Worst ever opera premiere?

In the host of new operas that I’ve seen over the past 40 years, two stand out for unexampled awfulness.

The first was John Buller’s The Bacchae, staged at English National Opera in 1992 in what the booklet maintained was the original Greek. My companion, a classical scholar, said it was more like restaurant Greek. The music was static and mostly impenetrable. Nothing happened for 90 minutes.

The other was Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune at Covent Garden in 2012. More self-inflicted stomach wound than mere misfortune, it took place around a kebab kiosk and has not been seen again.

What goes through your mind when you are trapped in an opera house watching a disaster unfold?

Every other disaster you have ever seen before.

What’s your worst?

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  • urania says:

    2nd in Bregenz too – no fun!

  • Thomas Silverbörg says:

    Alice In Wonderland in Munich and Schlachthof 5, also in Munich, come to mind…

  • Ann Nomynous says:

    Any conservative season programming by any major opera house.

  • James Levister says:

    I have taken in very few live opera experiences but have listened to live Met broadcasts. They have required very careful attention to the commentary in order to come close to understand what the music is attempting to describe in the drama. Therein lies the problem. The modern operas I have heard aren’t as thorough as the classics or other modern operas such as Dialoges of the Carmolites or A View from the Bridge at expressing and illuminating character and environmental setting through musical coloring in manner of a Puccini, Wagner, Verdi, or Bellini etc. Listen to any of them and character , environmental and drama eloquently unfold.

    • Mr. Schwa says:

      Well stated. Today’s composers are not very good at writing operas. For whatever reason, Classical composers don’t know where to turn. Nothing but forgettable stuff.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But the reason is very clear and simple. Most new idioms are not suited to expression, since they concentrate on patterns, not psychology. The art of expression through music is a traditional one.

    • Paul Vicino says:

      Wonder how Hansel and Gretal played out this past Saturday at the Met?? Anybody hear anything??

    • doremifa says:

      Operas are designed for illiterate people.
      Shouting,screaming and no sense in the story.
      Sometimes good music is heard in the backgroung…but it does not last long .
      I ruled that out of my musical knowledge.
      Same for choral works:no polyphony.

  • Stuart McGill says:

    Oh great – another miserablist, mealy-mouthed article from SD. There’s this weird notion in some corners of the classical music online world that aggressive, hyper-negative unconstructive criticism helps people in the industry ‘try harder’. It does nothing of the sort. It discourages innovation and it lowers the likelihood of (in this case) composers being commissioned. It also shows zero respect for the years of work that go into putting a new piece of work on the stage. New Year’s resolution please – if you haven’t got something nice to say, say nothing at all.

    • Daniel F.O. says:

      Hear, hear. And there’s the notion that every single new work must be perfection capable of holding its own against the great classics of the last several centuries — and that the commissioning ensemble should know in advance what those works of perfection should be.

      This ignores, of course, the fact that there have always been crappy premieres at great houses. Ever heard of Francesco Malipiero (not the better known Gian Francesco Malipiero)? No, of course not. None of his operas are staged today, none that I know of are recorded. Yet he was composing for premieres at La Fenice during the same era that Verdi was. But if today’s internet commentators had their way, I guess La Fenice, after another forgettable Malipiero premiere, should have just stopped commissioning new works after Attila.

      Of course there are going to be flops in new works. Of course some new stagings aren’t going to work. But I don’t get why so many people online view that as “proof” that there should be nothing new under the sun.

      • Hudson Valley Professor says:

        It isn’t a matter of rejecting newness. True creativity comes not from creating something entirely new (only God apparently can do that), but of combining previously known things in ways that are not only unexpected, but that satisfy, delight, amaze, startle, move, illuminate, and all the other things that the best arts seem to do. We all know that Verdi and Wagner’s earliest operas are derivative. These composers built on their craft by first mastering the skills of good imitation.

        Malipiero, by the way, was not Verdi’s contemporary. He was a 20th-century composer (born in the 1880s), whose dates are fairly coeval with Stravinsky’s. He is well known as the editor of the Monteverdi collected works. You’re correct that he did write a lot of operas though. I remember studying the score of one of them as a student. But I had no idea that in the 1930s he composed both a “Julius Caesar” AND an “Antony and Cleopatra” operas. I for one would be very interested in hearing or seeing a performance of either or both of these. No opera composer, to my knowledge, has been able to set Shakespeare’s own language successfully except for Britten, but as these were written in Italian, perhaps the prosody of that language produced vocal writing that will be less distracting that trying to hear a lot of Elizabethan English sung in modern “recitativo accompagnato” style.

