John Eliot Gardiner, the conductor and musicologist and man for all seasons, is nothing if not an enthusiast. In his wonderful book on Bach, he speaks of the Lutheran teaching that music is something for people to make and share. Music is communal. Bach’s cantatas were written for people to come together to sing. It serves to remind us that for the most part, the operas that we have been looking at may not have been by the people but they are of the people and for the people. Wagner again looks to be the exception. One criticism of Puccini was that he was too much for the people. Well, a lot of that communion with the people was about to change in the period that we now come to.
We don’t think fondly or kindly of the last century. The world saw two world wars, the depression, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb. Then it saw half a century of sustained peace followed by the humiliation of the United States and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some optimists thought that history had reached the peak of its progress. Any such optimism vanished early this century with a near miss on a repeat of the great depression from which we have not yet recovered, and which left capitalism only marginally more respected than socialism. We have seen an erosion of faith in all pillars of our community, including what we call the arts.
In the first part of the twentieth century, we come to what is called modernism. Picasso broke the mould in painting. Diaghilev did the same in ballet. Joyce wrote Ulysses and he would effectively dissolve in Finnegan’s Wake. Eliot wrote The Waste Land. It is not just that these people created what Robert Hughes called ‘the shock of the new’ – although it was a shock. People remembered that when the impressionists arrived, some people could not see any pattern at all. Rather, the point was that for the most part these revolutionary forms of art were only appreciated by a small minority in the community. Had these works appealed to the community at large, there would have been no shock and no revolution. Can you imagine a less ‘populist’ person than T S Eliot? These works were not of or for the people – at least as the people then stood. That’s a big change, and we can see it in opera.
Then came something less gripping. Its label is Post-modernism. I have always had trouble with that term and what it might embrace. I sense that it may be as helpful as ‘deconstructing’. Someone compared it to playing tennis with the net down, so my sense is that there is a wish to tear down all forms. This is often a sure sign that the person doing the tearing down has no ability at all and wants to be free of the normal criteria for assessing that kind of art. Whatever – the gap between the ‘artist’ and audience was even wider, and the audience was even smaller. It follows that the works will not be seen to be ‘popular’ – although that is a weasel word. It then follows that those who are seen to admire this new stuff are geeks or nerds. That means that the cost of tickets will go up and the result then is that the people who go to these events are either geeks or toffs. In any event, the ordinary person has little time or respect – or faith – in either the artist or the audience.
Generalisations like these are dangerous. They represent what I call empiricism without the benefit of evidence. Let me try to come at from the other side. Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini were loved and admired for their art by the whole people. Their nations were proud of them and they were happy to see their art woven into the social fabric. By and large, that is not the case with the composers we are about to look at. The reasons for the difference are, in my view, partly the factors I have just tried to identify, and the fact that few of the composers that we now come to got even close to any of their three great predecessors. People have I think given up hope of ever seeing anyone constantly electrifying opera audiences in anything like those composed by Mozart, Verdi, or Puccini. (One exception may be the comparison of Strauss and Puccini.) That in turn leads to an underlying sense of decay and inbreeding, if not death. Opera-goers might then feel about as safe and welcome and relevant as members of a gentlemen’s club. And not many of them are prepared to chance their evening on an opera by Philip Glass; and even fewer companies are prepared to chance their arm on such a venture.
We might bear those admittedly large observations in mind as we consider, briefly, four composers – Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Leos Janacek, and Benjamin Britten.
Richard Strauss lived from 1864 to 1949. As a German, Strauss did therefore live through what the Chinese call interesting times – and he came out carrying some baggage. Should we not try to be adult about this? Furtwangler, the great conductor was pilloried for shaking hands with Hitler. What was he supposed to do with his Chancellor – turn his back?
Strauss was brought up and taught in a family where the father was a distinguished horn player and a fervent conservative who hated the music of Wagner. Accordingly, the son, an only son, grew up in what we might call the classical tradition – he revered Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and it shows in his operas. He was not like young Mozart, but he did start piano lessons at the age of four, and he began composing two years later. He began his composing career with orchestral works, and after earlier efforts, landed with a bang with his third opera Salome that premiered in Dresden in 1905. This set him up artistically and financially. After Elektra, his best known work, Der Rosenkavalier, was first performed in 1911. Works came steadily, some with the distinguished writer Stefan Zweig. Strauss had a lull and came back to form with Capriccio in 1942. He did act to please the regime, but he refused to give Zweig up to the Nazis, and he was later acquitted of collaboration.
