Searching For Big

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

I’ve been listening to, or watching, a lot of new opera lately. Saw Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel at the local multiplex, via Met HD; listened to the live Pentatone recording of Jake Heggie’s It’s A Wonderful Life; will get my ticket next week for George Benjamin’s newest, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Royal Opera House. (An easy decision, that: we’ll be in London in May, and Benjamin’s 2012 opera Written on Skin was the best new work I’d encountered in years.)

So I thought it would be easy to write an opera piece for Copper and maintain the focus on comparative scale, as in “Voices.” After all, everybody knows what makes grand opera grand, right? For “Voices 2,” I could just pivot from small to big, miniature to meta.

But I was confusing scale—monumentality of all sorts—with psychological scope, i.e., emotional depth. What we love about opera is seldom its mere size but rather the degree to which we can psychically inhabit its stories. It feels bigger once we’re inside. Along with text and staging, the music of opera is central to that. In his remarkable short study Opera and Its Symbols, Robert Donington tells us it’s partly unconscious:

In opera, where the promptings of irrational imagination are at their most uninhibited and the restraints of naturalism are at their least intrusive, symbols both conscious and unconscious particularly abound. Almost as immediately as dreams, and far more coherently, opera offers a royal road into the unconscious. . . . [Music is] not only unnaturalistic but also time-consuming, circumscribing even as it intensifies, [and thus] opera is impelled to deal in the great generalities of human passion and conflict rather than in the singularities of the situations and characters. . . . What we share [in these generalized portrayals] is that complex network of instinctual and psychological dispositions to which we sometimes give the name of archetypes. Opera is a great purveyor of archetypal images . . . [which] are by their nature elusive, shifting, hard to pin down or even to define.

In other words, an opera often works best when you don’t fully realize why you’re being swept up in it. As the music pours out, the narrative naturally generalizes but also expands to encompass your life experience, including your fantasies and those of your community. Think of your favorite operas. Think of Mozart. The Magic Flute is openly, self-consciously symbolic. We are meant to recognize Pamina and Tamino as our potential best selves, guided by our better angels (that would be the Three Boys, and probably Sarastro). Yet we know that we more often think and behave like Papageno or Monostatos or the Queen of the Night. There’s always at least one serpent lurking in our unconscious, threatening (or maybe actuating) every step of our personal journey.

Symbols present themselves in Mozart’s Italian comedies too. They may be more cleverly disguised within individual characters, but nevertheless they encourage us to wrestle with desire, deceitfulness, commitment, and betrayal, all the psychic underpinnings of social hierarchy. When we hear a certain innocent excitement in Cherubino’s voice as he sings about his sexual awakening, we remember what that felt like; our hearts glow with the memory. Perhaps we find ourselves identifying even more transparently with Susanna and Figaro as they figure out how to cope with a difficult, predatory boss.

Can “modern” opera also satisfy our need for symbols? Can we identify with the themes and characters in The Exterminating Angel? How about It’s A Wonderful Life? Do those stories work as opera?

Regarding Adès’s Angel, sure. At least that’s the short answer. A veteran opera composer, Adès has chosen a vehicle that’s rich in primal meanings—archetypes, symbols!—but also speaks to our time. You will want to have seen Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film, which blends naturalism and surrealism to create The Dinner Party from Hell. Don’t worry, you’ll get the deeper connotations. Does the music help? Yes, because the composer boldly draws upon all sorts of sounds and styles, from the neo-Romantic (virtual quotations from Rosenkavalier, for example) to the avant-garde (there’s a soprano who hits high-A-above-high-C, also an Ondes Martenon). But the music is not merely appropriate, it goes further into you. It hits, effectively expanding the film’s somewhat limited emotional scope. Honestly, I enjoyed Adès’s opera more than Buñuel’s film. I hope they release a Blu-ray of the Met production. It bears repeated watching.

As for It’s A Wonderful Life, well, it’s got symbols too.

Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer are one of the two most successful creative teams in American opera today. (The other would be John Adams and Peter Sellars.) Heggie is not afraid of tackling big themes: his first full-length opera was Dead Man Walking, based on a best-selling nonfiction book and film that advocated against capital punishment. Among his other triumphs have been adaptations of The End of the Affair and Moby-Dick. (Yes, you read that right.) So: he picks projects with enormous potential. And singers love his music, which is invariably lyrical, essentially Romantic, firmly tonal, and fits well in the voice. It’s “accessible.”

It doesn’t hurt that Heggie subscribes to American opera’s other central dicta, (1) Keep It “American,” and (2) Don’t Scare the Horses. The horses we’re talking about? Not so much audiences—who vary widely in what they desire or are willing to accept—as commissioning organizations and their network of patrons, which include influential artists. If Houston Grand Opera and, say, Joyce DiDonato like it, it’ll get done. It will be composed, premiered, recorded. It will be re-mounted in San Francisco, Chicago, Paris.

