Where is contemporary opera? | Claire Jackson
Monday, June 26, 2023
‘It’s perplexing to see that the Royal Opera House's 2023-24 season doesn’t feature a single contemporary work on the main stage’
From the waxing and waning of the moon to the autumnal pull of new stationery, life is made reliable through its cyclical nature. At granular level, it’s the morning coffee routine; in a commercial realm, it’s the division into tax years. For the opera fan, we might describe the situation thus: season announcements, country-house opera summer festivals, season openings. Our year begins when the trees are newly in leaf – an oddly unsettlingly calendar, for just as we’re reaching the peak of a particular venue’s current programme, our eye is caught by something shiny in the distance.
And so it was that the ink had barely dried on thoughts about Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence, the 2018 opera that recently made its much-anticipated UK premiere after opening at Festival D’Aix-en-Provence in 2021, that the Royal Opera House (ROH) published its 2023-24 season. Simon Stone’s stunning production of Saariaho’s work was part of the main stage programming, supplementing the contemporary chamber works performed in the same venue’s Linbury Theatre. These included Last Days, ROH/Guildhall School Composer-in-Residence Oliver Leith’s gripping opera adapted from Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film about Kurt Cobain, and the UK premiere of Irish National Opera’s Least Like the Other – an impactful work (scored by Brian Irvine) about Rosemary Kennedy, JFK’s sister who endured abuse that included a botched lobotomy. Both impressed for their quality and artistic boldness, and were among the best-reviewed operas of the year.
I’m not naïve to the reality that contemporary music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea
It’s perplexing, then, to see that the 2023-24 season doesn’t feature a single contemporary work on the main stage. George Benjamin’s Picture a day like this has its UK premiere in the Linbury, alongside the new electro-acoustic piece Woman & Machine. Instead, the lion’s share of exciting 21st-century music is given over to ballet, which has a brilliant line-up of composers including Joby Talbot (The Winter’s Tale), Philip Feeney (The Cellist) and Thomas Adès (The Dante Project).
I’m not naïve to the reality that contemporary music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. To be perfectly honest, I’m not particularly thrilled about the prospect of a piece that combines ‘the sonic worlds of the neonatal unit and the womb’ (Woman & Machine), but I’m very happy that it’s being made for others to enjoy. When I worked on a piano magazine, nitpicking columns about the concertos on offer at, say, the Proms, was a perennial pastime. As lovely as Rachmaninov 2 remains, we observed, there’s an audience for Adès, Adams and Saunders (not to mention the wealth of lesser-programmed historic concertos).
Without Gerald Barry or Harrison Birtwistle we cannot fully understand Britten and Beethoven
Whether that audience is enough to sustain the costs of mounting a new opera on the main stage is another question. A new production is costly enough, but when new music – often requiring specialist performers – is involved, the risks spiral. After the difficulties of recent years, it’s never been more important for opera houses to consider the bottom line. As governmental support becomes increasingly precarious in the UK – Glyndebourne, English National Opera and Welsh National Opera have all had to make impromptu dramatic amendments to their upcoming seasons – the lure of the Italian greats grows. ROH 2023-24 revives Christof Loy’s La Forza del Destino, Laurent Pelly’s L’elisir d’amore, Oliver Mears’s Rigoletto, Damiano Michieletto’s double-bill Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci, Jonathan Kent’s Tosca and Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, among others. It’s a similar story at the summer festivals – with the exception of Giant by Sarah Angliss, which premiered at Aldeburgh Festival (9 June), and Jonathan Dove’s Itch, a co-commissioned co-production by Opera Holland Park and Canadian Opera Company (opens 22 July in London) – there is very little in the way of contemporary works.
The operatic eco-system features networks of singers, teachers, designers, engineers, directors, administrators, librettists, copyists – and, at the centre, composers. The UK’s pathways are particularly potholed just now. As Simon Rattle said in a speech at the Barbican last month, ‘Without an orchestra or chorus you no longer have an opera company – these are not things that can just be reassembled later, or bought in from Ikea.’ Similarly, without Gerald Barry or Harrison Birtwistle we cannot fully understand Britten and Beethoven. Old and new must continue to coincide – collide, even – in opera.
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