What’s Opera Now, Doc?


It’s a topsy-turvy world: Puccini’s La Boheme, sung in Italian with supertitles, is on Broadway. William Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge, a new opera based on Arthur Miller’s play, has been uptown at the Met. Both have been much applauded, and their consequences, for good or ill, are likely to be lasting. No wonder the snobs, and reverse snobs, have been even topsy-turvier than usual. Who’d have imagined we’d hear opera pedants bitching that Baz Luhrman’s cast isn’t old and unattractive enough to represent Henri Murger’s scruffy 1840s Bohemians? Or find Broadway visitants at the Met grousing because Bolcom’s opera doesn’t contain enough showstopping tunes? As Guildenstern remarked to Hamlet during an earlier (and equally futile) theatrical controversy, “there has been much throwing about of brains,” and there’s sure to be more, along with a good bit of bandwagon-jumping on both sides. Before it ends, we may yet see Charles K. Friedman’s 1952 opus, My Darlin’ Aida, back on Broadway, with Audra McDonald as a heroic slave to the daughter, not of Pharaoh, but of “General Farrow,” in a somewhat different Memphis, during the Civil War. I forget how Friedman’s Aida dies, in lieu of getting trapped in a pyramid, but it can’t be any sillier than Luhrman forcing poor Mimi, in the age of electricity, to go out on the roof to get her candle relit.

This isn’t to condemn Luhrman’s Boheme, only to say that the fantasy trip it works on Puccini’s beloved opera is very far from the movement Italians of his time called “verismo,” which pressed for more realistic detail and truth rather than less. Puccini’s achievement was to create a perfect balance of romantic sentiment and gritty reality. Matters like young love, artistic struggle, and early death strike a chord with every audience, and are easy to exploit. Convincing the audience of their existence by anchoring them in the life of a specific place and time is somewhat harder, even when your composer is a master of stagecraft who is also a master of melody. Which is where the difference between electric lights and candles becomes a big issue. If young people respond that they can’t understand opera any other way, the reasonable reply is: Maybe you shouldn’t try so hard. There’s no law that says everybody has to understand opera. The real test may be how many of Boheme‘s young fans go on to find out more about this old and complex realm full of hidden treasures.

Of course, the inability to accept Boheme except via Baz is vital in one respect, though not to the art of opera: It’s the money. As opposed to a living operatic repertoire, sustained on behalf of the public good, this Boheme is a property, put up solely to make profits. This act too has a long operatic tradition behind it: Unfortunately, it’s a tradition of fiscal flimflammery and artistic shabbiness, the innumerable disasters of which essentially caused the rise of the subsidized opera-house system. Anyone who’s read Colonel Mapleson’s memoirs knows what I mean. Whatever Boheme may do to lure the young to opera, it can’t do much for the vitality of the art form, or for the gifted young singers now trapped on its rotating schedule, with unending Bohemes and no other operas in sight. The long-run method has been debilitating enough for musicals; setting it loose on works of Boheme‘s difficulty will lead only to worse performances of fewer operas, and to more events like the suicide of Adolphe Nourrit, who found himself trapped, in mid-career, with no voice and only one role in his repertoire.

But young singers don’t need to end up like Nourrit. Bazzians who yap about “regular” opera singers being old and unattractive can’t have been going to the opera much. These days, a shockingly avant-garde production of Salome means one in which the heroine doesn’t finish her dance completely nude; the appearance of Nathan Gunn’s name on a program automatically makes fans ask in which scene he’ll take his shirt off. We’ve lived through two sumptuous generations of young, attractive singers since Beverly Sills last wiggled her bare navel onstage in Le coq d’or; a lot of them are damn fine actors, too. But, of course, if you’re busy chasing media glitz, names like Ramey, Fleming, Hampson, and Flanigan don’t mean anything to you.

