Operas about Operas: Compelling or Confounding?

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago recently announced a forthcoming commission based on Ann Patchett’s bestselling novel Bel Canto. The vixenish Danielle de Niese is slated to star as an opera diva -- whom Patchett originally modeled after Renée Fleming -- caught in a hostage situation based on the Lima Crisis of 1996.

It won’t be the first time de Niese plays an opera singer: She appears alongside Faye Dunaway in the film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, based the life of Maria Callas. Nor will it be the first time an opera has featured as its main character an opera singer. Just in the last few months, the U.S. has seen several new operas operating on the meta level, from Niklaus Sprink and Anna Sörensen in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night to Régine Saint Laurent in Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna.

There is a long line of opera singer characters, the most famous of them being Tosca (you can picture the fun Puccini had writing the scene in the final act in which Tosca teaches her lover how to effectively die, a moment that is often staged to full campy and overblown effect). However there’s also the Italian tenor in Der Rosenkavalier and Stella in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. To quote composer Jake Heggie from a post on this blog last fall, opera has historically sought out “sources where there’s already a sense of familiarity,” starting with myths that audiences in the 17th century knew as well as audiences today know the stories of Anna Nicole Smith or Maria Callas.

The directorial concept of opera-within-an-opera may have been deemed “tired” as early as 1984 by New York magazine critic Peter G. Davis, but the musical conceit can still be inspired as seen in works like Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Adams’s Nixon in China.

And still other operas like Hugo Weisgall’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Donizetti’s Viva la Mamma, Gassmann’s Opera Seria, Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor, Salieri’s Prima la Musica e Poi le Parole and Strauss’s Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos take it one step further and, like Wainwright, use opera in its conception and execution as philosophical food for thematic thought.

“Art tends to talk about its own apparatus in some way, so plays are about plays very often, and operas are about opera. I think it’s just a natural part of the medium,” said George Steel, general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera, which recently gave the New York premiere of Prima Donna, about a Callas-like diva. However, Steel is also quick to point out that the operatic connections to Prima Donna’s plot were not a main reason for his programming the work. “Ultimately the shows have to stand or fall on their own musical merits,” he added.

“It’s not a terribly important fact,” said Lyric Opera’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis, of the operatic relevance in Bel Canto leading to the book itself becoming an opera (which will be written by Peruvian composer Jimmy López, who was a teenager in Lima when the real-life siege occurred, and playwright Nilo Cruz). Yet conversely, the opera singer’s actions within the story are vital, uniting the terrorists and their hostages. Davis describes the developing Stockholm Syndrome between these two factions as being “precipitated and sort of deepened by the fact that they’re all drawn in by her singing the music.

“There’s this great opportunity to develop character, which is what opera is all about,” added Davis. “In the sense that it’s the people within the drama that really capture our attention, and that’s what all great operas have done.”

The drama is clear but the musicality can get muddied. As Davis notes, the biggest challenge with Bel Canto will be the numerous operas referenced in the book. “Hearing other people’s music in your own opera isn’t always the easiest thing,” said Davis. He points to Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden as one example of successfully weaving in another work (in Tippett’s case, a Schubert song) and ensconcing the quotes within the musical textures and fabric of the composer’s own lingua franca. López will take this exact tack, and Davis believes innately in the composer’s ability “to somehow incorporate or suggest these things without having a huge chunk of quotations from Dvorak or Puccini.”

Of course, even quoting other operas within the same opera is no new trick. Whether subtle—like a Straussian clarinet glissando at the mention of "Salome" in Puccini's La rondine—or overt, like Mozart's referencing of both himself and his fellow songsmiths in the final banquet scene of Don Giovanni, composers have long lived up to the adage "talent imitates but genius steals."

"I think it’s the equivalent of the scene in The Producers when they’re talking about South Passaic, making jokes about shows that other people have seen," says Steel.

Other composers prefer to live and die entirely by their own hand. Mark Adamo did this with Little Women, not wanting to “dress up in Schumann’s castoff clothing” for the antebellum work, but also writing in that style when it came time to reference the actual musical styles of the late 19th century. Curiously, while Wainwright does the same in Prima Donna, his 1960s opera-within-the-opera, Aliénor d'Aquitaine, goes back to French medieval tonalities rather than the style of most mid-20th-century composers.

“It’s interesting that he didn’t pick a more modernist language to represent the opera,” admits Steel, who adds that the opera-within-an-opera construct has a way of normalizing the framing drama. He compares it to taking a vacation upon moving apartments to make your new environment seem like home.

“Strangely enough, rather than reminding the audience of the theatrical edifice, it creates a separate tier of illusion,” Steel said. “So when you come out of the opera, it has the effect of persuading the audience even more that what they’re seeing through the framing story is real.”

And while the music is sublime, opera has the similar experience of a vacation that often leaves you happy to return home. A hostage lockdown in Lima, the World War I trenches, Maoist China or the French Revolutionary afterlife aren’t exactly savory places to permanently live, but they’re no less captivating sites to visit.

Weigh in: Do you prefer your operas to be about opera or other subjects entirely? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.