Bizet's Carmen was reckoned a flop on opening night. The Viennese didn't really get Don Giovanni when Mozart's opera was new. These and other stories of overlooked merit give bitter comfort to many who are writing operas now. If this generation doesn't recognize pearls when it sees them, the theory goes, posterity may be less swinish.
But sometimes things do go well for a new piece -- and then, abruptly, not so well. Just ask Poul Ruders, composer of an opera based on Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, which played Copenhagen and London before reaching Toronto's Hummingbird Centre, where the Canadian Opera Company's production opens on Thursday.
"It was a very educating experience," Ruders mused, on the phone from Denmark. "The opera was received phenomenally well in Copenhagen, including by the London press. When it opened in London, it was hammered beyond recognition by those same papers, in a way that bordered on the hateful."
The production was the same in both places, and each audience heard the piece in its own language (Danish in Copenhagen in 2000, English in London last year). But even some critics who loved The Handmaid's Tale in Denmark couldn't warm to it in England.
Why that happened is a subject of keen interest at the COC. For the first time ever, the company is opening its season with a contemporary opera, by a composer who is practically unknown in Canada. The production that will be seen here is the same one that met with such extreme responses abroad. The COC is doing all it can to ensure that the response here is as Danish as possible.
That the work is on the bill at all has much to do with its origin in Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel. She wasn't involved in the creation of the opera (the libretto is by the English actor and writer Paul Bentley), but for the COC, performing the work where Atwood lives is a matter of bringing it home.
No one doubts that the opera is designed to provoke strong reactions. Ruders's instrumental work can be quite cool, but he decided that the novel's sensational story -- about an American theocracy in which fertile women are enslaved by a genetically damaged ruling class -- demanded a lurid, often expressionistic style.
" The Handmaid's Tale is not for wimps," he said. "It's got sex, betrayal, violent execution, the works.
"It really splits the audience down the middle, because it's not a nice story, and I don't write for everybody. . . . Most of The Handmaid's Tale is over the top, but it's theatre, and in opera, you have to border almost on the tacky. . . . Opera is emotional manipulation."
On the face of it, London in 2003 ought to have been more receptive than Copenhagen in 2000 to a vivid stage work about the dangers of repressive fundamentalism.
The twin towers had come down, the Taliban had been driven out of Afghanistan (or so it seemed) and the United States seemed to be morphing into a much more closed society.
"When we came to do the piece in London," said Phyllida Lloyd, who directed both of the earlier productions (and will reprise that role in Toronto, with Peter McKintosh's original designs), "there was a much more militant American president, whose rhetoric was peppered with Old Testament references to hell and damnation. We realized we were much closer to the Republic of Gilead" -- a reference to Atwood's fictional state.
Lloyd's opening video footage of the White House and the Statue of Liberty exploding had drawn laughter at the Royal Danish Opera in 2000. At the English National Opera, post-9/11, "it was greeted with a deathly silence," she said.
Lloyd thought the ENO production was the stronger of the two. Bad reviews, she said, had mostly to do with one group of English critics not wanting to rubber-stamp the praises of another.
But Ruders and Richard Bradshaw, general director of the COC, saw or rather heard definite weaknesses in London. They differed, however, on how the problems might be fixed.
"We had a less sensitive conductor [Elgar Howarth]" Ruders said. "He really hammered away, and that ruined a lot of it."
Bradshaw, like many others, found the English text "almost totally incomprehensible" at the ENO, and found the performance less compelling than in Copenhagen. (There were exceptions: He was so pleased with Canadian soprano Stephanie Marshall in the lead role that he hired her for Toronto.) He also believed that the opera needed editing.
"The second act was tremendously tight," he said. "The first act had its longueurs, and I think there were others who felt the same way."
He insisted that his performance contract with Ruders's publisher give the COC the right to cut up to 20 minutes from the first act alone. He met with Lloyd to begin planning the surgery.
"We sat down and imagined that we were compelled to make 20 minutes' worth of cuts, as a hypothetical exercise," Lloyd remembered.
"We said, 'What could go, and not do damage to the audience's enjoyment?' " As they worked, however, the prospective cuts began to seem less necessary, till in the end only five to seven minutes of Ruders's 2½-hour score will be left out.
But that is far too much for one of the opera's creators.
"The librettist, Paul Bentley, is fuming with rage," said Ruders. "I'm not that squeamish. I can easily live with the cuts, but I don't understand them. . . . I wasn't consulted at all. I wasn't asked what I would suggest, until the very, very end, when I was e-mailed the final cuts by Bradshaw, four weeks ago. That was a bit strange. If it had been whittled down by 20 minutes, it would have been madness. I wouldn't have come."
Bentley, reached by e-mail, said he was "making a stand . . . in defence of my work, and indeed the work of all other living librettists." He pointed out that an entirely different production of The Handmaid's Tale by the Minnesota Opera last year had made no cuts and pleased the majority of the public and critics.
As for making the text comprehensible, Bradshaw had an easy solution: surtitles. But on this point he ran into heated resistance from Lloyd.
"I think there's something preposterous about singing in English and projecting the words," she said. Like others who oppose the use of surtitles, she laments their tendency to weaken the direct link between the audience and the action on the stage. "But I'm sure it will help in this piece," she said, with a touch of resignation. "There's a certain detachment in Atwood's work, something quite Brechtian about her refusal to allow a sentimental attachment to her characters."
A slight distancing through projected titles will only enhance this effect, she said. She's also aware that, unlike the audience at the ENO, the COC's public has developed what Bradshaw calls an "umbilical" relationship with surtitles.
Bradshaw said he's confident the opera will carry the day in Toronto, and that any fears about filling seats are misplaced. The company had already sold 13,000 subscription tickets for the opera's six performances by the time rehearsals began last month.
Ultimately, whether the piece succeeds or fails may be a matter of faith. Plenty of new works have been scuttled by performers who weren't committed to the music.
"You've got to believe in the piece, and believe you can make it work," said Bradshaw, who will conduct all performances. He said he was sure about the opera's essentials after Copenhagen, and has gradually settled his doubts about much else. Now it's up to him to convince the rest of us.
The Handmaid's Tale opens Thursday at Toronto's Hummingbird Centre. Concert pieces by Poul Ruders, with the composer in attendance, will also be heard at a Soundstreams Canada concert on Sept. 27 at the Glenn Gould Studio.