All musical forms progress as new instruments, new technology, and new innovators come on the scene. Modern opera has bad rap because some of it contains music written using the 12-note scale, uncomfortable to most ears.
But I recently attended two operas that I recommend. Because I am a patron and not a critic or trained musician, I won’t attempt to define modern opera. Here’s an informative article from The Guardian.
Composer Benjamin Britten, Librettist Eric Crozier, Conductor Dame Jane Glover, Director Stephen Sposito
My only exposure to Benjamin Britten is a maudlin opera called Death in Venice about an aging musician’s lust for a 14-year-old boy who parades around the Lido Beach near Venice. Death without satisfaction is the subject matter. At least Tosca has her real love requited, and she kills the misogynist. I went to see Albert Herring on my own out of sheer guilt at wasting a ticket.
Lo and behold, I sat next to my friend, a retired Department Head of Music, who tuned me into the real Benjamin Britten, not the repressed composer. Britten and his friends founded the English Opera Company, for which he composed Albert Herring. The Opera Company toured second and third tier cities throughout the UK presenting highbrow music that would appeal to the common audience.
That is the joy of Albert Herring. I thought back to the first performance I saw, Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love – the duets, trios, quartets, quintets, chorus, the bel canto arias. Albert Herring has them all.
It’s a fun story about a beautiful young man who wins the local beauty pageant, and the neighborhood fallout. Everyone from Cornwall to Middlecastle must have enjoyed the visiting English Opera Company. How lucky we were in Chicago to enjoy Albert produced by the Chicago Opera Theater. More please!
Composer Justine F. Chen, Librettist David Simpatico, Conductor (my favorite) Lidiya Yankovskaya, Peter Rothtein Director
Many of us are more familiar with the glorious and sad story of Alan Turing thanks to his biographical movie The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The movie was based on Turing’s biography The Enigma, written by Andrew Hodges.
It’s the story of a brilliant social misfit who eventually finds a home at Benchley Park during WWII where he is credited with breaking the German Enigma code. He’s gay and burdened with a mother who constantly pushes him to marry, even if only to mask his homosexuality, a crime in the UK.
The opera pulls the thread of Turing’s love life through the broader background of his intellectual accomplishments. This provides opportunities for beautiful operatic solos, duets, quartets, quintets – and a full chorus (rare in modern opera).
The orchestration is melodic and lush, especially combined with the chorus. For me, this is an opera to love. Alan Turing is a modern classic! Chen is currently working on an opera about Jeanne d’Arc.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson, Directed by Adrian Abel Azevedo, Music Directed by Dr. Michael McBride, Choreographed by Laura Savage
Rent is a modern rock opera based on La Boehme. Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of most rock music. I saw Rent because the producer, Porchlight Music Theatre, does wonderful musicals. Also, the backstory on Rent is compelling.
Larson worked on the opera for eight years and unexpectedly died after the final dress rehearsal. The opera went on to win the Tony for Best Musical, a Pulitzer Prize, and ran on Broadway for 12 years.
There is much to enjoy in the music and the story, cleverly located in New York’s Alphabet City during the AIDS epidemic. The characters are down and out musicians, writers, pimps, whores, landlords – all striving to be in a better place. There are only four instruments, two guitars, one bass, and drums.
We attended a preview and sat behind the sound designer working the “board” on his computer. I took advantage at the interval and asked if he was working on the vocal/instrument balance, and he responded that the director only wanted LOUD as fitted a rock opera. And LOUD it was.
Regardless of the nuance, that could have contributed to the musical experience. There are many outstanding songs in Rent, but all I remember is LOUD.
Lyrics by Alanis Morissette, Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, Book by Diablo Cody, Directed by Diane Paulus
Jagged Little Pill received great local reviews, and my theater-buddy is a Morissette fan. So off we went to the big Nederlander Theatre – $100 for ½ price decent seats. Full disclosure, I’ve never heard a song by Morissette, unless incidentally.
Diablo Cody does a masterful job of tying 22 songs into a realistic plot about a suburban mom who becomes addicted to oxy. There’s a rebellious 15-year-old daughter, an overachieving, depressed son who awaits his college acceptance letters, a distant hard-working dad, and all their friends. I was pleasantly surprised by the plot because I expected it to be totally focused on the younger generation.
The actors are a masterpiece of casting – each one of them capable of show-stopping singing and dancing; several ensemble numbers brought down the house. I happily enjoyed all the songs even though the words were not understandable due to the loud miking of singers and orchestra. Where are super-titles when you need them?
The band consisted of keyboard, guitars, bass, and percussion. The addition of violin, viola, and cello added lushness to the music.
The almost full-house audience (2,253 when full) leapt in appreciation of the performers. Morissette fans of all ages were sated. My theater-buddy bought a ticket to see the show a second time. I was not so swept-away but if you are a Morissette fan (or have children or grandchildren who are) see this traveling Broadway show when it turns up in your area.
Have you seen any modern operas/musicals recently? Which ones? What was your impression? What did you like most about them? Are you looking forward to a particular production?
Modern opera is unique, but worth seeing. I saw Rent a decade or so ago and really enjoyed it.