Montag, 23. Juni 2014

BOMBAY SAPPHIRE - Or what causes a contemporary opera hangover

It was the world premiere of a new opera. I especially flew in to be there. Quite an event in the music theatre world but unfortunately – I am sorry to say it - boring. The production was very smart but boring. Well presented but boring. Virtuously performed but in the end boring.

I am usually very excited when it comes to world premieres and yes, believe it or not, I do love contemporary music. But I did not really sense any of the announced tragedy of the plot or the praised magic of never heard sounds in the music.

After the performance I needed a drink. And I wasn’t the only one. Thank god there was a decent bar just opposite the opera house. I met two old friends and some of the usual suspects of the international contemporary music scene. I usually go for Bombay Sapphire after opening nights. I should probably try something new from time to time but I suspect myself to have been faithful to Bombay Sapphire Gin all the years because I was always attracted by the beautiful blue-glas-bottle and the kitschy old fashioned label with a picture of Queen Victoria.  

We soon got into a severe discussion about what contemporary art should be about or let’s better say – what it should be for. That’s when the fun really started.
One of my friends became pretty passionate: Why don’t they compose music that really touches us? We want to feel something! 
The discussion moved towards the question of intellectual obligations (a topic that is set to make me yawn) and the freedom of art. Is the complexity of those pieces too hard to understand? If we, the regular opera audience and people working in the music business don’t get it, who will? Or is this approach too arrogant and it is especially us who should search for new ways to listen and to perceive?  

“What if the piece is simply badly written?” I asked. I mean, there has always been good music and bad music. If you look into music history one has to admit that out of a few hundred opera compositions you will find one masterpiece, one creation that survived for the future. True, there are certainly still forgotten or undiscovered masterpieces. But how many of the compositions of earlier times really had the potential to fascinate their audiences when they were first performed?

If we look at the repertoire of opera houses today, we find one contemporary production among 10 “classics” like “Die Zauberflöte” and “La Traviata”.
Looking at the variety, productivity and richness of the music scene in the times when these pieces were first performed how can we have any guarantee that the compositions that are written now will be “worth” to stand between those masterpieces? Of course, many new creations are and we are privileged to experience them at festivals and during the opera seasons. But we have to face the fact that producing opera is incredibly expensive. How does a theatre director or a donor know that – bingo – this will be the one, the one masterpiece out of hundred new creations?
And given that you have discovered a new Mozart, how do you interest your audience in modern music? Many people see modern music as interesting but it is not necessarily popular. The question is, does it have to be? How much are we willing nowadays to take risks? How courageous are we to produce something just because we personally believe in it?

“Well, opera is not sexy anymore. I think we are the ones who have to develop new strategies how to sell it differently” says one of my friends. “Oh come on, please, it’s not about this.” And self-complacency isn’t sexy either, I thought to myself. I was looking for an example and as the hour was late, I ended up with what was in my hands: “Let’s take my gin. I buy this label because I like the bottle, but if the taste is bad, I will not spend money on it twice. To have permanent success you need the right content AND the right packing. If it comes to tonight’s performance, the packing was perfect, set and costumes even looked “sexy” but the content didn’t have any taste at all.”

In times of Händel, Mozart and Rossini it was the music of their period that was performed everywhere. Certainly not all of these creations were masterpieces but there was a strong demand for more and new music. Of course, there was no TV, no I-tunes and no radio, so live performance had a different position in the daily life.
Even though many composers wrote popular music we cannot see them in the place of today’s pop music. Although it might work for a certain range of the classic repertoire, the question remains when have we lost the longing to discover more and new operas? And with new operas I mean contemporary creations.

We cannot deny that a lot of the curiosity has been lost over the centuries even if we take into consideration that opera has clearly always been more accessible to those segments of society who could afford to attend performances or, if we look at performances at the court, to those who were invited to attend.
Maybe this could be one of the new chances to approach and be truly open for everyone. But then again, where are the people who wait for new opera productions? Where is the connection between contemporary opera and the “real life”?
I don’t think that we, the ones working in the music business can get away with explanations like “well it’s just too hard to understand for the masses”. I believe an attitude like this will sooner or later lead to the end of this genre.  

Early next morning at the airport I wondered if my hangover has been caused by last night’s premiere and the strong frustrations about not having had any emotional sensation during the whole performance or from the gin afterwards. Although I can’t remember that Bombay Sapphire ever gave me any headache before.
Once the plane takes off I try to close my eyes. The images of last night’s production are still in my mind, what puzzles me is that it’s so hard to recall any concrete musical impressions even though the composer obviously had intended to produce new sound experiences.

Trying something different is just not enough. If there is one thing that has not changed through all those hundreds of years it is that we want to feel something. We want to be moved. It’s true that the purpose of music theatre should not only be artistic amusement. It has all the potential to make us reflect, to make us think, to make us question what we see and what we hear. Let it be delightful or irritating but whatever we want to achieve on an opera stage we should not risk boring our audience. 

P.R.Klose, Vienna, June 2014