A few years ago, Sir John Tavener, the eminent choral composer, was so sick he thought he might never write again. And Robert Shafer, the choral conductor, was fired from his job and thought his conducting career might be over. On Sunday, Shafer and his City Choir of Washington, a new arrival in a city with plenty of choruses, will present a Tavener world premiere at Washington National Cathedral-- in the presence of the composer. And it all happened thanks to a public-policy think tank. Only in Washington. Read the full story here — tickets are still available.
One problem with getting contemporary opera into the repertoire is that a lot of operas, even good ones, remain underperformed after the glow of the world premiere has worn off. This month, the Dallas Opera took a big gamble in a financially compromised season by reviving Dominic Argento’s “The Aspern Papers,” which it commissioned and gave its world premiere in 1988. Beautifully cast and staged, the revival made a great case for this opera as worthy of a wider audience. My review here. (Other views: Scott Cantrell in the Dallas Morning News; Gregory Sullivan Isaacs on TheaterJones.)
A tangential observation: one problem many people have with works that are adapted from original sources — books, movies, plays — is the issue of fidelity. Argento, serving as his own librettist, translated Henry James’s novella for the opera stage, rather than trying to duplicate it: he turned the title figure into a composer, shifted the action from Venice to Lake Como, and invented an intricate back story that meant the piece, unlike James’s story, shuttles continuously back and forth between past and present.
It’s sometimes too easy to use the source as a measuring-stick with which to beat the adaptation. In this case, Argento convinced me: I thought he kept true to elements of James’s spirit and language while freely adapting his material so it would work better as sung theater, and adding elements as he needed them. A lot of creative thought went into this adaptation, and it created a piece that stood on its own terms. I was similarly in accord with the way Gene Scheer adapted his source for the last new work I saw in Dallas, Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick.” Or, for that matter, with the way Tim Burton sensitively adapted Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” for the screen. Some of our most beloved operas — Gounod’s “Faust” springs to mind — take even greater liberties, and less well, with their original sources, and have prevailed nonetheless. And some adaptations have been real dogs. Not everyone agrees with me that Argento pulled this one off; here’s what Joshua Kosman had to say in the San Francisco Chronicle about a 1996 young-artist production of the work.
What are your thoughts on adapting sources for opera? Have you had any strong experiences, positive or negative? Are you more likely to go to a new opera — “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Andre Previn, Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” Kevin Puts’s “Silent Night,” Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” Daniel Catan’s “Il Postino,” Howard Shore’s ”The Fly” — if it’s based on a book or movie you know?