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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


It is still the most lavish form of entertainment in the west. In some companies, the annual cost of wigs alone is more than the latest top range BMW. So it is worth asking why, at such a price, are so many incompetent new operas produced. There are very few composers who are instinctively astute dramatists, whose characters sing from necessity, whose sense of stage is exciting and who, with the true craftsmanship that a composer should have, demonstrate symphonic unity throughout an opera score. It would seem that over the last four decades or more, the approach of many composers to opera has been to create an interminable recitative accompanied by an aimlessly sustained background and a few instrumental sound effects.

Tempting it is to compare this with the 16th century scenario, with those groups of wealthy intellectual Italian dilettantes, poets, artists and musicians, who formed themselves into discussion groups, calling themselves 'the Florentine comrades'. Some were fine singers and lutenists, but for the most part they were a technically inept crowd who wanted to be recognised as composers and who declared (clearly to justify their own incompetence) that the glorious skills of their immediate past were abhorrent. The new way was to re-create the power of Ancient Greek drama in simple recitatives, throw aside complex counterpoint and elaborate harmony, and allow the words to form musical phrases, rhythms and punctuation hopefully to reflect meaning and emotion in a pure and natural manner.

Despising melody, contrapuntal skills, harmonic subtlety and symphonic cohesion, operas of the last few decades seem to have returned again to that monodic naivety, inelegant recitatives and noise, and using lavish sets as their disguise. It is not difficult for a good undergraduate music student to write recitatives. Much greater is the challenge of joining words and melodic lines, making them complimentary and meaningful. Just as when Monteverdi arrived on the scene to demonstrate real genius, so now do we need a talent to give back to opera what can possibly make it worth the cost -- and today that means a swiftly moving and powerfully dramatic story told through vocal lines that are not only a sheer delight for great voices to sing, but also ravishing for an audience to hear and take away with them, preserved with joy in their memories. Why is that so difficult? Calling it 'out of fashion' seems to be a convenient euphemism for 'we have not the talent to do it'.

Copyright © 24 February 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Bob Jordahl, USA

Enjoyed your latest, Patric. My one attempt at opera was a 'trial by fire' for me. I ended up writing an operetta -- a collection of songs separated by recitatives. (I totally dislike recitative.) It was a very humbling experience. Yuk!


From: Paul Barker, Mexico

I have much sympathy with your observations on opera. Especially regards funding, and my suggestion is that opera houses, and perhaps some orchestras might be more fairly funded from the museum section of the arts council rather than the arts section itself, since their primary objective is to maintain an emphasis on a museum aesthetic. Composers involved with such organisations have to battle with intransigent and pre-fabricated values, and the chances of real creativity are severely diminished. Neither do I consider it healthy the fact that for many composers, their chief competition is the dead composer.

I would also add that a composer's education that sees the arts as distinctive and competitive rather than symbiotic and organically connected impoverishes the student and the organisation (an idea I rather remember you outlining to me some aeons ago as your student!). And finally the collosal lack of institutional interest in the human voice and matters relating to voice and text add to the general downturn you described. Those composers interested in multidisciplinary work are forced to find their own outlet and respone through the many small and flexible opera and music theatre companies that abound, quiietly going about their work, despite the unpardonable imbalance of funding.





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