You would think that in our current museum-culture of symphonic music that New Opera is a rarity, but it’s not as endangered as you would imagine. In Cooperstown, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Houston, Chicago, L.A., and other cities of impressive cultural heft, New Opera gets an airing. It’s not an everyday occurence, but it happens. And often these are works with big designs, enormous budgets, huge publicity machines, and superstar talent; event qualities which aren’t necessarily specific to Brooklyn and Manhattan anymore, nor have they been for quite a while.
Now, a new opera not based on a classic American novel, or on a beloved film? Now that’s rare.
All the feels-good-self-worth of supporting new art without any of that messy Thinking business! OK, it can be new, even slightly scary in it’s newness (aurally, that is) but for goodness sakes at least let it be familiar.
Well that’s not entirely fair. No matter what the libretto is based on, it’s still new—it’s still new music, new designs, and new productions, often with music written by composers who might otherwise find the task of getting programmed on a symphonic concert in one of those above cities more than Herculean. This, of course, is hardly a problem (if one even chooses to think of it as a problem at all) specific to opera; it’s often the circumstance in modern musical theater, and heck, half the time new movies can’t even muster up the energy for an original screenplay. So as pleased as I am when I hear of a new production somewhere, I often cringe in anticipation of the big Opera Subject Reveal. But if the stars align and the producers have taken a deep breath as they wrote the check and I am unfamiliar with the title or it’s a brand-spanking new story? I am so there.
New York City Opera‘s production of Haroun and the Sea of Stories falls into a sub-category of the above … let’s call it New Opera’s Second Best Option. That’s when we hedge our bets just a bit, and though the subject is original, a celebrity name on the writer’s marquee is provided as compensation. In this case it’s Salman Rushdie, whose children’s book of the above title, is, granted, an existing work and therefore we’re not dealing with a technically original story, but I’m fairly sure it was never a blockbuster. No fatwa has ever been issued for it’s salicious prose, no bestseller lists have ever swooned under it’s title. So, despite Rushdie’s name, we’re dealing with a fairly big unknown.
The other names surrounding Haroun make an impressive list. Even without Rushidie, these folks might very well get people in the door on their own: Charles Wuorinen, the (academically) celebrated American writer of spiky brambles of contemporary music is the composer. James Fenton, the famous (well, I’ve heard of him) English poet, is the librettist. And the oft-employed Mark Lamos is the director.
So all the ingredients are there, and (to run with the metaphor a bit) many of them do taste very good: the libretto, for instance, is fantastic. Just brilliant, Fenton’s words provide a wonderfully taught structure, providing the composer with a gift of chunky, evocative text, full of internal rhyme, fancy, and fun. Well-crafted creative elements on their own do not a successful production make. But, the right well-done elements? Well, it helps. How infrequently is a libretto really good?! …and when it is good the music (good or bad) is just so much less of an issue. If James Carville was an Opera Queen, you’d be sure he’d be singing “It’s the libretto, stupid” at every opportunity. The libretto is the architecture, the skeleton; what would be countless weeks/months of sketching the pacing, timing, and structure in an instrumental work doesn’t exist in an opera, that’s not the composer’s job. It’s all in the libretto. And in instrumental music, it’s the pacing and structure which makes it a piece—the notes, well, honestly, any notes work as long as the piece makes sense. I’ll probably go to straight to Composer Jail for this, but if the libretto is strong and the music is, um, let’s say less strong, then you’ve definitely got a better opera going for you than if your libretto is weak and your music is marvelous. Sadly, in my experience the latter is most often the case, but Haroun interestingly seems to fall into that former box. Fenton (and Lamos, to a great extent) give us just enough to keep us from bowing our heads in disappointment and walking out into the night.
Although, many people did, of course. And that’s to be expected. I mean, Wuorinen is no easy night at Pinafore. To describe the music as “difficult” is a start, but it wouldn’t be the whole story. Wuorinen is incredibly skilled, a craftsman of the highest order. Top shelf stuff. Brilliant orchestrations from a Pulitzer-Prize Winner. Undoubtedly every note is exactly where it should be. Absolutely. But despite that (because of it?) the score sounded like, well, a mess. I spent the evening concentrating very hard on making heads/tails of it and failed. It was just too durned inscrutable. And I’m pretty good at these things. There very well may be brilliant music in there, I just found it hard to hear what with all the notes flying around.
But it’s not as easy as dismissing the music outright, declaring the libretto a success and the score a failure, and calling it a day. There were Moments. Let’s call them Moments of Musical Clarity. Infrequent scenes/sections/arias where the clouds parted, and I could hear clear, actual Music. I’m not talking about less music, or easier-to-listen-to harmonic language—I’m talking about moments where I could hear the music doing something, something clear and audible, as comprehensible moments… they were infrequent, but there were just enough of them to keep me going. Most of the choruses had this effect on me: the “Get on the bus” scene, the “mechanical ship” scene toward the end (actually, some fabulous music in there, best in the opera methinks)… there were maybe a dozen in all—periods when the constant pounding of, well, Wuorinen, paused, and actual music happened.
