Talk Like An Opera Geek: Game-Changing Composers In Postwar Europe

György Ligeti's surreal opera Le Grand Macabre was the hit of the New York Philharmonic's 2009-2010 season, in a semi-staged production that featured Barbara Hannigan (left) as Gepopo and Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Go-Go. (New York Philharmonic)

Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.

Although a few radical composers had no use for opera in the mid-20th century (like Pierre Boulez, who infamously advocated blowing up the world's opera houses), the art form in Europe brushed itself off and began to thrive again after World War II.

Exactly a month after the official German surrender, one of the great operas of the century, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, received its premiere in London. Britten was an untested opera composer working in a country and language that had seen little operatic success. Yet the triumph of Peter Grimes signaled a new era for British opera and a sparkling launch to Britten's stage career. Within three years it would be performed all over Europe and in the U.S. with Leonard Bernstein as its champion. The theme of a protagonist (Grimes, a surly and misunderstood fisherman) unable to find his place in society was one a post-war populace could empathize with and one Britten would return to in future operas such as Billy Budd. Britten would write 13 more stage works for adults and children, including large-scale operas, chamber operas, church parables and miracle plays, many of which remain in the repertoire today.

Jump-Starting Germany

Germany had a tougher time jump-starting after the war, as funding for opera had shifted from the old patronage system to state and municipal support. But one composer, Hans Werner Henze, put his stake in the ground and flourished, beginning in the early 1950s. A decade later, critic Andrew Porter raved about Henze, calling him an "inspiration, interpreter and prophet for those whose musical understanding was formed after the war."

One of Henze's most approachable operas is Der Junge Lord (The Young Lord), a dark comedy of manners that looks back to old-fashioned Italian opera buffa with whiffs of Mozart and nods to Rossini. It was commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin and debuted there in 1965. The opera's story concerns the residents of a small town whose lives are upended when a rich and eccentric newcomer shows up. It ends with a shocking twist, as the nobleman's nephew wildly disrobes at a ball to reveal that he is nothing more than an ape.

France's Mystical Messiaen

France could have used an opera composer as prolific and successful as Henze. Opera seemed to become less relevant in France, and if anything ballet captured the imaginations of leading composers like Darius Milhaud. Opera was relevant to Francis Poulenc, but he wrote only one major, full-length work, the compellingly beautiful psycho-political-religious drama Dialogues of the Carmelites, which premiered in 1957.

The only Frenchman who could fill Claude Debussy's distinctive shoes was Olivier Messiaen, a radical composer of deeply religious convictions who wrote music of startling sensuality. He was a master keyboardist who became the organist at La Trinité in Paris and remained there for 50 years. Messiaen came to opera late in life — he was 76 when he completed his dramatically static Saint Francois d'Assise, which plays out as much like an oratorio as an opera. It premiered in Paris in 1983.

Crafting his own libretto from the writings of St. Francis, Messiaen unfolds his story in a series of eight tableaux, recounting the saint's journey toward the divine. In a stunning scene at the end of the opera, a full orchestra and chorus rise up in a massive alleluia, honoring the death of Francis. Incorporating Messiaen's beloved birdsong orchestrations, plus unexpected instruments like the Ondes Martenot, the opera sounds like no other ever created. As it requires 120 instrumentalists and a 150-voice choir, and is nearly five hours long, it's not surprising that Saint Francois, for all its unusual beauty, has not secured a place in the repertoire.

A Comedy In The Macabre

György Ligeti took 13 years to write Le Grande Macabre, which finally premiered at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1978. That the libretto was originally in German then translated to Swedish and recorded in English (in the excerpt below) speaks to the composer's nomadic life and the ever shifting styles of music he embraced and created. He was born of Hungarian Jewish parents in a part of Transylvania that is now Romania, but studied in Budapest. He became an Austrian citizen and a visiting professor at the Royal Swedish Academy of music, Berlin's Academy of the Arts and Stanford University.

Le Grande Macabre is a surreal black comedy inspired by the chaotic 16th-century paintings of Brueghel (set in "Breughelland") and populated with an odd troupe of characters, including a transvestite visionary astronomer, his sexually adventuresome wife, a crazed chief of police (scored for coloratura soprano) and Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre himself, who enters from an open grave declaring that he, with the help of a comet, will destroy the world at midnight. The overall theme might be summed up in the final chorus: "Fear not to die, good people all. No one knows when his hour will fall. And when it comes, then let it be. Farewell, till then in cheerfulness!"

