I’d heard so much about “Written on Skin,” the opera by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp, that actually seeing it in person on Tuesday night, at last, was almost anticlimactic. (You can read my review here.) It’s not fair to make a single work assume the mantle of the salvation of contemporary opera (along perhaps with “Dog Days,” the opera by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek that is also meeting with considerable acclaim); but let’s face it, we lovers of contemporary opera don’t always have much to get excited about.
In a recent debate on Twitter, someone invoked the chestnut about Americans failing to appreciate their own high art. Curious, I turned this into a crowdsourcing question: which American operas of recent memory were underappreciated, or should get more performances than they do? It was striking how many people cited works by Samuel Barber, or Carlisle Floyd (whose “Susannah” I’d hardly call underappreciated, or contemporary; it had its premiere in 1955). Fewer named works written in the last twenty years. It’s hard to beat up on Americans for not honoring their culture if even those who support that culture can’t think what exactly it’s supposed to honor.
So why do we have to work so hard to love new American opera? Part of the problem is that even those who love opera tend to think of it these days as a problem child: an acquired taste, a genre that has to work hard to win people over, an art form for which one must make allowances. Some try to conceal it as something other than it is, downplaying the word “opera” on marketing materials about works adapted from familiar books and/or films: they’ll like it, the reasoning goes, if only we can get them in.
Composers, meanwhile, are encouraged to pander to a mythical and dwindling audience: those who want everything that’s called “opera” to hew to an essentially 19th-century, essentially melodic, essentially narrative form of the genre. This only emphasizes the idea of opera houses as purveyors of works that, to be blunt, are out of touch — imagine a museum that encouraged all new work, in order to please the public, to hew to the established models of the French Impressionists or Italian Baroque. Being informed by the traditions that have gone before you is not the same as making sure that tradition’s influence is literally reflected in your own new creations. Yet a lot of the mainstream American opera-house establishment — with a few laudable exceptions — seems to think that’s what’s meant by “story-telling in music.”
I wish we could stop making allowances for opera. I wish we could stop expecting that it’s going to be slightly static, slightly boring, and slightly melodramatic to compensate for the stasis and boredom. (I don’t entirely exempt “Written on Skin” from those charges; I think a sophisticated theater crowd might find it good, with the significant caveat “for an opera.”) Over and over again, we hail as moderately successful works that would have no chance of interesting a non-operatic audience; or give a pass to work that, if we encountered it in a theater or cinema, we’d have no hesitation about panning.
“Written on Skin” does a lot of things right. It got me thinking; it had some smart things to say. It didn’t pull me into another world, musically or dramatically; it didn’t leave me with characters I loved, or music that intoxicated me. It was powerful but distant: my emotions were touched, but not engaged. That’s all right: those things don’t have to be criteria for operatic success, and it’s important not to be prescriptive about making rules for any form of art. “Written on Skin” is a serious work of art.
The love and intoxication and engagement are, however, characteristic of the operas I most love, and I don’t often find them in the new pieces that are being written with increasing frequency all around me. There are certainly exceptions; WNO’s recent promising “Penny” comes to mind, as do parts of “Before Night Falls” by my friend Jorge Martin, or Tobias Picker’s “Emmeline.” And I have missed plenty of new works. Maybe I would have found that spark in “Cold Mountain;” maybe it will come to light in “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” or “The New Prince” or “JFK” or “Bhutto” or any of the many other operas that are still being written. (And I’d love to hear from anyone reading this which new works have struck a chord with you.)
But I hope that the people involved in the creation of these works start to demand more of them — not just that the operas fit the current accepted wisdom about what works in a libretto or what audiences want to see, but that they actually have something to convey. Audiences, frankly, don’t much want to see any opera at the moment. But they do want to see something exciting, and something good, or even pretty good: “Written on Skin” is a tough ticket this week. We can help this genre to flourish only by holding it, and ourselves, to higher standards than the ones we’re using now.