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Thursday 4 December 2003


Six Operas That Come Close

by David Herter

In the early 1950’s, Mervyn Peake sent the composer Benjamin Britten a libretto of his novel Titus Groan, hoping to interest him in an operatic adaptation. Britten — arguably at the height of his powers — was intrigued. For his next project, he’d been considering an SF opera called Tycho, and another, Gloriana, about Elizabeth and Essex. Titus Groan proved the more attractive. It suited Britten’s gift for vivid musical atmosphere, offering the court intrigue and splendor of Gloriana as well as an opportunity for fantastic imagery that Britten hadn’t indulged since his early days in radio. With his partner Peter Pears, he rewrote Peake’s libretto into a two-act, two-hour long opera. Titus Groan premiered to acclaim at the Aldeburgh festival and is nowadays a complimentary shadow to Britten’s equally magical, though much sunnier, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In May 1953, Dylan Thomas and the great Igor Stravinsky — resident of Hollywood, California — began work on an opera whose subject was apocalyptic: the aftermath of an atomic war, and the survivors’ rediscovery of language in the ruins. The plot held particular interest for Stravinsky, who seemed to be forever rediscovering his own musical language, from Russian Fabulist to Parisian Modernist to American Neo-Classicist. Now that his arch-rival Arnold Schoenberg was safely dead, Stravinsky could venture into twelve-tone music. With this science fictional opera he managed — like a slightly crazed jeweler — to crack tonality’s facets and reassemble them in ways bewitching to the ear. His approach, along with Thomas’s peculiar scenario, fulfilled and extended the pulp trope of civilization returning from the atomic ashes. The premiere in 1954 was an unqualified success, but there were few subsequent performances. Only recently, with Robert Craft’s thrilling recording, has the opera received the acclaim it deserves.

Or not quite.

Actually, neither opera exists today. Much of the above is fiction on the part of the author, or worse — alternate history. Britten never received Peake’s hopeful proposal; he went ahead with Gloriana, his only bomb at the box office. And Dylan Thomas died before he could begin work on a libretto for Stravinsky. Nonetheless, this pair of unrealized projects — a confluence of Masters — promised something that has yet to appear: a bona fide operatic masterpiece close to the core of our Science Fiction and Fantasy genres.

Feruccio Busoni — 20th century Italian-born German composer — believed that Opera should be devised as "incredible, unreal and improbable." Since it dealt improbably with characters who sing while they act, Opera should depict only the supernatural and fantastic — "a magic mirror or distorting mirror," he said, "intentionally presenting that which is not to be found in real life." This seems like the right idea to me, but modern composers have tended to favor realistic — better yet, topical — scenarios (Malcolm X, The Death of Klinghoffer), or adaptations of familiar works in the public domain (Little Women, Jane Eyre). In recent years, when operas have approached the Fantastic head-on, as in Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Doctor of Myddfai, or Poul Ruders’ adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale, or Tod Machover’s of Valis, the results have been pretentious, ponderous, or worse.

Yet some good and even brilliant SF-and-Fantasy-tinged operas did get made in the 20th century, somewhat off the radar.

Leos Janacek’s burlesque opera, The Excursions of Mister Broucek (1920), involves space travel, time travel, aliens, and a talking statue, but clearly belongs to an older era of SF — closer to the fantastic voyages of Cyrano De Bergerac than of Isaac Asimov. Its two parts bear the subtitles To the Moon and To the Fifteenth Century.

Mister Broucek is our guide, a lazy, fat, beer-loving petit-bourgeois of Prague, in the late Austro Hungarian Empire — and Janacek is shaking him up. In the first part, Broucek (which translates to "beetle") is tossed up to the moon; in the second, he’s hurtled back to the days of his illustrious Hussite forefathers.

Janacek (1854-1928) based the opera on two satirical novels by Svatopluk Cech, a popular writer of the day (and a proto-Czech SF writer, who also wrote Hanuman, about a "civil war between two factions of apes," according to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia). He had read the Excursion to the Moon as early as 1888, when he printed a selection in his music journal, Hudebni listy, depicting Broucek’s arrival at the lunar kingdom: a land teeming

with endless caryatids, sphinxes, winged lions, griffins, statues, monstrous gargoyles, bosses, fantastic vases, weather cocks, so that colorfully shining frescoes covered every inch of plaster, and that the whole of this Babylon appeared to vibrate madly with the sounds of unheard music. You might even think that the town itself was one colossal musical instrument. The solemn tones of the organ resounded, gigantic bells tolled, here from a balcony the strains of a lute, there from a window a flute pined, elsewhere castanets clacked and a tambourine jingled; again elsewhere a tam-tam thundered, one could hear shawms and cymbals, harps and bagpipes, glockenspiels and drums — every house contributed richly in its own way to the stupendous concert amongst which chorales sung by choruses could be heard and heart-rending arias...

When Janacek finally adapted the book, this cacophonous scene was left out, perhaps due to an abundance of collaborators; it was lost in the shuffle.

