Elliott Carter's first opera
by Lloyd Schwartz
"I can't really imagine an opera by Elliott Carter," a friend responded to my
invitation to meet me at Carnegie Hall for the East Coast premiere of our
greatest living composer's brand new one-act opera, What Next? Carter
must have secured his place in the Guinness Book of Records three years ago,
when he started to compose his very first opera at the age of 88 (Verdi was
approaching 80 when he completed his last one, Falstaff). He told the
audience at the pre-performance talk that he had always wanted to write an
opera but that he was waiting to find a situation that convinced him it should
be sung. Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, who
commissioned What Next?, gave the world premiere in Berlin last
September. It had its American premiere in Chicago two weeks ago, in a concert
version; then Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought it to New
York. Performances are already scheduled at Glyndebourne, Paris, and Amsterdam
-- though not yet in Boston.
In fact, Carter has been writing "operas-without-voices" for more than half a
century. Both his chamber music (especially his string quartets) and his larger
symphonic works are really "character" pieces, in which individual instruments
or instrumental sections, sometimes playing at drastically different tempos
from one another, each represent an attitude, a point of view, a "humor" -- a
character. Like dramatis personae, they argue, or make love, or have spiritual
crises. Carter's knotty Duo for Violin and Piano, dedicated to his wife, Helen,
seems to be a portrait of their marriage, a depiction of two opposite
personalities (one "bow-stroked," for instance, the other "key-struck").
Carter has always expressed his love for opera. Among his central models, he
has often listed the banquet scene from Don Giovanni, with its three
on-stage orchestras, and that opera's final sextet, as well as the multi-level
Tomb Scene from Aida and the famous sextet from Lucia di
Lammermoor. What Next?, then, is an inevitable -- though long
delayed -- theatrical embodiment of Carter's deeply ingrained approach to one
of the fundamental possibilities of music: the simultaneous, interactive
expression of intricate, tangled emotions.
What Next? is also a sextet. The libretto, by British novelist and
New York Times music critic Paul Griffiths, might be called "Six
Characters in Search of an Opera." And it couldn't be anything but sung.
These characters have been in some kind of catastrophe, like a car accident. At
a pre-performance talk with Griffiths and Carnegie Hall artistic adviser Ara
Guzelimian, Carter said that one of the inspirations for What Next? was
the car-crash scene in the Jacques Tati comedy Traffic. Neither Carter
nor Griffiths wanted to commit himself to resolving the story's ambiguities,
though Griffiths denied Guzelimian's theory that the characters might be
The opera begins with the characters coming to, an awakening in which they try
to sort out who they are and where they were going. Is Rose, the self-absorbed
coloratura soprano who hardly ever stops singing, on the way to her wedding
with the clownish "Harry or Larry" (this is how he's listed)? Is she pregnant
with his child? An older woman, who once had a husband and a son, might be
"Harry or Larry" 's mother. Was she once married to the blathering
philosopher named Zen? Is Stella, a learned astronomer, Zen's new girlfriend?
Zen and Stella are opposites, like the violin and the piano in Duo -- one
obsessed with measuring a fixed universe, the other trusting to chance,
probabilities, "accident." And there's a hungry young boy, "Kid," who's dying
for a Big Mac.
What Next? literally begins with a bang -- a violent but elegant
explosion from the almost comically extensive battery of percussion instruments
(including large and small suspended trashcans and four brake drums). The
singers seem to be shushing or hissing, as if air were leaking out of a tire.
Their sibilance soon turns into the beginning of the word "star" -- or some
form of it, each "star" word reflecting the character who utters it: "starts,"
"startle," "starling" (which triggers the diva's first string of coloratura
roulades), "starch" (from practical Mama), "starkest" (from "serious" Stella),
"starving" (from Kid).