In spite of his orthodox classical upbringing, Strauss has been called the last great German Romantic. We shall look at two works, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier. Some might find it hard to believe that they were written by the same composer. Romain Rolland was a fan, but he said that Strauss was ‘a Shakespearian barbarian: his art is torrential, producing at one and the same time gold, san, stone and rubbish: he has almost no taste at all, but a violence that borders on madness.’
Salome is a mix of the bible and sex, and that really upset the Kaiser. Try the 1997 Covent Garden version with Catherine Malfitano and Terfel. Der Rosenkavalier is very different, a kind of dreamy rhapsody to the haute bourgeoisie. It has similarities with Figaro, but, interestingly for our purposes, Strauss thought that some sections of the libretto were ‘too delicate for the mob.’ Well, the people loved it, and Strauss was rich. You get humour, the waltz, and glorious tunes for sopranos. ‘The Presentation of the Rose’ is legendary. Gough Whitlam loved the work and Debussy said that there is ‘sunshine in the music of Strauss…it is not possible to withstand his irresistible domination.’ Others think that it is like Arabella – kitsch or schmalz. The EMI recording with Schwarzkopf and Karajan is famous, and you can see the whole opera with that pairing at the Salzburg Festival. If you want to sample the Presentation of the Rose, there is a wide selection – including Lucia Popp, Diana Damrau and Anne Sophie von Otter. If you are a blokey sort of bloke, this may not be your bag.
Alban Berg (1885 to 1935) came from a wealthy Viennese family. He was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and his general output was not huge. He wrote two operas. They have both been well served by the AO, but neither is for the beginner. Wozzek is about brutality in the army and it involves a brutal murder. Both the music and the plot could very soon frighten off the beginner. You can listen to the whole opera with Karl Bohm and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It is not a work for excerpts. Lulu may be less depressing, but it’s marginal. Lulu is sexually active and burns men off until she gets topped by Jack the Ripper. Christine Schafer is provocatively sexy in the lead – she starts by taking a bite out of the apple and she looks like Eve giving Adam the come-on – in a wonderful Glyndebourne production that I have and which you can see and hear. The music may be jagged to the ear of the novice, but this is very high theatre about desire and pleasure – sex. Some of the characters may have stepped out of Dickens, but the power of Schafer’s femme fatale is hot. (And just think – she also plays Gilda in Rigoletto.) A lot Lulu evokes the cabarets of Berlin between the wars. The AO version in 2003 with Simone Young and Emma Matthews was a winner.
Leos Janacek (1854 to 1928) is a very different proposition. Although he was born in the year after La Traviata was finished, his substantive opera work is all twentieth century. He was born into a poor teacher’s family in what was called Moravia, and he lived there most of his life. He dropped out of studies in Leipzig and Vienna. Most of his work premiered in Brno. The Czechs in Prague were cool about it although Janacek was very supportive of the Czech Republic after its foundation in 1918. He said that he wanted ‘to compose a melodic curve which will, as if by magic, reveal immediately a human being in one definite phase of his existence.’ That is a very interesting statement from the composer of operas. So were two traits he had. He was fascinated by what we call folk music, and by what he might learn about our humanity by carefully observing patterns of speech. He went as far as to note down speech in musical notation. He talked about ‘speech melodies.’ Here then was ripe ground for opera. His work came with a rush toward the end of his life. His operas are less difficult to access than those of Berg, and for many people, they may be easier than a lot of Britten. We will look at two, both performed by the AO.
Jenufa is one of those sad eastern European tales that may be a bit too unsubtle to resemble Chekhov. It involves a thwarted love affair and the murder of a child – which might send us off in the direction of Ibsen. But the music is easily gettable, and you can trace folk melody in it. I have a recollection of Moffatt Oxenbould saying that this is one of the operas that the AO then really enjoyed putting on. You can watch the whole of the 1989 Glyndebourne production with Roberta Alexander and Anja Silja, who is very good with this composer. You may want to watch the conductor David Robertson discuss this opera at the Met. He touches on some of the points made above. There is also a 2014 Deutsche Oper version from Berlin. The conductor Charles Mackerras was much involved in bringing this composer to the fore, and his recordings with Elizabeth Soderstrum are to be preferred.
The Makropolous Case is a Monty for lawyers. It’s about litigation arising from the fact that the heroine has lived for hundreds of years in different guises and has now had enough. The music is intensely dramatic, but it’s well worth persevering. It’s like an orchestral recitative- you have staggered dialogue over staggered music, and restated motifs. This really is music as drama in itself, and Act III, especially the soaring finale, is amongst my favourite pieces of music. It’s curious that this acceptance of the end of life can seem to leave us at what Churchill called those ‘broad sunlit uplands.’ There is a film version with a Czech cast I’m not familiar with but it was recorded in the theatre in Brno – so you might get the real thing. You can also hear a remarkably urbane Charles Mackerras interviewed about this opera, Jenufa, and other issues relating to Janacek. On some days this opera features in my top ten.
