Sunday, April 1, 2007

Opera buffa for our time?

About a week ago, Soho the Dog posted an odd little open-ended quiz for the classical blog community. I never tried to complete it because I found the opening question to be too much of a stumper: "Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music." It felt like a 'separate the men from the boys' question since it takes a good bit of investment in opera to get to know a libretto well when you don't even like the music. I ended up feeling more boy than man because I simply couldn't think of any libretti that I truly loved - probably The Marriage of Figaro and Albert Herring would top the list, but I love those libretti because of the music.

However, it occurred to me during last week's run of opera scenes that the selection we performed from Haydn's La Canterina came as close as anything to fitting the bill. I'm on record as saying I'm not much of a fan of Papa Haydn, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this scene. On reflection, I don't think the music had a lot to do with it; all the funniest bits were in the recitative and it was some pretty perfunctory recitative from a musical point-of-view. The quartet that concluded the scene was fine but very much by-the-numbers. I wouldn't say I love the libretto, so it doesn't really fit Soho's question, but the zaniness of the story is what makes the opera tick. The music is almost an afterthought.

Speaking of zany, I return to my question about why contemporary composers aren't more interested in musical theater or comic opera. An entertaining story that carries an audience along and features lots of silly highjinks might make listeners more receptive to music that's new. Since I can't imagine that I'd ever be in a position to carry out this idea, I'm going to reveal a great possible comic opera property: The Seven Year Itch. Watching this movie again reminded me how stage-y it is; it also has a pretty simple, even flimsy plot, which is more about amusing situations and characters than building a rich narrative. That's comic opera material, all right. All of Richard Sherman's little monologues could make for some wonderful arias and a clever composer would incorporate Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto into the score. I suppose it would also work well as a more traditional Broadway musical, but that's too easy.

Speaking of comedy, my recent update about George Benjamin and constraints led me to this very interesting interview with Benjamin and a younger composer, Luke Bedford. About his influences, Bedford says:

I'm still most inspired by the music of the 50s and 60s, people like Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Boulez. But I'm also fascinated by comedy. I find I can learn things technically from shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Benjamin says of his admiration for another TV comedy:

In the beginning of a Fawlty Towers episode, reality is disturbed. You get about five different types of character, and they all send out their tendrils, and by the end of half an hour, they're all connected in the climax in the most atrocious ways. It's a mix of inevitability and awful, agonising surprise: and that really is a lesson in composition. You set up things that disturb normality in the beginning; by the end it's culminated in something surprising. It's as if in bar five of a piece, you plant a tiny little detail which shouldn't be there, and that little moment grows into the biggest element in the music 10 minutes later.

I like these quotes because they reveal a respect for the craftsmanship that goes into the best TV shows. I was never the biggest fan of Frasier during its run, mainly because I find the three main supporting characters (Martin, Roz, Daphne) to be poorly written and acted. (Frasier and Niles are perfect characters, of course.) However, watching it every now and then in syndication, I marvel at how beautifully the best episodes are constructed. Silly yes, but undergirded by a skillfulness that would make Rossini or Donizetti proud - I think even the fugal-minded Bach could appreciate the clockwork-like intricacy of these plots. So, rather than another overblown, self-important and depressing story, why shouldn't the next big opera commission bring Marilyn Monroe to the Met? I can just hear a coloratura singing, "He'll never know because I stay kissing sweet the new Dazzledent way."


Elaine Fine said...

I was never interested in Frasier during its run either, but now it is the only thing I watch on television, really. The characters would actually make good opera characters, and there are also many opportunities for ensemble numbers. Frasier would be played by a baritone, and Niles by a tenor, naturally. Daphne would be a soprano, Roz would be a mezzo, and Marty could be a basso, but I would probably veer towards bass-baritone for him. And imagine what could be done with Lilith's monotone!

Hmm. I had better stop before I get too excited.

This comment has been removed by the author.

Now imagine that - a weekly half-hour of opera buffa. Composers used to churn these things out pretty regularly, after all. Your casting is right on, Elaine, although I'd further define Daphne as a coloratura. Love the idea of Lilith's monotone.

I think if I were teaching a composition class (or an 18th-century opera class), I'd assign this project right away.

[I only removed my last post because of a typo.]

Unknown said...

The Frasier characters are actually based directly on the Italian Commedia dell'arte characters.