Why Am I Writing an Opera?

I’ve been having an avid correspondence with an old friend. Several emails and calls every week where we discuss a wide array of topics. Recently the conversation has turned to my latest operatic music project.

On the call I prattled on about what I had been working on and afterwards I sent her a few links to the WIP for context. She was very complimentary, calling it beautiful and well-written and admiring it for not being like most modern opera, which she described as a mish-mosh of ridiculous libretti and tiresome, overly difficult music sung by professional singers who can’t act. 

Her next email started off with the question: “So – what made you want to write an opera anyway?”

The question was reasonable, and politely framed, but I detected a faint whiff of… pity? Like: who outside of a mental facility of a posh artist’s retreat writes opera any more? 

Ok, so I had to go and write an opera. But why? She had answered her own question. I’ve created an opera because I think opera is an amazing art form and I wanted to make one that isn’t all of the things she and so many others find so repellent about the medium.

For some time I have been baffled at the simple formula which defines modern opera – a formula which dictates that if the musical work in question is pleasant, consonant, entertaining and hummable then it can’t be called opera; it’s labeled as an intellectually inferior product called a “musical” and considered Broadway trash. On the other hand if the work has a self-consciously quirky plot, incomprehensible melodies, lurid drama where happy endings are forbidden, then it’s opera and it needs to be taken seriously – imbued with so much “seriousness” in fact that quite often everyone in the audience at the world premier of these things are so bored by the insufferable weight of it all that they’re checked out and texting their BFFs midway through the first act. 

Me, I like to explore serious modern opera. I’m up for the challenge of stretching my ears, hearing new harmonic possibilities, straining to get the dissonances that might sound out a different kind of melodic beauty than I’m used to.

But there are other ways of stretching ears than just serving up more shrieking dissonances than you heard from the last operatic composer du jour. What about revisiting the general concept? Revolutionary staging. New electronic integrations. Surround sound. Video insterstitials. All of the preceding have been oft explored in many modern works but not IMO completely woven into the fabric of innovation for the musical stage. 

My particular concept is simply to write a piece of operatic drama that tells its story in song using my own musical language – late-period rock, various types of electronica, end eclectic avant-pop against a backbone of orchestral arrangements. It suits me well and I mean to make it as good as I can. 

Why write an opera? Why not? The way I see it, the real risk is in spending my time on a 10-track singer/songwriter album or band recording where my concept is not appreciably different from anything that a million others are currently doing… and succeeding.