15 Mar 2017

Opera Goes to War

The arts have often been a mirror of their times, whether in a planned protest or through accidental coincidence. Certainly artistic messages were more controlled in the early days of classical music, when much of the output of composers was determined by wealthy or powerful patrons who commissioned “their” composers to write for various occasions or celebrations. The 19th century saw more works reflect a response to historical or political events. Napoleon Bonaparte as the Republican was initially admired by Ludwig van Beethoven. But upon declaring himself Emperor, Napoleon betrayed Beethoven’s Enlightenment ideals, and Beethoven was forced to revoke the dedication of his third symphony and change the honoree to a general “Hero.” During the “Risorgimento” to establish the Italian state, the chorus “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco became an anthem for Italian unification. VA PENSIERO Politics and music continued to become entwined through the 20th century, with notable examples being Stalin’s attempted control of Soviet composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, or the association of the Third Reich with certain composers’ works. Whether in planned response to the turmoil of the early 21st century or by sheer coincidence, there have been several notable operas premiered in North America since 9/11 with strong war themes. While some contain an overt anti-war message (whether related to a specific conflict or not), others strive instead to portray the experience or cost of war without taking a specific political stand.
Following the success of Little Women (1998), Mark Adamo received his second commission from Houston Grand Opera to set Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata. The Greek comedy was first performed in 411 BCE, and concerned one woman’s effort to end the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) by withholding the one thing the men of Greece desire – sex. As librettist, Adamo fleshed out the play, creating additional characters and deepening the relationships between characters. Begun in peacetime, the opera premiered in wartime, and became even more topical than anyone had expected. According to the New York Times, “Adamo finished writing his libretto in 2000, well before the Iraq war and the events of 9/11, and planning a piece of cutting-edge agitprop was the furthest thing from his mind. It probably did occur to him that wars among nations, as well as between the sexes, had not become obsolete, but the extra dimension that Lysistrata has for us now came about through sheer serendipity.” While not yet qualifying as a “standard” modern opera, Lysistrata offers a witty and comedic take on the themes of conflict.
Glory Denied, Tom Philpott’s 2001 account of the heartbreaking story of Jim Thompson, America’s longest-held prisoner of war in Vietnam has been hailed as “one of the most honest books ever written about Vietnam (Oliver Stone).” Captured in 1964, Thompson spent 9 years in captivity, tortured and abused by forces of the Viet Cong. Upon his return to the United States, he discovered that his wife had given him up for dead, and, faced with the challenges of single motherhood to four, had moved onto a relationship with another man. This harrowing story caught the attention of composer Tom Cipullo, who, like Adamo, adapted the libretto for his opera himself. Premiered in 2006 to great critical acclaim, the story of a couple challenged equally by wartime and the return to “normal” life has proven a popular addition to many opera companies’ seasons The opera has only two protagonists, Jim and his wife Alyce, but each character is played by two singers, representing older and younger versions of the characters. The “oral history” style of the book lends itself to first person monologues; thus the composer was able to use the characters’ own words in many of the set pieces, such as in this aria of Young Alyce. MY DARLING JIM The timely subject matter combined with the small size of the performance forces (four singers and an ensemble of nine instrumentalists) make Glory Denied a valuable addition to the operatic repertoire, especially for performances in non-traditional venues.
Soldier Songs is described on composer David T. Little’s website as “an evening-length multimedia event…that combines elements of theater, opera, rock-infused-concert music, and animation.”
As in the previous two examples, the composer performed double duty, adapting the libretto from recorded interviews with veterans of five different wars. Soldier Songs was commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble for a 2006 premiere, and is scored for baritone, seven instrumentalists (most of whom double on several instruments) and tape. Though its smaller scale and structure might qualify it as a song cycle, Soldier Songs definitely falls into the category of theatre, as it is typically presented in a fully staged and costumed event. The work explores aspects of the military experience, from children playing war games, to active duty military, and finally veterans interpreting their experiences through the lens of age.
Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night, an adaptation of the 2005 film Joyeux Noël with libretto by Mark Campbell, was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer for Music and is being performed by numerous companies across North America and Britain, to great acclaim and audience approval.” Along with Moby-Dick of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, Silent Night is fast becoming a standard of the modern American operatic repertoire. A traditional large-format opera, Silent Night was described by the Pulitzer officials as “a stirring opera that recounts the true story of a spontaneous cease-fire among Scottish, French and Germans during World War I, displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart. Librettist Mark Campbell remarked that the core message of the opera is “‘War is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person.’ When you see that the person you might be shooting has a child or a wife or has this life at home and they’re just not the enemy, then it becomes very difficult if not impossible to sustain war.”
From large-scale works in traditional opera house to intimate and cutting-edge chamber works in alternate venues, these works along with The Long Walk are just a sampling of the profound visions of war and its effects that are being presented by living composers. These composers and librettists bring these important stories to patrons of all types, as most people have been touched by the ravages of war in some fashion. It is to be hoped that each person who witnesses one of these performances can find healing and answers to the turbulence of the present day through the stories which are told through music stemming from the very heart of both performers and creators.
© Carol Anderson