What's New: Opera

Sep 2, 2016

A major motion picture about Florence Foster Jenkins
Credit Paramount Pictures

"People may say I can't sing," Florence Foster Jenkins once remarked to a friend, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

We’ll hear music from the feature film about Florence Foster Jenkins, as well as opera selections from living composers: Jennifer Higdon, John Corigliano, Jake Heggie, Michael Nyman, Thomas Ades, John Harbison and Carlisle Floyd on today’s What’s New!


 

Jennifer Higdon
Credit J.D. Scott

Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain is a true gem.  The opera “tells the story of W.P. Inman, a Confederate soldier who, after being treated for wounds he received during the battle of Petersburg, chooses to desert the army and make his way back to his beloved Ada Monroe. Inman knows that the Home Guard is hunting down deserters. Emotionally gutted by the horrors he has experienced and desperate to see Ada again, he decides to take the risk and begins the dangerous journey home. When Inman left for the war, he believed the war would not last but six months. It is now four years later. Ada, a Southern lady once used to a life of privilege, has now been forced to deal with a life of profound deprivation. With the help of Ruby, a resourceful mountain woman, Ada's life has been slowly transformed. The women help each other, not only to endure the war, but also to grow in ways that are both unexpected and profound. Cold Mountain, set during the American Civil War — the pivotal conflict in our nation's history — is the story of a soldier who wonders whether the violence he has endured has in some way ruined him and made him unworthy of love. In the struggle to answer this question, Inman is forced to examine where his real allegiance lies. Cold Mountain, like The Odyssey, on which the novel is loosely based, has at its center a transformative journey.”

Composer John Harbison shares this about his opera The Great Gatsby:

The work on the libretto of Gatsby was something I did while I was writing the pieces that I was working on just before the opera and I had so many musical ideas that were already in forming that it was simultaneous to the music kind of situation. I didn't think of that libretto of something that was a document that would simply be constructed like a poem and then I would fit to it, and in fact one of the advantages of doing it myself was I was able to change so much of it as I worked on it, I very very extensively reconstructed it as I went through it.

Part of it was to satisfy the people who were producing that there was a direction to the project. That I tried to make my libretto deadlines very carefully and tried to be ready so that there was a feeling of what we were really shooting for. But it also was, to me, a tremendous convenience. I would have preferred to work with a librettist. I couldn't think of anyone who would agree to so much cooperation in terms of really – because sometimes I had to cut out things I really liked in the libretto or change them.

So I think it's – collaboration with one's self is probably a streamlining too. I didn't want to have to wait for permission to do as I did. For instance, I wrote every line that the chorus sings, because I changed the whole idea of what a chorus should be in an opera. I had a complete philosophic shift. And I felt like I needed to have the chorus sing only what it could have experienced and witnessed on the stage, which meant that the whole text was word-for-word different. And I'm satisfied that, philosophically, that was an improvement in the show, but if I'd had to try to talk a very prideful librettist into completely reconsidering the whole idea of the chorus, it could have been quite a task.

It was a fun project to write. It was a less fun project to experience as a going through the production kind of thing. Opera is a very rough and tumble world and everyone has an opinion on it. It's probably more like sports. It's sort of like – if the manager doesn't take the pitcher out in time, you know? Everybody will call up on the talk shows and say what should have been done. In opera, it's the same way. If someone doesn't particularly like something in an opera, they're very, very vehement about letting everyone know – particularly the composer. So I still get people – complete strangers come up to me and tell me about an improvement in the Great Gatsby, from a piece they saw ten years ago.

And it's partly because it's on stage and certainly details become more memorable from that standpoint. I'm not quite sure I understand it at all, but it is a very different world, and no – it's always been that way and I don't think any composer gets into it without being ready for that. If you can be ready. But it's been very fascinating. I still hear from Gatsby critics.

What’s New is a production of WBAA Classical, a listener supported broadcast service of Purdue University.