Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

A few candid remarks from an operatic philistine

[Originally written in August, 2013]

While reviewing online videos, I ran across a new opera called “Written on Skin.” Why is contemporary opera so persistently and gratuitously bizarre? And perhaps more damning, why does it all sound the same? This stuff is novel, but it’s not really new. It’s like taking the effect music from a suspense-thriller TV show, and then obscuring all the action with comatose characters and garbling all the words by having them sung. This particular opera is sung in English, but the broadcast features French sub-titles, which were far more helpful than the singers’ diction. I didn’t even realize at first that it was in English. This is yet another attempt at a new opera, extravagant in its premiere, that will have a brief shelf life. The laws of supply and demand guarantee that there will always be enough young singers willing to sign on for ”contemporary” productions like this, in hopes of furthering their careers. But 99 out of 100 of those singers have no real interest in this sort of “art.” Why? because in a fundamental sense, the music is not idiomatic — it does very little to exploit the best features of the voice. It is long on empty rhetorical effect, very short on lyricism, and the singer is relegated to prattling on endlessly in inarticulate recitative.

I checked out of that after a while, and found a concert performance of Debussy’s “Pelléas,” thankfully, without stage direction. It sounds like real music. Perhaps that’s just because it’s familiar. But the reason things like this become familiar in the first place is that there is something about them, their patterns, their narrative flow, and their balance of contrasts, that jog the memory. Otherwise, we’re expected to experience music like a person suffering from dementia — one moment is no different than any other.

One facet that animates music is the element of surprise. Even Haydn’s music is surprising—it’s nothing new. But, it is indispensible to any interesting experience from music to movies to football games. Surprise depends on setting up expectations, and then shaping events to frustrate or delay those expectations, before gratifying them. Such expectations are an outcome of establishing patterns and discernible processes, which lead an observer to infer and anticipate a development. This means that the listener requires some hope of discerning a pattern or process, by relating a sequence of events, each event to its predecessor.

Music that fails to set up such expectations by a discernible pattern or point of reference, relinquishes the element of surprise. Some patterns are difficult to discern at first, but they become apparent with frequent listening. Music that, in effect, avoids projecting its processes to the point of utter obscurity, is wholly discernible only to its composer; and perhaps by slavish repetition, to the performer, who at any rate has a score to follow. And after all, isn’t the score, by definition, a linear expression of the music, even if the linearity is not apparent in the music itself?

All communication demands some measure of linearity and resolution. Otherwise we are talking to ourselves.

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