New works from the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Damon Albarn are helping opera reinvent itself.
Opera from pop stars
Opera. A Marmite art form if ever there was one. A word that can strike an alien fear in the hearts of some, yet emit breathy sighs of adulation from others. In bygone days, the two camps could be split into neat divisions according to age. There were those above 40 who could hum merrily along to La Traviata or Madame Butterfly and who liked nothing more than to dress in their best and spend an evening enraptured at an opera house. In the opposing camp were those under 40, who would prefer to gouge out their eyes than sit through several hours of arias and tragedy. A simplistic divide, perhaps, though not a wholly false one.
But in recent years, there have been signs that the operatic community has been attempting a makeover, trying to shed its image as the sole preserve of the middle-aged middle class. London's Royal Opera House now has a student ticket deal, and last year it caused no small amount of controversy by offering a discount scheme in the tabloid newspaper The Sun. The English National Opera company offers podcasts and videos online. This year, Glyndebourne launched a cut-price scheme to attract those 30 and younger. New York's Metropolitan Opera is currently in the middle of its free summer recital series, and the Vienna State Opera often holds performances for children.
Most promising of all, however, is the new material. We've had Jerry Springer: The Opera, and veteran rockers such as Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and Elvis Costello trying their hands at the art form. Perhaps most successful of all has been Monkey: Journey to the West, a visual spectacle created by the Blur frontman Damon Albarn. And now, following successful performances last week, we have the work from the singer-songwriter and all-round musical whizz Rufus Wainwright to add to the list. Called Prima Donna, it is his first opera and has just premiered at the Manchester International Festival. A date has been scheduled for a tour to Toronto next year. Set in 1970, it tells the story of a fictional soprano called Regine Saint Laurent, once the world's most revered opera star. But poor old Regine hasn't been able to sing a note for six years following an unidentified trauma on the first night of the opera Alienor d'Aquitaine. This voice-snatching secret turns out to be the moment that Regine witnessed the lead tenor, whom she was deeply in love with, embracing a chorus girl. Cue her silence.
As storylines go, it may not be up there with Tosca, but Prima Donna has won Wainwright cautious praise for his orchestration, and the cast has been applauded. Given his musical heritage (his parents are the folk singers Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle), Wainwright's choice of career has thus far been successful but perhaps not surprising. His diversion into opera is, on the other hand, a more radical step. But in typical style, he has spoken immodestly about his achievement. "They should take an example from my career," Wainwright told The Times this month when asked how else the opera world should evolve. Who else could bring opera to the masses? "You know, Paganini or Chopin, I mean they were all performers as well, but right now? I don't think anybody could do it but me," he claimed.
But despite his breeziness, getting the production to its finished state has not been an easy ride. It was originally commissioned jointly by the Metropolitan Opera and the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, partly in an attempt to attract new audiences by staging fresh, contemporary works. Wainwright began work on the project in 2007, but his deal with the Metropolitan was suddenly terminated last September.
Wainwright says that the Metropolitan's general manager, Peter Gelb, backed out when he realised that the opera was written in French and was worried about the alienating effect that might have. Wainwright, who was raised in francophone Montreal, refused to switch languages and the project was shelved. Some say that was a mere excuse, as the Metropolitan had previously shown no huge disinclination to show operas in foreign languages, and that Gelb had merely heard part of Wainwright's work and deemed it not strong enough. Either way and happily for Wainwright, it was rescued by the Manchester festival, clearly something of a champion for new operatic talent having held the premiere of Albarn's opera two years before.
Monkey was an entirely different production, however. While Wainwright has stayed faithful to the traditional, classical opera form in terms of music and storyline in Prima Donna, Monkey blends the theatrical elements of Cirque du Soleil-type gymnastics with opera to create more of a spectacle. The story is an old one, but the show is nothing of the sort. Based on a 16th-century Chinese fable, it features a monkey, called Monkey, who launches himself along a path to enlightenment. Along the way he comes across fairies, dragons and other magical characters. The singers have to be accomplished gymnasts to cope with the show's physical demands, and the result is a visually stunning work that, despite being sung in Mandarin, is billed as being suitable for children aged seven and up. Not something that you can say about traditional opera performances.
Verdi and Puccini might spin in their graves, and opera purists might wince at the changing face of the art, but Monkey proved so successful in its initial run in 2007 that it travelled to Europe and America before returning to London at the end of last year. It's a success that echoes that of Jerry Springer: The Opera, another relatively fresh addition to the scene (fresh in the sense that it has been written this century, not 300 or 400 years ago). Taking the controversial television show as its framework, the opera version features rowdy participants singing about their problems and fighting on stage. With elements of infidelity, revenge and general vulgarity, it made perfect modern opera material. It premiered in 2003 and became an instant success, running for two years in London before going on tour in the UK and clocking up several awards.
Among other recent attempts, Elvis Costello's opera on the life of Hans Christian Andersen for the Copenhagen Opera House failed in 2005. However, his fellow musician Roger Waters found happier success with Ça Ira, based on the events of the French Revolution. Waters held the world premiere in Poland in 2006 to mark the anniversary of the 1956 workers' revolt against the communist authorities. It was epic in scale, with more than 500 people involved in bringing the show to a 12,000-strong audience at an estimated cost of ?2 million (Dh10m). It was a triumph, and there was talk about it going on to other European cities as well as Russia and China. But the tour never materialised, in part because of the cost of mounting such an event.
The vast expense involved in opera productions is one of several problems that face today's budding writers. You not only have a cast and a full orchestra to pay, but there are also lavish costumes and set designs to consider. The Los Angeles Opera, for example, is gearing up for next year's Ring Festival, a celebration of the four-part Wagner classic. It is costing $37 million (Dh136m) to put on. The pressure of cost causes a problem for new works because opera houses are understandably reluctant to stage anything other than old favourites that will pack in the audiences, some of whom will pay up to Dh1,000 a seat.
There are a few modern operas that are performed across the world today. The work of the American composer John Adams, such as Nixon in China, has proved lasting. There have been other contemporary works based on the lives of Jackie Onassis, Harvey Milk and Marilyn Monroe, for example, that have tried to enter the repertoire. But in general, the classics always win out. London's Royal Opera House has just shown Tosca and The Barber of Seville. Up next is its production of Wagner's Ring cycle. Currently at Sydney's Opera House is Aida; the Metropolitan in New York begins its new season in September also with Tosca. Opera houses operate long lead times, with seasons scheduled several years ahead. All of which makes breaking through with a new work something of a challenge.
The secret, perhaps, is to fuse pop elements of musical into opera as Albarn did with Monkey, and Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas did with Jerry Springer. Fewer strangulated death scenes, more visual spectacle. There is always a healthy amount of debate around what makes one production a musical and another an opera. Just as you would never call Cosi Fan Tutti a musical, nor would you term Starlight Express an opera. The explanation most often given is that while opera bases itself on classical music, musicals come in more popular form. But given the new wave of 21st-century opera, it seems that line is increasingly blurred.