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 blow all night through Reimann’s score.
I heard Lear in an exceptionally well-sung revival of Calixto Bieito’s 2016 production for the Paris Opera; Bo Skovhus’s searing Lear and Evelyn Herlitzius’s pulverizingly potent Goneril were standouts in a strong cast. Bieito’s considerable theatrical acumen is sometimes overlooked because of his occasional garish provocations—bondage and gang-rape in a Mozart farce, a row of men sitting on toilets as the opening image of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—but his Lear is admirably spare, with a stripped-down intensity that matches Reimann’s music. The production is violent, to be sure, but no more so than the work itself, which is a bracing blast of midcentury German modernism at its most elemental. The singers are often pushed to the upper limit of the voice’s decibel scale, and the orchestra is required to play with flayed fervor. The drama’s violent moments are heightened to an excoriating extreme, creating an atmosphere of pervasive desperation that is almost indistinguishable from ecstasy, a cocktail of joy and blind rage.
Reimann and Henneberg discard much of the play’s poetic language, but they keep practically every one of its numerous dramatic events, moving from one to the next with unnerving swiftness. The effect of this compression is that the characters’ behavior seems even sadder and more absurd than it does in the play; I often felt that I was watching a Greek tragedy rather than one by Shakespeare. Emptied of their capacity for interior reflection and robbed of Shakespearean expressions of tenderness or irony, Reimann’s characters lament their fate and commit acts of senseless brutality, as if compelled by vengeful gods—though in this universe there are no gods to be found.
At first I was indignant that a theatrical concoction as rich as King Lear was being boiled down to bone broth, but before long I found myself craving the bleak catharsis that this score offers at every turn. Reimann unleashes his musical ultraviolence with canniness and care, and he finds a brilliant solution to the perpetual problem of striking a sonic balance between stage and pit so that neither the singers nor the orchestra has to hold back. Opera composers often run into trouble when they make use of a modern symphony orchestra’s considerable horsepower; even the strongest operatic voices can have trouble competing with an eighty- or ninety-piece ensemble. But Reimann achieves an exemplary balance by alternating his scalding eruptions of vocal power (which in general are sparsely accompanied, sometimes by percussion alone) with full-throttle tutti blasts from the orchestra. Even in the dull acoustic of the Palais Garnier, this was among the loudest nonamplified performances I have ever heard, and yet there were essentially no balance problems. I heard every syllable clearly, as if I were at a play, while the orchestra was free to play with unconstrained ferocity.
This maximalist approach does run the risk of monotony. The first scene, in which Lear misguidedly asks his daughters to publicly profess their love for him in order to secure shares of his kingdom as their inheritance, has none of Shakespeare’s variety of tone: Lear’s rage and grief, Goneril and Regan’s oily genuflections, the King of France’s warmth and sympathy for Cordelia. In Reimann, Lear speaks with forceful severity from the outset; his warning to Cordelia, “Nothing will come of nothing,” memorably uneasy in the play, is howled at full force in the opera. Goneril and Regan profess their love for their father in seething, abrasive outbursts, and one would wonder how Lear could be taken in by such efforts if his own music were not equally unlovable; this Lear is, at first, essentially indistinguishable from his sociopathic children. The Fool, which in the opera is a spoken part, displays none of the slippery, virtuosic wit of his Shakespearean counterpart; at the performance I saw, the actor Ernst Alisch spoke his lines with a Brechtian bluntness that perfectly matched the hammer-blow delivery required of the singers. Edmund, Gloucester’s scheming illegitimate son, is the most punishing role of all, a high-lying tenor part featuring music of atomizing intensity. When the tenor Andreas Conrad, who sang the role with grim aplomb, let loose the fifth or sixth shattering wave of sound in his introductory monologue, I couldn’t stop myself from laughing in astonishment and surrender.
But Reimann is too sensitive a dramatist to write exclusively at one extreme. The opera’s bursts of orchestral fury are balanced by long stretches of paralytic stillness, during which the orchestra hovers almost motionless, like a poisonous fog. In such passages, singers and orchestra alike seem immobilized in a state of shock, stunned by their own viciousness. This numbness, every bit as disturbing as the moments of earsplitting force, is like the narcotic calm that results from hours of playing violent video games. There is no real equivalent for this atmosphere in the play: while Shakespeare’s tragedy spirals farther and farther out of control across its duration, the heightened, chaotic atmosphere of Reimann’s first scenes evolves into a kind of toxic lethargy; we feel the cruelly banal consequences of the characters’ inhumanity, the dull stupor of trauma. After Lear’s “Blow, winds…” monologue, which is predictably earth-shaking, the music retreats, grows quiet and inward; a bass flute intones a desolately lyrical line above dense cluster chords in the low strings. We are in an abandoned space, a landscape whose bareness is the inescapable aftereffect of the many musical detonations that mark this devastating, unforgettable opera.
