The Play's the Thing

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Operas based on plays have been around since day one; the genre's founding family in the Florentine Camerata created the art form in an effort of marrying Greek tragedy to music.

Four of the ten most performed operas at the Met are based on stage works: Tosca, Rigoletto, Madama Butterfly and Cavalleria Rusticana. And with the slew of Shakespeare going on in New York this season, it's equally no surprise that the Bard is well represented in music drama, from The Comedy of Errors and Measure for Measure to King Lear and Hamlet to Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra.

Shakespeare has especially allowed British composers to tap into their operatic psyches: Michael Tippett and Thomas Adès have both drawn on The Tempest, Benjamin Britten reimagined A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ralph Vaughan Williams based his Sir John in Love on Falstaff and Stephen Oliver showed himself to be a composer of prepossessing prowess when the ENO premiered his Timon of Athens (though, tragically, Oliver died of AIDS complications at age 42, just after Timon opened). The cultural capital shared between composers from the United Kingdom and England's greatest literary figure made for an easy transaction from words to music.

But one play currently running at the Lincoln Center Festival was responsible for what Norman Lebrecht deemed "the most important night in English opera since the première of Peter Grimes:" Sean O'Casey's World War I drama The Silver Tassie. Opera and war go together like Pimm's and ginger ale, and O'Casey's 1928 play is no exception. O'Casey's vehement objection to the horrors of battle and the personal toll of war was popular (and eerily prophetic of World War II), but ultimately lead to the playwright fleeing Dublin in 1935, bitter and scandalized.

Mark-Anthony Turnage, who made headlines earlier this year with his latest opera, Anna Nicole, had a far less dramatic experience with getting his 1999 opera, based on the O'Casey play and bearing the same title, on its feet at ENO. Like Anna Nicole, the opera starred Gerald Finley, whose stentorian and probing baritone created a haunting character portrait of Harry, a young man who swiftly moves from rejoicing in a football win to fighting in the trenches to mordantly wallowing in his and his friend Teddy's injuries.

Turnage viewed the four-act opera as a four movement symphony, naming the acts "Home," "War," "Hospital" and "Dance," as a means of coming full circle both musically and dramatically, ending not with a death or great bang, but with the wheelchair-bound Harry tossing the titular tassie (meaning trophy) to the ground in disgust and being quietly wheeled out of a post-war dance. The real tragedy of his life—underscored in the act by the chorus's joy at the armistice and Harry's personal anguish—is not dying in the war, but surviving it.

Turnage's score is one worth hearing, though sadly it seems to have been abandoned since its successful ENO premiere and subsequent revival: The opera was due to have its U.S. premiere at the co-funding Dallas Opera Company, but financial constraints post-9/11 caused that production to be canceled (a cruel irony for an antiwar piece). A recording for the ENO Alive label quickly vanished from print and now sells for three figures on Amazon Marketplace.

Fortunately, and thanks once again to Finley, one aria is readily available on Finley's recital disc for Chando's Opera in English series, released last year. Tantamount to the score on the whole, Turnage takes a traditional Scottish tune—Robert Burns's "The Silver Tassie"—and underscores the lush British folkisms with dissonant, jagged bursts, epitomizing the changing face of English music circa the 1920s (Wesley Stace's recent novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, goes even further into this balance and makes for a great summer read).

Amid the Dallas Opera's recent cancellation of one of its mainstage shows for the 2011-12 season and ongoing tensions about the nation's debt ceiling, times are still tough for a new opera. But as the company moves into exploring chamber works in a smaller setting and Turnage's star continues to rise—Anna Nicole will be released on DVD this fall—could we be moving closer to a long overdue first listen in the States? Listen to this clip of Finley's recording of "Oh Bring to Me a Pint of Wine" and leave your thoughts below.