        • Hudson Valley Professor says:

          Sorry David. I misread. Yes, you’re right about the earlier Malipiero. I immediately jumped to Gian Francesco because I was already aware of him. Apologies.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Vanessa at the Lyric, Hammersmith, early 1990’s I think. God awful, left at the interval.

  • Guy Rickards says:

    Disagree about Buller’s “Bakxai” – a gripping opera and full of theatrical incident, as I stated in my review in Tempo at the time. Nothing happened? Nonsense. Now, I grant you Buller had an agenda in creating his opera, which was to counter an opera on the same subject, Henze’s “The Bassarids”. They are both very different, and both equally gripping imho.

    • Mr. Schwa says:

      Due to the general mediocrity of today’s opera composers, it seems that people have substituted theatrical values, including production values, and riveting stories for great lyric music (and singing). If a topic is gripping enough, and it looks ‘cool’ in the opera house, people put up with unoriginal, depressing, second-rate, derivative, overly-complex-for-its-own sake ‘music’, and terrible, unsympathetic vocal writing. As long as the orchestra is playing something, the show goes on. But one litmus test for many operagoers is this: would you sit in the comfort of your home,at the end of a long day, and sit down with a nice meal or a drink and put on a recording of ‘Silent Night’, ‘Dr. Atomic’, ‘Little Women’, ‘The Ghosts of Versailles’, or any such works by Heggie, Ades and others?? Probably not. It is always so interesting to coach/teach roles to professional singers when they are learning, say, a world premiere opera. It is pure tedium for most of them: unmusical, unvocal, non-legato, ugly-sounding, rhythmically-ridiculous. Sometimes we all just shake our heads, or laugh. So why put up with this?? It’s quite simple: singers need to work, so make the best of the gig. My mother had ‘The Exterminating Angel’ on one day, and her dog became sick, and she started to feel unwell. Yes, even the dog suffered. So I await the possible attack from the PC public, with statements such as “Well, we have to do new works. We can’t simply give nothing but ‘Carmen’ and ‘La Bohème’.” They are absolutely correct… but, for heaven’s sake, write something good. Why should we care that/be impressed that a soprano screams out the ‘highest note ever at the Met?’ Is that supposed to make us want to see and hear the opera??

      • Hudson Valley Professor says:

        “Mr. Schwa” is really spot on with his assessment. I’ve had the agony and ecstasy of working on many opera premieres over the course of my life as a rehearsal accompanist, as well as many revivals of rather dismal 20th-century works for some commemorative reason or other. I’ve come to the conclusion that modern composers (meaning “modern” since the operas of Poulenc and Britten) don’t understand that the secret to great opera is not just a dramatic plot and a good libretto, but that the composer needs to have a uniquely operatic sense of musical form. Yes, s/he needs to write singable music that works its way into your soul. But all the singing, all the orchestral playing, all the dramatic action needs to hang on small forms that build into the larger cohesive form of the act. Very few composers have been able to get away with the “formless approach” (e.g Literaturopern such as Debussy, Strauss, and Berg’s settings of Maeterlinck, Wilde, and Büchner). Every great opera composer has either built on previous forms (Baroque dance forms for much of 17th-c. opera, for example, or recitative followed by aria da capo in the 18th c., or Rossini’s “solita forma” in the operas of Donizett/Verdi, etc.), or they created new forms (such as Mozart incorporating sonata and sonatina form into ensemble numbers or Wagner’s incorporating bar form in “Die Meistersinger” (or his use of the big fugue in the finale of act 2), or Britten’s unique and amazing musical structures in “Albert Herring” and the trial scene of “Billy Budd”). Composers today simply think audiences won’t know or care about these. But they’re wrong. Audiences sense structure, even if they can’t explain it. All the singers’ rants on ungrateful writing today and the orchestra writing trying to impress the academic conoscenti, all of this is simply sensational distraction that masks a flawed technique for composing operas.

        One of the worst premieres I sat through was Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy” (it sure was!)–but of course Met premieres are nearly always extravagant monstrosities. Perhaps the best premiere I ever witnessed was Stephen Paulus’s and Frank Corsaro’s “Heloise and Abelard” at Juilliard in 2002 (which was, by the way, Paulus’s eighth opera). Another excellent premiere I was fortunate enough to witness was Carlisle Floyd’s “Willie Stark.” Still, both of these were quite a ways from being compared to operas written by the great names we all know from the beginning of the 20th century.