Some opera composers resent or resist the baggage that comes with writing new music in a four-hundred-year-old tradition: audiences are all too likely to judge a new piece not in relation to other recent compositions but rather against cherished and endlessly replayed works from past centuries. The German composer Manfred Trojahn, however, willingly shoulders this load; in fact, he seems to actively seek out and carry more baggage than is strictly necessary. Trojahn’s engagement with the past is on full display in his Orest (2011), which I heard in a revival at the Vienna State Opera. The piece is based on Euripides’ Orestes; thus its libretto, written by the composer, picks up neatly where Richard Strauss’s Elektra leaves off: Orest has murdered his mother, Klytämnestra, and is on the verge of losing his mind with guilt.
It might sound either audacious or merely foolhardy to compose a sequel to Strauss’s explosive opus, whose orgiastic excesses are among the repertoire’s most satisfying. But the risk of comparison with Strauss is the only real risk Trojahn takes. His music is so firmly rooted in the tradition of German modernism that thrived in the first half of the twentieth century that it somehow sounds both indistinct and overfamiliar. This is music that alternates, like an irritable grandfather, between nostalgia and aggression; these two qualities, when mingled, have a tendency to cancel each other out.
The opera begins with a litany of contemporary European opera clichés. The first sound we hear is a piercing scream; this is followed by jagged, high-pitched stutters in the violins; voices whisper Orest’s name over and over; then they sing his name high, they sing it low, they sing it very high, and the whispers return. After about two minutes of this, there’s another scream. When Orest sings, his lines are marked by a familiarly Expressionistic brand of verbal repetition (“Mother, mother, mother…”; “blood, BLOOD!”).
Things do improve somewhat after this overwrought beginning. Trojahn is a master of the angular art of German text-setting, and Orest’s vocal lines swoop and arc with ease across large intervals, sometimes pausing caressingly at the top of a phrase like a roller coaster’s cars balancing precariously on the crest of a hill before plunging downward. In this opera you can find practically every trick of twentieth-century vocal writing, from forceful, pungent outbursts (sometimes drowned out by a blaring orchestra) to delicate, fine-spun writing for high soprano. It’s all unfailingly well crafted, but it is never surprising and rarely memorable. If you gave any aficionado of the operas of Strauss and Alban Berg the first half of a Trojahn phrase, they would likely be able to guess its next swerve.
Trojahn’s orchestral writing is similarly fluent: the pacing is confident, the coloristic contrasts intelligent, and there are some beguiling textures; a diaphanous web of harp and stratospheric string harmonics early in the opera was breathtaking. It’s clear that the musicians of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra felt they had something to sink their teeth into; led with unfailing calm and clarity by the conductor Michael Boder, they played with blistering intensity all night.
And yet the impression that lingers is of safeness and chilliness. There is a curious incongruence between this music’s gestural language, which is late-Romantic and strongly recalls Strauss, and its texture, whose leanness and acidity owe more to midcentury Austro-German modernists like Hans Werner Henze. This sense of being neither here nor there, neither lushly Romantic nor radically stripped down, pervades practically every aspect of the work. The dramaturgy would likely strike Euripides as fairly conventional, with the exception of Orest’s refusal, in the final scene, to follow the god Apollo’s orders. The production, by Marco Arturo Marelli, takes place in a gaudy, vaguely contemporary Nowhere. There is nostalgia without warmth and violence without danger; the listener is kept safely at arm’s length, reassured, through the stylized ancientness of it all, that there’s no need to care much about anything or anybody. The whole thing is dispatched with humorless masterfulness. Most importantly, listening as a composer, I didn’t hear anything I wanted to steal. Trojahn’s own perfectly benign thefts are all too apparent.
Of the pieces I heard on this trip, the Israeli-born composer Chaya Czernowin’s Heart Chamber, which had its world premiere in November at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, is the only one that, to my ears, challenged and reimagined the fundamentals of what an opera can be, and it did so with revelatory clarity and force. With Heart Chamber, a work that is both intimate and grand, inwardly probing and cathartically expressive, Czernowin has opened up fertile new terrain for the art form; her concept of opera is founded on a refreshing trust in the enormous dramatic potential of interior experiences so fleeting and so private that few composers would dare make them a central focus.
Czernowin’s music often makes use of both acoustic and electronically produced sounds. When she writes for acoustic instruments, she generally requires the performers to master various extended techniques—that is, techniques that can produce sounds very different from those typically associated with the instrument. The events in Czernowin’s singularly intense sound world are given form through an idiosyncratic graphic language, accompanied by exquisitely specific directions for the performers: “On the bass drum,” reads one instruction in Heart Chamber, “write with the hard tip of a feather or a similar object: a quite sharp tip but with some flexibility.” Below these words, a squiggly line dips and ascends, like a cardiogram showing the fluctuations of an unsteady heart. This attention to the primal moment of contact between human and instrument, which is after all the fundamental drama of music-making, gives Czernowin’s music an innate theatricality. Her methods might at first glance seem forbiddingly recondite, but the effect of her music is visceral and immediate.
