The good and bad librettos of contemporary operas

Zachary Woolfe’s NY Times review of the MET’s production of Matthew Aucoine’s Eurydice ends with a little preview of things to come: “Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s eerie 2017 adaptation of “Hamlet” arrives in the spring. Premieres by Kevin Puts, Missy Mazzoli, Mason Bates, Jeanine Tesori and others are on the horizon, as are overlooked works of the past few decades, like Anthony Davis’s X: The Life andTimes of Malcolm X.

I hold some hope for the operas Zachary Woolfe speaks of other than Hamlet by Brett Dean, a poor version of the original minus most of Shakespeare’s text.

I fervently hope that none of them will turn out to be be as irrelevant to my life as Aucoine’s Eurydice or some of the contemporary operas the MET has been trotting out over the past several years.

I passionately embrace the music of much contemporary Opera, whereas I am often sent into a stupor by many of their libretti, both by their lame dramaturgy and by subject matters that hold no interest for me as a Latin man living in 2001 America.

The recent MET producion of Fire Shut up in my Bones with words and music by Terence Blanchard resonated for many of us – Black or White, Straigt or Gay – with its story about growing up Black and Gay in 20th century America. On the other hand, a modern dress reworking of the Orpheus myth won’t say anything that Monteverdi and Striggio or Gluck and Calzabigi already said much better.

Here in Cincinnati our Cincinnati Opera has been developing works that have gradually enriched the repertory of Opera companies across the United States.

Coming up this season the Cincinnati Opera is bringing two world premieres: William Menefield‘s Fierce with a libretto by Sheila Williams, and Castor and Patience with music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Tracy K. Smith. Both these works deal with the Black experience. Both will surely speak to a multi-racial audience in our ethnically diverse Cincinnati.

Farther afield, the MET is not only developing new artistic projects but also planning to take some of them outside its 3,800 seat behemoth of a house and collaborate with other producing and presenting organizations, among them Lincoln Center – with its plethora of smaller spaces – and the New York Public Theatre, all in an effort to find the right kind of spaces for chamber operas that would get lost in the opera house.

Blue, an opera with music by Jeanine Tesori and a libretto by Tazewell Thompson takes place in Harlem, where a couple celebrates the birth of their firstborn child. Tragedy  strikes the family years later, when the son is killed by a white officer.

Tesori is also working on an operatic adaptation of George Brant’s Grounded, about a female fighter pilot reduced to operating drones during her pregnancy.

Missy Mazzoli’s opera Lincoln in the Bardo based on the George Saunders novel of the same title and set in set in an intermediate space between life and rebirth deals with the president’s grief at the loss of his son, Willie.

Both Tesori and Mazzoli will become the first American female composers with works to be produced by the MET in over one century.

The Hours, a new opera jointly commissioned by the MET and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with music by Kevin Puts and a libretto adapted from Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same title tells the story of three women whose personal and working lives interconnect.

Mason Bates’ The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, an operatic version of Michael Chabon’s novel about two Jewish cousins before, during and after World War II is also being planned.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS