The Evolution of Opera Storytelling


This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


An openness to new experiences among the young, emerging economic models, and a wealth of stories unique to the pace of life in the fiberoptic age are producing fascinating, original work for the stage. Whether your sensibilities tend toward the traditional or the bleeding edge of weird, this is the most exciting time for opera storytelling in four hundred years.

Diva Plavalaguna walks onto the stage, alone. Each tier of the house is packed to capacity with music lovers, but there is hardly a sound. Everyone present has traveled very far to see this. The orchestra, unseen, makes a few melancholy gestures as Plavalaguna takes three small steps from the shadows into the light. Her thick blue head tendrils hand in neat bunches over her shoulders. A colossal viewport behind her reveals the planet Fhloston, all ocean blue and cloud sworls. As she begins an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, her expression is beatific, as if she can see the music before her; accordingly, she scoops and caresses the air as she sings. Her skin is the blue of a child’s bedroom, and she is beautiful. The audience is enchanted.

Elsewhere on the pleasure barge, grotesque alien mercenaries are blasting their way through softly lit halls in search of their quarry. As the action escalates, so does the music. But the crescendo Donizetti aficionados expect never comes. Instead, the audience is treated to a burst of clearly-synthetic orchestra blasts. A skittering electronic drum track enters the fray, and Diva Plavalaguna is swaying like an alien flower in the breeze as her voice weaves its way through a series of impossible notes. Each melodic flourish now resembles the music of an electric violin. Her movements range between those of a sorceress and a hip-hop dancer.

The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi romp, The Fifth Element, was a crossover moment for contemporary opera. Its particulars suggest Besson was creating an “all-things-to-all-people” film; in 126 minutes, moviegoers are treated to the ineffably charming and often scantily-clad Milla Jovovich doing cartoonish martial arts, Bruce Willis in action mode, Chris Tucker playing a role designed for Prince (yes, the Prince), rubber-suited aliens, flying cars, and Gary Oldman rhapsodizing about the virtues of chaos in a southern accent. But ask someone about The Fifth Element today, and the extraterrestrial diva’s stirring performance is likely to come up immediately.

It was a crossover moment for opera, both musically and culturally. For many millions of Americans, the film marked the first time they had sat through an entire aria, however brief. Albanian soprano Inva Mula’s haunting rendition of Il dolce suono, a “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor, was doubtlessly an entry point into the art form for many; the soundtrack sold well in the United States and elsewhere. One need only peruse internet music forums and reviews from the period to learn the techno-aria was the reason for most listeners’ interest.

The story of The Fifth Element may be riddled with robots and techno-Macguffins, but the scale and spectacle are sheerly operatic. In the twenty years since the film’s release, we have seen an explosion of fresh stories—interstellar and otherwise—told in the opera house. (As well as news operas in bars, parks, and on the internet.)

When it comes to the evolution of opera storytelling, the twentieth century was hardly conservative. After three hundred years of comparatively traditional narrative norms, worldwide upheaval and new art movements birthed avant-garde composers and librettists; they brought their sensibilities to the stage in droves. Philip Glass’s minimalism found its operatic apotheosis in 1976’s Einstein on the Beach—an absurdist five-hour production with no story whatsoever, based loosely around the titular scientist’s life.

In 1986, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff gave us The Mask of Orpheus. A meditation on truth, myth, and narrative itself, the opera takes place along multiple mythic, personal, and heroic axes; in practice, this means a labyrinthine production involving singers, mimes, and puppets acting out multiple versions of the same storyline simultaneously.

Die Hamletmaschine, a Wolfgang Rihm opera based on the postmodern play of the same name, is an exercise in ritualism, sensory-overload, and interpretation. Whether “The Hamlet Machine” is spiritually profound or difference borne of desperation is the audience’s decision, but no one can accuse this intentionally fractured piece of theater of playing it safe.

The storytelling sensibilities of opera have evolved alongside the rest of humanity’s conversation. Postmodernism, cinema verite, social justice movements, and a critical appraisal of opera’s own traditions are just a few factors that birthed the art form’s twentieth century mutations. In its constantly evolving modes of expression, opera becomes predictable.

Anna Nicole Smith, The Opera

The advent of the digital age is changing the way we tell stories, and the nature of the stories themselves. Rainy Park Opera’s The Tinder Opera is an internet opera about romance in the era of the dating app. Two Boys, an opera by composer Nico Muhly and playwright Craig Lucas, is ripped-from-the-headlines story about a murder that blossomed from an internet chat room encounter. Anna Nicole is an operatic take on the life and times of tabloid icon Anna Nicole Smith.

An openness to new experiences among the young, emerging economic models, and a wealth of stories unique to the pace of life in the fiberoptic age are producing fascinating, original work for the stage. The opera enthusiast (or the casual pub-goer) can see a five-hour opera epic on the weekend, or a 10-minute opera on their phone any day of the week. And the nature of those stories includes a gamut from an operatic adaptation of David Lynch’s Lost Highway to the timeless story of The Minotaur. The narrative landscape for our favorite art form is rich, broad, and sparkling with new ideas. Whether your sensibilities tend toward the traditional or the bleeding edge of weird, this is the most exciting time for opera storytelling in four hundred years. In its varied voices, the grandest story is that of opera itself—a tale of the total work of art, sustained by passion, and ever-changing.

 


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.

 


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Posted in 50 Stories