The Fundamentals of Opera, Courtesy of John Cage

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In his centennial year, John Cage is beginning to break through into the mainstream as being more than the guy who instructed a pianist to sit at a piano for just over four-and-a-half minutes and play nothing.

The revamped American Mavericks tour has brought the composer’s Song Books across the country, sung by no less than Jessye Norman and set to texts by Thoreau, Satie, Duchamp and Cage himself. Of course, “set” is a broad word here. As the San Francisco Symphony’s music director Michael Tilson Thomas explained in a promo video for the festival, Cage’s Song Books are “basically a kind of kit from which you, the performer, can come up with songs, speeches, actions, performances on other instruments, which all add up together to create a musical evening. So it’s a study in creativity for everyone involved in it.”

Cage leaves some clues in the work for musicians to indicate his vision, playing with font size to indicate the length of a word (or even letter) should be held. In a separate video, Norman added: “I can sing any pitch that I choose, but this page needs to last 52 seconds. The same text on the next page with a different font size for certain words will need to last 53 seconds.” Everything else is left up to the singer.

Ah… scusi?

This is where Cage, a composer who, while primarily a favorite of percussionists has also contributed greatly to the vocal repertoire (his fifth and final Europera is performed by the Center for Contemporary Opera this weekend at the Flea Theater), differs from most operatic composers. It’s hard to argue the ego of Wagner, who was meticulously and fastidiously specific as to the interpretive minutiae of his works. Even Cage's contemporary, Leonard Bernstein, was an exacting force of nature for any singer—“I know it’s the historical prerogative of the tenor to be stupid,” he once said to a singer. “But you, sir, have abused that privilege.”

Conversely, Cage found himself ensconced in Zen practice after attending lectures on the topic in the late ‘40s (a broad step for the composer, who once wanted to be a Methodist minister). He eschews ego in his own musical career, allowing the art to flow (in a nod to the I Ching) as it willed, using Cage as a mere crucible to take the music from the cosmos and put it down on paper. Rather than, in the composer’s words, “attempt to bring order out of chaos,” he exposed the chaos of what it was, allowing sound to “act of its own accord.”

Bold? Sure. But it gives musicians and listeners a fresh perspective on hearing music that flies in the face of a rote succession of sopranos and tenors unleashing the exact same notes in the exact same order in the exact same pitch with the exact same cadence as their forebears did two, three, even four centuries ago. Imagine if we didn’t know Cherubino’s first aria in Le nozze di Figaro to be an aria; imagine if we spent the duration of “Non son più” waiting to see if Susanna joined in. Imagine the shock one has upon first hearing that the rivals in Trovatore are, in fact, brothers. Imagine if that never was revealed. And remember, in contrast, the furor caused when Luc Bondy eschewed a pair of candlesticks in his staging of Tosca for the Met, the grumbling that occurs when Violetta does not wear a white dress in Act I and a black dress in Act II of La Traviata. 

A sample of the score to John Cage's Song Book (YouTube)

Cage describes the score of Europeras 1 and 2 as “a pair of circuses of independent elements—music, program notes, lights, costumes, decors, action. Nothing relates to anything else except by coincidence." One thing that will be inarguable about COC’s impending production of Europera 5 is that it will be unlike any other production of the work previously seen. And that’s by design.

In a way, coincidence is what initially drives opera. Going back as far as the original Orpheus works, we see characters with an abject lack of control over their circumstances. Orpheus cannot control his desire to gaze upon his wife’s face no more than Eurydice can control her ensuing fate when that fatal gaze is cast. Characters like Lucia di Lammermoor or Rigoletto move through their lives with the knowledge that life, free will, is futile when curses, circumstances or the Devil intervene.

Perhaps in these senses there is a deus-ex-machina at work, but what ultimately snaps the strands are moves like Maddalena’s part to convince her brother to kill someone besides the Duke of Mantua, like Lucia finally losing her last breath of sanity and rebelling against her gender role in feudal Scotland. These circumstances cannot be controlled, and are often dictated by the surrounding events. Without coincidence, these plots would be nonstarters. Cage just takes that to the next level.

And before you fault him for not creating hot and steamy conflicts along the likes of Puccini or Strauss, consider the composer’s own words, at once Zen-like and not: “I am going toward violence rather than tenderness, hell rather than heaven, ugly rather than beautiful, impure rather than pure – because by doing these things they become transformed, and we become transformed.”

What could be more operatic than that?

Should Cage's works be included within the standard operatic canon? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.