Few operas I have seen have left as great an impact on me as Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten which I originally saw at City Opera in the early ’90s and just saw again in its current run at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival. (There are only two performances left and I’ve heard that the run is practically sold out. When I was there on Wednesday night there was a posse of desperate folks hoping they could wrangle tickets, but if indeed no official tickets are left and you haven’t seen it, join them and hope.)

For all the polemics about what works and what doesn’t work musically in opera, Zimmermann’s relentlessly rigorous and sometimes astringent 12-tone score–with nary a hummable melody for its entire duration–is extraordinarily effective. So much so, I think it should put to rest what to some has seemed like an anti-12-tone cabal in recent years.

Ironically, many folks who are otherwise sympathetic to dodecaphonic musings aid and abet this cabal by being so apologetic about such music, e.g. “it’s difficult, but” etc. Even David Pountney, stage director of the current production of Soldaten claims in an essay published in the program that 12-tone opera never really took off and that there are essentially only three important 12-tone operas: the present work, Berg’s Lulu and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. What about Montezuma or the operas of Luigi Dallapiccola?

I love minimalism (Einstein and  Satyagraha changed my life and I’ve seen three different productions of Nixon) and am also deeply moved by some neoromantic operas (Vanessa is heart-wrenching). In the world of dramma-per-musica, shouldn’t “by any means necessary” be the only guideline?

17 thoughts on “Why Not 12-Tone Opera?”
  1. “It’s difficult to imagine a new opera entering the rep on the strength of one aria” (LD)

    For discussion sake, I will point out that Philip Glass’s Satyagraha was recently revived by the MET Opera — musically — on the strength and beauty of the works closing aria (arioso). I find it a little more difficult — given the jumble of Hwang and Glass’s libretto — to believe that the MET Opera would revive The Voyage (1992) on the strength of Queen Isabel’s closing arioso and reverie, or that the MET Opera or the Washington Opera would revive Menotti’s Goya (1986) on the strength of that opera’s closing which has Goya singing a paean to inspiration and artistic creativity.

    I listened this past weekend to both Birtwistle and Harsent’s Gawain and to Dusapin’s Man of Smoke — both non-triadic. I found both powerfully musically and dramatically — though perhaps both artists could learn a bit more, I feel, from 19th c. music drama rhetoric.

  2. Thanks Frank.
    As a 12-tone opera composer-3 actually;
    The Dungeon of Esmeralda, grand opera original story
    The Snows of Kilimanjaro- grand opera- Hemingway
    Eurydice -H.D monodrama

    This gives me hope!

    Operators are standing by!!!

  3. The Suite from Lily has been reissued on a two disc Kirchner retrospective on Music and Arts. The excerpts there absolutely blew my mind, and I still feel shocked that more people don’t talk about this piece.

  4. This quote was posted on the Csound list today which seemed relevant:

    “The Bass moves into the middle: this is our musical revolution. […] Why is it important or interesting for this to happen? Why was it important for painting to grow beyond earth/sky gravitational systems and liberate space?”

    “The original connection of serialism with heaven, or transcendental consciousness of some sort, will strike many as grotesque – especially those who find serial music turgid and negative, expressive of pain and conflict […]. But my ear suspects that in such music the bass is still struggling at the bottom, alienated and bearing an enormous tension of dislocated dissonance, trying to be a root under somewhat unfavourable and stressed conditions. Music which floats, in which it is unattractive and implausible for consciousness to read a bass at the bottom, is a different matter.”

    Jonathan Harvey

  5. Does anyone know another opera based on ‘The Tempest’ by Peter Westergaard? I heard a bit of it in grad school, and liked it.

  6. Hear, hear Frank. More and more when I hear people speak about how 12-tone this is no good, spectral that is spectacular, or such and such composition is great because it is influenced by popular music, I get the sense that the criticism comes from either wagon circling or self-aggrandizement. Isn’t it time we stop dismissing music based on how it’s made?

  7. Another element to add to the mix is the change of expectations. Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore would be forgotten but for one outstanding aria — that one aria makes it one of the most frequently performed operas in the rep. It’s difficult to imagine a new opera entering the rep on the strength of one aria.

  8. Il Prigionero definitely needs to be heard more often. I do have to say that there aren’t many 12-tone operas, and many of the 12-tone vocal works I know of (not operas, but vocal works) tend to be hard to like. Maybe it’s the subject matter. Maybe it’s a particular composer’s style. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t much care for most operas. Whatever. Let’s just say that 12-tone operas/vocal works are often “thorny” and leave it at that.

    That said, not all minimalist vocal pieces work well for me. How many operas is Glass up to, and how many of them are truly great? Subjectively, let’s say three. Adams? I have mixed feelings about Nixon, can tolerate parts of Klinghoffer, and thought Doctor Atomic was crap.

    So why not just say that many 20th- and 21st-century operas aren’t that appealing and leave it at that. I think that it’s wrong to indict 12-tone music, just as I hate it when some folks bitch about minimalism and demean it. You might as well complain about tonal music because some Romantic or Classical composer wrote dreck.

  9. Thank you for your comment Steve S, and especially for reminding me of Cori Ellison’s excellent work for the NYCO (and the Washington National Opera) and her exceptionally strong support for American opera. I hope that she either can influence the new Gerald Mortier administration at the NYCO (if she chooses to stay), or that she can find an even more powerful position to influence American operatic culture in the upcoming Obama era.

    (I was hugely impressed by Ms. Ellison’s commitment to American culture the one time that I crossed paths with her, over a decade ago, although I can’t now recall whether it was in person, by e-mail, or by phone … I should have thought of her earlier.)

    You mention a ‘suite’ on an old Columbia LP to Leon Kirchner’s Lily/Henderson the Rain God. I recall either a full two LP set, or at least one full LP of the most powerful selections (including the electronic music incorporated into the score, as was also true in John Eaton’s The Tempest).