Daniel Felsenfeld’s note in the program, serving as the “really, you’ll like it!” piece for the subscribers, celebrates Wuorinen with an eye toward justification:
The bite, sting, crunch, and occasional blasts that Wuorinen offers are at points witty, at others wrenching, sometimes a little rude—all done as the drama demands. These sounds are exciting, exquisite, full of color, pith, and an ear-turning, (and sometimes hair-raising) energy, which contribute to and vitalize the motion that defines this show. Dissonant bleats, brays, whacks, or wallops can be as beautiful as lush, finely tuned chords, and in a gamut-runner like Haroun, Wuorinen is wise to utilize maximally the broad palate at his disposal, to run to a wide swath of musical textures in order to tell the story in the riches, most varied way.
Uh, OK. Now that I know how it sounds maybe I won’t say I think it sounds awful. Excusing the cacophony as devices necessary to tell the story would be fine, if that were the case. But the score is so often working against the libretto (and the story), that it seems purposefully willful in it’s insubordination. “No!” the score snarls, crabbily. “I won’t write you a cute little chorus for this text that obviously celebrates this story’s nod to fanciful children’s fairy tales. I won’t do it I tell you.” The result of this tug-of-war is that every element of the production, direction, sets, lights, costumes, all aligned, trying desperately to pull something together from what the libretto obviously wanted to do (“iiiiiit’s a princess rescue story! it’s a tale of derring-do!”), practically ignoring the fact that the music was not playing along. The final product was unfortunate. Lamos’s laudable attempts ended up only exaggerating Wuorinen’s stubborn contempt. “Never say NO onstage,” an Acting-training Survivor told me afterwards. And how. That score is just a earful of NO.
Sadly, the libretto is so cute and so very clever and bursting with imagery, obvious set pieces, and stage business, (all of which are, yes, granted, nothing new, but Lordy they work), that I found myself wondering “if only this libretto were dropped onto the desk of some other composer…”
And that’s just such a sad thing to think in the middle of an opera production.
But I couldn’t help it… Oliver Knussen! David Del Tredici! Tom Adés! Any of these guys could have done wonders with this terrific libretto. I sat in the State Theater and thought of Knussen’s sparkling score to Where the Wild Things Are, Del Tredici’s evocative vocal paintings of Lewis Carroll, and Adés, well, I don’t know exactly why this libretto seemed to fit him but it does. It’s not like Powder Her Face was fanciful or anything. I just think that this kind of libretto would suit his particular talents.
Yes, I thought of other composers while bringing Wuorinen to the dance. It felt dirty and adulterous, but I couldn’t stop myself. My date was a dud.
To be fair, there was lots of great stuff happening on stage. Besides Lamos’s skillfully direction, there was Heather Buck’s perfectly charming performance in the title role, and excellent performances by Ryan MacPherson as Iff the water genie, Wilbur Pauley as Mali the floating gardener, and Ethan Herschenfeld as the mechanical Hoopoe. And the singers deserve extra credit—they performed, moved, and danced in, some complicated crazy costumes And they sang their hearts out. Put their all into the Wuorinen. It was enough to make you cry. With a different score, maybe, their performances would have lit up the night sky.
But the composer was not the only offender of Lost Opportunities, as some production elements never quite carried their full weight of a design whole. The lights (Robert Wierzel) and sets (Riccardo Hernandez), though very good, seemed to take a decidedly supporting role to Candice Donnelly’s costume design, which, for what seemed like a lack of proper funding, was obviously the production’s crutch. When the costumes look like that’s the only thing you spent money on (and they were lovely), you might have some money issues. The budget certainly wasn’t spent on the set, which for the most part was replaced by projection design (Peter Nigrini). You would think projections would be an opportunity for some eye-popping creativity, but in this case (and sadly, in most cases with projections in opera), we were treated to Projection Mickey-Mousing, the visual equivalent of wiggling your fingers to indicate that the rain is falling. When we sing of the moon, we see… a moon. When we sing of the sea turning purple, we see the sea turning purple. Really? Despite reality-television’s monstrous pull, I’m not so sure our imaginations have atrophied quite to the point where that kind of visual accuracy is necessary.
Seán Curran, the fantastic dancer formerly with Bill T. Jones, now with his own company and several Joyce Theater seasons under his belt, was the choreographer. I applaud Curran for getting his singers to move so well, and for integrating the dancers skillfully into the production. Donnelly and Curran worked so well together in fact, that I thought perhaps Lamos had separate design meetings with them, as they seemed to have their own, smoothly collaborative design going all on their own.
The net result of all these production elements was that Lamos seemed to be sweating hard to make it all work somehow, on the cheap, with a score that wasn’t helping matters any. He had an adorable story by a world-renowned/award-winning author, a brilliant libretto, a skilled cast, and a talented and experienced design team and choreographer, but no workable score. He chose to ignore it. It almost worked, as the story and libretto were just that good. But Wuorinen is hard to ignore, and that fact is most definitely for the best, were we dealing with only music. Opera is never just music, though—never just big name authors or librettists, never just famous books or movies made manifest with comfy seats and high ticket prices. I await the New Opera production that is complete unto itself, that is more than Only Just.