Each spring, the New York City Opera presents a showcase of new operas by living American composers called VOX. This season, I played principal oboe.
On the weekend of May 10 & 11, we performed portions of ten new operas. Project Director, Yuval Sharon ran an impressively smooth ship; no easy task considering the weekend's myriad logistic and personnel demands.
Though in past seasons there have been operatic offerings by luminaries (Mark Adamo, Richard Danielpour, David Del Tredici, David Diamond, John Eaton, Lou Harrison, Lee Hoiby, John Musto, Bernard Rands, Greg Sandow, Bright Sheng, Charles Wuorinen, and John Zorn), this year's composers, Sorrel Hays, Cary Ratcliff, Veronika Krausas*, Steve Potter*, John King, Scott Davenport Richards, Alice Shields, Justine Chen, David T. Little, and Robert Manno, were entirely unknown to me, except for Justine Chen, whose Juilliard years overlapped with those of enough of my younger friends that we crossed paths. She even presented Zéphyros with a wind quintet a number of years ago.
The criteria by which the jury chose the Vox 2008 offerings were not spelled out, however, the eight works I played exhibited, almost to a one (the aleatoric opera by John King being the notable exception), a tonal musical vocabulary, a concern for dramatic vocalism, and engaging story-telling devices.
The pervasive tonal idiom brought into sharp relief the composers' response to the power of popular music in our culture. In the case of Richards' jazz opera and Little's heavy-metal inspired score (I was reminded of playing with Metallica in Madison Square Garden . . . ), popular music was the vernacular musical voice of the composers. I was not convinced that the undeniably campy elements of heavy metal (to everyone except, I suppose, the true fan) ultimately well-served Mr. Little's wrenching storyline, but his opera left many in the crowd deeply moved.
The most tenatious popular musical style this weekend was film music. Can there be—or should there be—a post-atonal music free of the the well-established tropes of film scoring? Of course, the language of film music capitalized on the most vivid techniques of late 19th-century and early 20th-century orchestral music, now the influence moves strongly in the other direction. After Helicon's recent presentation of Verklärte Nacht last month, some audience members remarked that the music reminded them of early 20th-century film scores. These comments refer to how much Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, et al., learned from their pre-film forebears and how pervasive the sound of late 19th-century romantic orchestral music had become. Should we be concerned when the compositional techniques codified in a century of film making enter the concert halls? Perhaps not, but the overt sentimentality of some of this music, combined with its easy surface appeal makes me wonder about its lasting power.
The most successful work of the ten was Justine Chen's Jeanne, a griping version of the Joan of Arc story. Chen also wrote the libretto. Her music inhabits a communicative harmonic world that is inventive, powerful, and distinctly personal, with vocal writing distinguished by its sure-handed maturity and lyrical sweep. The overture consisted of an unaccompanied prayer sung by Joan of Arc. Its ethereal beauty and demanding virtuosity built to a climax of supplicating ululations, and was deeply affecting. Chen is an accomplished violinist and her instrumental command was evident in her handling of the orchestral forces. When the work came to it's fiery conclusion, I noticed two women in the first row so evidently moved, so rapt, I went at the intermission to speak with them.
They were new to opera. One had been brought to Bohème and Satyagraha by her boss and Vox was her third operatic exposure. She had brought her sister along who had never attended an opera before. We talked the whole intermission. There is nothing like fresh enthusiasm to wash away pretense. These two audience members engaged with each new work at face value. Did it move them? Did they like the performances? Did the composer succeed in getting the story across? None of my concern for the influence of popular music clouded their experience. If they were touched, the music was had done its job, and they were open to being touched by this music. Ten new operas they saw over two days, and I am sure that they will be equally curious about seeing their first Carmen as with any of Gérard Mortier's most ambitious plans for the New York City Opera's 2009 season. I hope to see them in the front row many more times.
*I did not perform the operas of Ms. Krausas and Mr. Potter, and their works are not considered in this posting.