Opera by the Book


Statistics show that old-fashioned opera is at an all-time peak of popularity in this country. But the figures also seem encouraging about the viability of new and future operas—especially when they’re adapted from famous books, plays, or even movies. “Nothing new under the sun,” say you as you hit me with Verdi’s refashioning of Shakespeare or Wagner’s transformation of ancient sagas and legends.

The idea of operatic adaptation may not be new, but it’s been freshly revivified after about a 20-year hiatus, during which the dominant impulse for opera composers was to expose the nation’s political and social ills. A few political operas that quickly come to mind are John Adams’s Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk, Anthony Davis’s X and Tanya, John Duffy’s Black Water, and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (yes, that’s an opera—and not only because the Vietnam War-era celebrant has a 12-minute mad scene). There’s not a single literary source for these works, except Black Water, for which librettist Joyce Carol Oates reworked her novel of the same title about a thinly disguised Mary Jo Kopechne and Ted Kennedy.

Now the pendulum has swung back. Political and social issues have given way to a renewed literary mode. The chief impulse for operatic creation today is a celebrated work in another medium.

Which doesn’t mean that the quality of the music isn’t still opera’s artistic bottom line. John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, which the Met commissioned and last December premiered, is worth your attention not just because the composer-librettist has managed to make F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age novel fit for an opera stage; Gatsby is important because it’s so damned interesting as music. Harbison orchestrates in pastels to capture the heat of a summer-1920s Long Island mansion. He manufactures period dance music and then blends it seamlessly but threateningly into his personal edge-of-atonality idiom. Near the end of Act One comes a sweepingly lyrical love duet between Gatsby and Daisy that enriches a simple triadic vocal refrain with thickly layered orchestral dissonances.

Bringing up Gatsby, and, for that matter, William Bolcom’s McTeague and A View From the Bridge and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, opens up a different reference for audiences curious about new operas based on familiar books and plays. Movies are involved as well. Golden reputations surround the original staging of Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar and several revivals of Arthur Miller’s View. Gatsby has long been required reading in colleges, and Frank Norris’s McTeague should be. But many more people have seen the movie versions of these works than have seen the plays or read the novels. As groundbreaking as Norris’s novel was, it was surpassed as a soul-shaking saga of the American nightmare by Erich von Stroheim’s movie, Greed, even in its studio-cut form, which was one-quarter of the director’s intended 10-hour length.

I recently asked Bolcom whether either opera stemmed from the original novel and play or from its better known film version. He worked from the originals in both cases. “Robert Altman [director and co-librettist of McTeague] wanted to avoid any connection with Greed, possibly because either he didn’t like Stroheim’s work or he just didn’t want to be shadowed by it,” Bolcom said. “In any case, the novel has so little dialogue compared to so much description that it gave [librettists] Arnold Weinstein and Altman lots of atmosphere and the freedom to write their own words. And with View From the Bridge, Arthur Miller, Arnold, and I went back to the first, 1955 one-act version of the play, instead of the expanded one that’s always done now. The first version had a more poetic, less naturalistic quality that would expand more easily into opera.”

McTeague and View are both bolstered by Bolcom’s natural way with a telling tune and an overall rhythmic strategy for each situation. And although both operas racked up prestigious Chicago Lyric premiere runs, he’s still trying to improve them. He wants to restore a previously cut choral finale to make it more dramatic by giving the doomed McTeague a new aria “that explodes out at the other people.” In View, the Met asked him for new arias to express the frustrations and resentments of longshoreman Eddie and his wife and for more emphasis on the younger lovers’ sexual attraction. (View, which premiered last fall in Chicago, goes to the Met in the 2002-03 season.)

And Bolcom has a third operatic adaptation coming down the pike. It’s based this time on a movie and nothing else: Altman’s The Wedding. “It’s a basic suburban Chicago wedding,” said Bolcom, “and the locale might make the audience like it more or hate it more. I’m thinking in terms of a 21st-century combination of Figaro and Così.” That means audiences can look forward to Figaro‘s warm humor mixed with Così Fan Tutte‘s merciless sex satire.

Film, namely Jacques Tati’s Traffic, was a starting point for Elliott Carter’s new but very first opera (completed at age 90!). But his one-acter, What Next?, leaves Tati at that point, and Paul Griffiths’s surreal libretto goes its own independent way. “The movie has a scene about a chain of car crashes, after which the passengers gradually revive and do setting-up exercises,” Carter told me. “I wanted to start with that kind of catastrophe, but Paul took it from there.” The characters, among them a wedding couple, sing in atonal, mostly delicate phrases to cross-purposes. “Having Rose [the bride and also an opera singer] sing throughout was my idea,” said the composer, much of whose previous music seems to have been inspired by cinematic crosscuts and montages. “In fact, the whole opera has each singer doing an aria throughout the opera but being interrupted by everyone else in turn.”

Jake Heggie, composer of Dead Man Walking, which San Francisco Opera unveils next fall, has insisted to interviewers that he worked directly from Sister Helen Prejean’s book and bypassed Tim Robbins’s movie. Yet Heggie told me that the far bigger size of the film’s audience was something he and librettist Terrance McNally had to think about, while sticking to the rather different book.

Meanwhile, the trendy Poul Ruders’s version of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale has just been premiered in Copenhagen, and this June, Opera Theater of St. Louis introduces its third Minoru Miki opera, The Tale of Genji, based on the gigantic 11th-century classic romance. Tobias Picker is completing a Met commission for an opera based on Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Composer Elliot Goldenthal and wondrous theater wizard Julie Taymor have been trying for a few years to install their Beowulf show; they call it Grendel after the mother (father?) of all monsters. Who knows what else is coming soon to an opera house near you.

Expanded Classical Music Section: Part 1