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Blog » 8 reasons not to be cheerful

11 Nov  
I have recently come across this article written by an opera critic Robert Thicknesse in the previous issue of Opera Now magazine.  The article discusses the eight worst contemporary operas of the year - it is both sad and funny and I thought could maybe sparkle a discussion here.  I was reading it with great interest particularly because am in the middle of writing a short comic opera, which, am now worried, might be eligible for the next black list!
[reprinted here with kind permission of Robert Thicknesse]

"It’s been a vintage year for new opera in Britain… not! So here, for all who have sweated, suffered and sworn through the patronising, camp, pompous and almost universally musically worthless offerings of the past months, is a trip down memory lane.

Least painful, probably, was Anna Nicole (Turnage), whose uncertainty of aim – contempt or pretend sympathy? – stymied the composer to the extent that his real voice came over only in a couple of orchestral interludes; the rest moved so slowly it did no favours to a libretto that needed to be sung double-quick to get away with jokes you could see staggering towards you over distant hills. It would have been better if scribbler Richard Thomas, jovial celebrant of the tawdry, had written the music as well. This was a vulgar spectacle, which looked as though it had been directed by Graham Norton and designed by Jeff Koons, with old auntie Covent Garden vajazzling herself to get down with the kidz.

Our next suspect is ENO’s Duchess of Malfi (Torsten Rasch), another show that at least went to the trouble of trying to cover up the threadbare with a truckload of theatrical bullshit, as a masked audience wandered through a darkened office block in east London witnessing snippets of melodrama and randomly-generated music, and being bullied by actors – and does it get worse than that? This was a vastly over-promoted Haunted House children’s party, and God only knows what kind of hole it made in ENO’s budget.

Somewhere in the same bracket comes Damon Albarn’s navel-gazing thing about his y’know, Englishness, Dr Dee. Its exceptionally vague dramaturgy was livened up by Rufus Norris’s hard-working production, full of visual trickery and even a nice raven. Some pleasant music, a bit of pastiche polyphony and minimalism, and a big drum solo; Damon sat on a shelf making vague gestures towards the action and mumbling his way through mystic songs, like Spinal Tap in Stonehenge mode. Best read up on the Doctor before you go, if you go.

Kommilitonen! blew into town on a warm fart of self-righteousness as two cosy old lefties, Peter Maxwell Davies and David Pountney, daringly invited us to hiss at Nazis and Cultural Revolutionaries and did a lot of posturing in an agit-propera with an infantile approach to moral complexity. Still, Davies is a real composer, if no longer particularly radical, and Pountney put lots of effort into making his own work look good. The final cry of “Freedom!” takes the Les Mis prize for this year’s cheesiest bathos.

Davies’s old mucker Alexander Goehr returned to opera, never his strong suit, with Promised End, boldly going where better composers had feared to tread in taking on King Lear. This was terrifically dry, dull and dated, a lesson in how to destroy promising words with terrible word-setting and alienate an audience who strive to find some emotional connexion with the characters on stage. Elsewhere, Goehr’s music was spikily lyrical, though uninterestingly scored.

That was a gloomy evening, but James Macmillan’s Clemency was worse. The ideas were promising – hospitality, terrorism, bargaining with God, a bit like a night in a British seaside hotel – but issues raised do not equal issues explored, and the soundworld of big retro unison string tunes à la Vaughan Williams and Macmillan’s urgent rhythmic drive were not enough to sustain a flagging interest, or even the will to live.

That finally seeped away during Luke Bedford’s drivelling Seven Angels, a dank evening where one felt one was slowly drowning in a musical bog while being bombarded with soggy frogs in the form of Glyn Maxwell’s empty, orotund poetastery, this time on the radical subject of how we are, like, doing really bad things to the ecology, and co-opting poor old Milton for the purpose.

