Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Opera

I've got my composer brain working after seeing a performance of Il Trovatore at the Met last night. It has a couple of memorable melodies, particularly the Anvil Chorus, and there is some truly virtuosic vocal work throughout. Still, the bulk of the vocal writing is rather forgettable and the basic plot is a tragic set of convoluted decisions made by people with an archaic worldview and an incredibly unhealthy view of themselves and their relationships.

Yet, it remains a popular opera despite these things. Perhaps people remember that they were really impressed with the singing even if they can't recall exactly what was sung. Maybe people appreciate a certain nostalgia for a time when revenge was a life-long endeavor and killing oneself was a reasonable alternative to marrying someone you really didn't like. I can't say for sure what goes on in people's minds. And to a certain extent, that is the source of some of my frustration.

I have begun the conceptual phase of an opera: selecting a story, working with a librettist, and making some rough sketches of the kinds of sounds I'd like to work into it. But why am I considering writing an opera? So much of the genre is dominated by works that are over a hundred years old, and when a new opera is written, it's often given a premiere performance and then put on a shelf. It almost seems that a "modern" opera is such a novelty that it isn't really considered legitimate, especially if the composer is still alive. There are exceptions, of course, but it seems unrealistic to hope that a new opera will be heard a proportionate amount to the time it takes to create such a massive work.

Part of the problem is that the filter of time allows us to look back and critique a piece of art from over a hundred years ago more objectively than we can judge a contemporary work. And many composers of vocal works in the last several decades have chosen to write distinctly un-vocal lines for singers. Whatever my opinion of Il Trovatore, it certainly was not difficult to follow musically.

So, given these extra challenges of the genre, why would I want to write an opera? I do have some confidence that I write well for the voice, and this belief has been confirmed time and again by vocalists and informed listeners. Most importantly, I want to communicate something with every piece of music I write. So I would only be willing to dedicate the time and energy to composing an opera if I have something valuable to communicate. So it boils down to that question: Is what I have to communicate worth anyone hearing?

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