Wang Jie, Composer | Memo From the Music Department
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Memo From the Music Department

The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 of a possible future for opera

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”  Marcel Proust

What is the ONE secret ingredient that makes an opera?

I see that we are starting with the hard questions. There are many ingredients. But if I have to choose one, I’d say the most crucial requirement is Operatic Moments. An Operatic Moment is a unique type of dramatic action in which a musical idea or the act of singing becomes the food of the narrative and mover of the plot. In other words, a moment in drama that has to sing.
We hear it a lot: opera is the powerful union of music, drama, literature and theater. But what force holds them all together? My answer above situates opera in the context of all dramatic forms. It has less to do with what opera has been, could have been, or could be but with more what it must be. It’s a question of opera’s dramatic authenticity.

Consider the moment in opera’s infancy when its future became assured: Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Orpheus arrives at the gate of the Underworld. Does he bring a jug of gold? A painting? Loaded AK-47? No. Believing that the only force to awaken love and attain mercy is music (after all, his music turns rocks into flowers!), the daring young hero unveils a fragile little Lyre and sings his heart out! This operatic moment gave the story a reason to continue and ignited the theatrical mutation from a play to an Opera.

A song so divine that it moves the gate keeper of the underworld? This is the moment in which a spoken drama must burst into song in order to function. Once the operatic/musical reality takes hold, there is no turning back. (Ha! What happened when Orpheus turned to look back?) The only possible device which can advance this story lies in the hands of a composer. Operatic Moments distinguish opera from all other dramatic forms, becoming what marketing gurus call “Non-substituable Luxury Goods.” This authentic ingredient, I believe, ensures opera’s long-term vitality.

Reversely, look within the historical context of opera, Operatic Moments manifest in rich arrays of music forms and practices. For example, Simultaneity – from duets to ensemble utterances – is a dramatic phenomenon unnatural to the spoken theater yet uniquely effective in opera. But this is topic for another day when a better opera historian is in the room.

Before we move on, I should mention that my earliest memories of falling under opera’s spell were a collection of operatic moments. Language barriers made it difficult for me to engage the words of opera. But it sharpened my ear for the music of opera, which I believe shaped my present operatic aesthetics. I see this little lexiconic “handicap” as a sign that a big part of my work in opera is destined to be at service to the music.

TWO traits that characterizes you as an opera composer?

  1. While music is my first language and operates in the forefront of my consciousness, I’m a dramatist at heart. Storytelling drives my creative force. Setting foot in the theater excites the hell out of me. But here’s the catch: 30 years and counting, I’ve been trained rigorously as a musical creature. So my compositions tell stories that should only be told through dramatic music. Opera is my most natural outlet. I contend that my instrumental music carries that narrative urge as well.
  2. I am compelled not only by the beauty of the Bel Canto voice, but also by its enormous expressive range. From its exquisite delicacy to its full declamatory power, not unlike that of a sixty-five piece symphonic orchestra. This combination of powerful forces is home to me. To engage the full intensity and spectrum of my dramatic sensibility, I need the full package that opera offers.

Stay tuned for …

THREE urgent and timely issues in opera your works aim to tackle?