At this unhappy end of the market, optimism clings to such formulae as: “Well, that was incredibly boring, but it wasn’t too irritating,” not something one could possibly say about Two Boys, composed by perky little Nico Muhly, a composer in urgent need of a slap. A discarded episode of some police procedural set to the most derivative score of second-hand Glass (or was it Adams – does anyone care?), with a gloomy, clunking staging, any marginal quality in the evening was provided by the stalwart Nicky Spence: a nice lad, but seeing him wanking in close-up was not previously on my list of must-dos – even though it neatly summed up the only thing most contemporary opera composers excel at."

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 FergusJ commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
11 November 2011 at 18:11

This is a critic who has his head so far up his own arse, it's coming out of his mouth.

 FergusJ commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
11 November 2011 at 18:12

But it's still hilarious!

 Elena Langer commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
11 November 2011 at 20:21

Have you actually seen any of these operas? What was your opinion?

 MartinY commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
12 November 2011 at 10:31

My first reaction to reading this was great, I am not the only person in the UK who loses the will to live listening to James Macmillan’s music. Maybe there is nothing wrong with me.

It is a very entertaining review but I wonder if it is all true. It certainly does not inspire one to rush off to the opera house. Maybe BBC 4 should broadcast more of this stuff so one can watch it on TV in the prescence of a kettle and a remote control to revert to CSI if it gets too much. My first instinct is that the review might be 90% true, and that I should complete the book of songs I have been tentatively working on and ignore even the concept of opera.

 MartinY commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
12 November 2011 at 16:39

I do not know if this is relevant but many of the composers whose efforts I think are complete garbage are clearly very talented performers with great memories for playing other peoples music and famtastic physical ability.

I wonder if the problem is just that though anybody can write a piece of music of some sort, writing a good piece is just so fantastically difficult. The only exception to this seems to be baroque music where I myself feel much more tolerant of mediocre baraoque music than the music of other periods. Why is this?

 IanTipping commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
13 November 2011 at 12:44

Ha! Really enjoyed that post. I've been wondering about the relevance of modern opera for a few years, since I saw the Silver Tassie by Turnage in it's first run. It certainly had it's affecting moments but considering the power of the story, and I'm an absolute sucker for First World War tragedy tales, it wasn't as absorbing as I assumed it would be. And I speak as quite an admirer of Turnage. Funnily enough, the only one of the reviewed opera I saw was Anna Nicole, and that via BBC4's broadcast. I agree more or less completely with the reviewer's points. I didn't hate it, but likewise I didn't love it or feel particularly affected by it (is that the worst criticism there is?). I also agreed that the best of it was in the instrumental interludes - Turnage is so good at texturing an orchestra that I found myself wanting to hear more of that and less of the singing! Incidentally, much I always do with Wagner....

To relate your final comment, Martin, and possibly to put the cat amongst the pigeons, could it simply be that you're more forgiving towards mediocre baroque music simply because you like that period's music? I certainly feel that way about Big Band music - I've probably played more mediocre 40s swing than really good stuff over the years, and yet I mostly still love it, just cos I love the style (often in spite of the substance!) Still find it impossible to feel that way about Glenn Miller though - I'm with Artie Shaw who reputedly once said Miller should've lived and his music should've died...

 AndrewDClapham commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
15 November 2011 at 11:03

Ahh yet more envious Muhly bashing! Admittedly the music from Two Boys is not great but the vast amounts of contempt for him from the 'classical' community is laughable, so he is young and far more well known than most of the dinosaurs that dominate the field, he is introducing more people to contemporary music than anyone else that I am aware of at present so why do you dislike him so much? It seems to be it boils down to his success more than anything else, rather Muhly than Turnage or Maxwell-Davies and their half assed 'experimentalism' that is akin to a childrens orchestra tuning up only made semi-credible by pseudo-scientific program notes and 'extra musical' allusions.

 Elena Langer commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
15 November 2011 at 11:34

I doubt that an opera critic would be jealous of Muhly's wonderful success! Critics usually judge by the artistic merits, don't they?

