“Opera is actually a lot better than it sounds.” —Cecil Elliott
I came to a fondness for opera rather late in life. Possibly because the standard repertoire suffers (in my jaundiced view, at least) from overexposure. My world does not require yet another production of “Carmen,” thank you very much. Once you get passed the perfectly fine operatic works of Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Verdi and Bizet, however, the domain of opera is considerably larger than I’d imagined as a teenager. I seem to have an affinity for operas of the late 20th and 21st centuries. it was in the Minnesota Opera production of Dominick Argento’s “The Aspern Papers” some years ago that Cecil Elliott’s claim was made startlingly clear.
I had won a ticket on MPR and drove down to the Ordway in time to grab a hotdog in Rice Park and then settle uncomfortably into the second night of Aspern—and a massive case of indigestion from a bad dog masked by far too much onion and relish. There is a scene with four characters on stage. The trick is that two of the characters are in the 1840s and the other two are in the 1890s—in the same room and oblivious of the other couple’s existence. So, technically they are not singing a quartet; it is, in fact, two simultaneous duets. It was costume—the pale pastels of the ’40s and the dowdy greys of the ’90s—that made sense of it. The next day, on a Sunday Afternoon, MPR broadcast that afternoon’s live performance and when they came to that particular scene it was painfully evident that, without color-coding and stage direction, its sound alone was an aural swamp that made little sense to my untrained ear.
There is a delightful operatic subset intended for the salon; the setting typical of the 18th century when music was performed in the drawing rooms of nobility. Since the late 20th century, there has been a renaissance of this chamber variety, much of it very accessible in English (for the linguistically challenged, like myself). Two come to mind, both because I happen to like them and also because they highlight opera’s ability to reveal nuances of character: Samuel Barber’s tiny production “A Hand of Bridge” and the more recent “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Michael Nyman (based on the book by Oliver Sachs). Their forces are modest (casts of four and three); the sets minimal (one requires a card table and four chairs); and the orchestras limited. One wonders why they aren’t performed more often. By contrast, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” requires elephants and a Cecil B. Demille-scaled cast of hundreds.
Samuel Barber’s friend Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the libretto (“book” to you and me) for “Hand of Bridge,” whose action takes place entirely within the confines of a single hand of bridge. Two couples drift from the mechanics of the game into their innermost fears and desires, until the game ends abruptly with “Trump!” With so little diversion—orchestral pomposities; costumed extravagance—we are left with character. Nuanced intimacy. There is inspiration.