But back to Wonderful Life. How can it lose? Short answer: it can’t. It doesn’t. By the end of the show, we share in the redemption and transfiguration, respectively, of George Bailey and his guardian spirit, Angel Second Class Clara Odbody. We’re happy that George’s kindness and sacrifice have been recognized, that the villain of the piece—old Mr. Potter, evil banker—has been vanquished, and that the little town of Bedford Falls, New York, survives intact, more aware than ever of its own goodness and good fortune.

Even my curmudgeonly heart found itself awash in benevolent, slightly gooey feelings. That’s in spite of a few rough spots along the way.

Not the performers, and not the SACD, although producer Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror’s team don’t entirely overcome the issues inherent in location recording. Patrick Summers leads a polished production with a uniformly fine cast. The principals, especially William Burden (George) and Andrea Carroll (his wife Mary), sing beautifully and contribute apt characterizations (complete cast, production photos here). But then we know these people already. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer were working with beloved source material. They didn’t want to mess with what had worked for Frank Capra in 1946. Almost every musical sound you hear in the opera seems utterly appropriate to the characters and the dramatic action. Moreover, that music feels appropriate in a familiar, comforting way, since its general style owes a lot to Max Steiner, John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, Dmitri Tiomkin, and similarly capable Hollywood professionals.

But maybe that’s the problem. A good film composer knows his or her job is mostly to underline, to support what’s happening onscreen without drawing attention away from it. If we remember the music after the movie’s over, something may be off. In opera, a synergistic combination of text, music, and staging should lift us higher, put us in a dreamlike place where we can revel in fantasy (or idealism, take your pick) for a while.

Much of the music in Heggie’s Wonderful Life, on the other hand, seems designed to keep things moving right along; it’s overactive and a bit noisy. Even when we get to the climax of Act I and what could be a nice love duet for George and Mary, we’re not allowed to dawdle. Given the facile Romanticism of Heggie’s writing, it’s fair to ask: What would Puccini have done?

We already know. He would have sustained that moment, then capped it with a Really Big Tune, like this:

00:00 / 01:42

Critic Steven Brown mentions another Act I love duet—this one irrepressibly American—with vivid sung dialogue and a Big Tune:

00:00 / 01:56

Jake Heggie writes beautiful music too, but he can’t or won’t write a Big Tune to save his life. Consider that moment at the end of Act I. George has just found out his brother Harry is going to marry and leave town. That means George will have to take over his dad’s S&L, won’t get his turn at college, won’t get to travel the world. He wanders aimlessly around Bedford Falls, ending up in front of Mary’s house. Turns out she’s home from New York City, having dumped her boyfriend. Then she tries to change the subject.

00:00 / 03:33

[GEORGE stammers, doesn’t quite figure out what Mary’s getting at.]

MARY: When I threw that rock four years ago, do you know what I wished for? To live in that broken-down Granville house someday—with you, George. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To build something with you—make something beautiful together. What do you see when you look at me, George? Because I hope you see someone who loves adventure as much as you do. Because I do love adventure. I do! It’s just that to me the greatest adventure has always been loving you.

GEORGE: Me? But, Mary, you could have anyone.

MARY: Don’t want “anyone.” I looked, and, well, in the whole city of New York I couldn’t find one person who knew the steps to the Mekee-Mekee.

GEORGE: Really? Not a single person?

MARY: A few knew the twist, shuffle, hop . . . but the step, slide? Hopeless.

GEORGE: Hopeless? Really hopeless?

MARY: You tell me.

GEORGE: Oh, Mary.

MARY: George Bailey, I’m gonna love you ‘til the day I die.

CLARA [a guardian angel, who’s looking on, since all this took place years ago]: How can it happen? From this kiss to a bridge at midnight?

To be fair, this scene has to do some heavy lifting that Puccini and Bernstein handled elsewhere. It’s not even a duet: Mary uses her “When I threw that rock” aria to tell George (the big lunk!) that he’s always been the one. Then, while her words sink in, she uses her ready sense of humor to lighten the mood. We hear echoes of the Mekee-Mekee, a dreadful native dance that symbolizes—and trivializes—George’s wanderlust. They embrace, the music retreats, and Clara the Angel reminds us this was Christmas Past. It’s pretty clever as drama, and anyone can hear that Mary’s aria has some absolutely gorgeous music in it. It’s just over too soon.

Gentle readers, I have compiled what academics call a “reception history.” Young as the operatic Wonderful Life is, it’s been “received” all over the place. The most perceptive reviews came from Opera News, from Gramophone’s Edward Seckerson, and from the aforementioned Mr. Brown. Everyone agreed about the high quality of the Houston performance. Everyone raved about the sets, too, the one aspect of the work that departed radically (!) from Capra’s film. Nice words were shared about Heggie and Scheer before folks got down to specifics, i.e., things they hated; things that felt dead on arrival; et cetera. At least one writer suggested revisions, pointing out that Verdi revised; so did Puccini. Everyone’s little list of complaints was slightly different. So was mine.

Obviously I’d like to talk more about the idea of American opera and those “other central dicta,” but I can’t: word limits and all. Maybe next time. I will say this: if American opera is ever going to amount to something, it needs to get Bigger, meaning that music, words, and staging should lift us out of the ordinary—way out of the ordinary.

No one involved should be afraid to scare a few horses.

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