Benjamin Britten (1913 to 1976) was a different kind of a cove again. His mother was a keen amateur singer and musician, and Britten was composing at five. He was introduced to the work of contemporary composers like Berg. He worked at the Post Office and in conjunction with Auden who was important in his life. Auden and Britten and his partner Peter Peers left for America. Britten returned in 1942. He was a conscientious objector. After two lesser works, he wrote Peter Grimes which was first performed in June 1945. Britten retained a great affection for the sea and his native East Anglia. Peter Grimes made Britten’s name for him, and it began a change in attitude to home grown opera, and not just in England. Billy Budd was first performed in 1951, and Midsummer Night’s Dream premiered in 1960.
There are other operas, but some with too much edge to be chanced by many opera houses. Britten could be prickly dealing with people. He loathed Puccini and he was sickened by Tosca, although he was determined to be melodic. Peter Grimes remains his most celebrated opera, and its sea interludes are very popular on the concert platform. Leonard Bernstein conducted them with Beethoven’s 7th on his last night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Peter Grimes is set on the coast. A fisherman has lost a young boy. The town people reject him as an outsider when another boy seem looks to have been mistreated. The opera is surprisingly easy on the ear for such a macabre theme. When I went to a talk about this opera at the AO by Moffatt Oxenbould more than twenty years ago, there was an older lady in a ruby red hat who had it in her mind that the show was about ‘pederasty,’ and nothing was going to change her mind on that score. Both Britten and Peers identified with the outsider, and anyone who has lived in a small country town will know how nasty things can get if you are adjudged to be off side. You can listen to a version recorded in 1945 or watch a BBC studio version in 1969.
Billy Budd is a beautiful novella by Herman Melville. It is everything that Moby Dick is not and far more satisfying for the general reader. During the Napoleonic War, a handsome young sailor, Billy Budd, was impressed into service on a British warship. Billy is as innocent as he is handsome, and he is fortunate that his new captain is Captain ‘Starry’ Vere. Vere is a civilised product of the Enlightenment with a refined sense of justice. But Billy comes under the notice of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. Claggart is in effect the Chief of Police on the ship. He is morally bereft. He may well be gay. He cannot stand being in the presence of beauty and goodness like that of Billy ‘Baby’ Budd. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny before Captain Vere. Billy is horrified and incredulous. When stressed, Billy’s voice falters. When he is pressed for an answer, he strikes out at Claggart, and strikes him dead.
During a time of war, therefore, Captain Vere has witnessed a sailor strike and kill an officer. He summons a drumhead court martial. Billy is plainly guilty of the legal offence charged, but the officers are reluctant to give a verdict that will see Billy hanged. They agonise over Billy, but Captain Vere persuades them to do their legal duty. Billy is hanged. The threat of mutiny passes. Captain Vere carries the responsibility for the death of Billy to his grave. A morally innocent man has been killed to preserve the integrity of the law of arms.
That is a beautiful plot for an opera, and Britten and E M Forster did a wonderful job on it. (There is a great film with Terence Stamp, Robert Ryan and Peter Ustinov.) The drama is elemental – pure evil against pure innocence: which way does the law go? If an angel must die for responding to evil, is this another redemption story? In my view it is, and to my taste, it is a far more successful redemption story on every level than Parsifal.
Well, the music brings this out with an all-male cast – homosexuality is touched on by Melville in the text – and we already know that Britten can conjure up the sea musically like no one else. You can see the full opera starring Peter Peers in a television film made in 1966, or you can see it performed at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2001. You can also see and hear Billy’s final aria ‘Billy in the Darbies’ (Billy cuffed, the night before execution and taken from Melville) sung in concert or in rehearsal. It is for me one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all opera.
That leaves Midsummer Night’s Dream based on the play of Shakespeare. When I saw this in rehearsal with one daughter about thirty years ago, I thought that the music might be above our pay level, but the two of us nearly died laughing at the rustics at play. This was ruthlessly hilarious slapstick. The production was both gutsy and gorgeous. The play was set in the Raj, and the little orchestra was put on stage in a rotunda. You can see a clip of this quite wonderful AO production or watch the whole show. There is a full recorded version, and various clips from others, but as far as I could see, no full vision of the whole show. Enjoy, then, the clip from the AO version. It is fully worthy not just of the composer, but the original playwright.
There then is what I think is a representative sample of what I see as the best of twentieth century opera. I am very fond of a lot of it now, but it has taken me some time and effort. I incline to the view that opera as an art form is not as dead in composition as some people fear.