Ligeti's dramatic sense of humor is evident from the first note. The opera's overture is scored for car horns. After that, the music is wildly eclectic, with snippets of shimmering lyricism, strangled quotes from Rossini and Beethoven and squeaks and grunts from various sections of the orchestra. The piece, although not performed often, seems to be a success whenever it shows up, as was the case when it became the hit of the New York Philharmonic's 2009-10 season.

Technologies And Trends

As it did before World War II, opera had to adapt to new trends and technologies after the war. The ease of jet travel saw singers and conductors spreading themselves ever thinner, with increased burnout and fewer opportunities to cultivate tight ensemble singing with regular colleagues.

The supremacy of the celebrity singer continued undiminished, but slowly a new star was rising — the stage director. Increasingly, directors dominated almost all aspects of an opera production, deconstructing plot lines and updating old settings to present day situations. The phenomenon has strained the relationship between some directors and singers.

As far as language goes, opera became easier to understand in the past several decades, especially in the U.S. Most opera houses now employ supertitles, allowing European operas to be heard in their original tongues while translations flash above the stage on a slim screen.

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Benjamin Britten: "Peter Grimes" (1945)

Benjamin Britten broke a 300-year dry spell for England, emerging as a major new operatic talent in 1945 with the debut of his Peter Grimes. Set in a small, gossipy fishing village, the opera balances a surprising variety of finely drawn characters including Grimes himself, a tortured fisherman and outsider whose young male helpers keep dying under mysterious circumstances. In this excerpt, the embattled Grimes (sung by Britten's longtime partner Peter Pears), finds a rare moment of clarity and lyricism, pouring out his soul to the villagers, who think he might be mad. To break the ice, Britten follows the aria with a rollicking choral fugue about hauling in fish.

Hans Werner Henze: "Der Junge Lord" (1965)

Henze has described himself as a composer of the theater, whether he's writing operas or symphonies. One of his earliest memories was hearing Mozart's overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, and you can hear the influence in Der Junge Lord (The Young Lord), a bubbling, comic romp with a blistering twist at the end. It's a tight, ensemble-oriented opera that sounds like Rossini for the 20th century with its bouncy rhythms and witty gestures. In the plot, a small German town's manners are tested when an eccentric Englishman moves in. In this scene, the local baroness (Patricia Johnson) and her society ladies complain bitterly about the newcomer after they learn he has refused their invitation.

Olivier Messiaen: "Saint François d'Assise" (1983)

Messiaen was something of a musical misfit. His ideas about melody, harmony and rhythm seemed to fall to Earth out of nowhere, fitting into no particular school of thought. His music can be radiant, rhythmically jagged (inspired by birdsong), languid and outright loopy, especially if he weaves in an outdated electronic contraption like the Ondes Martenot, which you can hear briefly in this excerpt from the fifth of the opera's eight tableaux. In this scene, Saint Francis (baritone Jose Van Dam) is talking to a bird when an angel (soprano Dawn Upshaw) appears and calls his name.

György Ligeti: "Le Grand Macabre" (1978)

Like Messiaen's spiritually mystical Saint François, there is nothing remotely similar to its polar opposite, Ligeti's brash and risqué Le Grand Macabre. And if Messiaen ignores the conventions of opera completely, Ligeti mocks them. Snippets of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, nods to the Baroque passacaglia and mishmashes of absurdist poetry are just a few of the inside jokes Henze uses to poke holes in the old school. In the surreal plot, the Grand Macabre (named Nekrotzar) arrives in the rundown principality of Breughelland (run by a boy prince) to announce the destruction of the world. In this scene, Nekrotzar (bass-baritone Williard White) gets drunk and recites a catalog of all the people — from Cain and Abel to Genghis Khan — he's taken down. There's a short ensemble section at the end where joins three other characters to sing: "I Tsar, you Tsar, he Tsar, we Tsar! Bizarre!" And marvelously bizarre is exactly what Le Grand Macabre is.

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