The project was a dispiriting nine years for the composer, who had to deal with an equivalent number of librettists dropping in and out.1 He shelved Broucek in 1913, picked it up two years later and continued with it until 1917, when he decided to add the second Excursion To the Fifteenth Century. Though never a success with the public, the opera is a major landmark in Janacek’s musical style; and for our purposes, The Excursion to the Moon is one of the most charming artifacts attached, however tenuously, to early 20th century Science Fiction.

It opens with a beguiling drift in the strings, tentative, like moonlight on Prague’s Vltava River — interrupted by a stout, up-and-downward-stepping melody, first on the bassoon. This is Janacek’s emblem for the moon, and perhaps for Broucek (likewise stout and somewhat elliptical in his travels). It’s washed out by that drift in the strings, only to return, appended with a celestial harp arpeggio. These two impulses, one dreamy, one abrupt, continue shouldering one another, hastening, halting, stepping on each others toes, as the music expands. Then, as always in Janacek’s operas, it catches fire: here, in cold moonlight on the Vikarka Inn and St. Vitus Cathedral, as the curtain rises. The ardor is for Prague, certainly. 2

There is a bewildering rush of action. Mazal, a painter, is pursuing Malinka, the Sexton’s Daughter. She’s aloof, angry that he danced with another woman the night before. "A waltz, a mazur, a mazur, and a polka!" She taunts, "I shall marry Mr. Broucek!" Meanwhile, a distant chorus — the Artists, in a nearby tavern — sings a paean: "Holy truth, tis, this is fine beer!" Mazal’s landlord — our Broucek — stumbles into view, arguing with a street lamp: "Hold yourself upright, please!" And the Sexton, hovering in the background exclaims: "Mister Broucek is in a rosy mood!"

Mazal laughs. "Ah, my dear landlord, haven’t you fallen from the moon?" Broucek retorts: "It is useless to try to steal the heart of my housekeeper, useless!"

"His housekeeper?" says Malinka, "With whom he danced a mazur, and a waltz? Each dance, each dance! Oh, I’ll take my vengeance! Would you marry me, Mister Broucek?"

"Indeed," he replies, "But on the moon!"

As he stumbles off, the Artists sing raucously of love, concluding, "Drinking beer at the tavern is best!"

A waiter hurries after Broucek — "Mister Landlord! You have forgotten your sausages!" And the Artists take up the cry: "The sausages! The sausages!" But Broucek doesn’t hear them; he’s climbing a wall, trying not to fall off. "Your people are certainly happier than we, the wretched Earthlings!" he calls up to the moon. "No lawyers, or tax collectors, daily newspapers, or Parliament!"

Throughout the opera, Janacek’s characters avoid structured arias or strophic songs. They express themselves with all the quirks, rushes, sudden stops and overlapping of natural conversation — an idea pursued into the orchestral accompaniment. Measure to measure the music is in flux with the characters’ emotional states, charting — in eccentric short motifs — the character’s moods, their anxiety or pleasure, their niggling thoughts. With the first "Excursion", begun in 1908, Janacek marked a full arrival at his mature, idiosyncratic style: a left turn from his countrymen Dvorak and Smetana, more in the direction of Puccini than of Wagner (he disliked Wagner), closer to Mussorgsky than Puccini; but clearly his own path, inspired by the folk songs of his native Moravia, by the natural rhythms of Czech speech, and especially by the sounds of the world around him. 3

Not to imply the music is formless. In the first "Excursion" structure comes appropriately from the waltz and the polka. The rhythms are often subtle, born out of those beguiling string-motives and the up-and-downward steps of the moon/Broucek’s theme. They intoxicate Malinka and Mazal’s flirtatious arguments; they buttress up those choral drinking songs. And when Broucek’s call to the moon is answered, they provide him a means of transport, swirling into a boisterous storm that sweeps Broucek into the sky.

"Call upon us again soon, we pray!" the Artists shout after.

His crossing of the aether is accompanied by a nocturne on the violin: faint, lovely, (and somehow reminiscent of Parisian jazz of the period) — here and gone — here and gone — as though it were Broucek’s drunkenness evaporating.

He finds himself sprawled in a strange realm: "A landscape on the moon," says the libretto. "In the background, a castle on a chicken’s leg." 4

This improbable sight is soon bettered: Mazal, clad in some bizarre garments and clutching a lyre, descends astride Pegasus. Known here as Azurean, Mazal ties the creature to the stem of a giant flower.

Broucek blames the hallucination on beer.

The moon, at the ebb of the nineteenth century, is a surreal realm, where the highly-refined residents — all of them alternate versions of the Prague characters — gain sustenance from sniffing flowers, and from reading flowery poetry, clearly intended by Cech as satire on his contemporaries in the arts.

Malinka appears as a lovely lunarite named Etherea. Though Azurean tries to woo her with celestial rhetoric, she falls in love with Broucek. "Sheer madness!" says Broucek, as Etherea lifts him up and sets him on Pegasus’s back.