        • John Borstlap says:

          A voice from the practical side of opera, and I agree.

          The most important line seems to be:

          “Audiences sense structure, even if they can’t explain it.”

          Definitely true. The drama is in the music, and the drama in the plot is merely the skeleton for the music, which has to bring it out into the expressive, communicative realm.

          I do not think Pelléas is ‘formless’ though, because the music follows very logical patterns, which are the psychological patterns in the text (streamlined by Debussy). This type of opera music functions in a continuum, something that Wagner already explored. Underneath such music there are the dynamics which also function in concert music. If contemporary composers can write good, expressive concert music (= tonal, traditional), then they may be able to tackle the opera format. But there we are: composers don’t dare, out of fear to be condemned for being ‘conservative’., so they never develop the necessary skills.

          But then, if they would develop the skills, no theatre would accept such works, because staff will fear the accusation of ‘conservatism’: new operas are supposed to reflect contemporary concerns and they are quite ugly. For developing satisfying new operas, not only composers have to feel free to explore tradition, but also opera companies. That would mean such a revolution, I don’t see that happen in the foreseeable future.

      • Hilary says:

        “It is always so interesting to coach/teach roles to professional singers when they are learning, say, a world premiere opera. It is pure tedium for most of them: unmusical, unvocal, non-legato, ugly-sounding, rhythmically-ridiculous. Sometimes we all just shake our heads, or laugh. So why put up with this?? ”

        You’re gravely mistaken on atleast one count.
        Harrison Birtwistle has formed strong alliances with a number of singers who have been involved in his operas. Most notably, John Tomlinson and Mark Padmore, but you may not be familiar with their work. Please check them out.

        • Mr. Schwa says:

          Of course there are singers who like composers. I did not mean all, by any means. And I know full well there are some pretty good new works. I just hope we see more of them.

  • John Borstlap says:

    My worst opera experience was Morton Feldman’s “Neither” on a text of Samuel Becket, in Amsterdam, which was not what it promised, or rather exactly what it promised, a soprano standing in a corner between two narrow empty walls, stammering and moaning about not being able to say or sing or express anything, accompanied by a melancholic tapestry of static chords which were neither too. The meaning of meaninglessness was enthusiastically absorbed by a friend with whom I was at the occasion, an autistic musician suffering from grave depression, and the performance had a therapeutic effect on him: he left the opera building in the happy mood of being confirmed in his dark view of life. It seemed that the rest of the audience had fallen asleep and got only slowly and reluctantly upright from their seats, stumbling to the garderobe with an expression on their faces as if they were convinced that the world outside the theatre would not offer any redemption either, in spite of the presence of many café’s opposite the building.

    “….. to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow – from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither….” (Becket) etc. etc.

    Fortunately for Feldman, “in the composer’s unique musical outlook, memory is of minor importance.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oXVfksf9bM

    • Iain Scott says:

      I kind of wish I had been there given your description.
      I have bad memories of an opera by Sally Beamish,actually god bless them Scottish Opera has commissioned a fair number of operas mostly dud. The exception being James McMillan’s Ines de Castro which is gripping but in such a horrific way you don’t want to see it again.

  • Hilary says:

    A fair number of rather anodyne works (Adès, Anderson and Benjamin come to mind)but nothing which irritated me to a great extent, and even those operas had flashes of brilliance in the orchestral writing.
    On a brighter note, Gerald Barry’s ‘Triumph of Beauty and Deceit’ and ‘Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’ were both gripping, and Judith Weir’s ‘Night at a Chinese Opera’ has a certain crispness of invention which I like. I’ve heard good things about Saariaho’s “L’Amour de loin” .

  • Jaime Herrera says:

    Well, nowadays, all contemporary classical music stinks . – zero harmony, zero melody, zero form, zero emotion. The sound (or noise) is there but the music has been expunged from it.

  • Nick2 says:

    I have not been a fan of operas composed in the last 40 years, The last I really enjoyed was 41 years ago with a visiting performance in Stuttgart of Thea Musgrave’s Mary Queen of Scots. I found it musically interesting, well produced, dramatic and without the bane of much modern opera – it was not overlong. Whenever I see that a composer has written his own libretto, I tend to avoid performances. Going back in history, some especially Wagner have got away with it despite the texts themselves sounding trite on their own. Contemporary composers seem unable to adapt their own libretti, afraid to wield the axe as Boito, da Ponte and others did. I believe they should take a leaf out of Broadway where most musicals have different specialists involved in crafting the book, lyrics and music. I also believe opera managements should insist composers commissioned to write operas concentrate on the music.

