Alex Ross worries how Americans will respond to anti-gun violence opera

Alex Ross worries how Americans will respond to anti-gun violence opera


norman lebrecht

July 20, 2021

The New Yorker critic attended the Aix-en-Provence premiere of Kaaija Saariaho’s Scandi-noir opera ‘Innocence’ and watched it again on a very good livestream. He was transfixed by the Nordic darkness, but has concerns about its onward reception:

“Innocence” will travel widely: both the Met and the San Francisco Opera are set to present the work in future seasons. I wonder how American audiences will cope with its unsparing approach to a subject that, for several decades, has been locked in accelerating cycles of national insanity. No false tone of healing or hope is sounded at the end; instead, the circles of complicity keep widening. What rescues the opera from utter bleakness is the inherent beauty of Saariaho’s writing. In the concluding bars, a darkly glowing harmony emerges, somewhere in the vicinity of B major, though a dissonant C in the double-basses prevents full resolution. Ominously or not, it is the same note on which the opera begins….

Read Alex’s full review here.


photos: Aix-en-Provence festival/jeanlouisfernandez


  • RW2013 says:

    “B major, though a dissonant C in the double-basses…”
    as Zarathustra also ends.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes… it’s the only triad in the work, so the composer couldn’t find one and thus, stole it from Strauss. But obviously that was on purpose, since triads are taboo in serious contemporary works. The reference to an artefact from the museum culture renders it safe and protects the composer from conservatism – it is a postmodern refence.

  • Bill says:

    The vast majority of Americans want gun control of some sort or another; that includes most gun owners. Unfortunately, our founding fathers wrote a constitution that is worded too vaguely, gives too much power to the minority, and is too easily reinterpreted for nefarious purposes by our Supreme Court, which is currently stacked by said minority.

    • J Barcelo says:

      We have “gun control”. You can’t buy a gun without a background check (the gun show loopholes need to be plugged). Everywhere you go there are Gun Free Zones (like Chicago and Wash DC – ha ha!). Certain military style guns are outlawed. Bump stocks – outlawed. Hollow point bullets – gone. There’s enough anti-gun rulings but they make no difference at all. We have a people problem. Most gun crimes are committed by people with stolen or other illegally obtained weapons. Over the July 4th weekend, 104 people were shot in Chicago. 19 died. In a city with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. Most all of it done by young minority men who have no regard for laws or life. No laws you pass will stop this carnage. These evil hoodlums aren’t going to the opera, either.

      • Westfan says:

        Those crimes in Chicago were committed mostly by people who got guns from low enforcement states nearby, like Indiana. And yes, gun purchase loopholes need to be plugged. How about private sales, which go on without any regulation whatsoever? And the lack of a nationwide database for gun purchase, it’s shameful. The gun fanatics and Repubs running their party don’t even want to change THESE loopholes. They want everyone to be able to carry, like in Texas, a gun free-for-all. The majority of this country wants tighter gun laws but the power at the top does not. So things will continue as they are until we vote these people out of office.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Tightening gun laws lowered firearm homicide rates.

      • Max Raimi says:

        The Englewood neighborhood here in Chicago is one of the most poor and violent areas in the city. It is less than a half hour drive from the Indiana state line. The fact that localized gun laws are ineffective does not mean that gun laws are invariably useless. You might want to read up on Australia’s experience.

      • Tuba Minimum says:

        Well if as you say there is no way to control the violence by regulating the firearms, or as many on the fewer-regulation side of this debate argue we have a mental health problem, clearly we would be smart to invest our resources to addressing the people problem. Universal healthcare would seem to be a targeted and smart place to start. Expanding the accessibility to mental health services while working to destigmatize them may or may not bring down the numbers, but it would at least have the upside of greatly improving the quality of life of most Americans and removing one of the biggest impediments to social mobility for those in poverty, maybe making those service jobs no one is taking right now more appealing, and giving a nudge toward entrepreneurship for many who might not want to start a business or work for themselves while reliant on their employers for the ability to see a doctor. I’d gladly trade any new gun regulation for universal healthcare. Now it would also probably be good to look at policies looking to impact the those broken and bleak communities stuck in a poverty cycle, but maybe we’re getting carried away.

    • Araragi says:

      “Gives too much power to the minority.” Yes, I think that’s the point. The U.S. Constitution is meant to protect the rights of the smallest minority – the individual.

  • Fed Up says:

    oh spare me. alex ross… he is simply derivative. no one in the industry gives a shit what he thinks. and frankly, if you read the new yorker, it is for the cartoons. we all know who he likes and who he dislikes. what he promotes and what he does not. he might as well write the review before he sees it. PLA could literally take a dump on stage at carnegie hall and alex ross would call it brilliant. just shut up.

  • PianistW says:

    In the civilized parts of the country it will be fine. I am talking in the parts that matter (NYC, Boston, Chicago, LA, San Francisco)… on the rest, the fly-overs or red-neck US-America (or M’urica), who cares?

    • debuschubertussy says:

      wow, elitist much?