She and Broucek fly off.

In Act Two, we’re treated to the wonders of the Temple of the Arts. Inside, we meet the King of the Moon, who is being serenaded by his musicians, drawn by his artists, and sculpted by his sculptors. Broucek and Etherea appear on Pegasus. "A monster from afar!" cry the sensitive artists, as Etherea begs the King to protect them.

We meet an Arch-Priest of Lunar Poetry, and Dancers dance for Broucek. Food is served (flowers and perfume), and a Child Prodigy recites a poem. "Where you see the craters gaping on the Moon, there’s my homeland! Where one smells instead of eating on the Moon, there’s my homeland! Where a thousand lines are grinning in the circular latitudes..."

Broucek falls asleep, and is roused by the Child Prodigy.

Eventually, he offends everyone by pulling a sausage out of his coat pocket. The King of the Moon, clearly a Vegan, is appalled. "Without any regrets you murder? and swallow God’s creatures? Making of your bodies their constant living graves?"

Food provides the impetus for Broucek’s escape. Horrified at not being allowed to eat his favorite roast pork, sauerkraut and dumplings, he steals Pegasus, winging back to Earth during another lovely nocturne. The next morning he’s found in an alley behind the tavern.

In the swift final scene, the Waiter tells Malinka and Mazel that Broucek is being delivered home in a wheelbarrow.

In 1917, Janacek prepared the eighty-minute, two-act Mister Broucek’s True Excursion to the Moon for publication, but soon abandoned the idea. 5 He withdrew it, chopping off a fifteen minute epilog (in which Broucek, wakened by his housekeeper, encounters Mazal and the others, whom he believes are the moon dwellers) and decided to adapt the second Cech novel.

Completed by 1918, the Excursion to the Fifteenth Century is less memorable, though full of glorious music. In the decade separating the projects, Janacek’s attitude toward Broucek seems to have shifted — more disdainful than affectionate, as Broucek, refusing to fight the advancing armies of the evil Sigismund, is condemned to being burned to death in a barrel. 6

Happily, Mister Broucek’s Excursion to the Moon feels complete, and suits our purposes here. Its SFnal satire is charmingly antique, brimming with wry humor that seems emblematic of later Czech SF and Fantasy, a sentiment born of a landlocked country surrounded by Mad Empires — a shoulder-shrug that seems to only intensify its vision, leading to such masterpieces as Karel Zeman’s Baron Prasil and The Fabulous Adventures of Jules Verne, and Karel Capek’s The Absolute At Large and War of the Newts.

In 1923, when the nearly seventy-year-old Janacek chose Karel Capek’s new SF play The Makropulos Secret as the basis for his next opera, the author tried to talk him out of it. Capek thought the play was too wordy. He urged Janacek to steal the idea and write his own story around it, but Janacek persisted. Capek finally relented, though he would carp to his sister, "That old crank! Soon he’ll even be setting the local column in the newspaper!". 7

Concerning a 300 year old woman in the guise of a famous soprano, a cold manipulator forever young and beautiful, the story proved strangely resonant for Janacek. That the plot centered on a convoluted lawsuit, with a predominance of talking about, and around, and between, events of a distant age, mattered little to him. That the play was set in the world of opera, with a supernatural Diva as its protagonist, surely interested him.

But this wasn’t the impetus either.

His final operas, widely considered his masterpieces, 8 were inspired by his ongoing infatuation with the wife of an antiques dealer, Kamila Stosslova, whom he met at a spa in 1917. Janacek was married, but the relationship was troubled. Kamila was his muse. By 1925 his advances had been consistently — if cordially — rebuffed, invitations to his latest premieres had been routinely declined, though a friendly, needful relationship was carried on through hundreds of letters, and less frequently, in person. While at work on The Makropulos Secret(1925), Janacek wrote, "So come see that ‘icy one’ in Prague; perhaps you will see your photograph."

The ‘icy one’ is Elina Makropulos. Nearly three hundred years earlier, amidst the splendor of the Habsburg court, she was chosen by Emperor Rudolph II to test a potion for eternal life concocted by her father, the Court Alchemist. When she fell deathly ill, the Emperor ordered her father imprisoned. Elina escaped. Unbeknownst to the emperor, the potion had actually worked. Elina has lived these subsequent centuries in a variety of guises, always retaining the initials E.M. Now, in modern day Prague, the potion is wearing off. She must brew another batch, and the formula is bound up with the ephemera of a lawsuit which has been ongoing for at least a hundred years.

Most of this is kept tightly packed until the opera’s final scene. Janacek — who wrote his own librettos after the fiasco with Broucek — stays true to Capek’s play except for two instances.