    • Hilary says:

      “Whenever I see that a composer has written his own libretto, I tend to avoid performances.”
      Though in the case of Tippett’s “Midsummer Marriage” (intractable libretto, I concede) you might miss out on some wonderful music.

  • David Boothroyd says:

    As a coach I have helped in 25+ premieres. Approaching retirement, I feel that too many new operas are being written. A few points:

    When looking at a new score, I often ask: Why should these words be sung instead of spoken?

    Composers often write continuous pages of (what should be described as) recitative accompagnato. My question is: Where is the through-line of music? (Compare Boheme Act III – a conversation between Mimi/Marcello, but written so the voices accompany the through-line in the orchestra). Far too often composers set conversation over some chords and arbitrary pitches for the voices, often a-rhythmic and a-tonal. Usually these scenes would be better spoken, not sung.

    I have sight-read many pages of newly-written operas, all the while thinking, “I’ve played this page twenty times already.”

    I’m very happy when a composer has learned how and when to let a voice shine, and how operas can work at their best. My criticism of newly-written operas is structural: whether they work (structurally) as pieces of music.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you, David, for the very informed response. Have you ever said to the producers: this opera should not be staged?

      • Hudson Valley Professor says:

        David’s comments are a cogent observation of what it is like for musicians to be encountering a new opera for the first time, before it reaches staging. I don’t know if anyone ever thought to ask a rehearsal pianist for the first production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” for example, what he thought of the opera. Or if any record exists of what individual orchestral musicians for the premieres of “Parsifal” or “Falstaff” thought of the work they were playing. Of course in opera, the sum has to be greater than any of its parts. But in the end, it has to come down to a composer’s ability to write well for the voice, to write knowledgeably for a chorus, to write skillfully for an instrumental ensemble, to have proven skills for being able to structure music dramatically, and so forth.

        I know there are times my opinion changed. For example, during rehearsals of Lukas Foss’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” I thought the vocal writing full of arbitrary pitches, the musical style vague and unfocused. But after playing several performances of it, I realized that it was a much-better constructed piece than I had originally thought, once all the musicians had fully mastered it and were able to give it a “tight” performance. It was an opera that worked well on stage too, but was also musically satisfying to perform.

        I can’t imagine a coach or rehearsal pianist at the rehearsal stage suggesting that a new opera is too weak for all the expense of a production. I once knew a rehearsal pianist for a Sondheim premiere some decades back who spoke up – when asked – about what he thought of how such an such a song worked in the scene, and after sharing his concerns, he was fired the next day. Perhaps Sondheim should have listened, for this was a musical that flopped.

        • John Borstlap says:

          In ‘Mary Garden’s Story’ (London 1952), which are the memoirs of the soprano who sang Mélisande at the première of Pelléas, we read something about the preparations. All the singers accepted the music quickly, because Debussy had played through the whole opera in one session for them, when they were gathered to get into the mood, and that in spite of the unusual style at the time – most of the singing parts are a kind of singing recitativo. After the long session, where Garden had burst into tears at ‘the death of Mélisande’, Debussy insisted that the singers should forget that they are singers, i.e. no ‘operatic screaming’. After this session, Debussy worked with all the singers, taking them carefully through their part at the piano, making sure they did what he wanted, so they did not use a repetitor. But the musicians in the orchestra did not get the music at all and were much Debussy-resistant, until after a couple of performances the thing got together.

          The opera remained puzzling for many people though, among which Puccini who found it incomprehensible, and R. Strauss who asked after the first couple of minutes: ‘Is this goping-on like this all the time?’ Being reassured, he found it lacking any melody, any drama. Stravinsky found Pelléas, which he attended together with the composer in his box, ‘a great bore’. So, something unexpected can need quite some time to get used to, in spite of Pelléas being a quick and big international success and establishing Debussy as an important composer.

        • Nick2 says:

          I happen to be a fan of Stephen Sondheim’s work but when you look back at the musicals he has composed, very few have been anything other than flops – at least at the first run of performances. I define a flop in those circumstances as a production which recoups its capitalisation even though it may not turn a profit.

