Modern opera is suffering from some nasty defamation of character. For decades now, rumours have swirled about contemporary opera and its, well, ugliness. Thomas Adès sounds like Strauss played backwards and upside-down. John Adams sounds like a record stuck on a half-second loop. What key is Schoenberg in, anyway?
It seems that the 1900s produced such shocking moments of dissonance and broken traditions that in these early decades of the 21st century, the word “contemporary” is still saddled with bad press. But it’s time to rethink that reputation.
Despite any upward battles it may fight against public opinion, opera’s most notable shift in the 21st century has been in its return to the beautiful tune. Yes, “beautiful” is a subjective term, but there’s an undeniable nod to the Romantic era in the operas by Kevin Puts (Silent Night), Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking), and Canada’s John Estacio (Filumena); those who heard Rufus Wainwright’s loving score to Hadrian this fall found an especially recent example of this latest trend. These operas look back to the sweeping lines of Puccini and Strauss, showing voices at their best and making room for some heart and soul alongside the often cerebral process of composition.
This season, opera companies across Canada continue this trend with new and newish offerings, making it easy for Canadian opera goers to avoid hours of atonality.
Champion (Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer), l’Opéra de Montréal, January:
This story of prize fighter Emile Griffith features music by Terence Blanchard, the American jazz trumpeter and composer who has over forty film scores to his name (Malcolm X, Jungle Fever). Blanchard writes with a simplicity that creates a beautiful, barrier-free storytelling experience, important qualities for Champion, a biopic-like opera with heavy themes like homophobia and brain trauma.
Twenty-Seven (Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek), l’Opéra de Montréal, March:
Ricky Ian Gordon is one of the growing number of composers writing opera who are also steeped in the musical theatre tradition. In the 21st century, it’s less of a taboo for opera to share a sound with musical theatre; one of the results is Twenty-Seven, which tells of the relationship between Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. Gordon’s score has loud hints of musical theatre in it, and though he’s not afraid of a crunchy chord, his harmonies are always beautiful. (In fact, it was Stephanie Blythe, coiner of the term “squeak-fart music,” who sang the role of Gertrude Stein in the 2013 premiere of Twenty-Seven.)
Everest (Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer), Calgary Opera, February:
Calgary Opera puts up the Canadian premiere of Joby Talbot’s 2014 Everest, based on the harrowing true story of a group of climbers on Mount Everest. Talbot, the composer behind the film score for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has a minimalist vibe in his concert music that nods to Philip Glass. It stretches the ears, but in a way that feels hip.
Hook Up (Chris Thornborrow and Julie Tepperman), Tapestry Opera, January:
The world premiere of Hook Up might be where your ears get tested this season – after all, it’s Tapestry Opera – but not without good reason. Following Selfie, his 2015 collaboration with Tapestry, which addressed online bullying, Chris Thornborrow’s Hook Up talks about consent, shame and other elements of modern sexual relationships. As a composer, Thornborrow’s style is versatile and not without eclecticism; you may not always be sure what key his music is in, but he certainly isn’t the sort to obscure a good story with inaccessible music.
Shanawdithit (Dean Burry and Yvette Nolan), Tapestry Opera, May:
Dean Burry’s operas come with a good dose of kooky dissonance, but if his widespread audience of young listeners can handle it, so can the adults. A large part of Burry’s output has been opera for young people (The Brothers Grimm, The Bremen Town Musicians); he stretches the limits of tonality, but he prioritizes dramatic timing and an organic way of setting text, elements that go far in making dissonant music sound natural. Burry, originally from Newfoundland, is a composer who immerses himself in the stories he tells with his operas. It’s worth remembering this when Tapestry Opera puts up his 1996 opera Shanawdithit – named after the young woman of the Beothuk, an Indigenous people of Newfoundland.