It is a dangerous business to write new operas, but equally thrilling to produce them. Bernard Rands’s VINCENT, a work exploring the life and art of Vincent van Gogh, was premiered last Friday April 8 and 9 at the Musical Arts Center of Indiana University in Bloomington. Two other performances are scheduled for next April 15 and 16. The production was a major success for the university’s Jacobs School of Music, offering to the world something for which it is uniquely suited. A major center for musical performance and research, the Jacobs school has an unmatched capability for producing and testing new works with very high production values. Even though the School has not embraced this role in a regular manner, its trajectory has been distinguished by ambitious productions of new works and collegiate premieres. The list includes the famous microtonal operas of MacArthur-award winner John Eaton (Danton and Robespierre, The Cry of Clytemnestra, The Tempest); the collegiate premieres of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge, and John Adams’s Nixon in China. (I still think that their airplane arrival in the first scene of Nixon is the best ever….). Besides the main stage productions in the Musical Arts Center, the School has presented collegiate premieres of Adams’s opera-oratorio El Niño, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, along with the premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s video-opera ¡Unicamente la verdad!.
The premiere of Vincent represented another kind of breakthrough for the Jacobs School Opera Theater. Known for the size of its stage and for lavish scenery built in its own workshops, this time the Jacobs School designed a new style of production for Vincent that focused on projections and digital images. After seeing two performances of Vincent with both casts, I had pre-scheduled to go to Chicago to see the last performance at the Harris Theater of Death and the Powers, the well-received opera by Tod Machover. This gave me an opportunity to gain yet another perspective on Vincent. I will not comment on Machover’s wonderful work here, except to say that it also featured original technological components in the form of musical robots and light sculptures expressing aspects of human thought and emotion. Clearly, digital technology is gaining ground as an expected expressive element in opera and other interdisciplinary genres. Soon it will need to be contemplated as a regular element in the training of musicians, especially since other musical genres beside opera are beginning to be treated in an interdisciplinary manner.
Bernard Rands’s Vincent will be judged unavoidably from diverse perspectives. As a conductor a new operas, I have been aware of the complexities of the reception of new operatic works, and I have concluded that success depends as much on a game of audience expectations as on the intrinsic structural characteristics of the composition. During the panels on the future of opera arranged around the world-premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s ¡Unicamente la verdad!, certain tensions became apparent. For some opera fans, opera is about a dramatic narrative with a continuous musical architecture that carries the listener to a point of climax and a denouement, and that (most importantly!) features singers in the central expressive role. This concept arguably peaked in the late 19th and early 20th century with the works of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini.