Thursday, April 12, 2012

Opera in Canada

I know that post title risks comparison with what is claimed to be the most boring newspaper headline of all time:

"Worthwhile Canadian Initiative"

After all, Canada is barely known for its classical music, let alone opera. The only Canadian classical music or musician the international public is really aware of is probably the great pianist Glenn Gould. The other day, however, the Globe and Mail published a lengthy article discussing contemporary Canadian opera and why there isn't much of it. Here is the link. I wonder, just what would a significant Canadian opera look like? The thing is, you have to know a bit about the history of opera to figure this out. It began in northern Italy as a court entertainment purporting to be a revival of ancient Greek drama. The earliest still-performed opera is by Monteverdi on the Orpheus myth. Here is an excerpt:

Opera remained for a long time an aristocratic entertainment. Here is an example of French opera by Gluck using the same Greek myth. This performance uses a modern setting:

Mozart's operas are outstanding examples, especially the ones set to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, such as Così fan tutte. Here is an excerpt:

You could still argue that this is aristocratic entertainment, but a very subtle and accomplished one. Mozart's operas prove their transcendence of their milieu by the fact that they are staples of the repertoire to this day. By the early 19th century, opera had moved into the mainstream and become a mass entertainment enabling master opera composers like Rossini to retire, fabulously wealthy, at age thirty-eight, having written the same number of operas. Here is an example:

The great tradition of Italian opera grew and grew during the 19th century in the hands of great masters like Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi and did not end until the early 20th century with the last operas of Puccini:

Verdi was so popular that he became a kind of national figure--which is odd, since Italy did not yet exist, but was still a cluster of separate states, some of which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the earlier Verdi operas, the crowd-pleaser was often a big choral number such as the chorus of Hebrew slaves in Nabucco. This could easily be taken as a political allegory, a symbol of united action. In fact, Verdi was an important rallying point for Italian nationalism and when it was achieved, he was given a seat in government. Here is that chorus, "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco:

But alongside this great Italian tradition there began another one. In the early 19th century German composers began a fresh tradition, in contrast with the Italian one. This tradition was specifically nationalist, inspired by local legends and stories instead of Greek myths or Italian folk tales. The first important example is by Weber. Here is the Huntsman's Chorus from Der Freischutz:

This is from what is usually called the first romantic opera and also the first truly German national opera in the sense that in using a German folk tale, a German libretto and German peasant characters, it broke free of the international (meaning, largely Italian!) opera traditions. This was followed not only by more German national operas (which would include those by Wagner), but also ones by Smetana and Glinka who created a national opera tradition in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Russia, respectively. For a while it seemed as if the national opera was a 19th century equivalent to the national airline of the 20th century: every aspiring nation state had to have one! Here is an excerpt from a later Russian example, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov:

The things that would distinguish one national opera from another, for all were ultimately based on the fundamental techniques developed over centuries by the Italians, were peasant characters, often bringing with them national musical genres and dances like the mazurka or polka, a libretto based either on national folk-tales or history, and setting of the text in which the characteristic rhythms of the language are highlighted. Mussorgsky experimented with this.

So that's some of the historical background. Music in Canada started off very much as an offshoot of music in Britain, and Britain, despite some remarkable operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan, unsurpassed in their own way, offers very little in the way of a national musical tradition until the very late 19th, early 20th century with Elgar. Indeed, Europeans tended to call Britain the "land without music"! Benjamin Britten became an important opera composer in Britain, but this was long after Canada became a nation and he did not wield a large influence on Canadian composers.

So after this long digression into the history of opera, where are we? A national opera fulfilling at least some of the characteristics listed above has been written in Canada: Louis Riel by Harry Somers. As the Wikipedia article tells us, it was written in 1967 for the Canadian centennial. Louis Riel was the leader of the unsuccessful Indian and Métis uprisings of 1869–70 so this is a uniquely Canadian story. I think we need to count this as an unsuccessful opera, despite government support, judged by the simple criteria that there is no trace of it on YouTube, so I can't put up an excerpt for you. And everything is on YouTube! There have been some successful recent 'national' operas in the United States. The two composers who have found the formula are Philip Glass with Einstein on the Beach:

I know that is an odd choice, but most of the excerpts from the opera available online are just the instrumental interludes called "Kneeplay" and this gives some of the singing as well. Another successful recent American opera composer is John Adams with Nixon in China:

As you can hear both Glass and Adams are 'minimalist' composers whose music is intended to be accessible to the ordinary listener. I think they offer a new 'formula' for the successful national opera composer that might be adopted in Canada. First, choose a composer whose music is widely known and accessible, second, choose a libretto that features a famous national character but offers controversial elements, third, incorporate uniquely Canadian characteristics in either the music, dance or staging.

So, the perfect new Canadian opera might be the story of Pierre Eliot Trudeau and the October Crisis of 1970. Most Canadian history is pretty dull, but this wasn't. Plus, it would give the librettist a chance to explore the legacy of Trudeau that we still live with, and not everyone happily. So there you go, Canada. Get me a good libretto and I would be happy to take on the project for a suitable commission!


RG said...

Your erudition is always impressive. And your suggestion of Trudeau and the October Crisis is plausible for a Canadian opera. But, as far as I know, it has no love story. Don't you need that in an opera? I suggest the story of billionaire Belinda Stronach backstabbing her boyfriend Peter MacKay second in command of the Conservative Party when she accepted a bribe of (and got) a Cabinet post from Liberal Party leader, billionaire Paul Martin, for "crossing the floor" but soon after lost it all in another election. Here we have a story of the hubris of very rich unscrupulous people defeating the people but soon destroyed by those same people. And the fact that this trading of a political position for a favour was judged acceptable by the Ethics Commissioner would give it a kind of Friday 13th frisson in the American market, where Rod Blagojevich goes directly to jail... and where, anyway, all musical endeavours, to be counted successful, must first make it big.

Bryan Townsend said...

Aha! The love story. From opera librettos I have looked at, a love story can be inserted just about anywhere. But how about Margaret Trudeau? You see, it's ready-made!