Robert Ashley: Opera's Misunderstood Innovator : Deceptive Cadence The composer's operas for TV completely rethought the structures of the old European model for a new generation.
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Robert Ashley, Opera's Misunderstood Innovator, Dies At 83

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Robert Ashley, Opera's Misunderstood Innovator, Dies At 83

Robert Ashley, Opera's Misunderstood Innovator, Dies At 83

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Does this sound like opera to you?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Segue to a firm voice that says: That was cuckoo. (Unintelligible) for thought. This little incident at the radio...

CORNISH: This is music from Robert Ashley, who died earlier this week. He came up with a new recipe for opera that mixed technology and theater in ways no one had tried before. Joining us now is NPR Music's Tom Huizenga. He's written about Ashley on our classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence. Hey, there, Tom.


CORNISH: So, first, help us understand: Who was Robert Ashley?

HUIZENGA: Well, until the late 1970s, when he kind of reinvented opera, he was a run-of-the-mill avant-gardist. I mean, he was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1930. He studied at the university there, and a little bit in Manhattan, did a stint in the Army.

His first little laboratory was a speech research institute at the university. He got interested in electronic music. He was a teacher at Mills College. And then, in 1977, kind of the operatic light bulb went off for him, and it was a huge turning point for him, and for opera.

CORNISH: Now, what did he do that was so new? And why was it such a big deal?

HUIZENGA: Well, none of his operas sound anything like Puccini or Mozart. I mean, the basic sound, there are no singers singing arias. Instead, the singers kind of half-sing, half-speak a kind of recitation. And there's no real conventional, linear narrative that's discernable, at least right away. But it's there.

And then the weird thing is that he geared these operas not for the stage, but for television. He said that as Americans, we don't have this European opera tradition where we go to La Scala, we go to Covent Garden. Our tradition is sitting on the couch, watching television. And he geared these operas to people on a couch, with a drink and some snacks. And that's really, in a way, kind of the opposite of the kind of elitist, hoity-toity attitude we have about opera.

CORNISH: OK. I have to hear some of this. We're going to do some TV on the radio, right? You brought an example.

HUIZENGA: This music is really what started it all, an album from 1977 with the first version of scenes from opera "Perfect Lives," which itself is one in a trilogy of operas based on American consciousness.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a record. I am sitting on a bench next to myself. Inside of me, the words form: Come down out the tree and fight like a man, two cheese and eggs. This is not a record. This is a story.

CORNISH: Tom, I have to imagine there was a backlash to this.


HUIZENGA: Oh, yeah. I think you either get Robert Ashley, or you don't. And I think that the haters out there are, frankly, just too lazy to actually unravel and unwind all of the multi-layers in his stories. And there is a lot of text being thrown at you. It's like Russian nesting dolls. You open one box, and there's another box to open, and another box to open. But the stories are there, and the ideas are intricately worked out.

CORNISH: So, what is his legacy?

HUIZENGA: It's an overused label, but I think of him as one of our American mavericks. I mean, he was a guy who did what he wanted to do, and he went out on a limb by himself. I think he was a little overshadowed by the rise of the minimalist movement and composers like Philip Glass. But I think any free-thinking artist today who is interested in marrying technology and theater - I'm thinking of, like, MIT's experimental composer Tod Machover, who casts robots in his operas these days. I mean, Robert Ashley left a fascinating and dense catalogue of work - still unappreciated, but there's plenty there to keep his fans busy for decades. And hopefully, there will be a few new listeners along the way.

CORNISH: That's NPR Music's Tom Huizenga, talking to us about composer Robert Ashley. Ashley died this week at the age of 83. Tom, thanks so much.

HUIZENGA: Thank you.

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