Composer Matthew Aucoin on Opera
“The Impossible Art- Adventures in Opera is composer Matthew Aucoin’s is part memoir and deep dive into the dynamics of creating an opera. Aucoin is a composer and conductor leading orchestras including the Chicago Symphony L.A. Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
Opera is the original of multimedia artform that requires collaboration between musicians, librettists, classically trained singers, choral directors, and design artists, Aucoin notes where artform can “collide and transform one another.”
Aucoin writes that he has long wanted to write a book that explore the “generative. impossibilities. But I wasn’t sure when, if ever, I’d managed to step off the merry-go-round of musical work, composing, performing, traveling long enough to gather my thoughts
The opportunity came during the industry shutdown. After Aucoin had just conducted the debut run of his own opera ‘Eurydice’ at L.A. Opera in 2019, which was also scheduled for the East Coast premiere at the Met in 2021, conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, In the interim Aucoin and his husband Clay returned to their farm in Vermont giving him time to write his book
In his introduction he encourages readers to skip around to chapters about their favorite operas or composers, or famed productions. He covers works by composers from the baroque, classical, romantic eras, and up to date analysis of contemporary operas including works by Thomas Ades (“The Exterminating Angel”), John Adams (“Doctor Atomic”), Chaya Czernowin (“Heart Chamber”) and Nico Muhly (“Two Boys”),
As a Verdi aficionado, Aucoin deconstructs the innovations Verdi brought to his operas based on Shakespeare’s plays such as the radical orchestral elements in Macbeth , the earthy inventiveness of his portrait in Falstaff and the vocal innovation Verdi created in Otello
In his chapter ‘The Firewood and the Fire” he examines the often antagonist interplay between composer and conductor he one of the rare instances of mutual respect between the Igor Stravinsky and gay poet W. H. Auden’s collaboration on their opera “The Rake’s Progress.”.
Stravinsky had a reputation for pushing librettists around- telling Jean Cocteau, for instance, that his libretto for ‘Oedipus Rex” was “too Wagnerian” then ordering him to make it “very banal.” But the composer did not have problems with Auden and considered him an artistic equal. But, as Aucoin intriguingly reports, Auden’s lover, writer Chester Kallman, who was a lifelong opera goer, and librettist who flagged problematic plot points in Auden’s narrative, (before Igor saw them) knowing they wouldn’t translate to the stage.
In his chapter “Finding Euridice” Aucoin talks about his own creative collaboration in a transcribed conversation with playwright Sarah Ruhl who wrote the libretto for his opera.
The elements of the creative process history is particularly relevant now as opera companies worldwide are programming composers from musical genres that never would have been considered a generation ago. Creatively, it is one of the most prolific and artistically ambitious eras in opera history. But the astronomical costs of bringing new work to the stage is more a whole set of often impossible challenges for creative artists and opera .
Despite the external hurdles of an ever-changing opera industry there is producing work that connects to audiences, and notes that “We still can’t explain why some melodies and not others lodged themselves unshakably in the minds ear….There is no reliable way to predict what will make a convincing musical embodiment of love. Jealousy or rage?”
For opera artists this is a must read and for opera buffs a wry, insightful behind the curtain expose of the often-hellish creative process. As Aucoin illustrates it can be a thrilling ride to Hell and back making an impossible art possible. Cue Music!
The Impossible Art| Adventures in Opera |by Matthew Aucoin
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | Softcover; 299 pgs;