The Great Upheaval of Opera
(I gave this lecture on June 27th in the Rheingoldbar of the Bavarian State Opera. It is aimed at an opera audience and not at a specialist audience for contemporary music theatre. So please forgive me for explaining some things that may seem redundant to those familiar with the subject.)
The great upheaval of opera
You probably haven’t noticed it yet, but we’re in the midst of an important change in operatic history. It’s already begun, it’s happening right now, and yet you might think it’s all the same.
If you look at the program of the Bavarian State Opera, you will see what you are used to as an opera lover. You’ll find pieces like Salome, Cosi fan tutte, Boris Godunow. Everything as always. But other performances have crept in very secretly. It says „Hamlet“ and you might think it’s an old piece, but it’s a brand new opera. Before selected evening performances, you can also listen to short musical theater works, completely free of charge, as a kind of prelude. These works are also new and were composed by my students, among others, including – still a great rarity today – a woman. And this young woman is Chinese, so she comes from a country where what we call “opera” has only been known and performed for a few decades.
Perhaps some of you are concerned about this, but I don’t think you are, otherwise you would not have come to my presentation. But you certainly know that there are many people who find these developments uncanny, who would prefer to see the same pieces on the opera stage over and over again, in performances that are as traditional as possible, without criticizing the stars that they support the war against Ukraine or are supported by sanctioned donors. But that’s another topic.
Salome, Cosi fan tutte, Boris Godunov, forever. The great warhorses of opera – for many opera fans it should always remain the case that these pieces make up 95% of the program (and that is actually the case at the moment). And best of all – please – in productions that are not too „modern“, or even – God forbid -„director’s theatre“ (“Regietheater” in German). For many opera fans, especially for the very conservative ones among you, the greatest wish is that their civilizational refuge with everything that goes with it – the evening wear, the bar, the appetizers during the break – is not disturbed. That everything stays the way it was and always has been.
We are currently living in a country in which part of the population is mutating into protest voters simply because they want everything to stay the way it used to be. Because the change is scary for them. And who have no idea that this protest will rather lead to the destruction of what they want to preserve.
But I’ve been asked to speak here about the future of opera, and as someone who loves composing opera and loves opera, it’s obviously a subject that’s very close to my heart. I’m very sorry to have to tell you this: when I talk about the future of opera, of course I’m talking about change. You have to swallow this bitter pill, I’m sorry. And the fact that things are changing is unfortunately an attribute of the future that we cannot negate. It would even be terrible if everything stayed the way it is forever. Opera has only survived the last few centuries because it has reinvented itself over and over again. It follows logically from this that an end to reinvention would also mean an end to opera.
If we want to understand opera as an art form, we have to look at its development. That’s very important, because only if we really understand the history of opera, we can draw the certain conclusion that nothing will stay the way it is. For me, that’s a comforting thought.
I’ll give a simplified, brief outline: In the beginning, opera was a very young genre and there were no rules, apart from trying to get something off the ground together. For me, this is the most innocent and exciting period of opera, and I especially love Renaissance operas. There were no rules, no orchestra tariffs and – forgive me – no offended subscribers. There were also – and I think that’s why I particularly envy that time –no critics and no arts pages as we know them today. A Monteverdi, for example, could really do whatever he wanted. I envy him! His music is therefore as free as even a Busoni could have imagined in his wildest dreams. Free as a bird or a flying child. The only problem for him was that he didn’t know which musicians would be present at each performance since there were no rehearsal schedules and no cell phones. So, he wrote flexible scores. The oboes weren’t there? Then the recorders took over the job. The singer was sick? Then the score was simply rearranged in the evening. They played by candlelight, so every concert was a „candlelight concert“ – today you pay extra money for it with a certain concert promoter.
