Opera at the Edge

Lear

an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019

Orest

an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019

Heart Chamber

an opera by Chaya Czernowin, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, November 15–December 6, 2019
Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Lear at the Paris Opera
Bernd Uhlig/OnP
Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

Last November, having just put the final touches on Eurydice, the opera I’d been working on for several years, I paid a visit to Europe to hear operas by three fellow composers, none of whose stage works are performed in America with any regularity. In spite of the uncanny ease with which music can be distributed online, and in spite of the popular notion of music as a “universal language,” contemporary opera in America can feel like an insular endeavor: the flip side of many American opera companies’ laudable support for homegrown composers is a cautiousness that verges on xenophobia. When it comes to new works, the thinking goes, why import a challenging piece in a foreign language when a local composer could write one in English? In past centuries, American companies almost exclusively imported European works; these days, new European operas are sometimes assumed to be excessively strong meat for the teeth of American audiences.

The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation. Classical music has long been an art form centered on live performance, ever more so since the collapse of the classical recording industry, and it’s hard to imagine when music lovers will again be willing to form the human petri dish that is a concert audience.

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.

Composers who adapt Shakespeare must inevitably perform surgery on the Bard’s lengthy, poetically exuberant plays: Verdi cut an entire act to turn Othello into Otello; Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes condensed the winding rhythms of Shakespeare’s pentameter into clipped doggerel for their adaptation of The Tempest. The German composer Aribert Reimann, who composed his Lear in the late 1970s at the request of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performs his surgery with a sledgehammer. He and his librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, burn away nearly all traces of compassion and complexity from the play’s more sympathetic characters, including Lear, and abandon the play’s essential trajectory, of a tenuous political order unraveling into chaos, instead depicting a world that is darkly chaotic from the outset. The leveling winds of the heath…


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