Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream
Some of the people who are most deeply connected to the joys and the sufferings of the world seem to lose their minds for the opera. I am not there yet, but I want to be. I absolutely adore this guest post by Newell, because he is writing about himself being the outsider--the one writing the operas for funsies. The history of the form and music also surprised me, in the best way possible. I encourage you to check out Newell and his other writings. This little post is like a teaser for his great, mysterious, music-filled life.
Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream
by Newell Hendricks
I am in the process of publishing a collection of stories from my life. One section of the book is five stories about major musical compositions I have written. The last story in this section is about my opera, ASCONA. The excerpt below is near the ending of that story.
Writing operas was a wonderful way to spend my days. I loved it – getting lost in my imagination – feeling the most extreme emotions and trying to capture them in sound and form – living a fantasy life to the max that actually had a tangible notation and had the possibility of being reconstructed by performers and experienced by audiences. It was a constant high – living in ecstasy as long as I could maintain the energy and distance myself from obvious reality.
That reality is that the socio-economics of our day does not lend itself to the production of operas. The larger musical forms of western culture evolved under a very different socio-economic system, one in which there was a highly talented, highly skilled, completely exploitable class that could perform the music. In the Renaissance and earlier, the choir schools of the major cathedrals were where musicians were trained. The church was also the institution that took in orphans. This was the pool from which musicians came. Some of the great composers of the Renaissance were Josquin de Pres: “Joe from the field,” and Pierre de la Rue: “Pete from the street.” Well into the Baroque period, many musicians came from orphanages. All of the Vivaldi violin concertos were written for girls at the orphanage where he worked. In the Classical period, the cathedral schools were still the center of musical education. The Kapellmeister would go out into the rural countryside looking for talented peasants, take them back to the school as scholarship students, and train them and use them for their music program. Hayden was such a student. Even at the height of his fame, Hayden, the most renowned composer of Europe, had to dress up in his servant’s uniform and report to his patron for duty every day.
And well into the twentieth century, musicians were low down on the economic scale. They were tradespeople.
It is true that in the nineteenth century a few musicians did achieve star status and became extremely wealthy. Accompanying the phenomenon of the superstars was the cult of art as religion with these stars having their devoted worshipers. Opera composers and singers were certainly in the center of this cult and Richard Wagner reigned supreme as the high priest. His opera Tristan und Isolde was commissioned by a wealthy count who not only paid him a handsome sum to write the opera, but set him up in his summer villa to compose it. Wagner responded by seducing the count’s wife, making that the story of the opera, selling the finished opera to someone else, and saying that it was a story about “ideal Christian love.”
What was I thinking, wanting to be an opera composer?
I loved writing opera. It fit with the day dreaming, but I balked at the social role expected of one in this profession. Denise Levertov, who had written the libretto for my oratorio, El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, told Karen, librettist for my last 2 operas, that she had never known anyone as bad as me at promoting his art.
The year I lived under a tree I had a job conducting a church choir in Isla Vista, the student housing community for the University of California at Santa Barbara. The popular service for the students was at 11:00 and was a joyous celebration with balloons ending with people dancing around the communion table singing Lord of the Dance. I played string bass in the band as a volunteer. But the church was funded by older people who, for themselves, wanted a more traditional service. This was the service for which I was paid $8 per week to provide a choral anthem. I had three women in the choir. I sang tenor and the organist sang bass and we rehearsed at 8 a.m. before the church service on Sunday. There was a time when I would go into the church on Thursday night, after the bulletin had been printed, and look at what the minister had written as “The Collect” words that were read by all at the beginning of the service.
For three weeks in a row, I took this text and on Friday and Saturday wrote a simple anthem using these words. The bulletin simply said “anthem.” No one ever asked or wondered how I had found the piece which used the same words as the Collect, but it felt good to me. I was contributing in a special way to the worship experience of this community.
I think I would take that feeling over the adulation that Wagner received.