First, he adds an extended overture, a rarity for him; it serves a purpose, implying all that cannot be held within the confines of Capek’s play. From the modern day, 1925, it harks back to the glory of Rudolph II — the last Imperial Court to rule from golden Prague — reliving the ages in a mad processional. The orchestra churns furiously,9 broken by distant trumpet clarions. Passion and splendor are pushed to a dangerous level, ripened close to vitiation by that relentless forward-motion. Think: the runaway gears of ravenous Time.

As the curtain rises on the offices of the lawyer Kolenaty, the music reduces to a mere trill on the horns, perhaps mimicking the turn of ceiling fans in the rafters.

A clerk, Vitek, straightens up files. He muses on the nearly hundred-year-old lawsuit, Gregor vs. Prus, due to be decided that day, and grumbles, "Nothing lasts forever," adding, in the English version, "Too bad, you can only live so long."

Albert Gregor, a descendant of the original plaintiff, bustles in. He’s eager to learn the outcome. He refutes Vitek’s notion that if he loses, he’ll shoot himself as did his father. They’re joined by Vitek’s daughter, an aspiring opera singer, who raves about a prima dona she’s just heard at the opera house. As the plot would have it, the Diva, Emilia Marty, shows up almost immediately. For her sake, Kolenaty fills us in on the complex facts of the case, Gregor vs. Prus. The Diva is strangely interested, and what’s more, tells of where a crucial document can be found, saving the lawsuit from failure. Albert Gregor, as well as the defendant’s heir, Baron Prus, both become smitten with Marty, who is more, of course, than she seems.

Capek was probably right to steer Janacek away from The Makropulos Secret; the play is too stagebound and convolute. Though steeped in the same existential irony as the short, sharp stories collected in Capek’s Tales from Two Pockets, and Wayside Crosses it is (by necessity) static and verbose, with less spark than Capek’s earlier plays, R.U.R., and the Insect Play, written with his brother Josef. Its three acts are confined to as many sets, requiring little physical action by the characters. 10

Janacek saw it as "a modern historical epic," or, as the music tells us (and the opera fulfills) a tragedy. He would write to Kamila Stosslova, "They take her for a liar, a fraud, a hysterical woman — and at the end she was so unhappy! I want everyone to like her. Without love, it won’t work for me."

Here, he follows his compositional style almost to the extreme. 11 According to Oto Zitek, who staged the premiere in Brno, "Tunes were not to be developed, he wanted those short, aphoristic little motifs to coincide with the aphoristic movement of the people... Everyone had to be excited by the presence of Emilia, thus these short, terse little motifs." Lacking the articulations of scene and interlude that had enlivened Janacek’s other stage works — with characters engaging only in dialogs and short monologs up to the final remarkable scene — Makropulos risks becoming mired. What’s amazing is how this intense proliferation fuses with Capek’s dark drama; the music lives vividly in the moment, motif and character becoming inextricable. And this opera about longevity is startlingly short; its ninety-five-minutes contain as much musical incident as an work twice its length.

Which brings us to that second instance of change wrought by Janacek — the finale.

Capek’s version ends with an informal courtroom scene in Marty’s hotel room, as the lawyer Kolenaty tries to suss out the Diva’s lies only to come to believe her bizarre story; a philosophical discussion about longevity follows — very proto-Sfnal 12 — after which Emilia offers the Makropulos formula to all involved; each declines, until Vitek’s daughter accepts it, then holds it over a candle. Emilia Marty laughs as the document burns, saying, with what seems good black humor, "The end of immortality!" If she dies, it is not on stage.

In Janacek’s tragedy, Marty yields to the inevitability of death. Confronted by the other characters, imbued with a greenish light, she sings an aria built around a slow, rocking waltz. Prosaic utterance gains formal structure, with Marty’s lines echoed by a male chorus in the orchestra pit. 13 Death, she tells us, is what gives human life a purpose; without it, we grow cold inside. Though she now possesses the formula, she no longer wants it. She offers it to Vitek’s daughter, who accepts it, then burns it, while Emilia Marty nee Elina Makropulos — awash in red light, a "mere shadow" — collapses to fierce, terminal convulsions in the orchestra.

At its premiere, The Makropulos Secret was a hit. Capek attended. According to his sister’s memoirs, he thought the opera "turned out nobly, even magnificently. Karel simply glowed, drinking mutual toasts with the Maestro." Subsequently, the opera premiered to similar success in Prague (1928) and Frankfurt (1929). The Makropulos Secret would seem to fit easily into the operatic canon, offering a showy Diva role and simple-to-stage dramaturgy, but it would have to wait until 1964 for its London premiere, and 1996 for its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

That first performance, on January 5, 1996, went down in operatic lore, though for a particularly tragic reason. Moments after the overture, as the law clerk Vitek — here the tenor Richard Versalle — finished singing "Too bad, you can only live so long," he suffered a heart attack and fell, dead, to the stage floor. His next line remained undelivered: "All is vanity. Dust and ashes."

In retrospect, a moment worthy of a short, sharp tale by Capek.