    • Stuart says:

      For decades I was a faithful reader of The New Yorker, but gave it up a decade ago because of the elitist bias exemplified by this comment. I grew up in Chicago and have lived at times in NYC, LA, Boston and SF. Civilized – an odd way to characterize these cities today. I have friends who have left SF in the last 18 months – now in Marin County and Petaluma. One of them said on the way out: every reason that you ever had for living in SF is now destroyed. I am for gun control as are most, but progress is prevented by the polarization and stupid positions taken by both sides. And the 11 people who will seek out Saariaho’s opera in the US won’t change the debate in any way. Classical music and opera in the US have nearly zero impact on anything because the audience is so small and rapidly declining. Pretty silly of Ross to think that this opera will cause any concern in the US since so few will see it.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      You mean the parts of the country where people live in shoe boxes completely remote from THE LAND and holed up in cafes? Pass!! The people who live in ‘fly over’ are real.

      • Max Raimi says:

        When I moved as a young man from the Republican Midwestern suburbs to Manhattan, I was actually shocked at how much more I became affected by the natural world. I had to walk places, be out in the weather, deal with sun and clouds and precipitation in a way that rarely happened in the suburbs, where a motorized private vehicle took me everywhere I had to go. Central Park was a far more representative slice of nature than all the lawns pumped full of herbicide and phosphate fertilizers I knew as a youth. Less than a fifth of Americans live in rural areas, which includes such bucolic settings as oilfields and chicken slaughterhouses. Keep trying, Suzie. One of these days, I hold out hope that you will post something coherent here.

  • Freewheeler says:

    Also on the program: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with cannon.

  • Player says:

    i really could not care less about the subject matter. what i DO care about, as a musician, is saariaho’s utter lack of utilizing the forces in the pit. now, i have friends whom i respect who have seen for instance l’amour. they were moved. great. but let me tell you, playing it is another story entirely. after two hours of droning and making random special effects… well your mind is a puddle and your arms are falling off. one is delirious. and not in a good way. the next morning you have to play scales for 30 minutes just to get your sound back for say, brahms or mozart. just go all the way and have the singers play to a pre recorded synth.

    one is also delirious after you make it thru act 3 of meistersinger- especially if you have to pee- there is no escape if you have to pee 10 minutes into act 3 and you are DYING. i once had to race out of the pit before bows to relieve myself. but see, that is worth it. saariho, smart as she is, isn’t.

    • Max Raimi says:

      Bravo. I have only played one Saariaho work, but that was exactly my impression. There was not a note in my part that seemed to indicate any understanding of the nature of my instrument.

    • Adista says:

      This post actually brings up a great point. Why do these composers continue to insist on using acoustic instruments, orchestras, etc when the effects they’re after can be done more effectively, and in my opinion more interestingly (and with a far more varied sonic palette) with electronic instruments.

    • RobK says:

      Saariaho makes kind-of innovative textures, but that’s hardly what an opera needs. I find her music dated, over-refined and plain boring (I could manage the first half of l’amour before I had to leave out of sheer boredom

  • Curvy Honk Glove says:

    I’ll sum this up very succinctly for you: 2nd amendment supporters who have money to spend supporting the 2nd amendment of the U.S. constitution won’t be be spending money on this activist opera. This is simply controversy in search of publicity and it’s not going to happen, but +1 for adding a few more meters to your ivory tower.

  • Alex Ross imagines that pro-gun advocates are frequent opera goers in the US.

    • Y says:

      Some of us are. “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED” means “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED.” All gun-control laws are unconstitutional.

      And opera is the greatest art form on Earth.

    • sabrinensis says:

      You just don’t know, do you? Well, how could you? I can guarantee that you are wrong.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Anyway it will be a ‘nice’ family outing, and very instructive.

    The fear is that in the US rightwing extremists will come in flocks to enjoy their pastimes being given a generous cultural accolade.

    I wonder: is opera there for giving pleasure, or for revealing the truth about the human condition?

    And thinking of most new operas since 1900, is it either or? Can truth never be pleasant? Should the audience feel terribly guitly, like the sinners in the catholic world view? Maybe THAT is the pleasure to be drawn from such an evening?

    And if a dark truth is hammered into the audience’s heart, and nothing more, how is that to help overcome dark truth? What is the meaning of meaningless truth?

    Is it something personal, i.e. the composer is suffering so much from knowing about the darkest sides of humanity, that she wants to share her concern, to feel better about it?

    Can only the darkest sides of humanity offer subjects for opera? Just asking.

    It seems more likely that hopelessness, mihilism, a closed-off world view, cynicism, etc. etc. have become the ‘normal’ convention as in former times it was tragic love triangles, the conflict between love and worldly obligation, or between the spirit and the flesh. There is something masochistically sick in the usual subject choices of so-called ‘modern opera’ which merely repeats things from half a century ago, including the world view. It is another form of convention.

  • BRUCEB says:

    “Alex Ross worries how Americans will respond to anti-gun violence opera”

    Simple. Americans don’t respond to opera.

    Within the tiny minority to who do pay attention to opera (and the even tinier sub-minority who pay attention to brand-new operas), being in favor of gun control is not a controversial view.

    Can’t imagine there being any kind of reaction, unless some conservative talk-show host decides to make a thing out of it.

    • Saxon says:

      Perhaps the opera houses will pay the talk-show to do it. I great way to drum up publicity. Perhaps some of the talk-show audience will pay for tickets to make sure they feel utterly disgusted.