In a program note, Czernowin describes Heart Chamber as “a grand opera of the smallest physical and psychic changes that push two strangers towards or away from each other,” and one of its achievements is its fusion of the intimate and the epic, or rather the way that it makes the intimate feel epic. The opera’s narrative frame is skeletal but clear: a woman meets a man in a chance encounter, and they feel an intense connection. We witness each of them undergoing the sometimes ecstatic, sometimes agonizing process of falling in love and trying to figure out what they need from each other. There are moments of overwhelming joy; there are painful miscommunications. We do not learn their names. There are essentially no external events, only seismic inner ones. Most of the hallmarks of grand opera are missing—those who turn to the art form for tales of murder, adultery, incest, and apocalypse should look elsewhere—yet Czernowin summons her formidable musical forces to make every internal event (or “nodal moment,” as she calls it, “when something opens up or closes down”) feel immense, all-consuming, operatic to the core. Listening to this piece feels, in other words, just like it feels to be in love, in that heightened state when one seemingly chilly glance from the person you love can be a catastrophe. This is opera at once expanded and reduced to its essence: in a vital sense, it’s more operatic than La Bohème.
The English-language text, which Czernowin wrote herself, serves her purposes beautifully. The two characters are each embodied by two onstage singers (the woman by a soprano and a contralto, and the man by a baritone and a countertenor), as well as by prerecorded alto and tenor parts and an offstage chorus of sixteen voices. In the printed libretto, the singers’ lines are stacked vertically, their words scattered across the page like text magnets on a refrigerator. Czernowin instructs us to “read the text as you read a score”; that is, we should read left to right, but we should read all text across the vertical axis simultaneously. More even than most libretti, this text is a diagram, a spatial blueprint for its musicalization, and this diagrammatic quality extends even to individual words and phrases, which often seem to be proto-images of musical events. Certain dreamlike passages could be descriptions of the activity of composition: the woman imagines peeling and scraping away at moss that grows from underneath bathroom tiles; the man imagines a tree breaking through the floor of his house, then seeing numberless ants forming “a moving vista: a net of tunnels, hanging palaces.” (The latter is not a bad image for the seething richness of Czernowin’s music.)
Elsewhere, the language has a striking emotional candor: “I recede…inward…unsure…wounded,” “you consume my space you need so much from me I can’t.” On the page, some of it looks mawkish, but Czernowin’s treatment of it is matter-of-fact; phrases such as these are used as fragmentary objects to be layered on top of one another. Indeed, given the sophistication of the piece’s musical architecture, the text needs to be as direct, even elemental, as it is. There are a couple of irredeemable clunkers, moments when it is obvious that she is not a native English speaker (“My bathroom is long and endless,” “Will you be like a father, but a good father?”), but on the whole Czernowin’s libretto succeeds in its essential task of providing suggestive, volatile raw material for her music.
And the music is ceaselessly, breathtakingly inventive. The piece opens with an extended solo for amplified double bass, which culminates in a wavering sustained note high in its range. The bass is joined by a solo female voice on the same pitch; the singer is asked “to melt into the double bass color.” (Let this unlikely meeting point stand for the charged encounter that is the opera’s essential dramatic event.) Prerecorded sounds—scattering marbles, whirring leaves, “storms” of electronically manipulated percussion—fuse deliciously with live singers and instrumentalists, whose sonic palette ranges from fragile whispers to crushing walls of sound. At the performance I saw, the whole ensemble performed with exemplary commitment and focus, but the soprano Patrizia Ciofi deserves special mention; she is an exceedingly rare kind of singer, sublimely versatile, capable of a luminously beautiful “operatic” sound, but also willing to tear into Czernowin’s unusual, often extreme vocal demands with confidence and gusto. (We composers tend to regard artists like Ciofi with awestruck gratitude that verges on disbelief.)
Among its other virtues, Heart Chamber lays bare the ludicrousness of the notion that opera is automatically cheapened or endangered by the use of electronically produced sound. Czernowin’s elaborate mise-en-scène—amplified principal singers onstage, an orchestra in the pit, two pockets of additional instrumentalists and singers in boxes stage left and stage right, plus prerecorded sounds—yields soundscapes of ravishing intricacy, as sensuous and detailed as anything by Maurice Ravel or Olivier Messiaen. The amplification of the voices allows for different kinds of subtlety than are typical for large-scale opera: whispers, breath tones, and surely opera’s first-ever extended solo for vocal fry—the creaky, unglamorous vocal register more readily associated with the Kardashians than with Maria Callas. At one point, the chorus whispers the word “failed,” with slight downward sliding gestures, to create what Czernowin calls “a porous wall” made entirely of that word, a haunting, soft-textured cloud of failure.
The rare moments that feel less than magical tend to feature the most conventionally produced sounds. When the baritone Dietrich Henschel sings in the register that is standard for his voice type, for example, the result is sometimes operatic in the bad sense: bland, emotionally unspecific, self-serious. But the primary effect of these minuscule lapses is to make even clearer the uncompromising inventiveness of the other 99 percent of the score.
Though Czernowin is now based in the United States, it’s difficult to imagine a major American opera company presenting Heart Chamber on its mainstage: American companies tend to fixate on “accessibility,” and this opera is not exactly “accessible,” a term that implies a certain passivity; rather, it actively accesses hidden recesses in the psyche. But I hope I’m wrong and that American audiences will eventually have a chance to experience it. In its faith in the limitless power that can be unleashed through the communal expression of inner events, Heart Chamber is a liberation.