The life of Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), another Czech, was shaped by an expatriate existence in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, where he experimented with surrealism and jazz modes, and by World War II; from 1938 he was forcibly in exile from his homeland, living for a time in Paris, America, and Switzerland. Written two years earlier, his masterwork Julietta (1938) — a story of dreams and wanderings, of characters seeking to recapture the lost past in the ever-present moment — seems an act of prescience.

Based on a play by Georges Neuveaux, the opera’s subtitle is A Dream Book, and what we experience through its three acts seems to be a dream, or a nightmare — one which, like Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman, ends only to begin again.

The plot is ideally incredible, unreal and improbable.

Michel, a Parisian bookseller, returns to a small harbor town to find a girl, Julietta, whose voice has haunted him since a visit years earlier. The town seems the same, except that none of the people has any memories. They live in a continuous present. Michel is understandably an object of fascination. A man accosts him with a knife, demanding Michel tell the story of his life. A Policeman saves him. Few in town (says this Policeman) can remember anything from their past, so when a stranger arrives the townsfolk try to learn his history, adopting it afterwards as their own. As if to prove it, the Policeman reveals that he is not really a policeman. Further, he recites a town statute: if anyone can precisely recall any subject from their past by sunset, they will be chosen mayor. Michel is therefore Mayor. He is given a chain and top hat, a pistol (which, he is told, he must not use) as well as a parakeet to remind him of his office. Michel talks about how he arrived by train, but nobody remembers a train. There is no train: only a ship in the harbor. Michel is confused. He starts to recall his election as mayor, only to be told that he’s dreaming. Eventually he has a chance to tell of his earlier visit, and of Julietta, whom he heard singing from an upstairs window. He tries to remember the song she sang. Then Julietta’s voice is heard. She appears. For a moment she and Michel seem to recognize each other. She greets him as a lost lover, though it’s clear she doesn’t remember him. She asks him to meet her in the woods.

Act Two begins in the woods. Michel briefly encounters three gentlemen, who are calling for Julietta, confident they can find her. He runs into Grandfather "Youth", who operates a wine stall in the forest, and a Fortune-teller, who foretells the past, not the future. Julietta appears. She exhibits true affection for Michel but does not seem to know him. They’re interrupted by a Seller of Memories, and Julietta collects all sorts of knickknacks she says were once hers and Michel’s. When Michel tries to tell about their true first encounter — Julietta singing from the upper floor window — she doesn’t believe him. She teases him, and they quarrel. She eventually runs away. Michel pulls the gun; he shoots at her, but it isn’t clear whether he hits her. The act concludes when Michel, uncertain why he came to town, prepares to leave by the ship in the harbor when suddenly he hears Julietta’s voice.

Act Three takes place in the Central Office of Dreams. The official in charge says that Michel, a regular, has already been to visit a few hours ago. Now it’s time to wake up and go home. Michel hesitates. He stands aside as customers arrive: a bell boy wishing to dream about Westerns, a beggar wishing to dream of a stay at the seaside, a convict wishing to dream of a vast room to make him forget the tiny size of his cell. They each pass into another room, which happens to be a cinema. When Michel looks in, he notices Julietta dominating the screen. The official warns Michel that his dream is ending, and if he stays when it is finished, he’ll become "like the men in gray" wandering about, failing to wake from their dreams. Michel hears Julietta calling. As the office closes, he rushes outside to find himself once again in the harbor town as at the opera’s start.

Martinu — one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century 14 — had a distinct voice, beholden to Debussy and the English Madrigal composers, overtly tonal but for the spice of Moravian modes, texturally thick yet somehow transparent; it possesses a glowing, stained-glass quality. The composer and critic Virgil Thomson summed it up aptly: "the shining sounds of it sing as well as shine."

That voice creates an ethereal, enchanting atmosphere in Julietta; disconcertingly so, at times. Even as events threaten to slide into Kafka-esque nightmare, the music is lively, the delivery brisk and almost cartoonish, with frequent swaths of melody — chordal in structure — sliding past us bright as sunlight. The predominant emotional state is desire, drawing Michel through the plot in search of a voice, a song, a woman, even as the other characters yearn for Michel’s own memories.

Throughout its three acts and 2 ¼ hours, the pace sometimes slackens; the score feels fragmented, as it never does in Martinu’s symphonies. Infrequently, to good effect, the music falls silent and a lone accordion plays a simple tune, to which characters lapse into reverie, as though a vivid memory were passing by. Sometimes music ceases entirely: characters speak instead of sing. Opera reverts to stage play before our eyes and ears. A cynical listener might wonder if it were Martinu’s way of fitting in all the play’s dialog, 15 but here it works to our advantage. As singers simply act, simply speak, we remain acutely aware of that silence. And when the music wells up, when character begin to sing, it’s a sort of visitation — a transition back into the realm of magic.

