Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's Iphy: Brush up Euripides

Iphy is opera-speak for Christoph Willibald Gluck's classical opera, Iphigenie en Tauride. Gluck (1714-1787) based the 6th of his 7 French operas on the Euripides drama, Iphigenia in Tauris (the title alone is a link to the previous entry, Nixon in China: another opera that connects history, mythology & journeys to distant places).

I won't try and unwind that thread from Ariadne's proverbial spool any further. Iphigenie en Tauride is the next Met "Live in HD" broadcast, Saturday at 1 pm, hosted by Virginia Western Community College (more info is online at both of our websites).

Gluck's operatic adaptation from Greek mythology was composed in 1779. It had a profound influence on the 23 year old Mozart (echoes of Iphy recur throughout the Magic Flute). A generation or two later, the young Hector Berlioz would cite Iphigenie en Tauride as a formative influence on his decision to pursue a life in music. Gluck features prominently in Berlioz's important book on orchestration (a textbook still in use by composition teachers).

Gluck is noted for the "beautiful simplicity" of his elegant music and is most remembered for the "reforms" he brought to 18th-century opera. He bucked conventions and broke operatic rules he thought impeded the drama. These included the baroque convention of the da capo aria (one where the opening section was repeated, ostensibly to highlight a singer's virtuosity with embellishments and ornamentation).

One of the reasons Gluck is not as well known today as the opera composers on either side of him (Handel and Mozart) is simply because his arias are more thoroughly embedded into the texture of his operas. Like Wagner, late Puccini and Strauss, the "songs" in these operas are not easily excerpted. Is it surprising that Gluck's most famous opera, Orfeo ed Euridice contains his single most famous aria, Orpheus' lament for his lost love, Che faro senza Euridice?

In addition to restoring a sense of dramatic continuity using "through-composed" arias (and recitatives that emerge and recede organically from the musical texture), Gluck was a master orchestrator. He was one of the first composers to use the orchestra as a real character in the drama. His colorful use of percussion instruments (cymbals were still new in European music at this point in time) began a trend whose popularity hasn't waned. Gluck also linked the dramatic effects of his orchestration to the emotional states of his characters.

Iphigenie opens with "calm sea & prosperous voyage" music (deceptively calm music which always heralds a great tempest). The storm music raging around this island of the Black Sea is mirrored in Iphigenie's heart as she recalls her fate. "Brush up Euripides" refers to the mythological backstory. Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon to curry favor for the Greeks in the Trojan war. Euripides saves Iphigenia from death at the port of Aulis with a deus ex machina intervention from the goddess Diana (who whisks Iphy away to Tauris).

Another important chapter of the backstory concerns Iphigenia's brother, Orestes, who has avenged their father Agamemnon's death. Agamemnon (who sacrificed his daughter) was killed by his wife, Clytamnestra. Oreste kills his mother to avenge his father.That Iphigenie en Tauride ends with Oreste and Iphigenie happily reunited is but one of Euripides most potent examples of dramatic irony.

Gluck underscores the kinship of Iphigenie and Oreste with musical symbolism. The storm music that appears with Iphigenie at the opening of the opera recurs in another guise later. The furies interrupt a moment of Oreste's calm by demanding vengeance for the murder of his mother. The furies (or Eumenides) drive Oreste almost to madness in a scene with pitch-perfect music. (In another labyrinthine thread, the Eumenides both refers to the furies and an Aeschylus drama that connects to Elektra, Strauss's opera named after another sibling in this family.)

Iphigenie en Tauride is a compact opera (just under two hours of music) featuring a pivotal triangle of characters. One relationship hinges on the long-lost sibling's reunion; the other is one of genuine fraternal love between best friends. Both Oreste and Pylade would rather lay down their own life in order to save the other. The music they sing to that effect--especially (the tenor) Pylade's aria--is classic Gluck, noble and sincere, an elegant example of "beautiful simplicity."

Many opera fans will be attending this broadcast expressly to see and hear the great Placido Domingo. Maestro Domingo has been portraying the (lyric) baritone role of Oreste for several seasons now. The great trio of principals is complemented by beloved American artists. The mezzo soprano Susan Graham sings the title character, and Oreste's companion, Pylade is essayed by Paul Groves (one of my favorite tenors). Patrick Summers conducts, and Roanoke's own Steven White has been behind the scenes aiding the musical preparation as an assistant conductor.

