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Operatic ambition and operatic reality

A few days ago that most incisive of gossip columnists, Opera Chic, had a little thing about Rufus Wainwright’s operatic ambitions, which are pretty high-flown (“My dream is to compose three operas that will be performed for the next two centuries”) but also seem to come from a sincere attachment to the genre. It’s refreshing, and a hopeful sign, to hear him talking up a great but non-iconic composer like Janacek, though.

He has a commission from the Met to write a two-act opera. I wonder what will come of it. Will he string a bunch of songs together, or will he take to heart the example of the composers he admires and write every little transition and interlude and background figure, so the music animates the story and vice versa, and while he’s at it write some real oboe music, real cello music, real trombone music, etc. I’m pretty sure he’s capable of it. He says (in the same interview in Harp magazine where he talks about Janacek) that he’s prepared to fail. I hope that’s modesty and not a way of keeping his foot in the exit door in case it all turns out to be too much trouble.

Henry Mollicone’s Face on the Barroom Floor, which I heard in Greensboro a few weeks ago, is a case study in operatic composition stripped down to its essentials, and a lesson in how to write an piece that has legs, and a small footprint as well. It’s an odd little whirlwind of a mining-town opera that uses three singers and three instrumentalists, plus a fourth cast member who doesn’t sing. Twenty-five minutes long and the soprano is shot dead twice—that’s got to be some kind of record. To get everything across in such a short time, Mollicone has to be able to turn on a dime, musically-speaking. I particularly enjoyed the quote from La traviata that he spliced into the barroom boogie early in the piece—a bit of characterization, since the soprano is playing a soprano (an opera singer, that is, which is a funny coincidence—Wainwright’s opera will also be about an opera singer). I admired the way he cut from broad-stroke tonality to swirling chromaticism the first time the girl was shot, too. This is not, by any means, the only way to approach an opera but it does bring into focus how different writing an opera is from writing a song, even an “operatic” song. As I’m posting this, a few audio samples are still available on the Greensboro Opera web site.

The piano was onstage, since no self-respecting mining country saloon can be without one, and the not-to-be-shot piano player was the composer. He was also music director for the production, so he’d been in Greensboro for several weeks. I don’t know if he planned the opera around the idea that he could travel around to direct and play in it, but it’s a great idea, and I have to say I’m jealous—not only is he deeply involved in preparing and performing his own music but he doesn’t have to cram the rehearsals into the usual couple of days.

I was glad to see the Greensboro Opera Company in action again. The three young singers (Elena DeAngeles, who I heard in February as Gretel, baritone Jeffrey Carlson and tenor Jeffery Maggs) sang their parts with confidence and style, and since it was a small venue, seating a couple hundred I guess, it was good that they were convincing actors as well. I enjoyed talking to them all afterwards, and also to some of the folks behind the scenes. David Barnwell, the managing director, filled me in about some of the problems and promise of opera in Greensboro. Mollicone and I traded notes about our stints at New England Conservatory, which were about two decades apart—if ever there was a place where things change and yet stay the same, that’s it. And then there was Elena’s mother, visiting from New York and a little unnerved after watching her daughter get shot twice (and adding insult to injury, the baritone is her son in law). Mostly, though, she was proud, and rightly so.