With the great success of the new genre, its first major transformation began immediately. Baroque opera is something completely different from Renaissance opera. Suddenly the genre becomes aware of itself. It becomes more representative and a kind of all-encompassing evening entertainment with show elements. In baroque opera, the da capo aria emerges as a form of communication with the audience, perhaps comparable to the applause that follows a particularly well-done jazz solo. At the same time, there is a certain consolidation: the opera is in the service of the church or in the service of the court, not the initiative of a wild artistic community like the Florentine Camerata was. The operas also have an increased duration – you surely remember how you always missed the last subway in the Peter Jonas era,
Classical opera, the next evolution of opera, is more open to the so-called „normal“ audience, which of course was very different back then than it is today. Mozart not only writes operas for the nobility, but he also wants to reach a wider audience. And like no other composer before him, he suddenly takes an interest in secondary characters, empathizing with them, writing them beautiful arias. It is also a statement that some of Mozart’s most stunning arias are written for characters such as Leporello, Osmin or Papageno, by no means the main heroes of the respective operas, but the characters for which Mozart clearly has the most sympathies. Suddenly the opera even becomes political, it becomes the cause of controversy, codes are hidden that make fun of the nobility or conjure up liberal ideals that were very modern at the time,
Then comes the great moment when opera experiences a new transformation, and that is the rise of the bourgeoisie. After the French Revolution, power over opera was snatched away from the Church and the nobility. Citizens build their own opera houses, set up their own orchestras, and opera is finally becoming the main evening entertainment for a segment of the population who have more free time than previous generations and can therefore devote themselves to intelligent pursuits such as house music and going to the opera, which is actually much more pleasant than to kill each other. It’s hard to believe today, but the piano reduction of Wagner’s „Meistersinger“ had physical sales equivalent to a Harry Potter novel when extrapolated to today’s population.
So, people didn’t just go to the opera, they had a huge need for information about it. They obtained scores and played four-hand arrangements at home. In magazines such as the „Neue Zeitschrift für Musik“ founded by Schumann, music was passionately discussed, and opera had finally arrived in the middle of society. And not only among the citizenship, but also among the people. As you know, Italy was the leading nation when it came to opera at the time. Every village had an opera house and the need for new operas was enormous. The scores were snatched from the hands of the most famous composers, and, like Verdi and his publishers, they were able to live quite well. In this context, a Richard Wagner is almost backwards, albeit musically progressive, because he wants to bring the opera back to the archaic myth, which can only be achieved with the support of the nobility – i.e. the “Kini” (King Ludwig II of Bavaria). But the “Kini” was no longer a ruler of the old style, but a kind of citizen himself, albeit with a great yearning for the power of imagination and a larger bank account.
What do all these previous opera epochs that I have just briefly reviewed have in common? They knew nothing but their respective presences. In all these times, 95% of the opera houses performed were contemporary works. In the 19th century, the largest number of them. So a typical 19th-century opera-goer would hear nothing but the most modern music of the time and the occasional Mozart. Imagine if an opera house today played almost exclusively Henze, Stockhausen, Lachenmann and Olga Neuwirth. And never an opera older than 30 years. You laugh? That was normal in the 19th century.
Now we come to the 20th century, which is a very complicated case – not so much in terms of opera history, but in terms of world politics. At the beginning of the 20th century, the composers continue to do the same as before: they constantly come up with new ideas and it remains artistically exciting. But then, unfortunately, there are two world wars, a dictatorship that has lasted for decades that bans everything interesting as “entartet” and a gigantic loss of talent, especially in Europe. The forward-looking new music can no longer be played. Artists are killed and persecuted. Composers such as Schönberg, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler flee into exile. Kurt Weill invents the musical in the USA, but that’s more of an exceptional career because for the most part the composers now have to hide that they are “art composers” to make a living. Some of them die in concentration camps for this, such as Viktor Ullmann. You must realize this: Viktor Ullmann died because, as a Jewish artist, he wanted to stay in Germany and write operas. It had never happened before that such a dream was now deadly.
Schönberg, for example, becomes an important composition teacher instead of his works being performed in Europe. In general, it is a flight of new music into the academic world or – as with Karl Amadeus Hartmann – into “inner emigration”. So, if you complain about these composers having „offbeat tones“, I ask you to consider one thing: the music of these composers was not even remotely as offbeat as the world around them. There is no musical dissonance that could capture the horrors of the Nazi era, or the horrors of Stalin, or the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
In the post-war years we see laborious reconstruction. In Munich, the music academy finds its new home in the former “Führerbau” (of all places). People are happy that culture is free again and the years of the economic boom generate amazing energy, which strengthens and consolidates cultural life in Germany again. The opera houses are changing into state and municipally funded institutions. The government invests in the arts and free education for all. Unlike in Italy – once the birthplace of opera – most opera houses survive in Germany. They are rebuilt or, even more incredible, newly created. At this point, opera is no longer the business it once was. This role has now been taken over by new entertainments, first and foremost the cinema and later, of course, television, then the internet. Only musicals survive as a sort of feel-good package, often more of a family outing than a sublime artistic experience.
So now opera is performed because people believe in the magic of opera, in this “powerhouse of emotions” as Alexander Kluge once called it. And after decades of horror and war, the audience eagerly streams into the opera houses and to Bayreuth – they finally want to see opera again as they once knew it.