    Perhaps Frank Oteri and the AMC can help out here and help determine whether a full-length archival/study CD of Kirchner’s Lily could be produced in the near future.

    In a similar vein, I criticize the the major foundations, the NEA, CRI, New World Records, Patrick J. Smith, and others for not taking steps to help assure that U.S. performances of Sessions’s ‘Montezuma’ or Andrew Imbrie’s ‘Angle of Repose’ were produced and distributed. (The U.C. Berkeley Music Library has a full tape — or at least used to have a full tape — of the Imbrie Angle of Repose opera. I wonder whether Harvard or Princeton or Juilliard have tapes of the Sessions or the Kirchner operas. … Maybe Orange Mountain Music needs some healthful competition and would be willing to share its superb organization.)

    [I’m awaiting my OMM Waiting for the Barbarians set this very day.]

  10. Another piece I wish someone would take up the cause for here in the U.S. is Per Nørgård’s Gilgamesh, a wild microtonal/minimalist ritual piece in which the audience for the original production was seated in the middle as the action unfolded 360 degrees around them. (It was released on LPs on DG’s Danish imprint back in the 70s and briefly resurfaced on now OOP Dacapo CDs.)

    To date, the only North American staging I know of was a production in Canada more than 30 years ago. After seeing/hearing the amazing production of Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury at the Japan Society I know there are singers here who can sing the required intervals and after seeing what could be pulled off at the Armory with Soldaten, Gilgamesh‘s unique staging does not seem impractical at all. Now we just need to track down some adventurous funders 😉

  11. If Montezuma is important, how come I can’t find a recording of it? (This is a complaint at the music industry, not at you, but still…)

    I agree that Il Prigioniero deserves to be added to the short list, though.

  12. I only like operas notated in Finale. The ones notated in Sibelius just lack authenticity. Even a plumber can hear that…


  13. It might not be readily apparent unless you’re listening for it, but the recitative in Mark Adamo’s Little Women is 12-tone, intended to contrast sharply with the more conventionally melodic and harmonic arias and set pieces.

    I enjoyed Wuorinen’s Haroun quite a lot, though an abundance of tenors singing similarly angled lines sometimes made it hard to follow who was who. I hope that City Opera stages it again when they take it up for recording (assuming their planned recording wasn’t taped during the premiere run). I can’t say that I “hear” Brokeback Mountain as a 12-tone opera, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

    Zeno, I’d be really eager to see Kirchner’s Lily, too, based on what little of the score I’ve heard (a suite on an old Columbia LP) and what Andrew Porter wrote about it. Truthfully, I’d like to hear just about everything you mention, most especially Montezuma and Gawain. As to your parenthetical question, I believe the very smart dramaturg Cori Ellison is staying on board with the arrival of the new regime, so Mortier ought to be getting some good advice.

    By the way, don’t know if it’s common knowledge or not, but Miller Theatre and Works & Progress at the Guggenheim are teaming up to produce Xenakis’s Oresteia in September. Details are here.

  14. ” … only three important 12-tone operas: the present work [Die Soldaten], Berg’s Lulu and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. What about Montezuma or the operas of Luigi Dallapiccola?”


    Thanks for your thoughts Frank, Rodney, and Steve.

    I have fine memories of the MET’s Wozzeck and Lulu in the late 1970s; and of the NYCO’s earlier visiting productions (both from the Bonn Opera?) of Moses und Aron and Die Soldaten in the early 1990s … (and of Turn of the Screw, The Midsummer’s Marriage, and From the House of the Dead).

    I never did see Bomzarzo or Devils of Loudon; but I almost slept with the scores to those two works under my pillow during my undergraduate years. [The DVD to the Penderecki is now available.]

    Without splitting hairs over differences between 12-tone operas and pan-chromatic, non-triadic operas, let me supplement Frank’s promotion of Roger Sessions’s Montezuma with mentions of three other major American ‘dramma per musicas’ — Andrew Imbrie’s “Angle of Repose” (based upon Wallace Stegner), Leon Kirchner’s “Lily” (based upon Saul Bellow’s anti-imperialist ‘Henderson the Rain God’), and John Eaton’s “The Tempest” — (and also Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Gawain’).

    Shouldn’t the MET, the NYCO, the SFO, the LAO, the Houston, Chicago, and Seattle, and the Washington National Operas all be considering reviving these major works?


    (Does anyone know whether Gerald Mortier has an Americanist assistant — a young David Gockley — on his staff?)

  15. But isn’t that like saying “why no microtonal operas?”, or “why no modal operas?” (whoops, Messiaen’s St. Francis is coming…) The style doesn’t matter nearly so much as the total package. I don’t know Soldaten, but both Lulu and Moses have that (though Schoenberg’s Moses does have a bit of that heavy-handed Heston-vibe, that can be occasionally tedious). Still, I think that both Ginastera’s Bomarzo and Penderecki’s Devils of Loudon have that package in spades, and would be just as rep-worthy as the Berg & Schoenberg.

    The problem with opera is that its cost is so high, there can’t help but be a huge aversion to any real risk. And since it’s a patron-driven and not audience-driven enterprise, a lot depends on the particular mind-set and demands of those patrons.

  16. I’m not sure Montezuma is twelve-tone, which brings up my usual reaction to the whole question of twelve-tone anything, which is “who the hell knows.” Mostly when people want to call something twelve-tone its just to try to justify why they think it’s ugly. Mostly people–and even pretty musically sophisticated and sympathetic ones–can’t tell, anyway. Anyway, there’s a “twelve-tone row” in The Turn of the Screw and there’s some “twelve-tone music” in Death In Venice, so I suppose they should count….

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