Berlioz described the "sleepless nights" Gluck's music caused his excitable soul. He claimed Iphigenie left him "possessed by an ecstasy." Come see and hear for yourself Saturday.

(And if you read this in time, I'll be talking about Iphigenie at the Virginia Western Natural Science Center this Wednesday at noon, in the next of our ongoing lunchtime opera chats).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Adams & Sellars & Nixon in China

Below are some quotes from recent articles about John Adams' opera Nixon in China, and the Peter Sellars production that is having its belated Met debut (24 years after it premiered to widespread acclaim and notoriety). Check it out this weekend Live in HD from the Met at Virginia Western Community College.

At the bottom is (my personalized) shorthand outline on Adams' musical style, with a brief listening guide to Nixon.

Articles & features about Nixon in China on the Met website: metopera.org

Nixon in China tells of the groundbreaking visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon to Communist China in February 1972, during which he met with Party Chairman Mao Zedong (spelled Tse-tung in the opera) and other Chinese leaders, flinging wide the long-closed doors between the U.S. and China. This event inspired Adams to write his first opera: “part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues,” as he described it. [Met Educator Guides]

The Myth of History (from Adams & Sellars):
What made the project perfect?
JA As Americans, we’re obsessed with our president because that person embodies our national psyche, both the dark side—our paranoia and our tendency to abuse power—but also our idealism and our curiously American optimism…

People have forgotten what a shock it was to see Nixon and Mao together, shaking hands and chatting it up. After all, China was supposed to be the dark evil empire—I remember how the Cold War image of Mao was burned into our consciousness here in the U.S. So Nixon’s trip quickly became a kind of mythological moment—I think of it as a clash of ideologies.

Why do you object to people labeling Nixon a “CNN opera”?

PS I really want to emphasize that it’s exactly the opposite. CNN is fast-breaking, with instant reactions, and of course the rush to judgment. Opera is about a long view. What opera offers is poetry, is music. Alice Goodman has taken these historical events and transformed them not into headlines, which reduce and simplify, but into poetry, which expands and complexifies [sic].

on the distinctive vocal writing for each character:
JA It seemed obvious that Nixon’s music would be white, big band music from the ’30s and early ’40s, which is, of course, when Dick and Pat fell in love. Pat is the complete antipode of Chiang Ch’ing. I wanted her to be not just a shrieking coloratura, but also someone who in the opera’s final act can reveal her private fantasies, her erotic desires, and even a certain tragic awareness. Nixon himself is a sort of Simon Boccanegra—a self-doubting, lyrical, at times self-pitying melancholy baritone. Mao is the Mao of the huge posters and Great Leap Forward. I cast him as a heldentenor. [cf: Mozart & Wagner parallels…]

Political Spouses: A Study in Contrasts between Two Characters
JA Both wives of politicians, they represented the yin and the yang of the two alternatives to living with someone immersed in power and political manipulation. Pat was…the quintessence of ‘family values,’ a woman who stood by her man (preferably a foot or two in the background), embraced his causes and wore a gracious if stoic smile through a long career…. Chiang Ch’ing began her career as a movie actress and only later enlisted in the Party and…ultimately became the power behind his throne, the mind and force behind that hideous experiment in social engineering, the Cultural Revolution.

Madame Mao: I am the wife of Mai Tse-tung

Who raised the weak above the strong
When I appear the people hang

Upon my words, and for his sake

Whose wreaths are heavy round my neck
I speak according to the book.

Adams (and others) on Adams:
--1947 (Worcester, Mass); Harvard; twice Schoenberg’s “grandson:” studied with Leon Kirchner, then disciple of John Cage;
moved to SF Bay area in 70’s [East Coast/West Coast] “2nd gen. minimalist” BUT w/ “non-modernist expressivity;”
polymath of styles & inspirations (pan-Euro, -Mid/Far-East; poetry & philo/religion; myth/history/dreams…)
YET North American through & through; a "melting pot" of styles/influences:
*Americana style of Ives/Copland
*American Experimental/fringe school (also includes Ives) embodied in "loner"/"outsider" artists from Thoreau to Cage
*Minimalist style; a "less is more" aesthetic full of vibrant energy/pulse, musical Dada "thumbing of the nose at the establishment..."