 AndrewDClapham commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
15 November 2011 at 12:37

They should do, but frankly who actually cares, pays any attention to or bases their own tastes from what critics say? Critics are no more capable or credible than any other person who listens to music on a regular basis to judge whether something is good. As for the Muhly bashing bear in mind the audience for this mans articles tend towards people (composers, librettists etc) who want to be told that Muhly is substandard. He is pandering to his audience by telling them what they want to hear, yes he should be judging by artistic merits but don't forget that selling papers/stories is his prime goal, the easiest way to do that is criticise someone who is already maligned to give credence to the opinions of the envious.

 Elena Langer commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
15 November 2011 at 13:37

I am afraid that the Opera Now (from where this article was copied)readers actually can't tell the difference between Turnage and Muhly, probably hate any contemporary opera all together. From this point of view, yes, the article might be pleasing for its readers. Otherwise, I agree with many points there. I just wonder WHY contemporary opera has been unimpressive, why it fails to entertain or surprise us? What is the real reason?

 AndrewDClapham commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
15 November 2011 at 14:03

Ok fair enough. As for the question of why contemporary opera is perceived as unimpressive... obviously a complex issue but I find too many composers are willing to blame the audience for not 'getting it' as an easy get out clause.

I think the main reason is duration, we live in a fast moving society and being forced to sit through a 2-4 hour opera is incompatible with this, people have a short attention span hence why contemporary art is more popular than contemporary music. In a gallery you can move on should you dislike a certain piece, in a concert hall the control is in the hands of the performers. Some might argue it is an outdated medium, once the preserve of the upper classes which might explain its limited popularity, I believe the perception is that it is elitist. The extent to which it is culturally relevant to our society now is under scrutiny.

Do not take this as personal criticism by the way as I rather like the music I have heard of yours and I don't believe opera is a dead medium, but it is dying and will continue to do so until affirmative action is taken.

 Elena Langer commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
15 November 2011 at 14:24

Ha ha, yes, am aware that for the last few years have been working within a dying medium using incomprehensible (at least to most 'normal' people) musical language...

 MartinY commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
15 November 2011 at 19:24

To be a little less negative I notice there has been quite a bit of media interest in the UK in the 100 year old opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle. This really is a fantastic piece though quite how do you stage such a static opera, though the music is indestructable in any setting. Maybe someone is writing a short opera to fit modern timespans and attention spans as good as this one at this very moment.

(I was agreeably surprised by how much I enjoyed the recent broadcast of the Turangalila Symphony because my memory of the Doctor Who meets the Pope aspects of the piece might have been too much for me. I was surprised how modern this nearly 70 year old piece sounded.)

 Elena Langer commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
17 November 2011 at 21:06

May I continue to be negative - have you recently seen Castor and Pollux by Rameau at ENO? I thought that was an example of weak and undramatic baroque music. But I would agree with you about Messiaen - somehow his music always sounds fresh...

 MartinY commenting on 8 reasons not to be cheerful:
18 November 2011 at 15:45

When I have played in baroque operas I have not particularly enjoyed it, other than Monteverdi's Orfeo. However with baroque trio sonatas and sonatas there are a lot which you can enjoy playing but would not like to hear in a concert. I was once at a very long student concert where the 1st half was seven trio sonatas. The last group announced they were going to play Fux's Nurnberg Partita, a very good work both to hear and to play and the audience groaned. It has six movements.

More contemporary reports of French baroque opera have now been published in English and it seems to me quite a lot of eminent people thought the opera scene was stultifyingly boring even then, including comments from the philosopher J. J. Rousseau. I do like Rameau's keyboard music but I have never taken to his vocal music unlike the Lamentations of Couperin which are the highlights of the silly but worth watching award-winning film about Marais and viols. After a cinema showing in Newcastle a member of the audience said, 'it's a very mournful instrument, the 'cello'..........

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