New operas, old problems, by Javier Pérez Senz

Posted by Javier Pérez Senz on June 15, 2011  |  1 Comment

Appearances are deceptive. After the world premiere of Jo, Dalí, an opera by the octogenarian and fortunately still busy Catalan composer Xavier Benguerel (Barcelona, 1931), with a libretto by Jaime Salom, held on 8 June at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid, with stage production by Xavier Albertí and music direction by Miquel Ortega, now it is the turn of the Spanish premiere, on 25 June, of LByron, Un estiu sense estiu (A year without a summer), at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, an opera by another, much younger Catalan composer, Agustí Charles (Manresa, 1960), with a libretto by Marc Rosich. The world premiere took place last March in Darmstadt at the Staatstheather, co-producer of the production that will be staged at the temple of opera in the Ramblas, with the stage and musical direction by Alfonso Romero Mora and Martin Lukas Meister, respectively.

At first glance, two premieres in succession suggest that contemporary Catalan opera composition is in a particularly sweet moment. But this is not the case.

Benguerel’s work has been premiered ten years after the date of its composition, so the closeness to the premiere of Charles’s work is purely coincidental. In fact, the list of composers who are waiting to premiere works in Spanish opera houses is growing steadily longer because, unless things change, premieres will continue to take place in dribs and drabs.

The list of composers who are waiting to premiere works in Spanish opera houses is growing steadily longer because, unless things change, premieres will continue to take place in dribs and drabs.

No matter how much they say that opera is in fashion, what is actually in fashion are the same old titles, the so-called great repertoire, as if the masterpieces of the twentieth century – in a fascinating range of styles that includes, citing only the most representative, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Leo Janacek, Dmitri Shostakovich, Bela Bartok, Sergei Prokofiev, Olivier Messiaen and Ligeti Györg – did not also constitute a large repertoire.

Like it or not, opera is still alive. With 500 years of tradition, and hundreds of authors around the world still producing operas. Composers such as Hans Werner Henze, Helmuth Lacheman, Tan Dun, Philippe Boesmans, George Benjamin, Olga Neuwirth, Harrison Birtwistle, and a long list of others that can include, without any reservations, Spanish musicians such as Cristóbal Halffter, José María Sánchez-Verdú, Enric Palomar and Hèctor Parra.

I only know of two ways of finishing with contemporary opera. One is, of course, by not programming it, a politically incorrect option, but cherished by this plague of political managers who only talk about culture with a calculator in the hand. And they’re not bothered: as today’s opera is not in favour with the public, it is unlikely that there will a demonstration demanding more premieres.

The other way to settle the matter, much more perverse, is to do the bare minimum: badly produce new works in unsuitable venues,. The argument is always the same: a lack of resources, poor attendances, they don’t sell a thing and the halls are almost empty. So, in the end they hire mediocre, run-of-the-mill orchestras, voices and conductors. Bad news, because there’s nothing that does more damage to a new score that a bad premiere: it kills dead any possibility of further shows.

To alleviate these shortcomings, small and medium-scale productions were invented, an initiative that can only give good results when the emphasis is really placed on quality performances. New opera must be presented on the same level as the old titles in the repertoire. If not, we’d better wait in silence for better times to come.

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  1. [...] con especial entusiasmo el estreno en 2011 de la que fuera una de las óperas más importantes de nuestro tiempo, Jo, Dalí, que tuvo lugar en el Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona. Otra de sus obras que ha [...]

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