“My operas have dealt on deep psychological levels with our American mythology…” and finding “mythic potential of contemporary icons.”

“I’m not interested in lecturing my audience….what appeals to me is their power as archetypes, their ability to summon up in a few choice symbols the collective psyche of our time”

“You use poetry, you use music, you use gesture to radiate out from that span…”

“One of the glories of opera is its capacity to show us, from without and within, the process of characters coming to terms with experience beyond their control. Through the intensity of all its components, opera makes this process…vivid.” [TM on Dr A]

Peter Sellars on Adams/Nixon/Opera:

“The odd thing is, it takes poetry, music, and dance to give back to our own history its actual dimensionality. What opera can do to history is deepen it and move into its more subtle, nuanced, and mysterious corners” (quoted in Thomas May)

“…music and poetry evoke a set of free associations (a set that can’t be censored)” [Dr Atomic]

“We’re on earth to try to figure out how to cross over. And opera is a quintessential art form of crossing over, which is why I think Nixon was so compelling, and why so many things in the history of opera are about that kind of border crossing of imagination, which is so rich” (Opera News)

[Adams & Glass] both represented a break-through in opera history—they made opera a living art form again…the resurgence was very profound, in part because what we brought was subject matter. Opera became about something, about figures that our generation could recognize and deal with, b/c we grew up with them…we inherited their political structures & their aspirations.”

Adams music is like “multi-paneled altarpieces that you cannot possible take in all at once” (re: El NiƱo)

On the expectation of spectacle [ie “the bomb” in Dr Atomic]:

“The Greeks were not interested in what an exploding eyeball looks like; when Oedipus tears out his eyeballs, they were interested in ‘why would this person tear out his eyes?!?’”


Listening Guide: [big, brassy orchestra, 40’s swing band w/saxophones, etc]

Adams style: Janus-faced; Yin/Yang; manic & melancholy, antic & tragic

“trickster” side of restless, energetic “public” surface (minimalist, “pop”);
serious, lyrical, introspective, poetic/psychological/metaphysical depth…

style=color field paintings/abstract expressionist; (abstract rhythm; expressionist/impressionist harmony/line)
techniques=moto perpetuo, heterophony/layerings, orchestral "jabs" of staccato chords

1. Opening Chorus: “The People are the heroes now”
--minimalist (=Glass); repetitive/obsessive; hypnotic/narcotic/numbing;

2. a. Landing of the Spirit of '76 (orchestra interlude)
--huge orchestral "engine" of sound, energetic pulse, and form that
fits the content (ie: this music sounds like an airplane in flight...)

Premier Chou greets Nixon: “Your flight was smooth, I hope?”
--stylistic/character contrasts (note Nixon’s parody of Americana…)
b. Nixon’s first aria: “News” (repeated 12X!!!);
complex baritone role=Verdi/Wagner

3. Pat’s Act II aria: “This is prophetic”
lyric soprano (=sympathetic heroine; Pamina, Gilda, et al)

4. Madame Mao’s Act II aria: “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung!”
--parody/irony; operatic type: “shrieking coloratura”=Queen of Night

5. The parody-ballet: “The Red Detachment of Women”
“a lurid emblem of the Cultural Revolution” (Mays)
Young as we are / We expect fear / Every year
More of us bow / Beneath the shadow

6. Act III: “the most extended ensemble in all of opera” (PS)
inward action; monologues & conversations;
all reflecting “an increasingly elegiac sense of regret” (Mays);
“nocturnal reverie” (JA);
“musical twilight” (PS)

The third act of Nixon in China is my favorite act of contemporary opera since Benjamin Britten's last essay in the genre (in 1973; he died in '76). Nixon's finale is memorably poignant, and powerful in part because so unexpected (this was the original "CNN Opera"). John Adams is a composer full of surprises. And that is an underrated virtue in the worlds of "art appreciation." We could all use a little newness every now and then: a new spark, a new perspective or stock-taking, a re-newed sense of purpose, or just "a new lease on life." Riffing on a word (like "new") echoes the amplifying capacities inherent in any concentrated form (minimalism being one example). John Adams concentrates his considerate compositional gifts and skills into music that is exceptionally well-crafted, pulsing with energy and coursing with life. It is music full of pleasant, unexpected, (sometimes unsettling but always engaging!) surprises.