Reconsider opera in “The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera”

Opera song


Meel Tamphanon for the Boston Globe

“In opera, argues Matthew Aucoin, all words are dream words. Exchanging ideas with one of his collaborators, the famous composer and conductor says that opera singers give voice to something “surreal” and “if you adopt this quality, the… gods will smile at you” .

Invoking the gods always involves a risk; we think of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, inviting his demon slayer to dinner. Nonetheless, Aucoin sees danger as essential to his art form, and the Boston native, still only 31, has faced it well enough to win a Macarthur “genius grant”. His own originals begin with “Crossings,” 2015, derived from the poetry of Walt Whitman and first performed at Harvard, the composer’s alma mater. But his real home is the one he described, in the first sentence of his first book, as “another planet”. Aucoin lives in opera, participating at all levels, from choir membership to founding his own modern American opera company – the acronym for which, he says, is pronounced as in “running amok”.

In “The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera,” Aucoin also provides his company’s definition of opera: “the means by which art forms collide and transform. Because shouldn’t a winning performance please both the ear and the eye, both heartbreaking and morale-boosting? Shouldn’t a true maestro “combine all of these elements” into what Wagner called a “total work of art?

Setting the bar so high and explaining why paves the way for Aucoin’s “adventures”. Immediately he established some basic principles, for example by making intelligent distinctions between the demands that opera places on the body (“every … singer [uses] his own skull as an amplifying device ”) and the way Broadway musicals rely on electronics. At every turn, he reveals a sniper’s eye for comparison: “Opera is governed by strict, unwritten and irrational laws. … [T]they impose themselves relentlessly, like the edicts of the queen of hearts in “Alice in Wonderland”.

Aucoin is also wise about the current situation of its vocation. A 21st century man himself, he realizes what this art form looks like nowadays, both “glamorous” and “sickly”. But he stands up vigorously in defense, asserting that “opera has the potential to be a strong counter-cultural force rather than a weak dominant force.” By existing “under the mainstream culture”, art can become “more polyphonic and more diverse”. These passages are as catchy as Giuseppe Verdi – a composer whom Aucoin loves “unconditionally” – writing a hymn for the newly hatched Italian state.

The hymn which rises at the opening of “The impossible art”, and indeed the book as a whole, ends with a celebration of contemporary experience. Aucoin praises a range of new work, and not just at the end of the first chapter, which, like every chapter, could be a stand-alone essay. Also, on the whole, it goes from classic material to developments of the last decades. These include names unknown even to an opera lover like me, but anyone can applaud the thesis that despite its history, art can “just begin”. Anyone can understand how this justifies a rough chronological organization.

The first close examination is that of “L’Orfeo” by Monteverdi (1607). The myth of Orpheus, for Aucoin, embodies the central conflicts and triumphs of this art, and the second chapter, “Primal Loss”, offers a deep meditation which ends with “The mask of Orpheus” by Harrison Birtwistle. This work was composed in 1973, but it has never been the subject of a full production, as something “closer to an ayahuasca ceremony than an evening at the opera”. At least Birtwistle has this author’s appreciation, a rich and sensitive insight that concluded what I have found to be the best essay in the book. Between the discussions of Monteverdi and Birtwistle, Aucoin looked at Marc-Antoine Charpentier from the late 17th century, and the triptych struck me as simply revealing, a new illumination of a powerful ancient history.

Almost as lovely was the chapter on Verdi. First published in The New York Review of Books, this sequence works across Shakespeare’s three adaptations of “Macbeth,” 1847, to “Falstaff, 1893. As I said, Aucoin admits to having a crazy crush on this stuff, acknowledging the composer’s mastery in “the scale of the theater,” something like Paul McCartney in pop song. Yet he does not support the idea that the greatest expressions of opera are a thing of the past. The essays that follow Verdi’s material, a good third of the text, stress the continuing vitality of art. He unwraps his own toolbox, showing us how his opus Whitman and “Eurydice” works, 2020, his attempt on the story of Orpheus. He greets others who are testing the borders, in such an intriguing way that now I have to find a production of “Heart Chamber” by Chaya Czernowin (2019).

Yet it seems fitting, one way or another, that this forward thinking ends with a look back. The closing of “Impossible Art” raises a fanfare for Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”, 1786; Aucoin considers it “an exception” – the only job “capable of escaping or overcoming [opera’s] fundamental impossibility. “Figaro” even prompts Aucoin, who is gay, to recall that at the first viewing, his racy moments aroused his nascent sexuality. Specifically, for a text that ultimately ranks as a magnificent blend of criticism and rapture, his close examination of the work reels in paradox, even as he struggles for an analysis at the height of a masterpiece. One last time, the author expresses himself as in a dream: “The end of ‘Figaro’ should go up in smoke.

IMPOSSIBLE ART: Adventures at the Opera

By Matthieu Aucoin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 299 pages, $ 28

John Domini’s latest book is a memoir, “The archeology of a good Ragù. “