The singers I’ve mentioned all happen to be American—we have a wealth of gifted vocalists in this country, where more people attend operas than NFL football games—and they’ve all given impressive performances in American operas; their English diction is generally excellent. This raises the other curious question about Boheme: why, alone in the history of operas on Broadway, it should be sung in a foreign tongue. There was a curiously convenient flurry, as it opened, of declarations about the notorious unsingability of the English language, news that would certainly have startled countless composers, from Handel to Richard Rodgers. La Boheme, of course, has been sung in English since the time of its premiere, and there are dozens of translations, some (big surprise) better than others, just as (even bigger surprise) some singers’ diction is better than others’. But the nonsense about “we can’t understand what they’re saying” is purely nonsense: In no language, ever, can you understand every single word of an opera, not even Italian. Opera’s, um, not about the words. Though every singer with half an ounce of brains knows that getting them right is the only sure way to music drama.

The real reason Boheme is sung in Italian is that it gives the marketers a wider choice of young singers to ensnare: They can get anyone who’s studied the original, and not make them relearn it in English. We’re a long way from the days when opera was largely given—as I think it still should be—in the language of the audience. Updated in costume and jived in the supertitles, Boheme is still kept at an iconic distance, a foreign object instead of a living work. Which makes it all the funnier to go to the Met, as I did the next week, and see a new American opera in English as vernacular as it could be: William Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge, based on Arthur Miller’s play.

This is Bolcom’s fifth opera, more or less. I use the qualifier because he is the living embodiment of what marketers call “crossover.” Most widely known as a superb ragtime pianist who accompanies his wife, the delightful mezzo Joan Morris, in American popular songs, his earliest music-theater works were designated “opera for actors” and sung largely by musical-theater performers. View, in keeping with Bolcom’s tradition, has a song hit, the tenor aria “New York lights,” which I expect to find cropping up on a lot of crossover CDs; it also has a preexisting pop song, Johnny Black’s “Paper Doll,” which Bolcom cannily embeds in its score: When the illegal immigrant Rodolpho uses it to display his vocal talents, it’s arranged lushly, like the folk ballads old-time Italian opera stars sang as encores. When Eddie, the tragic hero, uses the words to accuse Rodolpho of being queer, the tune comes out of the orchestral fabric in harsh, choppy fragments. The whole score’s built, in fact, on harsh-rhythmed motifs taken from phrases in the text, starting with the two-note ostinato, in the very first bar, that sets the scene, “Red Hook,” as well as suggesting the downward sweep of a longshoreman’s hook on a cargo crate.

The music is Italianate, its Puccini vocabulary modified by later modernist strategies, like the modified tone-row that begins its other great aria, “A ship called Hunger,” for Rodolpho’s older brother, Marco. The paradox of View, in fact, is that its limitation comes from its Americanness: The Sicilian characters, emotionally open, get the big numbers; the Italian Americans, having assimilated to our puritanical culture, tend instead to vociferate in arioso. Eddie, whose story this is, has three big, compelling scenes, but no aria. To give him one would, in effect, send him back to Italy, breaking both the form and the substance of Miller’s play. Everywhere else, Bolcom and his librettists have stretched the play to let in what expressiveness they could, enhancing the roles of Eddie’s wife Bea and her niece Catherine, bringing the neighborhood into play as a Greek chorus (with lawyer Alfieri as their choregus), and letting the richly colored orchestration say whatever Eddie is incapable of expressing.

The opera’s richness might be better conveyed in a livelier production; I found Frank Galati’s Met staging cramped and dull. Dennis Russell Davies caught all the orchestral colors but, at the fourth performance, held the singers in a tight rein that curbed emotional expansiveness. Despite which Gregory Turay (Rodolpho), Catherine Malfitano (Beatrice), and Sandra Lopez (Catherine) made a powerful impression. The final irony is that Broadway, in whose smaller houses nuances can be read, is probably a better venue for View, and for most of its illustrious predecessors in American dramatic opera, than the vast Met. I rather wish Boheme and View could change venues, and perhaps even directors. There’s a good half-century’s worth of operas for which the audience nurtured on sung-through musicals is now ready: Regina, Street Scene, Summer and Smoke, The Consul, Susannah. A number of these began life on Broadway, when the opera houses admitted nothing later than Puccini. What does it say about Broadway that the situation is now reversed?