MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Going Greek

Preparing for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 1988 opera Greek, to Steven Berkoff’s retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. BAM is presenting this staging by Joe Hill-Gibbins in a co-production with Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera.

Filed under: new opera

Kurtág’s Beckett Opera

Fin de Partie

I had a chance to listen to György Kurtág’s Fin de partie, his debut opera based on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame (setting the French text Beckett originally produced). Deutschlandfunk Kultur offered an audio stream over the weekend.

Even without the visuals of Pierre Audi’s staging, the music has tremendous resonance. I can’t wait to have a chance to get the whole experience. You encounter the super-condensed attention to the moment you expect from Kurtág (now 92), but with that intensity extended over more than two intermissionless hours, and at the service of perhaps the greatest 20th-century playwright.

The much-anticipated world premiere, postponed for years, was conducted by Markus Stenz and and staged at La Scala. The cast included Frode Olsen, Leigh Melrose, Hilary Summers, and Leonardo Cortellazzi. In March, the production moves on the Dutch National Opera.

Here’s a sampling of some of the critical reaction:

Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times:


He can revel in mood, color and agile, even raucous, rhythms because there is barely a plot to convey. A sick man in a wheelchair (Hamm), his companion (Clov), his father (Nagg) and his mother (Nell) recall the joys and sorrows of the past and curse the indignities of the present and future. That’s all; that’s everything…. Fin de Partie is a farewell not just to a life and a marriage, but also to a whole culture. Mr. Kurtag is one of the last who remain of the generation of avant-garde composers that came of age during World War II and in its wake…

Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian:

Kurtág’s compositions have always been jewelled miniatures. Fin de partie is like a glistening string of them, perfectly suited to the granular nature of Beckett’s text. Only now has Kurtág agreed to release this work in progress (he has set roughly 60% of the text) … It feels complete… Beckett once told an actor preparing the play that he must “fill my silences with sounds”. Kurtág has done just that. Far from stamping on the face of mankind, this masterly composer has caressed it with all his own life’s worth.

Renato Verga for Bachtrack:

The work consists of 12 episodes (scenes and monologues, as the subtitle reads) preceded by a prologue that uses a poem by Beckett, Roundelay, sung by the mezzo-soprano, and an epilogue. The rehearsal of the 14 musical numbers required an exhausting process that took place in the composer’s home, thus the current interpreters bring the precious suggestions of the author himself with them and that is evident in the performance.

Paul Griffiths — who furnished the libretto for another late-in-life debut opera, Elliott Carter’s What Next? — offers this insightful preview:

Kurtág’s alliance with Beckett, his long-destined companion for clarity of vision and precision of utterance, started only when he was in his sixties, and then as if by accident. Ildikó Monyók, an actress and singer, had lost her power of speech as a result of a car accident, and was relearning to enunciate words by singing them, one at a time. Kurtág was reminded of a late Beckett text, “What is the Word,” which he then set in Hungarian translation, in 1990, for Monyók to perform to prompts from an upright piano, as if enacting on stage one of her therapy sessions…

Filed under: Kurtág, new opera

Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway at Oper Frankfurt

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left to right: Steffen Ahrens (Ensemble Modern), Elizabeth Reiter (Alice), and John Brancy (Pete); photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

My review of Olga Neuwirth’s extraordinary video-opera, directed by Yuval Sharon at Oper Frankfurt, is now online at Musical America:

FRANKFURT, Germany—Questions give rise to more and more questions in Lost Highway, including one that kept recurring to me as I became increasingly entangled in the performance: Why is Olga Neuwirth still so woefully underrepresented in America’s new music scene? The evening I spent with Oper Frankfurt’s production (September 19) proved to be so engrossing, so provocative in all the right ways, that the neglect of her fascinating body of work seems all the more outrageous—and our loss all the more to be pitied, until it’s remedied.

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Filed under: Musical America, new opera, Olga Neuwirth, Oper Frankfurt, review, Yuval Sharon

Opera Omaha’s Inaugural ONE Festival Proves Up to Its Ambitions

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Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, directed by James Darrah, with John Moore, Talise Trevigne, Michael Slattery, Cree Carrico, Abigail Nims, Andrew Harris, and Sam Shapiro; photo (c) Emily Hardman

My coverage of the inaugural ONE Festival at Opera Omaha is now live on Musical America. (I’m afraid there’s a paywall.)

I devoted Part 1 to the world premiere of Proving Up, the brilliant new opera by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek in James Darrah’s staging:

Part 1

Part 2

Filed under: American opera, directors, Musical America, new opera, Opea Omaha, review

An Unfinished “Phantom Opera” Is Completed with Love

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Pauline Oliveros; photo by Allan J. Cronin

Remembering the great Pauline Oliveros, one year after her death: my New York Times story on The Nubian Word for Flowers:

Pauline Oliveros, the beloved composer who died last November, spent her long career experimenting — with improvisation, with technologically enhanced sound design and with “deep listening,” her term for a kind of heightened, mindful perception of sound.

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Filed under: new opera, New York Times

Angel in America

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My essay for the Metropolitan Opera on Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel. The Met’s production opens next week and will be the North American premiere:

Not every composer has a knack for finding operatic potential in unlikely sources. But over the past two decades, Thomas Adès has followed his dramaturgical instinct to some of the most spectacular successes in contemporary opera…

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Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, new opera, Thomas Adès

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere From Mohammed Fairouz

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photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Vanguard Seattle:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

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Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, new opera, review, Vanguard Seattle

The New Prince

Getting in the mood for the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz and David Ignatius at Dutch National Opera tonight.

Filed under: Mohammed Fairouz, new opera

Jonathan Dove’s Flight Lands at Juilliard

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Composer Jonathan Dove (Photo by Max Barstow)

My article on Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight for The Juilliard Journal:

Jonathan Dove’s three-act opera Flight has enjoyed phenomenal success since its 1998 premiere, as a commission by the Glyndebourne Festival. Opera Theatre of St. Louis staged the first U.S. production, in 2003, and to date Flight has been performed more than 85 times around the world in productions for mainstage opera companies and music schools alike. This month, Juilliard Opera opens its season with a new production of this comedy for 10 singers and large orchestra.

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Filed under: Juilliard, new opera

Opera Thrillers and Chillers

After recently covering a  powerful Flying Dutchman production and the world premiere of The Shining, a new opera by Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell based on the Stephen King novel, I decided to look a little more into the intersection of opera and ghost stories.

Here’s my new piece for Rhapsody. It’s a fascinating but enormous topic. I focused on the early German Romantic lineage, without even broaching the enormous popularity of Walter Scott-inspired Gothic opera (Lucia, etc.). Debussy’s Poe fixation, early Strauss/Hofmannsthal, Expressionism and other Modernist strains, and later manifestations are other topics I didn’t have space for here.

The Shining and Other Opera Thrillers and Chillers

Perched in the Colorado Rockies in the dead of winter, the Overlook Hotel is the setting for Stephen King’s 1977 breakthrough novel The Shining. It is during the off season at the vast resort that King’s fictional aspiring writer, Jack Torrance, takes up residence with his wife and son. He hopes to work on his latest opus in the peace and quiet, with minimal responsibilities as caretaker of the presumably emptied-out hotel to distract him.

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Filed under: essay, new opera, Rhapsody

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