Projecting Opera

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Going to the opera can often feel like visiting a museum, but here on the West Coast this fall, two new productions in San Francisco and Los Angeles show that opera is not just a thing of the past.

Opera in the present tense was on display last month as San Francisco Opera presented the U.S. Premiere of Le Grand Macabre. Le Grande Macabre is a modern opera, composed by Gyorgy Ligeti, that-s been widely performed in Europe for the past 25 years. Full of dissonant, asymmetrical music (the overture is a fugue of car horns) and a freewheeling absurdist libretto (set in a place called Breughelland) Grand Macabre is not what most Americans would consider opera. There are no characters in elegant evening dress, no romantic arias, and not even a consumptive death in the final act. Instead, Macabre is a bleak but comic look at the end of civilization--or as the director of the San Francisco production calls it: &quota; Berg opera meets [Fritz Lang-s] Metropolis meets South Park."

Ligeti-s smelting of difficult, academic music with vulgar, cartoonish dramaturgy is probably what kept U.S. opera companies from presenting it; but interestingly, that-s also what would probably bring many operagoers in this country out of the 19th century. Opera has a fine tradition of using titillation to draw people to music that is new and different: Mozart-s revolutionary opera scores, which brought the art form out of the Baroque period and into the romantic era, were tolerated by a public eager to see the ribald plots of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

In England, this can be seen today as well. The most popular new opera there has not been one of the tasteful, literary adaptations seen at Covent Garden; but instead a work entitled, Jerry Springer: The Opera -- which has been so successful, that the BBC last week commissioned its creative team to come up with six new short operas.

San Francisco-s production of Le Grande Macabre proved a great success: attendance was higher than expected and the ovations were loud and boisterous. But most of all, Ligeti-s black comedy seemed to convince audiences that opera can do more than simply conjure nostalgia for the past, it can also address the world we live in today.

If San Francisco was host to opera-s present, Los Angeles right now is showcasing what may be opera-s future. Two of the people behind this, interestingly, are the men responsible for the most famous European production of Le Grande Macabre: director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. These two have teamed up again to bring Wagner-s masterpiece Tristan und Isolde into the postmodern era-and they-ve done this by convincing the American video artist Bill Viola to make his operatic debut.

Those who saw the LACMA retrospective of Viola-s work a few years ago, will remember that his crisp, meditative video installations have a real theatrical quality-which makes Viola a logical choice to provide images to accompany an opera.

The Tristan Project is a rehearsal of sorts before the three men go to Paris this spring to present a fully staged version of the opera. One act of the opera is performed each day and Viola-s images are projected onto a large screen behind the orchestra at Disney Hall. Some of the images have a rough, hand-held quality, which suggest that it should have been called the Blair Witch Tristan Project, but most of the time, the visuals possess the cool poetry of Viola-s best pieces.

Tristan und Isolde is one of the most difficult operas to stage, so the Sellars/Viola solution, of having a concert performance augmented by video seems inspired. It may be too early to tell, but this Tristan could become a touchstone of 21st century opera productions. What can be said for certain though, is that this one of those Los Angeles events that will be talked about for years. Like any workshop or work-in-progress, there are uneven parts--but the combination of music and video in Act One, which will repeat tomorrow night, was truly sublime. You may have to head to the box office and get in line now if you want to get a ticket, but that seems a small price to pay for being a part of Los Angeles, and perhaps operatic, history.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.