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  • A Note from the Guest Editor
  • Arman Schwartz

It is tempting to introduce this collection of essays on “Opera and the Avant-Garde” by way of Pierre Boulez’s 1967 interview with Der Spiegel, the one in which he half-jokingly called for the opera houses of Europe to be bombed.1 Certainly there is enough material to choose from. Perhaps the passage in which he dreams of a theater so total that not only plot and language but even the conductor’s gestures are radically integrated into the score?2 Or the moment when he warns against combining “jazz with western music”?3 And then there are the insults. Opera is “a musty old wardrobe,” “a relic, a well-cared-for museum [. . .] full of dust and crap” and attended by “tourists [who] make me want to vomit.”4 Hans Werner Henze is a “hairdresser,” Franco Zeffirelli “the Henze among producers.”5 It is “unfortunate” that Bertolt Brecht “collaborated with such inconsequential musicians,” but perhaps that should come as no surprise.6 After all, even the composer of Parsifal authored only “a few other” operas worth producing.7

Boulez’s frustration with the inherently compromised medium of opera—his intuition, more precisely, that its specific compromises were incompatible with the aims of high modernism—was not unique in the decades following World War II. Nor can his rage safely be relegated to the past. For example, a recent manifesto by the scholar and director Nicholas Till apes both Boulez’s argument and many of his rhetorical tactics:

Yet modernist composers who turn their hand to opera invariably abandon the specific focus and integrity of their musical thinking and processes when they put their music to serve the extra-musical ends of drama as conventionally understood; consider the sub-Sondheim banalities of most neo-minimalist opera (e.g. Adams); the sub-puccinism of the rest (e.g. recently, Rouders). As Luciano Berio once warned, “Musical theatre only seems to take on a deep and enduring meaning once the dramaturgical conception is generated by the music.”8

Lest there be any confusion, Till’s appeal to “specific focus and integrity” has more than tonality as its object. After all, if “modernist music negates the humanist gestures and affect of the dramaturgy of conventional opera,” then even “Luigi Nono’s attempts to re-integrate his modernist musical language with his socialist humanism in his stage works” were doomed to failure.9

Bluster dies hard. More surprising, perhaps, is a tendency on the part of more sober critics to metonymize Boulez, to treat his tirade as the definitive diagnosis of opera’s late modern condition. “And while one might question the headline-grabbing [End Page 1] tactics,” Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker write in their A History of Opera, “[Boulez] was surely right about one thing: that any new form of cultural optimism must be based on relinquishing at least some aspects of the museum.”10 Until we are comfortable “limiting or banning or permanently obliterating old operas,” our stages will continue to be the domain of corteges, phantasms, and sunsets.11

There are writers, to be sure, more enthusiastic about recent dramatic music than those quoted above, yet it seems telling that they are often at pains to avoid describing their favored works as “operas” at all. “Music theater” is the preferred, more antiseptic, term—but how, precisely, can it be differentiated from its other? Robert Adlington proposes a number of potential distinctions: music theater is often defined by its “reduced scale and the altered performance locations and venues this entails.”12 It “adopt[s] an overtly non-naturalistic and (in certain respects) anti-narrative approach,” exhibiting a “propensity for anti-realism” and a “fondness for placing singers and instrumentalists on the same platform.”13 Yet given that all these descriptors could also be applied to Handel’s Messiah, one may suspect that the concept of “music theater” is primarily useful as an alibi for those who wish to deny modernism’s deep engagement with the past.14 Perhaps this is why Adlington claims that the marked theatricality of much avant-garde composition in the 1960s developed out of the internal logic of...


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