As the familiar chestnut goes, music is the universal language. Perhaps this is why composers are drawn to Italo Calvino’s 1972 masterwork, Invisible Cities—a novel that centers on a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Since the explorer and emperor do not speak the same language and are forced to communicate through gestures and faith in one another’s interpretation.
Inspired by the author’s candor for the potential of the urban landscape, rhythmic quartet So Percussion devised an evening-length work called Imaginary Cities that played at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009 and has since popped up in Cleveland, Houston, Denver, Burlington, VT and Helena, MT. Calvino’s study of humanism—reflected in the interactions between Polo and Khan—has served as the basis for Elliott Carter’s Omaggio a Italo Calvino, commissioned by the Italian Institute for Musicological Research in Latina. The author’s ubiquitous narrator Qfwfq is at the basis of a Mark Danks composition of the same name. And it seems no small coincidence that Venice—the climactic urban landscape of Invisible Cities—should also be as integral to the development of opera in the 17th Century (at one point, the city boasted six opera houses and was the first location for opera to realize its commercial potential).
Curious, then, that it has taken Invisible Cities nearly 40 years to reach opera form. Composer Christopher Cerrone’s interpretation is getting a fully staged incarnation this weekend, appropriately enough at Columbia University’s Italian Academy. Also apropos is that it should run in the same weekend as VOX, which gave life to the work last year.
One-fifth of the Yale-based Sleeping Giant composers collective, Cerrone captures Calvino’s kinetic metropolitan energy in this work, stripped down instrumentally and featuring the talents of the Red Light Ensemble (conducted by fellow composer, VOX alum and fellow Sleeping Giant Ted Hearne). A veritable who’s-who in new music come together for the performance, which stars Joshua Copeland as Kublai Khan, James Benjamin Rodgers as Marco Polo, and Mellissa Hughes and Rachel Calloway as the ethereal voices of the city. Opera based on literature is no new trend—opera itself started as a means of expressing Greek tragedy in a perfect marriage of words and music. Nevertheless, when the question of relevance is brought up with regards to new works, you can do worse than turn to Calvino.
What other novels from the last half-century would lend themselves well to a new opera? Leave your thoughts below.