Blond Eckbert (1993) by the Scottish composer Judith Weir (b. 1954), is adapted from an 18th tale by Ludwig Tiek, a contemporary of Goethe and Hoffmann. It’s a story of murder and madness, like Poe crossed with the Brothers Grimm. Using a chamber orchestra and four singers, within a sixty-five minute span, the composer captures the essence of a dark fairy tale and renews it for the late twentieth century.

Weir’s version is told — or sung — by a bird, to a dog.

Eckbert lives alone with his wife Berthe in the mountains. One stormy night, they’re visited by Eckbert’s only friend, Walther. To pass the time, Berthe tells Walther the story of her youth. "However strange it may sound," she warns, "do not take my story for a fairy tale."

She describes a dire childhood escaped by fleeing into the mountains, where she lived with an old woman who owned not only a dog, but a bird which laid jewels. Berthe, though content, was curious about the wider world. Tying up the dog, taking the bird and the jewels, she sneaked away. Strangely, in her telling, Berthe cannot recall a simple detail: the dog’s name. Even more strangely, Walther can. "Strohmian!" he says, never quite revealing how he knows it. This enigma insinuates itself among the three, erupting into sudden subterfuge and murder. Eckbert kills Walther with an arrow; Berthe dies of terror. Eckbert ventures into a nearby city, where he meets a man named Hugo who bears a peculiar resemblance to Walther; then wanders into the woods, and discovers the mountains from Berthe’s tale, and finally, the old woman herself, leading to a finale that — though ridiculous — nonetheless supplies a nice operatic epiphany. At the close, the bird darts off, chased by the dog.

The plot is certainly incredible, unreal and improbable, sometimes to an unhelpful degree. Tiek’s original probably makes events seem prescient rather than stale and overly-contrived. The opera falters in the final third. But this is Opera, after all; it can survive its libretto. Music is prime here.

To some extent it’s organic. In the prelude, sylvan and dark-hued strings mimic the Bird’s flight — a timid, upward motif that fractures, multiplying through the orchestra — generating, by varied repetition, not just the Bird’s flight but the forest she flies above, a suggestion of hunting horns, and a pre-echo of the Bird’s first words, as she begins to wordlessly sing — to vocalise — which leads us into the telling of the Tale.

Weir’s aphoristic melodies owe a debt to Janacek’s. This aspect of her style was more pungent in earlier operas such as The Consolations of Scholarship and A Night at the Chinese Opera. Here, the use of speech-influenced melodies is more relaxed, serving to wed voice and orchestra: the instruments shadow the voices, stalk them, run counter-patterns, creating a charged atmosphere that attenuates the ear to the drama’s momentum. As in Janacek, the telling of the Tale shapes the very music that encompasses it.

Characterization is vividly realized. The Bird, a soprano, imparts an angled nervousness to her telling. Eckbert, a gruff baritone, is mired in low, ponderous notes. Berthe, a mezzo soprano, sings in close, guarded melodic lines; while recounting her childhood, her voice is nearly bare of accompaniment — a few instruments timidly chase her words. Walther, a tenor (who also plays the adversarial roles of Hugo and the Old Woman), has a sinister etherealness in his vocal line, and does not comfort us with greetings such as, "My dearest friends, the hour was late, I thought of you, at home, and safe."

At little over an hour long, things never feel hurried. Interludes, however unusual in movement, unfold with seeming naturalness; the arias are just as long as they should be. Weir is an agile painter of mood, and turns the atmosphere, as it were, on a dime — from a Grimmsian forest to a claustrophobic cabin to the bright, vertical clangor of a city.

Her music continually surprises, transforming the conventions of Germanic opera — such as Storms, Dark Forests, Role Reversals, Hunting Horns — into new perspectives, like long shadows cast by firelight.

Gawain (1990), by an Englishman, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934), is not content to surprise. It shocks. It overwhelms. This is Grand Opera that might make Wagner run for the hills. During the work’s composition, Jeremy Isaacs, General Director of the Royal Opera House, visited Birtwistle at his home in the south of France. "After a delicious meal, he took me across the garden to the building — rather like a dovecote, in which he worked," he told the BBC. "There he showed me... tall sheets of manuscript paper... on every line of which, at almost every point, was a clear, precise mark. At each mini-part of time (there was) a note in music. There are lots and lots of notes in Birtwistle’s music. I’ve never met anyone more sure of what he was doing."

Gawain adapts and expands upon the famous 14th century poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". David Harsent’s adaptation is sometimes muscular, sometimes circular. He hews close to the original, except when indulging in mesmerizing (or redundant) cyclical structures to suit Birtwistle’s musical needs.

The results are closer to ritual than drama, though it is ritual that bleeds.

We open on the Court. It is Christmastide. The knights have assembled to tell stories of derring-do. The proceedings have a chill about them. This King Arthur is a wounded king, fallow; there is no mention of a redemptive Grail. He and the others are framed — literally — by the evil Morgan LeFay and her sister Lady De Hautdesert, standing on either side of the stage. Between them, as if conjured by their swooping, keening invocation, the Green Knight approaches. While the Jester tells a tale that mocks the King, there is a knock at the door. (Or rather, since this is Birtwistle, there is a knock at the door several times.) The Green Knight rides into the court on a clockwork Pantomime Horse. He bears an axe, a holly branch, and an unusual offer: he’ll take an axe-blow on the neck from any brave knight, as long as that knight agrees, in one year and a day, to take the same from him.