The sounding-out of these delicate syllables, like ethereal vocal warm-ups, is
the first of Carter's many exquisite details. The vocal lines are not what most
people would call melodic (Carter gave up traditional "melody" years ago), but
they range from the most jaggedly edgy and chattering to the long-breathed and
lyrical, like Mama's lovely, calming, beautifully scored "Hush now" ("We have
to begin with the last thing we can remember/How else to go on?") or Stella's
outer-spacy apostrophe to "Sirius, Sirius," which is hard to distinguish from
Carter's scoring is transparent. He sets the text with the most natural
inflection, so you can make out nearly all the words. In the middle of the
opera, most of the characters suddenly leave the stage. "It's a relief to have
a moment in which there isn't the constant interplay of singers," Carter said,
explaining this extraordinary interlude. This is called in the libretto "The
Singing Stage," and the orchestra plays one of the most ravishing instrumental
passages Carter has ever written: a haunting nocturne, marked Tranquillo, with
a wreathing solo for English horn. The stage direction here says: "It is also
possible that some of the debris could begin to move, as if of its own accord."
The Carnegie Hall performance seemed impeccable, though the semi-staging wasn't
particularly helpful. The marvelous Chicago Symphony, with its eloquent winds
(especially the otherworldly English-horn playing of Grover Schiltz), colorful
brasses (those surprisingly woozy slide trombones), and brilliant
percussionists (two of them portraying road workers in orange jackets and hard
hats), seemed to be having a field day. Barenboim humorously introduced the
audience to each character ("She's never off duty," he commented about Rose's
relentless vocalization), who then emerged and sang a characteristic phrase.
"Quite a crowd, isn't it?" Barenboim remarked.
The international cast was impressive. Even on a concert stage the singers were
thoroughly in character, and they sang from memory (most of them appeared in
the Berlin world premiere). The German soprano Simone Nold was a vocally
brilliant and theatrically knowing Rose ("Would you like an autograph? A
photograph?"). Baritone cut-up Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a punkish,
sarcastic Harry -- or Larry. Their "American" English was as clear as the
diction of the native English speakers: full-toned British soprano Lynn Dawson,
the moving, concerned Mama; nougat-voiced low contralto Hilary Summers, the
comically austere Stella; and American tenor William Joyner, the pompously
profound Zen. Young boy soprano Michael John Devine is the only singer who
wasn't a member of the original cast, yet he too was authoritative, funny, and
There are darker undercurrents to the comedy, of course. This is an opera about
the precariousness of existence, about personal miscommunication, about
generosity of spirit at war with self-centeredness, though ego may be a
necessary part of genius. Before the end there's a touching, though tentative,
temporary reconciliation. It's also an opera about making art, about words and
music, about itself. "Starts are always an embarrassment to
us. . . . Each beginning is a only a new illusion," Zen
announces -- and you can't help thinking of the 91-year-old composer starting a
new project. "Wherever we go, words have been there first/We open a door into
what we think will be a new room only to find the carpet threadbare."
"Somewhere or other," Harry -- or Larry -- tells Rose, the opera singer,
"You'll need to find words of your own."
Griffiths's intelligent, often gently witty libretto is also a little too
schematic, too quasi-allegorical for its own good (like -- though perhaps not
quite as heavy-handed as -- Michael Tippett's clumsy concoctions for his own
operas). The characters fall a little too easily into stereotype (the Operatic
Diva, the Aging Hippie, the Caring Mother), so they're hard to care much about.
Griffiths himself, at the pre-concert talk, said he found the characters
"obnoxious," though he felt "quite affectionate" toward them too. In concert,
the libretto rather got in the way of the music -- something didn't quite jell.
It was hard to take in the relation between words and music. Surely it would
help to see a complete staging.
Still, Carter's score has 45 minutes of his freshest, most inventive, most
beautiful, and most youthful music. This composer's phenomenal capacity to
surprise and delight never stops. He's already planning another opera. What
There are times when I think that even New York couldn't measure up to
the riches of Boston's musical life. But at the moment it's hard to imagine
anything more exciting than what's happening in New York. Last week, the new
Carter opera. At Carnegie Hall this week, Pierre Boulez, the greatest living
conductor (by miles) and hero of Modernism, conducting the London Symphony
Orchestra, with pianist Maurizio Pollini and violinist Christian Tetzlaff, in a
four-concert series of 20th-century masters (Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg,
Stravinsky, Bartók, Ligeti, Berio, and Boulez himself) and four US
premieres by European composers seldom heard in this country. Next month, at
the New York State Theatre, Mark Morris's celebrated production of Rameau's
Platée, and Lorraine Hunt, singing one of her greatest roles, in
Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, at the New York City Opera. (Granted she
sang it in Boston first, but only in concert.) How could anyone who loves
classical music bear to be anywhere else?