New Operas Take on Current Events

Famed opera house La Scala has commissioned an opera based on Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth. The New York City Opera is working a version of the movie Brokeback Mountain. Nick Scholl of trrill.com talks about what these works might sound like, and about other modern operas that involve current events.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Composers are starting work on some interesting operas. Famed Milan House La Scala has commissioned one based on Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." Closer to the BPP's home, New York City Opera will stage one based on "Brokeback Mountain." Neither will be on stage until the year 2011. So since we couldn't hear anything for awhile, we can do the best we can do, which is invite a guest to speculate widely about whether either will make a good opera. Nick Scholl is the opera critic for The Stranger, Seattle's alt weekly. Hey, Nick. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. NICK SCHOLL (Opera Critic, The Stranger): Hello.

PESCA: Let us start with "An Inconvenient Truth." You've seen the movie.

Mr. SCHOLL: Mm-hm.

PESCA: You've felt the warming.

Mr. SCHOLL: Mm-hm.

PESCA: Does it have potential as an opera?

Mr. SCHOLL: I feel like it could go in two directions. One, it could be really, like, direct and powerful, and it could be, like, a monodrama, or it's just - I mean, essentially, it's just Al Gore in the picture, and then, like, they could have a video screen in the back...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. SCHOLL: Like, showing a montage of videos and photographs, and...

PESCA: Or it'll be Al Gore...

Mr. SCHOLL: Pie charts!

PESCA: Is the star and charts.

Mr. SCHOLL: Yeah, it'll be pie charts, for sure. And then it could also be another - I mean, there could be the other way where it turns into, like, a Missy Elliot video, where there's, like, a contralto singing "Mother Earth," and she's, like - she's in a big air-inflated bag. And then on the side, there's, like, Julie Taymor, like, dancing ice-core samples or something on sticks.

PESCA: So, someone playing the part of Mother Earth, that would be a bad road to go down, you're saying?

Mr. SCHOLL: That would be horrible.

PESCA: And is this - is that the sort of thing that's more prevalent in European operas?

Mr. SCHOLL: Absolutely, we call it Eurotrash. We, I mean, everyone should call it Eurotrash.

PESCA: What are the signs of Eurotrash?

Mr. SCHOLL: Oh, just clever - like obvious cleverness. It's problematic.

PESCA: The composer of the Gore opera, Giorgio Battistelli...

Mr. SCHOLL: Hmm.

PESCA: Is he guilty of Eurotrash?

Mr. SCHOLL: He's very much into more of an experience - I'll call it interactive, but what it really is, is like sort of a multimedia - sort of multidisciplinary presentation. He has done a lot, a lot of works for theater, whether it be, like, opera without actual singing. He's done tons of stuff that refers a lot to, like, Greek and, like, neoclassical tradition, so it will be interesting to see how that comes to light. He's incredibly avant garde, very atonal, not afraid of atonalism...

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. SCHOLL: So, you know, this is not the most pleasant music all the time.

PESCA: But is that OK?

Mr. SCHOLL: That's fine. I think it's - it'll be, like, more demonstrative, the topic will be more clear because of the tension in the music.

PESCA: Now the idea of a presidential or vice-presidential figure taking on an important topic, it's not a new one, a very famous opera, staged all over the world, is "Nixon in China." Let's take a clip of the toast scene.

(Soundbite of opera "Nixon in China")

Mr. JAMES MADDALENA: (As Richard Nixon) (Singing) We must seize the hour. We must seize the hour and seize your day.

PESCA: Do recent events, what some people call CNN operas, does that - do those as a rule make for good operas?

Mr. SCHOLL: In the case of "Nixon and China," the opera was re - after the events that are taking place in the opera. The topic was not current events at the time. You know, you had comedy sketches, were riffing on Nixon, doing parodies of parodies of Nixon, and someone had to deal with it in a serious way, like, trying to figure out, like, what was Nixon's place? What is any politician's place? What is any person's place in the world?

And that's a grand sort of thing to try to take on. It was effective, because it didn't try to be newsy. I mean, it did try to be poetic. The text, the libretto, is, I think, stylized, but still very clear. What I think is very important in modern opera, and especially when you're dealing with time-sensitive event-based things, is that the singers must be cast in a way that the words come through just crystal clear.

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. SCHOLL: I mean, now, yes, we have these subtitles and surtitles over the stage, under the stage, whatever, that's great. But for something like this Al Gore opera to come through, I think it has to be communicative and not clever, and it needs to be direct.

PESCA: There was another one that might not qualify as an opera. It was called "Jerry Springer: The Opera." Let's hear a little of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of "Jerry Springer: The Opera")

Unidentified Man: (As Tremont) (Singing) Talk to the hand.

