GLR September-October 2022


What Keeps Opera Alive?

S EVEN YEARS AGO, I had the good fortune to attend the Ameri can Repertory Theater’s production of Matthew Aucoin’s newly com pleted opera Crossing at the Schubert The ater in Boston. Afterwards in my journal, I noted: “Exciting to be there at the premiere of a gorgeous new opera by a Wunderkind who surely will be going places in the next few years.” turns out to be a superb writer as well. Recently issued by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera , is an extended essay on the out landish absurdity—but also the “inextinguishable life force”—of this 400-year-old art form. In the face of the “im possibility” of opera, which he calls “this perpetual sense that the real thing is just out of reach,” Aucoin sets out to explain why he loves opera. He is a composer and a listener who prefers the interior adven tures of opera, the “life-and-death urgency” of it, over the extravagant public spectacles, and he writes pas sionately and cogently about opera’s capacity to communicate these inner experiences. The book is not a chronologi cal history of opera but rather an in vestigation of some key aspects, seen in a few carefully selected works. Thus there is no discussion of Wagner or Han del or Rossini, to name just a few of the

Alfred Brendel. The way he takes his read ers through the musical progression of a score is wonderfully exciting, giving us the “adventure” that his title promises. He is enormously savvy about music—the way it can scald, fizz, burble, and snarl, all verbs he deploys with panache. We are in the company of a working composer, one who has intimate knowledge of how a piece of musical drama works.


THE IMPOSSIBLE ART Adventures in Opera by Matthew Aucoin Farrar, Straus and Giroux 299 pages, $28.

Aucoin possesses an uncanny ability to nail down a composer’s style in a single, spot-on phrase: the “musical cubism” of Stravinsky; the “persistent tension between Apollonian and Dionysian energies” in Monteverdi; the “matchless honesty and directness” of Verdi, a composer who is the “least likely to make a misstep in dramatic pacing or psychological portraiture.” In

The Wunderkind, then a mere 25 years old—he was born in 1990, in the Boston area—has indeed gone places. The next year, Aucoin was appointed Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera, and in 2018 he won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fel lowship. To date, he has written three operas, several orchestral works, and almost two dozen chamber music pieces. In addi tion to being a splendid composer, Aucoin

deed, Verdi’s three operas based on Shakespeare seem to have in spired some of Aucoin’s most trenchant descriptions: Macbeth is “a bloody prime cut of Italian opera”; Otello is full of “molten swiftness”; Falstaff is an “unex pected late-inning about-face.” The process of adapting a play by Shakespeare, Aucoin ob serves, “is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland : some features of the original shrink or evapo rate, while others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions.” While he acknowledges the stereotype of opera as “a circus for the superrich,” Aucoin conveys an infectious passion for opera’s mod ern possibilities. He is intimately knowledgeable about contempo rary opera. His discussions of the complex music dramas of Harrison Birtwistle, Chaya Czernowin, and Thomas Adès (“the guy who wrote the blowjob opera”) make for exciting and stimulating reading. Other contemporary composers whom

he mentions in passing—Barry Anderson, Kaija Saariaho, Ash Fure, Andrew Norman—underscore Aucoin’s respectful, sin cere, and generous regard for his compatriots. Aucoin’s prose can be by turns smart, funny, hip, elegant, playful. He presumes a familiarity with certain technical musi cals terms, such as ritornello, coloratura, melisma, hemiola, ap poggiatura, which he uses without defining them. I mention this

towering figures in opera history. But Aucoin’s brilliant close readings of the operas that he does cover stand on their own merits. He follows in the tradition of other musicians who hap pen to be excellent writers: Leonard Bernstein, Ian Bostridge, Philip Gambone, a regular contributor to this magazine, sang in three operas during his college years and (thankfully) never again after that.

September–October 2022


Made with FlippingBook. PDF to flipbook with ease