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From Playwright To Librettist – A Contemporary Opera

opera house sydney

The Problem With Opera

Lucia de Lammermoor

Much of the great operatic literature (contemporary or classic) is plagued with an issue audiences tend to tolerate. The music is riveting.  The plot and the character development –well, not so much.  Candide, of course, is one of the exceptions. Another may be Lucia di Lammermoor. But even then, you have to overlook a plot based on a Sir Walter Scott novel and taking place in Scotland with characters named Lord Enrico Ashton and Normanno the huntsman.  But then, Enrico and Normanno are a lot easier to sing than Archibald or Angus.  That said, the characters engage and the plot points fall like dominoes.

Plays With MusicPhoto Juanita Rockwell playwright

Juanita Rockwell has been known for writing fantastical poetic dramas with music. She was  recently awarded the 2016-2017 Marion International Fellowship for the creation of Splitting Atoms With a Butter Knife, a play with songs about the women whose work and lives are intertwined with the first Atomic Bomb, set on the day of its detonation at Hiroshima. In Between Trains ,  a  strangely magical play with songs, a woman wakes up in a train station someplace between Maybe and Nowhere—everyone she meets is waiting for something or going somewhere, but she’s just looking for a way out.

Music and Words / Words and Music

In her latest effort, Rockwell has, for the third time,  crossed the great divide between opera and theater—and merged the two on a more equal footing. A playwright always intrigued with the music of language, she has gone on to write the libretto for  an hour long operatic monodrama with music by Douglas Knehans  which marries lyrics and music on a more equal footing. Backwards from Winter is opening at the Center for Contemporary Opera  on May 25th in NYC: https://centerforcontemporaryopera.org/season-20172018/backwards-from-winter/  with subsequent performances in Australia.

Opera for the Future?

With just a soprano and E-Cello, Backwards from Winter is an hour long operatic monodrama exploring a single woman’s reflection on a love relationship as seen through various elemental filters of seasons, color, nature, emotion and memory and told through live voice, live electronic/computer music and multiple video streams.

Where is the Audience?

Visual and musical complexity has always been a hallmark for opera. A look at most contemporary opera audiences would suggest that the audience for the genre is aging. A lot of us are gray under that bottled blonde or brunette.  And we get tired after the first hour and a half or so. Are we,  perhaps, on our way to extinction.

Show Me the Money!

Producing an opera requires more professional moving parts than producing symphonies and theatrical events. It’s expensive! At least until now.  If we take Rockwell’s example as a possible way forward for opera and reduce operating costs while raising the bar for innovation, we may find a way to

  • attract younger, more adventurous audiences
  • provide opportunities for singers and musicians of merit (because we don’t always have hire so many of them)
  • move the arts into the electronic age while keeping the traditional genres alive
  • create more operas that are truly movable feasts

 

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