Correction to This Article
This article about contemporary opera incorrectly said that filmmaker Peter Greenaway, 66, is dead.

When Opera Is New and Unproved

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

In the ongoing quest to broaden opera's appeal, contemporary opera is one arrow in a sparely filled quiver. New operas are based on world events, current movies, popular books. Their music is written by funky living composers. And yet, earnest, thoughtful and filled with worthy music though they be, they seldom find the same resonance as art films, or literary fiction. In fact, people who go to see an opera based on a book they liked often come away disappointed.

What's missing? The question came up frequently this month as I spent time listening to a sampling of recent recordings of operas by living composers. I heard some nice things. What came across most was a sense of slight awkwardness with the medium, an uncertainty about just what an opera wants to be, and therefore a sense of, well, geekiness.

Take Michael Nyman's "Love Counts," first performed in 2005, released on the composer's own label earlier this year. It is a fine example of an opera that has all of the qualifications to grab, but doesn't.

Nyman is an eminent figure on the contemporary scene. Working in a style you could call cerebral post-minimalism, known for his film scores (notably for the late Peter Greenaway), he's smart, hip, was recently awarded a CBE (for what that's worth) and knows how to write music.

And "Love Counts" has a smart score. It is the story of the unlikely love affair between an aging, illiterate boxer and the math teacher who sets out to educate him; in the music as in the story, the logic of numbers helps to structure a relationship fraught with the difficulties of communication. Nyman spreads melodies out in repeating patterns, Bach in binary form, creating textures that are thin yet lush, vibrating and shining like the wings of dragonflies (and, yes, romantic enough to warrant such a purple description).

But the problems of communication that the opera is trying to explicate become a problem of the opera itself. The words lie on the music's surface, and the music resists, rather than expresses, them. "Love Counts" wants to be a gritty, true-life story, but there is nothing gritty or true-life about the long swatches of expository text, which are not at all dramatic, or the way that the characters sing them. Opera is about emotion; this piece, despite its rather melodramatic aspects (complete with a near-fatal TKO), ends up being about avoiding emotion, working out ideas rather than actually giving them dramatic expression.

The problem -- for many if not most composers -- is that dramatic expression is scary, and not at all hip.

"One of things that's been forgotten in music for a long time is the ability to be nakedly emotional," the composer David Lang said to me after he won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for "The Little Match Girl Passion," an oratorio that was so nakedly emotional I mistook it for deliberate kitsch when I first heard it. Opera takes the emotional exposure one step further, saying serious things on a very big scale that positively invites parody (which is why everyone makes fun of opera singers). As a composer, you have to know what you're doing onstage, in theatrical terms, if you're going to make it work.

Few composers today have the kind of training to make this an easy task. One reason John Adams has been so successful as an opera composer (major CDs of his two latest operas will be released later this fall) is that he works in close collaboration with an experienced man of theater: Peter Sellars. I don't like everything Sellars has done myself, but I think his expertise has helped Adams take his work a step beyond the formless wallow of feelings that Nyman, in "Love Counts," is trying to shape through musical means alone. You need more.

Scott Wheeler, in his one-act "The Construction of Boston," goes another route, embracing the over-the-top theatricality of the form in a contemporary equivalent of opera buffa. This oratorio-cum-opera is a reworking of a poem by Kenneth Koch that started life in the 1960s as a performance piece with Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. In this version (recorded by Naxos from a live Boston performance), those three artists become pseudo-deities involved in the creation myth of the city of Boston (Back Bay groans under the weight of its new buildings). Wheeler (whose "Democracy" was done at the Washington National Opera in 2005) finds an antic but wholesome melange of musical styles that proves a good foil for Koch's brand of down-to-earth, gee-whiz, all-American nuttiness.

Furthermore, this work recognizably belongs to the world we live in, a contemporary world -- notable only because so many new operas seem to hover in some rather simple space of their own that, to uninitiated audiences, may seem downright unsophisticated.

Stylistic melange alone is now taken as investing some measure of contemporaneity. What a few decades ago was slammed as lowbrow pastiche is today heralded as a visionary merging of disparate traditions (think Osvaldo Golijov). This kind of polyglot approach is certainly cited as a reason for praise by the many adherents of Douglas J. Cuomo's "Arjuna's Dilemma," which has made its way onto CD in advance of its first complete staged performance, scheduled to take place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November.

Cuomo is best known to the world as the composer of the theme for "Sex and the City"; he's also a jazz guitarist. In this opera, he blends classical Indian singing, jazz improv, the busy minimalist-style patterns that appear to have entered the bloodstream of so many composers and the jewel-like tones of a four-part women's chorus, all worked into a seamless whole, like a golden Indian brocade.

It's easy on the ear, and very beguiling. I'm just not sure it's opera. Based on the Bhagavad-Gita, the piece depicts the hero Arjuna about to join battle against an army that includes family and friends; he turns to Krishna for guidance, and learns the secrets of the universe. This is thought-provoking, but not necessarily the stuff of theatrical drama; and while I enjoyed listening to it, particularly as the voices and styles wove together in the work's culmination, I wanted more emotional depth beyond the prettiness.

Yet afterwards, it struck me that "Arjuna's Dilemma" has something a lot of new operas don't: appeal. Opera is an art form that was for many years the ne plus ultra of popular entertainment. That aspect of it is all too easy to lose sight of, as many current pieces show. Opera, to work, has to have a certain understanding of what drama is, and how it functions. But it also has to have an audience, and "Arjuna's Dilemma," for all its flaws, has a pretty good chance of attracting one.

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