But what happened musically in the last 40 years while tanks rolled through Europe? Many simply don’t know, are confused by the new sounds that can be heard, for example, at the Darmstadt Summer Courses. The audience simply doesn’t connect – the music has evolved, for example in the composition lessons of Nadia Boulanger, Schönberg, Messiaen or Darius Milhaud. But this took place – for the first time in music history since the Notre Dame School – exclusively in a private or academic context. And while the Notre-Dame-School created works for the church, which were then also heard by people every day, the works of the „New Music“ influenced by Adorno, among others, are primarily created for a specialist audience, that meets in special festivals. This music is by no means completely incomprehensible or crazy, but it hasn’t had any contact with a „normal“ audience for almost 40 years, and has become somewhat quirky, just as computer nerds develop their own code language that can no longer be understood by outsiders.
The new music of the avant-garde presents itself as revolutionary and has a deliberate anti-aesthetic to the romantic storm-and-drang aesthetic that Hitler liked to use to mobilize the masses. Stockhausen, for example, does not see himself as a bourgeois artist, but as a kind of sound researcher who breaks into new, previously unfathomable dimensions. Opera is suspect to these new composers – they want to tear down and detonate opera houses, they them as a place of reaction, of backwardness. That’s why in these years hardly any new operas are written that can easily be performed in a traditional opera house, think of Luigi Nono or Stockhausen’s “Light” cycle, and later also “Girl with the Matches” by Lachenmann.
At about the same time, the previously mentioned „director’s theater“ (“Regietheater”) came into being. Since only a few important composers at this time dedicate themselves to opera and not to „music theater“ – for example Hans Werner Henze and Bernd Alois Zimmermann – directors are forced to find new content in the old pieces. They sense a contradiction – the world has moved on, has new themes, at the same time opera houses mainly play pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries that have nothing to say about the current times.
The „director’s theater“ produces the first major opera scandals since the 1920s. Back then, the scandals were due to the unfamiliar music, now it’s the other way around: the scandal arises because the music is familiar, but the realization is unfamiliar.
The „director’s theater“ in this form could actually only arise in Germany and not in Italy. Because Italy – once the wondrous realm and dreamland of opera – experienced an unprecedented decline in the 20th century. Of the hundreds of opera houses in Italy, only a handful remain today. Only in Germany the former variety was preserved. Here the most operas in the world are staged every year. People from all over the world come to visit, and even in the smallest opera houses you will find excellent singers and musicians from all over the world, the level of musicianship and the competitive pressure are insanely high.
But the world keeps turning. And in the 1980s, a new interest in opera slowly began to awaken, especially among the younger generation of composers. Works are created that are by no means written “against” the opera house and that can definitely function, even if the repertoire of sounds continues to expand and change. The only problem: there is no place for them!
The „director’s theater“ has occupied the spot of the new, and for many artistic directors and dramaturgs that’s enough. You can now say something about Guantanamo, just let the Gluck opera play in Guantanamo, problem solved. Then you don’t have to ask contemporary composers.
But of course, opera will die without new composers. You can’t regurgitate the past forever. That is why every opera house, including the Bavarian State Opera, tries to commission a new piece at regular intervals. Most of the time it goes like this: premiere great or premiere bad, scandal or boredom, success, or failure – then 5 performances, thank you, next piece.
It has become common practice that there is a maximum of 5%, usually even less, space for these “experiments” in the performance calendar. And actually, it doesn’t really matter whether these opera premieres fail or succeed, the main thing is that it’s a premiere and critics write about it. What has suffered, therefore, since the post-war period is a sense of the need for an opera to be revived. Let’s not forget that an opera like Carmen was a total flop when it premiered and survived only because it was performed again. The revival is even more important than the first performance, because only with the revival does a play begin to establish itself. Only then can you interpret it, understand it anew and, to put it simply, re-listen to it. We all know the feeling: we hear a classical opera, that we don’t know well yet, and the first time we might think: it’s ok, maybe a bit boring. The second time we already know what’s coming: there’s this beautiful spot, I’m looking forward to it now. On the second listen it all sounds completely different, usually better!
Unfortunately, music is an art that is extremely dependent on repetition. The more we repeat music, the more familiar it becomes. This is also necessary because music is probably the most complicated and mysterious of all the arts.
But you could also have all these experiences with new operas. Even new operas would send shivers down your spine the second, third, or fourth time you hear them. I know what I’m talking about, because when I hear great newer operas such as „Aniara“ by Karl-Birger Blomdahl or „The Soldiers“ by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, I feel exactly the same emotionality as with an aria by Mozart.
The contemporary opera audience is deprived of this experience, however, because 5% room in the calendar for new pieces is simply not enough to allow repeat performances. You hear new pieces, but only once. You can never commit to something, take a second look at something. It’s like an endless traveling circus with ever new attractions that are less and less understood.
