Contemporary Opera or Baroque Modern?

Modern Baroque Opera newsletter, February 2004

 "So what is contemporary opera?" an acquaintance asks skeptically when I announce what I am working on. Good question. For many, the term is an oxymoron, because for them opera means "grand opera" and extends from Mozart to Puccini, with the occasional foray into Berg or Britten for the adventurous. The singers this repertoire conjures up are what I sometimes irreverently refer to as "voices on steroids", the style of voice that was invented in the last half of the 19th century to project over the expanding power of the symphonic orchestra, and in the 20th century to cope with the gigantic volume of new opera houses needed to accommodate a large (paying) audience. Since these houses rarely commission new works, the contemporary composer is typically left with the "big voice/small budget" scenario for chamber works that seem a pale imitation of "real opera".

Another acquaintance, this time an "opera person", sniffs, "Oh you mean …" and he lets out a series of squeaks and growls that I take are his version of what contemporary composers ask singers to emit. "No," I reply hastily, "I've had enough of such angst, my work is entirely lyrical." At that point I suspect he's satisfied that I've seen the errors of my radical youth and reverted to traditional harmony, like many of my colleagues who were formerly committed to "new music" and now get to have their tonal cake and keep their contemporary status under postmodernism's motto of "anything goes". For a moment I consider trying to tell him that my solution involves electroacoustic technology &endash; a word that is neither in my computer's spellchecker, as I just discovered, nor in even the musical intelligentsia's vocabulary, given how this artform has been marginalized by both the mainstream media and cultural institutions.

My colleagues around the world who are working on small-scale productions and have an annual get-together affectionately called "NewOp", frequently discuss what to call our work on their listserve. "Contemporary opera" is the faute de mieux favourite, but many prefer "music theatre" (which they carefully distinguish from the American "musical theatre"). Music theatre rightly implies that the theatrical element is given more weight in their productions, and that has been one solution to the contemporary opera dilemma, particularly since traditional opera's ideas about theatricality are stuck in 19th century plotlines. Audiences will probably be more strongly engaged by a dose of contemporary theatre, but will the accompanying musical pastiche be as satisfying, and more importantly, will these works survive? In my case, though, I'd have to call my work "electroacoustic music theatre" &endash; accurate but a mouthful.

So, there I was in 1995, a composer who loves opera and works with technology, often to process voice and text, bitten by the creative urge to write an opera (my third, for the record, but the first two, back in the early 1970s when no one had heard of electroacoustic opera, never had a professional production). Worse still, I had no librettist handy. John Cage wrote, "We make our lives by what we love", and so I turned to what I love, lyric poetry and singing, the voice as source material &endash; and Baroque opera, from Monteverdi to Mozart, with Cavalli and Handel being my personal favourites. Could they teach me lessons that would work today? Could we realize a baroque modern opera?

The power of Baroque opera was based on the linking of text to music such that the music followed and augmented the natural speech flow, so I began collecting lyrical poetry from Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Cavalcanti, Marino), Rumi, and from newly rediscovered female poets (Louise Labé from France, Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn from England), Whitman and Tennyson, to the early 20th century with Rilke's poetry in a superbly musical translation by my colleague Norbert Ruebsaat. A "modal" musical language, without the harmonic drive of the 19th century, provided a timeless, floating sensation for these historical texts that remain curiously relevant today.

We are now blessed with excellent singers trained in early music, and their clear, lyrical voices, expressively nuanced and fluid, treat words with great clarity. But how to match their modest acoustic output with the large-scale sound textures I had in mind? The simple solution &endash; a traditional operatic sin! &endash; amplify them with wireless mikes. Not having to boost their voices to project over an orchestra, singers can revert to the vocal beauty we associate with Baroque opera. An added benefit is that ranges such as the counter-tenor and alto, which largely disappeared from grand opera, can now be reclaimed.

Moreover, these voices, plus spoken material (not to mention percussion and environmental sounds) can be digitally processed, resonated and stretched such that they become the musical "environment" that is the accompaniment to the live parts. Luckily, at SFU, we have developed a multi-channel performance system that projects sounds around the audience. This immersive experience greatly intensifies the music, as well as providing extra layers of sound material to comment on the action.

And finally, what about the story we want to tell? Again, technology suggests the answer. Just as Baroque opera delighted in elaborate stage machinery for supernatural effects, we have even greater power to present both visual and aural imagery that would be difficult to include in conventional staging. Yet we know from our current cultural situation that there is a certain unease with the proliferation of technology, a confusion between the real and the virtual, conflict between materialism and spiritual values. And that is where Powers of Two begins: four contemporary characters, both heterosexual and homosexual, are caught up in these personal dilemmas, seeking answers not within themselves but from external sources or gurus, and getting the answers wrong even then. How will they find personal fulfillment? In the next newsletter I will describe this attempt at a baroque modern opera, with thanks to Modern Baroque Opera for allowing me to complete it.