In Search of a Contemporary Definition of Opera

Having recently completed two works for percussion ensemble, video, and tape, I am now embarking on the quest to create a contemporary opera.

Several definitions of opera can be found:
"Opera is a drama set to mus. to be sung with instr. acc. by singers usually in costume." - Classical Archive.
"Opera is a story told through song." - Boston Lyric Opera
"Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, sings." - Ed Gardner (funny music quotes)

Traditionally, opera follows a libretto (text -a linear storyline), has extravagant costumes and scenery, and the music plays an integral part of the entire drama unfolding. The music can consist of arias, trios, duets, entire choruses, etc. Some famous traditional opera composers include Puccini, Bizet, Britten, Wagner, Verdi, Monteverdi...the list goes on (You can read more HERE.)

George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess:

However, with the advent of the late 20th century, the definition of opera was challenged or just outright abandoned. There are many nay-sayers that debunk contemporary music forms (you can read an example of a nay-sayer from the New York Times, lamenting Thea Musgraves, "Mary, Queen of Scots" in 1981 HERE.) Because of the financial nature of the opera house, or professional orchestra even, many music organizations find themselves performing the same works over and over and over again just to fill the house. Naturally, if a patient is used to treating a cold with leeches, taking some OTC meds will seem quite abnormal...but that is fodder for a different blog. (Nothing against leeches...)

Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach" is often categorized as an opera:

The MIT Lab came up with the Brain Opera , where the audience actively participates in an interactive musical work, while there are still contemporary artists performing a repertoire of avant-garde opera with both traditional and experimental elements, like the UK's Opera Circus.

In any case, composing an opera is a great musical achievement for any composer. It requires years (even decades) of hard work, involving more than music, involving story, text, costuming, scenery, etc. with the possibility of never enjoying a single performance in the composer's lifetime. What direction contemporary opera will take in the near and far future will most likely depend more and more on economics. Technology has already affected classical music, film music, chamber music, commercial music, etc, with its relative inexpensive cost compared to a hall full of live musicians. Whether that technology will adversely affect the opera, or will meld with it in a productive symbiotic way remains to be seen. As for now, I am readying my virtual singers and warming up my MIDI cables to create hopefully my next masterpiece.

You can read more about opera:
"Never say Die in Indie Opera"
Alice in Wonderland - The opera
Center for Contemporary Opera
Greg Sandow on Contemporary Opera


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