Think opera peaked 200 years ago? These artists want to change your mind.

by Schuyler Velasco, Experience Magazine (February 14, 2022)

by Schuyler Velasco, Experience Magazine (February 14, 2022)

Anthony De Ritis, a composer and music professor at Northeastern University, contends that deep in their hearts, all composers want to write opera — to see their vision play out on that most grandiose of stages. (Shorter, 88, has characterized Iphigenia as the realization of his lifelong dream to compose in the genre.) De Ritis has spent the bulk of his career creating electronic and computer-generated music, often incorporating orchestral elements. In experimental music circles, he is probably best-known for Devolution: A Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra, which features a full pit and the artist DJ Spooky as soloist. 

Still, opera is different, De Ritis says, for musicians and audiences alike: The totality of the experience makes it the perfect medium to try new musical ideas and to entice listeners to come along for the ride.

“Audiences seem much more receptive to new work in opera than they are to new work in the symphony,” De Ritis says. “There are more ways to communicate the story: visuals, sound, acting, text. So that’s a whole variety of streams of information that allow people to get used to, and understand, what’s going on. And you get to control the whole environment.”

In August 2021, De Ritis and the poet Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, an English and Africana studies professor at Northeastern, received a grant from the Boston Foundation for a musical adaptation of Bertram’s 2020 poetry collection, Travesty Generator. Even in the realm of newer opera, the source material is radical. In the book, a nominee for the 2020 National Book Award in poetry, Bertram reshapes texts generated by computer code into poems meditating on stories of the Black experience — from Harriet Tubman to Eric Garner. The poems explore algorithmic bias and aim to draw a connection between the modern-day tyranny of data aggregation and historical oppression like slavery and Jim Crow.

“You don’t necessarily see the computer code that denies you a mortgage based on your Blackness, but it’s the same ‘code’ that denied you a mortgage based on your Blackness in 1950, and denied you your humanity in 1820 or 1790,” Bertram explains. “I’m trying to make this connection across time — we think of algorithms as mathematical things, and they are, but they’re essentially rules and constraints.”

De Ritis, who is white, envisions the eventual product as an operatic song cycle, with a group of mostly Black vocalists and instrumentalists from jazz, musical theater, and traditional opera backgrounds collaborating to shape the interpretation of each poem. In one early rehearsal last fall, Davron Monroe, a musical theater actor, and Brittany Wells, a jazz soprano, improvised a call-and-response repetition of the term “code switch,” accompanied by a bass clarinet. In another, Brianna Robinson, an emerging artist at the Boston Lyric Opera, sang variations of the line “I can’t breathe” in a soaring soprano, abruptly cutting her breath support and sound at intermittent moments.

Compared to her work in more traditional classical music, where the technical aspects are often set and written out for her, her first rehearsal on Travesty Generator was “a much more fluid experience,” Robinson says. She was adjusting elements like phrasing, volume, and even which octave she was singing in as she went along. “It’s a more theatrical type of performance — the way that maybe slam poetry is done, with breaks and giving things more emphasis, elongating words,” she says.

Experimentation of this kind isn’t totally new in the American opera world, but for decades it was largely confined to its margins. Among its most noted practitioners was Robert Ashley, an experimental music pioneer and director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland in the 1970s. Ashley, who died in 2014, created a series of operas meant for television, incorporating electronic music, video elements, and a decidedly non-operatic, improvisational singing style. One, Perfect Lives, premiered on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in 1984. 

In music history and musicology circles, Ashley is “a giant,” says David Bernstein, a musicologist and music professor at Mills. In both his compositions and as an academic administrator, “he encouraged everyone to be as weird as they wanted to be.”

But Ashley’s work received little contemporary attention in the United States, and virtually none from the mainstream opera world, says Kyle Gann, Ashley’s biographer and an experimental composer in his own right who has created a handful of operas. “There’s been a big split in American music for at least 60 years now,” Gann says. “The classical people … are not affected by the rest of us, whom they see as a minority culture they don’t have to pay attention to.”

That ossification is in part a financial issue. In many European countries, opera gets substantial government funding, allowing companies there the leeway to take more risks. De Ritis says that in Germany, which has a robust opera culture, “you cannot put out an opera now without multiple interactive multimedia elements. They’re creating works that are pushing the technology.”

But in the U.S., where opera companies rely more on ticket sales and grant funding, their choices tend to be more conservative, says Heidi Waleson, the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America. The hits — Mozart, Verdi, Puccini — are a sure thing, so they keep getting played. “The opera business is very white and very set in its ways,” Waleson says. “It has this reservoir of standard repertoire by dead European white men, and those are the pieces that get done, year after year, after year, after year.” De Ritis agrees: “Here, bringing a synthesizer into the orchestra still freaks them out.”