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Is contemporary opera the answer to tired tradition?

Is contemporary opera the answer to tired tradition?

Words by Stephanie Eslake

This story discusses music that explores themes of domestic violence and suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 131114, 1800RESPECT, or contact your GP.

When it comes to opera, it can feel like there’s an ongoing battle between the old and the new.

Productions from centuries ago are now considered pompous – and there’s no question that many contain outdated values and questionable messages. On the flip side, contemporary opera is forced to compete with the classics, and it’s not always easy to find a wide audience that embraces new sounds.

Young Australian conductor Carlo Antonioli reckons the persistent divide between old and new opera is “artificial”. And if he’s right, it means our role – as artists and audience members alike – is to take a serious look at the ways we engage with this remarkable artform.

“We’d be better placed to view it as a continuum, constantly building on what’s come before,” Carlo says. “We should be able to celebrate all opera as a dynamic, evolving artform, always responding to the world around us.”

These are some of the ideas that underpin the Australian Contemporary Opera Co. (ACOCo) program American Opera Double Bill at Melbourne Recital Centre, which Carlo will conduct. It features two 21st Century operas – David Lang’s The Loser, and Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s To Hell and Back.

But can Lang, Heggie, and Scheer compete with the classics that have survived for centuries – masterpieces from Verdi, Mozart, Puccini? And do they need to compete at all, or should we be allowing the old and new to live in harmony?

Carlo thinks there’s plenty of work to be done when it comes to audiences’ ability to welcome something different.

“It’s always intrigued me that in the operatic and art music world, we seem to have an aversion to experiencing new works,” he shares.

“I think that contemporary opera is in the unfortunate position of being overshadowed by the so-called ‘canon’ of favourites, meaning that we rarely hear about the many powerful and fascinating operas written closer to our time.

“And for those who have decided that traditional opera isn’t for them, I think that contemporary opera may scratch an itch many people didn’t realise they had.”

Carlo touches on the potential for opera to reflect the values of the day – if the artform keeps up. Even historic productions can remain relevant, he feels, if they are responsive to the culture and era in which they are presented. Language, character interaction, themes, and context should be living elements that evolve with the times.

“All opera explores human relationships, but contemporary operas magnify the idiosyncrasies of our modern behaviour,” the conductor says.

“While many older operas explore themes which are timeless and universal, we often need to suspend disbelief or need the help of a modern re-telling in order to relate to them with the sense of immediacy and directness that contemporary opera achieves.”

To Hell and Back is a 2006 American opera that combines the old and new – a modern Baroque orchestra with music theatre influences, and that’s just the music. When it comes to the story, Carlo explains how it “takes the Greek mythology of Persephone and gives it a modern American spin”. Character Stephanie (who represents Persephone) is in an abusive relationship with domestic violence perpetrator Peter (in place of Pluto).

“It starkly juxtaposes innocent, youthful visions of married life with what is unfortunately a horrific reality for far too many – and the messy ways in which our relationships interact with this reality.”

The other work on the program is Lang’s 2019 opera The Loser – an “obsessive interior monologue of an unnamed narrator who studied piano alongside the renowned Glenn Gould”, Carlo describes.

“Being confronted by Gould’s stunning virtuosity has caused the narrator and his friend to give up piano, and left them questioning their identities.

“The opera explores the fragility and futility of ambition in the face of an impossible ideal – and yet manages to find humour in our human quirks.”

The subject matter is heavy in both productions; The Loser makes reference to suicide. While such themes are depicted in old operas, contemporary artists and audiences are growing conscious of the way such stories are told.

“Our artists are always mindful that their approach to sensitive issues doesn’t diminish the weight of those issues, and is true to the stories of the people they affect,” Carlo notes.

“The operas touch on issues of suicide and domestic violence, so the company remains attuned and respectful of the sensitivities with understanding and empathy from our artists.”

According to Carlo, the company’s work helps show how “modern opera weaves into the fabric of society today”.

“Importantly, it gives the opportunity for artists to present and audiences to experience these types of works, breaking down the stigma unfairly associated with them.”

At the end of the day – whether the opera is old or new – Carlo thinks it’s important to consider how these stories respect and respond to our generation.

“There's nothing stuffy about contemporary opera – preconceptions are there to be challenged, and audiences can expect to connect with this music on many levels.”

American Opera Double Bill will take place at 7pm October 3 in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre.

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