Unidentified Group: (As Audience) (Singing) It's so drag and it's so sad, because your brother is your dad.

Unidentified Man: (As Tremont) (Singing) Talk to the hand.

Mr. SCHOLL: Oh, lord.

PESCA: So that was a little bit about incest. He's your brother, he's your dad, musical comedy, you think? What do you make of "Jerry Springer: The Opera?"

Mr. SCHOLL: It's straight up trash. I mean, it's great. I'm interested in the possibility that reality TV could become opera, like, I'd love to see an operatic treatment of "Charm School" from VH1...

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. SCHOLL: Where you have the girls from "Flavor of Love..."

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. SCHOLL: And Monique, and God, I mean, the language alone is just amazing, and to have that set to music...

PESCA: Well, I don't know if you know this, but the people behind "Jerry Springer: The Opera" are coming out with, they hope, an Anna Nicole Smith opera.

Mr. SCHOLL: Oh, cross your fingers.

PESCA: Yeah. So, I sense that you're a fan of the camp, huh?

Mr. SCHOLL: Absolutely, Mary.

PESCA: So this brings me to my next point. Now, there's a "Brokeback Mountain" opera. On this show I mentioned, hey, look at the opera-going public, many gay men like opera. I was deluged with insults, how can you say that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: How can - I said I could back it up with facts. They said, come on, now, but isn't it an acknowledgement that the audience is who the audience is? There are a lot of gay men who like opera, so perhaps they're just - not just, but picking themes that might appeal to the audience? Is that an OK thing?

Mr. SCHOLL: That is -that's fine. Actually, what's interesting is the composer, the - who's been chosen to - for the commission for the "Brokeback Mountain" opera, Charles Wuorinen, is adamantly, like, violently opposed to entertainment. Like, he's obsessed with the idea of opera and art being actually removed from entertainment. It should be intellectual. It should be loftier.

PESCA: So what do you think it will be like as an opera?

Mr. SCHOLL: This is something opera is really good at, which is drawing out a poetry that - I mean, people are talking about, you know, what's next? Is there going to be a musical? No, there will not be a musical of "Brokeback Mountain," because they couldn't seriously treat the subject matter. What's important about "Brokeback Mountain," what's important to remember is that the landscape is a huge character, and that's something that can be poetically transmitted by music.

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. SCHOLL: Beautiful music, yes, but the composer, Charles Wuorinen, uses what's called 12-tone music. It's this very sort of complex formula. It's not necessarily pleasant to the ear, but he does have - he has these moments where he'll interject a bright spot of tonality that sounds - what we recognize as melody, I suppose. In "Brokeback Mountain," when you're watching it, essentially, it's waiting around for the moments when they touch, like, when they have - when they're able to be intimate, to be real, and I see those as sort of the tonal bright spots.

The rest is tense. The rest is, like, it's sort of oppressive, repressive, and that will be great. That's what the 12-tone music is for. That's what the tension is for. That's for - what the atonality is for. I think it could be fantastic. I don't know how they will use the landscape. I keep thinking that where opera's going, is essentially the backdrop will always be video, because it's economical. It could be really easy to put on. I'm sure it will make its way around the world. The new general manager or director of the New York City Opera, Gerard Mortier, is incredibly daring. Lincoln Center is going to be the bomb, is what's going to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Historically, any of the operas that we know that have been around for hundreds of years, were any of them based on current events?

Mr. SCHOLL: I sort of always point to "Marriage of Figaro." It was a play that was meant to comment on the state of the classes at the time.

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. SCHOLL: And the play itself was like highly offensive to the upper class. By the time it made it to Mozart's opera, a lot of the offensive sort of class-based jokes, a lot of the sort of nastiness of it had been excised. The state theaters at the time were the province of the rich, and of course, we can't offend the rich. It was just a comment on disparity between the classes at the time, but nothing in the sort of like newsworthiness - with that, we talk about when we say current events.

PESCA: I'm just wondering, or worrying, that the "Brokeback Mountain" opera will lose to the "Crash" opera, and that will be really sad. Because what would a "Crash" opera sound like? I guess atonal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHOLL: Yeah. It would be atonal, and lots of like recorded crashing.

PESCA: Fear that. Fear it. Opera critic Nick Scholl of The Stranger, Seattle's alt weekly, and from time to time, Nick also writes an opera blog called Trrill. That's T, double R, I, double L, dot com. What is a trill you may be asking? Take a listen.

(Soundbite of a trill)

PESCA: That's a vintage recording, so it's a little scratchy. The trill in that is the rapid alteration between two notes in her singing, not to be confused with a vibrato, trilling is hard, and Nick calls that one the quintessential trill. Oh, if you're wondering, the song is about drinking, and yes, it's a trill a minute over here at the Bryant Park Project.

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