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From Anorexia To Political Intrigue, New Operas Tackle Contemporary Topics


This is FRESH AIR. Operas can be about almost anything. While the earliest operas were based on mythology, contemporary operas have been as timely as today's news. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz tells us about several new operas that have been based on a surprising variety of sources, including a poem by Frank Bidart called "Ellen West."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Ellen was obsessed with eating and the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: It took opera a couple of hundred years before Verdi's "La Traviata" in the middle of the 19th century shocked audiences by dealing directly with contemporary issues. In our own time, composer John Adams and poet Alice Goodman created a masterpiece out of director Peter Sellars' startling idea of making an opera out of President Nixon's visit to China, which took place only 15 years earlier. And less than five years passed between the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in 1985 and the next Adams-Goodman-Sellars opera, "The Death Of Klinghoffer." That opera is still so controversial, protesters have forced performances, including the Met's Live in HD telecast, to be cancelled.

More recently, the Metropolitan Opera, which has relied so heavily on standard repertory, co-commissioned operas based on movies - Thomas Ades's intense version of Spanish director Luis Bunuel's chilling political satire "The Exterminating Angel" and Nico Muhly's rather milder take on the novel that was the source of Alfred Hitchcock's psychological mystery, "Marnie." More unusual than that, Opera Saratoga just presented a new one-act chamber opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon. It's the first opera I'm aware of that's actually a setting of a poem - "Ellen West," a 16-page narrative by last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Frank Bidart.

This tragic poem, first published in 1975, dramatizes the final days of a woman suffering from anorexia and is based on a classic case study even before anorexia had a name. But the poem is shattering not because it's a case history, it's Bidart's profound exploration of what it means to have a body, an identity, even a gender, and what sacrifices it takes to be an artist. In this gripping passage, Ellen West sings about soprano Maria Callas, famous for her drastic weight loss as Puccini's Tosca. Ellen says, I know that in the second act when humiliated, hounded by Scarpia, she sang "Vissi d'arte" - I lived for art - and in torment, bewilderment at the end she asks, with a voice reaching harrowingly for the notes, art has repaid me like this? I felt I was watching autobiography. And now, let's hear the hair-raising soprano Jennifer Zetlan. Also listen for Gordon's sly allusion to Puccini's aria.


JENNIFER ZETLAN: (As Ellen West, singing) I know that in the second act when humiliated, hounded by Scarpia, she sang "Vissi d'arte" and in torment, bewilderment at the end she asks, with a voice reaching harrowingly for the notes, art has repaid me like this? I felt I was watching autobiography.

SCHWARTZ: The death of Ellen West is one of the most heart-wrenching moments I know in contemporary opera. In most operas, words are secondary. When a composer chooses an extraordinary text for the music to live up to, that's news. The Danish composer Poul Ruders did that when he based his best-known opera on the scary dystopian world of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."

His latest opera, "The Thirteenth Child," is a kind of throwback to earlier operas based on fables and fairy tales, but this opera is no less scary. The librettists, Becky and David Starobin, have fashioned a compelling libretto out of a relatively obscure Grimm fairy tale. It combines sexual jealousy, political intrigue and murder that, like the music itself, has a very modern ring to it with a touch of magic. This was the latest production in the Santa Fe Opera's notable series of world premieres. A recording on the Bridge label was released weeks before the first performance. That might have something to do with the librettist being the couple who started and run Bridge Records, a company I admire for its devotion to contemporary music.

One disappointment I have with a lot of contemporary operas is that composers seem more interested in complex orchestration than in beautiful writing for the voice. Ruders, at least, is not afraid to lapse into tonality, as in this haunting slow waltz the queen sings on her deathbed. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford is the only singer on the CD who was also in the stage production.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) If you can't return to me (unintelligible).

TAMARA MUMFORD: (As Queen Gertrude, singing) (Unintelligible).

SCHWARTZ: For American audiences, it's a gift that so many new operas are in English and that in the best of these, the English can be as powerful, surprising, eloquent and timely as the music.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches poetry in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist Emily Bazelon. She's been writing about the fight between Congress and the Trump administration over the House's legal right to enforce subpoenas requiring senior administration officials to testify in the impeachment inquiry. We'll also talk about Attorney General William Barr and his role in supporting an expansive view of Trump's executive power. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

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