This week, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, co-founders of Toronto's Opera Atelier, will be at Penn State University, leading master classes on Baroque operatic technique. A few weeks ago, they were called on stage in Salzburg, Austria, to receive repeated, ecstatic ovations for their new production of Mozart's Lucio Silla – one that famed French conductor Marc Minkowski, who led the orchestra, told them was "the most radical thing to happen in Salzburg in decades."
And in May, 2014, Pynkoski and Zingg will take coals to Newcastle – or, perhaps better put, Champagne to France – as Opera Atelier's new version of Baroque master Jean-Baptiste Lully's Persée returns to the theatre for which it was originally written – the Royal Opera House at Versailles; when conductor David Fallis gives the Tafelmusik Orchestra the downbeat for the overture, it will be the first time Persée will have been heard in that house since opening night in 1770. Opera Atelier has had many successes over its 27-year history – its most recent production of Der Freischutz attracted attention around the world – but being asked to export one of the great French operas back to its birthplace is of a different order of accomplishment.
And one more sign of an ongoing sea change in the world of opera.
Part of the reason for Atelier's current popularity may lie in the way European companies have come to present their own heritage: The "concept" opera, where directors impose on older works the zeitgeist of current times, has these days become the norm. The avant-garde, in other words, has become commonplace.
Returning to the spirit of the original works, faithfully reanimating them with the gestures and visual style of centuries past – as do Opera Atelier's "authentic" productions – is now, by default, cutting-edge.
Conductor Fallis (whose Toronto Consort last week presented another Baroque gem, Francesco Cavalli's little-performed Loves of Apollo and Daphne) says that when Atelier began, the company was told that Baroque opera was impossible to mount, its theatrical traditions just too different from the mainstream.
Today, he says, there is a new generation of operagoers with wide and catholic tastes; and the stylized, emotional, premodern spirit of Baroque opera is resonating with them. New York's Metropolitan Opera has begun adding Baroque works to its standard rotation, with such stars as Renée Fleming in starring roles. Next season, the Canadian Opera Company is staging a major production of Handel's Hercules.
Baroque opera was the entertainment of the European aristocracy in the century before the French revolution – "music written to celebrate the glory of tyrants" as Pynkoski puts it. Persée was written to celebrate the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. It was a glorious art form, with masters from Jean-Philippe Rameau to Handel – ornate, stylized, artificial, and consumed with stories from Greek and Roman mythology.
But the wave of the French Revolution, and everything it stood for, effectively washed Baroque opera out of existence.
Then, in recent decades, it reappeared as part of the "early music" resurgence that gave rise to such instrumental groups as Tafelmusik; in some cases, it had a distinct scholarly thrust. Today, however, it is taking its rightful place as a full partner in the opera world, with no need for historically informed excuses. Lully is becoming as contemporary as Verdi.
One reason may be that Baroque opera's excessive and emotional style fits our excessive and demonstrative times. The post-postmodern age has in many ways abandoned the clear rationality of the Enlightenment that had destroyed the conventions of Baroque art; we seem to be losing our taste for the down-to-earth, prosaic, "realistic" plot lines that informed everything from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro to Verdi's La Traviata.
Or perhaps it's just that real life is beginning to resemble the stylized world that Baroque opera celebrated. Turn to today's new pages for proof: stories of alleged murder by a South African celebrity; of suicide among participants in celebrity rehab TV; ads featuring haunted models selling perfume and jeans. Call it the tortured frenzy of high emotion; it is a world that Baroque opera inhabited. Three centuries later, it is modern once again.
And more accessible than ever. George Trudeau, the arts administrator who invited Pynkoski and Zingg to Penn State, said he first came across Opera Atelier on YouTube – as do many of his students. In that ultrademocratic world, Baroque opera is claiming new fans right alongside Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Pynkoski said that when he first went to Salzburg to direct Lucio Silla, the singers, unfamiliar with period style, were terrified that a "historically informed " production meant that they were going to have to prance around in tights like Dresden figurines.
And so he presented them with 100 contemporary photos of sports figures, and people in war and disaster zones: David Beckham clutching his head in despair at a loss; figure skater Joannie Rochette, overcome with emotion on completing her long program at the Olympics; survivors in shock after Hurricane Sandy. "These are the gestures of Baroque opera – the gestures of people in the grip of overwhelming emotion," he told his singers. "That's what I want our production to look like."
For a long time, the world of classical music, opera and dance worked on a simple chronological scale. Older art forms were valuable chiefly as museum pieces that let us see how the new – the better – had developed. Now, new technologies, new thinking and a new ambitiousness is allowing us to recapture, as new, forms we once thought obsolete. Baroque opera is one of them. In the wired world in which we live, we will find others.