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Dead Operas

Keep reading. There’s a Frankenstein reference before the end.


History is littered with dead operas.


Der Stein der Weisen (to which Wolfie Mozart contributed).


Rubinstein’s The Demon.


Prokofiev’s The Gambler (to a lesser extent).


Basically anything by Oscar Straus (there’s literally one called The Chocolate Soldier!).


Johann Strauss II’s Blindekuh.


Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress.


And, last on this list of “hey, I’d be interested in looking into directing these”: Irmin Schmidt’s opera-rock fusion Gormenghast, which I haven’t yet listened to, but the idea of fusing avant-garde music and ‘90s rock is… appealing to me.


I want to be abundantly clear: many dead operas are dead because they do not deliver what we are looking for.


In much the same way as we look at iconic 1930s cinema and go “enh, not to my taste”, we can look at these dead operas and say:


- They were for a particular occasion

- They were for a different type of audience

- They serve different aesthetic values to our ones

- Ye gods, you thought that was acceptable?

- They are… not great, though perhaps of academic interest.


Opera is an old form, and I think it’s important to not succumb to the archival tendency when putting things onstage.


This is why I will almost invariably resent people who devote resources to staging Mozart’s juvenilia. They are impressive, given his age, while also much less impressive and entertaining (to my mind) than works by Mozart’s mature contemporaries, suggesting that the reason for programming them is more to do with Brand Mozart.


It is why many companies this season and next are doing the ‘warhorse’ operas - La Boheme, La Traviata, The Magic Flute and so on. Brand recognition allows easier money, and money is helpful.


Equally, some companies enjoy bringing out obscure-ish gems, and I think that’s to be encouraged. If we want opera to feel like a living artform, not blindly trusting the tastes of our predecessors is important.


Hence why I have the above list of “hmm, might look into that more at some point.”


Even in my lifetime, Janacek has been lifted from “that one with the opera about a fox” to a ‘canon’ composer.


Bringing such works out of the abyss of being forgotten takes work - both to get the bodies out the grave, then to reanimate them, and then to resolve their various existential crises as we try to find how they fit into our world.


Blindekuh, for example, seems delightful to me on a first listening, but does it work in our current age where such comedies of manners can seem antiquated? Is it merely a discounted Fledermaus?


Because if so, I have no interest in it. Might as well bring out the good stuff.


My real interest here, however, is in that last work on the list: new operas that do not have a substantial life beyond their premiere.


This describes almost all new opera.


In part, this is because they are often written for specific resources. If I could give one piece of advice to composers, it is to stop writing for hyper-specific instruments and singers if you want a hope of your work being performed elsewhere.


It is deeply frustrating to find that, unless you hire a very particular singer/instrumentalist/projector, a work is impossible.


It is also because of copyright. While designed (in theory) to protect composers and other opera-creators from exploitation, in practice it also serves as a barrier to performance, since the long-dead can undercut the already-risky contemporary work.


The resolution to this is harder. It might be that composers should write for smaller forces so that they can undercut the dead in turn, since those people were funded by wealthy kings and industrialists.


Or it might be normalising (as in some US houses) the idea that new work is a core part of the repertoire, rather than something to be buried in your basement studio.


It is also because some houses more-or-less-explicitly have a policy of not producing contemporary work unless they have had a hand in commissioning it. This is, frankly, a problem.


Having worked at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival for many years now, I would unofficially say that I am surprised by the lack of interest from major opera producers, given how often the festival has seen the first steps (to say nothing of their later steps) of the people they go on to commission.


It seems bizarre that, on a point of invented pride, opera producers would not treat that festival of new work as a buffet to steal from, piling it high with the expensive-things-at-the-end, rather than something to quietly shun until a little box is brought to their private suite.


Alas, fixing that is a mindset issue, and one that I suspect is resolved by a change in culture - or perhaps doing more to create explicit ‘trade events’ where new operas can be shopped out.


It is also because, frankly, contemporary work is seen as a risk. This is partly because many houses have committed extensive marketing resources to telling people that they provide a classic, glamorous opera experience.


However, the USA and some German houses show a model of telling people that new work is exciting (and it is indeed matched by commissioning habits). That ENO has just produced an adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life is an encouraging step in this direction.


Commission work designed for the basement, and that is all it shall be. Commission and promote it in order to make it a success, and better results may ensue.


And finally, some new work makes experiments that fail. Not all of it, but we must never forget:


It’s OK for operas to die.


Leave the bodies in the ground.


If you reanimate them, maybe hit it over the head with a shovel before it quotes Milton.


Just not always.


Because, ye gods, can that corpse quote Milton.


A hooded figure sits in a glowing triangle.
Look, it's a new opera seeking a revival!

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