Unnerved, the crowd hesitates. But Sir Gawain accepts, and smartly lops off the Green Knight’s head. Or rather, does so twice. The celebrations are interrupted as the Knight’s body rouses itself, and retrieves its head. In a theatrical coup, the severed head sings of the bargain that now must be kept.

This first act has a strong dramatic line that subsequently falters. The second act — a ritualized arming and blessing of Gawain, and a depiction of his journey — can seem either mesmerizing or unending. Birtwistle’s music might be said to travel different routes over a single landscape; some listeners will think one trip is enough.

Taken entire, the opera displays all of the myth’s pain and tarnish from a ritualized distance, layered in Birtwistle’s staggeringly dense orchestrations — a sort of fossil record etched in cellos, double-bass, trumpets, trombones, tubas, contrabass clarinets, and euphonium, sparked into grudging motion by characters who are enacting the very myth they are trapped inside, their voices striking the walls. Germanic-operatic ideals are not followed so much as subsumed. Birtwistle’s style is neither twelve-tone, nor wild atonalism. To some extent it’s instinctive, and might even seem arcane.

The composer — always reticent to discuss his working methods — insists (with trademark laconicism) that writing Gawain was simple, since it’s all derived from a single chord.

No matter how it was generated, it risks a certain ponderousness — or maybe demands it. 16 Density lifts the drama to a fierce level, even as the listener sometimes cringes at the vocal lines, or feels trapped along with the characters in an unending series of refrains and iterations.

Yet just when the ear grows numb and the mind grows tired, the music startles us with some vivid, old-fashioned literalism — such as the whistling woodwinds and anvil-strike that serve to lop off the Green Knight’s head, or the Green Knight’s riotous entrance into the Court astride his Pantomime Horse.

Birtwistle admits to the BBC, "If I was actually pushed hard enough to say why did I set this piece to music, it’s all about this horse. I’ve had this image in my mind for maybe thirty years."

And he sets it free with an apocalyptic snarl by massed trombones — the horse’s dreadful whinny — over a rollicking battery of percussion: its clockwork stride: its jangling, unstoppable approach.

In the madness of its summoning, the musical image lives there in the air before us, an eidolon of the Fantastic as vivid as, say, a Hannes Bok illustration, or a penultimate paragraph from Clark Ashton Smith.

Rappaccini’s Daughter (1988/1997) by the Mexican composer Daniel Catan (b.1949) is adapted from a stage play by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, a poetic rendering of Hawthorne’s famous tale, itself an Italianate fantasy written under an Italian pseudonym by that most American of writers. Catan, a devotee of Mozart, Strauss and Debussy, was further influenced by a year spent studying in Japan.

After an impressionistic, verdant prelude, the curtain rises on the streets of Padua. Doctor Rappaccini is in heated argument with a colleague, Doctor Baglioni. Here we have two surprises. First, that (true to the story) the bulk of this scene, and much of the better parts of the opera, is about Science, or more particularly, about Botany. Second, that the language we’re hearing isn’t Italian, or German, or English, but Spanish, which disconcerts for at least half a minute. Then we’re entranced by what’s most important — the eerie beauty of Catan’s music, greatly tonal but with strange shapes and alliances, somehow both profuse and spare.

It evokes, in the prelude and after, the profligacy of wild growth. Violins play in high, trembling harmonics; woodwinds skirl in sensuous lines over distant drums pounding like a faint heartbeat; a clarinet plumbs the sonic depths. These melodies and figurations anticipate the Dream Garden that lies at the center of this opera, where Catan’s shikachi flutes — remnants of his Japanese studies — strike the ear as the most Spanish-sounding element in the score.

Exit Scientists.

Giovanni, a student, arrives in town. He rents a room overlooking Rappaccini’s unusual garden, renowned for its weird varieties of flora as well as a mysterious, ravishingly beautiful young woman, rarely seen.

The story follows the well-known outlines of the original, though with a Magical Realist twist supplied by Paz and by Catan’s librettist Juan Tover. In the first act, when Giovanni meets the Daughter, Beatrice, it’s in a dream — a dream garden, where flowers mutate into ravishing soprano voices. During the second act, the ardor that blossomed in dreams is pursued into reality. It’s here that Catan’s music — which had shown a tendency to reinterpret Operatic gestures and avoid clichés — succumbs somewhat. Beatrice and Giovanni’s love takes shape in lush, sizeable — familiar — love duets. Catan’s inventive and imaginative score gives way to a Puccini-esque heave and shudder. Luckily, Doctor Rappaccini is not forgotten; he’s given an aria to continue the 19th century discourse about his work. And the conflict continues with Baglioni, who attempts to save Giovanni from the Doctor’s satanic influences.

