Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Friday, April 28, 2006

I Suppose I Will Never Understand...

In the New York Times, Bernard Holland's un-positive review of Lowell Liebermann and J.D. McClatchy's operatic adaptation of Miss Lonleyheats, has this to say:
"Both composer and librettist declare their enormous admiration for West's original. One can argue that the most potent expression of that admiration would have been to leave "Miss Lonelyhearts" the novel alone, not laboriously twist and reshape it into something it was never intended to be. Why is opera driven to such possessiveness, so compelled to take ownership of something that is not its?"

What baffles me is how so many critics--Americans all--are mystified when an American composer and American librettist deign to take on an American novel, as if it were part of some cheap Nationalistic Dog and Pony Show wherein we turn second rate tomes into second rate operas en masse with intent to harm the properties. Are we supposed to adapt things we hate, because if we love something we should leave it alone? And why is an adaptation, in the eyes and ears of Mr. Holland, an act of violence to the original if it simply does not work well?

Now, if you don't love the adaptation (and I was not so smitten with Miss Lonleyhearts in the interest of full disclosure) say so, but do not condemn the mere act of making an American opera on an American book. "Take ownership" of something that is not it's? Tell that to Mozart, who did not concoct the story of Idomeneo; or to Britten, who did not inflict the suffering on Peter Grimes; or to Wagner, who (despite what he thought of himself) was not a Norse God. Did Strauss "own" Salome? Does John Corigliano "own" the French Revolution? What of a white New York jew writing of Catfish Row? Does opera, as a genre, have a claim on anything, from the story of Jesus to the making of the bomb? Who makes these purchases? Who decides who owns what?

Or if you do, offer us a solution: are we to take films? Icelandic sagas? Collections of review columns? Honestly, what are we to do if not take our own literature and adapt it to the stage. These are our stories, and if soemthing was not meant to be an opera, that does not mean it cannot be an opera. There are great operas out there on topics never imagined as musical endeavors, from the Grail to Nixon's visit to the East, Greek gods to a moor who kills his lover.

Help me out, Mr. Holland--or anyone reading--and tell me what are we to do? What stories should we tell? Or are we to just, as you seem to imply over and over, to leave composing to the Europeans?


Anonymous chris said...

Why not create original stories for the opera stage?

Here is the process as it exists in Canadian organizations such as Tapestry New Opera Works, the Banff Centre, Modern Baroque Opera and Queen of Puddings Music Theatre:

The commission is for both librettist and composer to collaborative on creating an entirely original work. Once the libretto is written, it would then be read by actors and workshopped by a dramaturg exactly the way it would be done for new works for the theatre. The script then goes to the composer, who sets the libretto, which is then read by singers and pianist and workshopped by dramaturg and musical dramaturg. If the creative staff is satisfied, the work then moves to production, otherwise subsequent workshops are held until the work is production-ready.

It has been said of the American opera creation system that there is not enough funding for a workshop process, hence the search for novels, plays, or movie scripts that can be set to operatic scores without the added expense of workshops. Often composers and librettists never even meet face to face...

The workshop process costs a lot of money and requires musical directors schooled in the art of musical dramaturgy, as well as singers and pianists who are able to put a new work on its feet relatively quickly and then be able to work in changes to the score by the composer to suit the needs of the work and the performers.

In addition, there is an element of risk involved. I agree that there are stories that will only find their fruition on the operatic stage--sometimes those stories break controversial new ground and frighten general directors that would much rather create "new" works for the operatic stage out of yet another Henry James short story.

There are success stories, too. Witness Tapestry New Opera Works' Iron Road in 2002, as well as the huge financial and artistic success of the Calgary Opera/Banff Centre co-production of Filumena a few years later. Both those works had an extended workshop process, went through many drafts, and ultimately moved the art form forward.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Chris, I wish you would email me directly. I'd like to hear more about this.

6:58 AM  

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