12. Peabody Opera: L’Enfant et les sortileges (The Child and The Spells) by Maurice Ravel
(dancing math homework: every child’s nightmare)
It’s a shame that Ravel only wrote two operas. His imagination was probably too unique and too strange for the world’s most expensive artform. But that does not change the fact that Ravel’s forty-five minute opera is one of the very greatest ever written - a masterpiece of pure imagination, so different from any other opera that it would probably require its own genre if it were staged more than once a blue moon.
This opera could frankly work as either an acid trip and an absinthe burlesque. It should be impossible to describe the plot as incomprehensible without being unclear, but that’s precisely what the plot is: An obnoxious boy breaks various objects in his room, and the objects in the room come to life, as well as his homework, and furniture. His room then turns into a garden with various animals and plants whom the child has tortured. They all gang up to attack him, but wind up attacking each other. However, when the animals see the boy bandage a squirrel, they realize that he is not a monster, and help him return home.
On it’s face, the plot is bizarre. As a modern allegory for growing up, the terrors of childhood, how we mature, and how one learns compassion and love, it is extraordinary. It also helps that Ravel writes one of the all-time great scores - almost like a vaudeville variety show in which he finds a perfect musical nuance for everything from dancing sofas to a Wedgewood Teapot. Ravel’s great models for the score was Gershwin and Victor Herbert, which gives the score a distinctive jazz tint which is handled with an imagination which often eludes other French composers of the era who constructed whole careers around creating a classical/jazz fusion. But there is equal time given to passages that seemed ripped from the pages of Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bellini Bel Canto, Gregorian Chant, Chinese Folk Music, Dixieland Jazz, Tchaikovsky Ballets, and an unmistakeable reference to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony - all processed through the unique Ravel tint that deftly navigates a middle ground between parody and tribute (except the Wagner..).
When I saw this at the Peabody Opera Theater back in March, I was both elated and saddened. It was a first-class performance of an all-too rarely performed masterpiece that should enchant anyone who’d ever heard it. But I could only lament the fact that I probably won’t hear this opera live for another thirty years. It is an all too sad fact that the classical works of true imagination which would probably impress music lovers best are the ones least likely to be performed. Once a music lover hears Verdi or Wagner, they pretty much know what to expect in every Grand Opera. Fortunately, Grand Opera is only one (overperformed) substrata of the opera world. Unfortunately, few people outside the world of opera know that. So when they have the chance to see something different, they’ll think it’s like any other opera they’ve ever seen. Furthermore, opera companies do themselves no favors in the long term by putting the same twenty operas on over and over again. If the opera world wants to entice a new audience, they have to find new repertoire.
Here are twenty-five operas (in no particular order and not counting L’Enfant et les Sortileges) that I would venture a guess would turn upside down every preconception you ever had about opera. This is not a list of the best operas, just a list of atypical once and a twitter length description about what makes it atypical:
1. Cunning Little Vixen by Leos Janacek
2. The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz
3. Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin (yes, it’s an opera)
4. Wozzeck by Alban Berg
5. Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi
6. The Nightingale by Igor Stravinsky
7. Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten
8. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok
9. The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill
10. Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini
11. Showboat by Jerome Kern (opera houses are the only places that perform it anymore)
12. Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky (original version only)
13. The Abduction from the Seraglio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
14. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Dimitri Shostakovich
15. The Love for Three Oranges by Sergei Prokofiev
16. Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass
17. Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg
18. West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (Yes, that’s an opera too)
19. Nixon in China by John Adams
20. Sweeney Todd (So's most Sondheim)
21. Saint Francis of Assisi by Olivier Messiaen
22. The Dialogue of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc
23. Le Grande Macabre by Gyorgy Ligeti
24. Der junge Lord by Hans Werner Henze
25. Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov
11. Big Love Series Finale
If I do anything longer than a short post, I’ll probably never finish it. I’ve been putting off a long Big Love post since I began these ‘800 Words’ things, but a post about my thoughts on Big Love could easily go upward of 4,000 words. In some ways, it’s the riskiest show HBO has ever done (at least since I started watching). This is the only HBO show which tries to enter the minds of the people who would view the network itself as a sin. And unlike Bill Maher or HBO’s political films, this is a work that takes truly enormous pains to demonstrate why Americans who view the world differently from us believe what they do. Big Love was not a perfect show - it presented us with an alternate universe populated by a byzantine network of religious cults and century-old blood feuds, in which prophecy and revelation was not a matter for bygone eras but an utmost concern of the present. There were times (even a whole season) when there were too many characters to follow and not nearly enough time to explore them. But at its best, this was a TV show of extraordinary power. On the one hand, it had the intimate and human concerns of characters that are exactly like people we know, even as they are extremely different. On the other, the show had all the power of a biblical epic - culminating in a final episode which is either a simple summation of the show’s story, or the summation of a new (fourth?) testament. Like The Sopranos finale, it all depends on what you believe happened.