Saturday, June 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth: Thinking Outside the Vox

It’s been a busy and, in some ways, exciting but not unexpected week. Now that I have some free time to myself, I’m very much looking forward to getting some serious work done on the new violin and piano piece (a.k.a. Chaconne). It will be nice not to have to deal with workplace White Noise any more and even though I may have to look at the calendar to figure out which day it is, that is not a bad trade-off. I’m looking forward to a more leisurely and creative summer, job-hunting aside.

In the meantime, I plan to maintain this as it always has been, my personal blog which I started almost two years ago. For those of you who found me through my former company blog, I will continue here with many of the same topics – including what’s going on in the area (and perhaps reviews-after-a-fashion of some that I get to attend – now that I have more time to do so) mixed in with posts about creativity in general or works I’m composing specifically – maybe even do an on-line short-story or two.

My last post at my other blog was going to be an up-date to the one about turning books into operas since I had overlooked a very unlikely such translation – Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” being commissioned as an opera for La Scala – but unfortunately, my employment there was terminated before I could start it. So I will post it here.

Basically, my thoughts had been generated by reading two blog posts about “books into operas.” Well, one was a short story into an opera and the other the reaction of former co-workers to a tell-all book who, following the clearly official line, could certainly supply at least a scene for vocal treatment if not a complete opera.

The first, over at Decidedly Simple, concerned the slenderness of Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, which had been turned into a much talked about, award winning and very popular movie and which has now been commissioned, by New York City Opera, to be turned into an opera by Charles Wuorinen. The question here, despite all the cyber-ink wafted around about it, is not why they commissioned Wuorinen, a composer not well known in the annals of the Standard American Way of Writing Accessible Populist Operas, in the first place, but how a story of bare essentials barely filling 30 pages in my edition (the concluding selection in Close Range: Wyoming Stories) is going to be turned into something that fills an operatic stage.

Alex Ross’s pointing out the speech patterns in the Talking Points Memo video, based on the official White House Reaction to Scott McClellan’s insider book, “What Happened,” could be instructive to a composer looking to set it to music. As Janacek had done, turning the speech patterns of his friends and neighbors in Moravia into musical patterns that he used when writing the opera Jenufa or the hard-to-describe song cycle, The Diary of One Who Vanished, one could take the repetition of certain words here (“puzzled” or “disappointed”) and, as I’d suggest, turn it into a minimalist ensemble as several characters get together to comment on the plot of McClellan’s book like a Greek Chorus. One could, in fact, call it “The Spinning Quintet” or some such thing.

What I had overlooked in mentioning these in a previous post was the news that came out of Italy late in May, that composer Giorgio Battistelli (a name unknown to me) had been commissioned to write an operatic setting of Al Gore’s book about Global Warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Now, I haven’t seen the movie based on it – a documentary to some, “science fiction” to others, depending on which side of the bird you’re on – but its material could certainly support a musical setting as a “cantata” or “oratorio” much in the way Michael Tippett turned some of his concerns into a riveting musical work for chorus, orchestra and soloists written for the Boston Symphony called “The Mask of Time” (alas, the recording seems once again to be out-of-print). But an opera? Something staged? With a plot?

After having resumed reading James Joyce’s Ulysses this past Bloomsday, I had questioned how something like this could be made into an opera, but of course no sooner having said that, the problem turned itself into a challenge and I began seeing how it could, in fact, and perhaps very successfully. It would not be a typical plot-centered traditional opera but then since it’s not a plot-centered traditional novel, why would it not work in the opera house, with a little imagination? Alas, copyright issues aside, I have neither the time nor the luxury of doing it myself, but that’s another matter.

It was amusing to find John Tierney’s hysterical article at the International Herald Tribune website, imagining a letter from composer Battistelli responding to Al Gore’s comments about this project for “An Inconvenient Truth.” Of course, the idea is to create a traditional, old-fashioned (even Baroque) plot with allegorical figures (oh, did I mean that as a pun? sorry...), representing different aspects of the subject matter personified (Petroleo and Carbonia, for instance). But that is, of course, what opera WAS, not necessarily what it can be – hence the idea of “thinking outside the vox.” If you had a chance to see (or hear) Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Met, you can see how incredible something more abstract like the life and thoughts of Gandhi could be crafted into a moving work of art.

Rather than turning Gore’s collected tables and statistics into sung text, it can still form the basis for a dramatic as well as musical argument. After all, the play “A Walk in the Woods” is not a setting of some government White Paper but a fictionalized account of what might have occurred between two diplomats during the Cold War.

Clearly, one is only limited by one’s imagination – or lack of it.

- Dr. Dick

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