OperaShots productions:

Orlando Gough's A Ring A Lamp A Thing
Jocelyn Pook's Ingerland
Nitin Sawhney's Entanglement

By Royal Opera House

10 March 2010 at 4.00pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged contemporary opera, Opera Shots, ROH2, Warwick Thompson

This article has 2 comments

  1. John Lloyd Davies responded on 12 March 2010 at 2:42pm Reply

    Yes – drama is conflict. Yes – composers should Show not Tell. And yes, one crucial difference for contemporary composers is that they don’t have so many chances for failure early in their careers. But to talk about perfecting technique and learning the craft of opera suggests a stable target to aim for. Is that true today? Back in 1850 there was a fair degree of consensus about what opera should be. But now, in a world of film, television, internet and myriad musical influences, it is much less clear what a contemporary opera could or should be. Of course every artist has to learn and absorb the lessons of the past. But what’s missing in contemporary opera is not just drama and conflict, it’s any clear sense about where the future might lie, either musically or dramatically.

    Elizabethan theatre and nineteenth century Italian opera both exude a powerful theatrical confidence: their creators have an incredibly sure sense of how their art-form works and what to do with it. By comparison, I agree that contemporary opera often seems pallid and hesitant. What kind of theatre do we want? What kind of music might make that theatre? What kind of singers? What kind of stories? Is Greek myth (Minotaur) or contemporary myth (Satyagraha) more fruitful? Is the operatic Zeitgeist better reflected in the visceral intensity of Turnage’s Greek, or the cool ironies of Sondheim? Is Thomas Adès writing a satirical contemporary story (Powder Her Face) more interesting than Adès setting Shakespeare (The Tempest)?

    While traditional opera and theatre have certainly been founded on conflict, some successful opera composers of the last twenty years (Kaija Saariaho, Philip Glass, George Benjamin, Jonathan Harvey) have had other, more contemplative, priorities. The broad spectrum of current operatic possibilities is one good reason for promoting, as ROH2’s OperaGenesis and Opera Development Programme have tried to do, an inclusive and wide-ranging approach to new work. The new OperaShots commissions in June 2010 range from violent ‘operatic’ conflict to dreamy meditation, but they’re all interesting theatre made with voice and music.

    The fact that many works fail is nothing new: getting the chemistry of opera right is hard. Even in the ‘golden age’ of the nineteenth century thousands of works failed for the handful of masterpieces which have survived. But the human desire to express emotion through the human voice is undiminished. The opera of the future could be any or all of these things – music can enable the theatrical imagination to fly freer in opera than in most other forms. What composers and writers need is the chance to make work and try it on live audiences – so come along to ROH2’s OperaShots and Exposure performances, to Tête-á-Tête’s Riverside Festival, to Scottish Opera’s Five:15, and help inspire a new generation of writers and composers to make new opera for the 21st century.

    - John Lloyd Davies, Head of Opera Development, ROH2

  2. Conflict, is an aspect of typically western drama, and one mainly from a recent period in the history of theatre entertainments. Greek tragic drama was a theatre of revelation not of conflict, and Japanese Noh drama was one of reflection. Where the idea that "drama" must equate to "conflict" has little to do with Medieval drama either. Drama, simply means, to act. And little more since for each period and nation's art it appears to mean something else. The definition of A and B wanting the same thing doesn't even work for Shakespearean drama. Hamlet and Prince, Othello and Iago, Romeo+Juliet and their houses, didnt want the same thing or the opposite. And to compose a drama with the crisis of conflict being the entire substance would make a poor "drama". The technique of any art is only what is right and neccessary to communicate their purpose of creating it. If conflict worked for some, it doesn't need to work for another. Shakespeare never stuck to a model for his plays, nor the Greeks. The Japanese did, because their "art" was perfecting the construction rather than the literature. And "the well-made play" is too dull an art. Like looking at a thousand imitations of the Mona Lisa with faces of different women. We've seen it before in a new costume. What is lacking in opera is entirely the first sentence. Prescribing what Drama is before it is conceived. Its the grassroots of opera that is lacking substance. The idea that there is a technique, when over the four centuries of opera, as the art form we recognize, it has undergone vast changes. There was a time the Aria was a controversial addition to opera, and a time it wasn't present. There was a time when the vocal we are so familiar as opera was not the voice of opera. Often people say opera is about extreme emotion. I believe that is more about boldness, every thing in opera is bold. That doesn't require extremity of emotion, but the correct craft of the collaborations of the theatre. Aeschylus used a silent actor for the entire performance of his Libation Bearers and when he gave them a single line to speak it appeared like a thunder clap. There is little need for large scale productions. As for any artist, limited resources equate to intensity. I think Debussy made a very correct remark when saying "Wagner was a sunset mistaken for a dawn." His operas were total-drama. There was nothing that was not dramatic, nothing that was not of extreme emotion, elaborate costume and scenic art, grandeur spectacle. Yet none was Wagner's idea. The entire three centuries leading up to Wagner had been driving to his direction, Wagner engulfed them and was a culmination of them. He was strong in his art because he had centuries of the foundation of his ideas behind him. Wagner was not new, his work spoke for the twilight of the modern era. Some of the most powerful drama, Greek, used a stage with up to three actors and a choir of fifteen, never all on stage together. The Noh Dramas use an even smaller cast. Philip Glass creates operas in contradiction to Wagner. And the movement of minimalist pieces and opera create a something which not an era of the modern age desired. Now the opera can speak, without all that fuzz of conflict getting in the way. Drama as conflict is a mere toyish spectacle of entertainment when a work has nothing important to say. Like when at a dinner party and the conversation is overtaken by the loudest voice, who has charisma, but no conversation. The problem with contemporary opera is that no one has anything that they Want to say. And have therefore not invented the art to say it. As Gracian said "art needs art to communicate."

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