In the finale, Giovanni gives Beatrice an antidote prepared by Baglioni. Doctor Rappaccini warns it will prove fatal for her. He’s right. Dying, Beatrice sings another lush aria, then sprawls dead into the branches of a tree. Surprisingly, a four-and-a-half minute instrumental postlude follows, wherein the music reaches a rapturous height then retreats into the lovely hothouse motions that opened the opera, symbolizing the garden’s return to its natural state.

Certainly, Catan shouldn’t be taken to task for writing an operatic opera. Rappaccini’s Daughter is perhaps the model of what a modern opera should be — friendly to those fearful of new music, intriguing to those with adventurous ears, and full of enough show-offy moments to satisfy both singers and opera fans. 17 Better, it captures a dark, memorable likeness of Hawthorne’s Fantastic tale.

Other worthwhile operas, slightly farther afield, should be mentioned: Busoni’s macabre Doktor Faust (1925); Martinu’s The Knife’s Tears (1928), Voice of the Forest(1935), Ariane (1958), and his oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955); Britten’s Curlew River (1964) and his ballet Prince of the Pagodas (1956); Michael Tippett’s King Priam (1962), The Midsummer Marriage (1955) and his awkwardly-Sfnal New Year (1988); Georges Enesco’s Oedipus (1936); Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are (1984) and Higglety-Pigglety-Pop (1990); Philip Glass’s La Belle et la Bete (1995); Birtwistle’s unhinged Punch and Judy (1968), and his near-insane Mask of Orpheus (1986).

Also, there’s a handful of operas I’ve never been able to see or hear (only one has been recorded) which might have deserved to be featured prominently in this essay: Aniara (1959) by Karl-Birger Blomdahl (considered to be the SF opera by some; I’ve never been able to track down the L.P.); Weir’s Vanishing Bridgegroom (1990)and Sciopo’s Dream (1991); Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong (1994)(with a libretto by Russell Hoban); Thea Musgrave’s Voice of Ariadne (1974) and Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1982); Vaclav Kaslick’s adaptation of Capek’s Krakatit (1961) and Jan Cikker’s of Insect Play (1987); and possibly Philip Glass’s adaptations of Doris Lessing’s The Marriages between Zones Three Four, and Five and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8.

But nothing promises the centrality and eminence of those never-to-materialize Britten and Stravinsky operas. Not at the moment.

Perhaps SFWA could send Daniel Catan a copy of Nightwings, Judith Weir Brightness Falls from the Air, and Harrison Birtwistle The Book of the New Sun?


1. One was jailed for political crimes, and resisted Janacek’s suggestion he write from his prison cell.

2. Though it’s also somewhat disingenuous; Janacek, from provincial Brno, was forever frustrated by his efforts at finding success in the big city.

3. A photograph shows him standing at the edge of the sea at Flushing, Holland, transcribing the waves into his notebook.

4. A slight step-down from Cech’s mad Babylon.

5. Max Brod, responsible for translating Janacek’s operas into German and introducing him to the wider world, deemed Broucek "a grotesque that chokes on its own excesses."

6. Though there is that talking statue I mentioned: none other than the late author Cech, berating the audience somewhat.

7. Unbeknownst to Capek, Janacek’s latest opera, The Adventures of the Vixen Sharp Ears, was based on a newspaper comic strip.

8. Kat’a Kabanova, The Adventures of the Vixen Sharp Ears, Makropulos Secret and From the House of the Dead

9. Janacek bares his Slavic teeth here.

10. And opera about Opera — especially with supernatural Divas — becomes a bit tiresome, I think.

11. That extreme would be reached in his last opera, From the House of the Dead.

12. Prus: "The ordinary, small, stupid human being never dies. A small person is everlasting, even without your help. Smallness multiplies without rest, like mice or flies. Only greatness dies…We can preserve them. In these men we can develop superhuman brains and supernormal powers. We can breed ten or twenty thousand supermen, leaders and creators." Vitek: "A race of supermen!"

13. The only use of a chorus in the opera.

14. With over 400 published works, including 13 operas.

15. It’s not a new practice; he utilized it in earlier operas, especially the wonderfully surrealist The Knife’s Tears and The Three Wishes.

16. This is Grand Opera, after all

17. Two versions exist on CD. On the Newport Classic label is a complete 2-CD recording by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, conducted by Eduardo Diazmunoz; it is preferred. On the Naxos label is a single CD of excerpts favoring the romantic scenes over the scientific ones, and leaving out the wonderful prelude.

David Herter is the author of Ceres Storm (2000) and Evening’s Empire (2002). He’s currently at work on Yan Tan Tethera, a "sidequel" to his first novel, as well as Along the Overgrown Path, a strange novel about Leos Janacek. In January he travels to the Czech Republic to attend a festival celebrating the composer’s 150th birthday.

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