We have been in this situation for a good 103 years, i.e. since the 1920s. Never before in the history of music has there been an artificial bubble in which old music alone dominates for so long, and of course this not only affects the opera houses but also the concert halls. There, too, they are presented with the “Premiere Before the Intermission” or “The World Premiere”, followed by the usual Tchaikovsky Symphony.
Am I happy with this situation? As a composer, I can tell you: no. I feel mistreated and cornered. From time to time, I’m allowed to come out and do a little dance, after which everyone says: „You did that well, but now back to the corner, because now the “really” beautiful music is being played. I don’t know how Bach, Brahms and Beethoven would have coped if in their day if only Palestrina and Heinrich Schütz were played and everything they wrote was dismissed as „quite nice but not as good as the music of the past“. They would have despaired or committed suicide. And above all, we wouldn’t have their wonderful music, which was always and at all times contemporary and communicated with their respective times.
But now back to the great upheaval that has long since begun. Because this cannot go on forever. If the new continues to be given only a tiny place alongside the past, opera will eventually atrophy, petrify, even die. There won’t be a new audience as young people increasingly wonder what all this has to do with them. Young girls will wonder why women can become chancellors, but apparently not composers, because only bearded men are played in the opera houses, and all of them have been dead for usually hundred and fifty years. The audience of the future will find it increasingly difficult when old operas are overlaid with new themes. It is also unfair to ask of an opera like “The Marriage of Figaro” that it has something relevant to say about the emergence of AIs, the Ukraine war or Donald Trump. But „The Marriage of Figaro“ tells a lot about the time when Mozart wrote the opera, and that’s still exciting today, because music brings history to life in a way that no history book can. And if we want to leave a message in a bottle about the 21st century for future generations, then we will need more operas that talk about it.
The revolution is already in full swing. Ironically, the rather conservative Metropolitan Opera currently has more new operas in its repertoire than any other opera in the world. And the Met is by no means a subsidized house that could afford to experiment, quite the opposite. The Met must survive somehow.
Why hasn’t this change, this great upheaval, the turning to the new, which is in the air, not arrived in our opera houses in Germany yet? It shows that while our subsidized system has been a boon in preserving our operatic landscape (which the world envies), it is in some ways slowing down the necessary change. Because our opera houses are not under commercial pressure like the Met, there is a great temptation to just muddle on as before. But the upheaval has long since begun, and most people know that. And those who understand this first will go down in opera history.
Just imagine what that would be like. An opera repertoire, half of which consists of completely new pieces. Do you think that’s a nightmare? If so, how about I tell you that the older pieces don’t need to be turned inside out anymore? That they could be played again as originally intended? That wouldn’t be the worst either.
You know – when it comes to opera, I’m personally very conservative. But by no means as far as the music is concerned, it should be as new and crazy and unusual as it wants. By „conservative“ I mean that I want to preserve the opera. I want opera houses and opera audiences to continue to exist in a hundred years. And because I want that, everything must change. This is the big misunderstanding of many traditionalists – they think that nothing must change for tradition to be preserved. But what doesn’t change dies.
That’s why I’m for change. Not because of me, not because of my now 19 operas, which unfortunately you probably don’t know – I explained why. But because I look into the eyes of my students. Young composers who are increasingly passionate about opera again, who want to prove themselves, who are full of ideas. And still only get a tiny space for it. Maybe a children’s opera here, a chamber opera there. They hardly have the opportunity to get to know the métier, how to work with a large orchestra, how to work with singers, dancers and dramaturges or how to set texts to music. Everyone is crying out for more diversity and representation of not only female composers in the opera business. But that’s only possible if you play today’s music.
And that is the best motivation and the reason for the upheaval that we are currently experiencing – the anachronism of opera as a 19th-century museum (which, by the way, was already lamented in the 1980s) has now become so big that it can’t be sustained anymore. The transition to a more inclusive and contemporary 21st-century opera may be stretched, resisted, and ranted at, but it will all be in vain in the end.
Think what it’s like in a garden. If the plants don’t have enough space, if they don’t get any light or are only allocated a small, tiny part of the garden, they will die and not be able to develop. Anything that needs to grow needs space. Young opera composers need a stage to thrive. You will see: the new music will change, it will start to communicate more with you, the audience. And you will find your own reality mirrored in this music – I promise you that. Everything has a place in opera that also has a place in life – the beautiful, the ugly, the abysmal, the funny. And for this there are a wide variety of musical means that you can understand because they tell a more urgent story than the stories of yesteryear.
Give opera a chance.
Embrace the change.