          • Mr.Schwa says:

            Sondheim has little patience with or admiration for opera singers in his musicals: he thinks they are close-minded, limited, and sub-par actors. He hates Sweeney Todd with them.

          • Hudson Valley Professor says:

            I wasn’t turning the conversation to an evaluation of Stephen Sondheim’s stage works as modern operas. I was just using the Sondheim rehearsal pianist anecdote for the kinds of trouble music staff can get into if while a new work is being prepared they should too strongly express their concerns or objections as to the value or quality of the work. It isn’t until the critics rail and the seats go unsold that the producers typically pay attention.

  • stephen moore says:

    ‘From Morning to Midnight’ (ENO, 2001).

  • Jumbo says:

    Birtwistle’s “Orfeus” at ENO … started with what seemed like white noise for at least 10 minutes with Philip Langridge making “noises” in Stygian darkness followed by a show worthy of the term “emperor’s new clothes” and if my ageing memory serves (lead characters portrayed by 3 performers; a singer, a dancer and an actor) tripling the time it took for anything to happen. Felt like listening to nails on a blackboard whilst watching paint dry!
    ENO full of “fans” whooping and wailing, felt like being at the work of another British Emperor (choreographer Michael Clarke) with the claque in attendance.
    Worst opera I’ve had the misfortune to hear – and that’s saying something considering the number of new compositions I’ve attended at ENO!!

  • EricB says:

    A couple come back to my memory :
    Betsy Jolas “Schliemann”, and Levinas “Les Negres” (with a score half completed by the time rehearsal started….), both premiered at the Lyon Opera….
    Utter bores….

  • C Porumbescu says:

    Some sort of community eco-opera by Jonathan Dove – can’t even remember the name, but it was at Lichfield Festival: no drama, bland, static music, nameless characters just standing there delivering what sounded like chunks of the Green Party manifesto rendered into portentous poetry. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff about these days.

    But mostly, I’d long for a real all-out turkey, a properly entertaining car-crash. Usually it’s dull, worthy, superbly proficient stuff in an all-purpose modernist idiom: no dramatic necessity for the thing to exist, stilted libretto by a Proper Poet (they tend to be the worst), artfully crafted characters saying unconvincing things with no sense of human connection, and – despite starry casts and hugely complex orchestration, all written and performed to such a high polish that it somehow feels bland. You can’t dismiss it as rubbish, but you can’t feel any real tug of drama or emotion either: you just sit there, impressed by all the right things, clocking the cleverness, trying to convince yourself that you’re not bored. Modernism as highbrow luxury product: redundant and ultimately futile. Most recent instance: Brett Dean’s Hamlet. Sorry.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Apt descriptions….. reminds me of how I forgot quite some modern opera productions. But such works answer the expectations – not of audiences, but of stage directors, opera company staff, and what companies think the critics expect from them.

      Interestingly, one of the most impressive and effective opera productions which was ‘new’ of a kind, was the operatic presentation of Schönberg’s early “Gurrelieder”, which happened to work very well as a dreamlike surrealistic opera about love, betrayal, tragedy, loss, redemption, with gorgeous late-romantic music underneath:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sdb403AcD0A

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jo7lNVIYA8o

      But if any composer would write such a thing today, he would not stand a chance. Gurrelieder was new because it had never been performed in opera form but the music was ‘safely’ old in the museujm glass box, protecting all the prejudices.

    • RW2013 says:

      The opera with the car-crash is Carter’s What Next?
      Bernstein’s A Quiet Place also has a crash at the beginning, but is an excellent opera.

  • Michael Redmond says:

    Philip Glass’ THE VOYAGE (1992), Metropolitan Opera. OMG. Just kill me.

  • John G. Deacon says:

    The worst – and by a very long way – Punch & Judy (Birtwistle) in Amsterdam (1993). It was performed without a break and I came to observe that I’d never seen so many people fast asleep. I had to join them as the only means of protection from the searing and blisteringly unmusical noise.

    • Hilary says:

      Among the most memorable for me.
      Fond recollections of Opera Factory’s searing production with Omar Ebrahim as Punch. Birtwistle didn’t like the production.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Apparently you listened with musical ears. For Birtwistle, who writes sonic art, one has to leave any musical expectation at home and open one’s mind to the patterns of pure sound to detect whether they are any interesting. In opera, such noises coming from the pit are meant to create an aural context of alienation and anxiety to make sure one does not fall asleep. But indeed, that does not always work.

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