Best and worst of 2011 in Opera: Mark Swed

I begin with the bad.

That the year's biggest duds were its two most attention-getting new operas — Christopher Theofanidis' heart-on-its-sleeve "Heart of a Soldier" and Mark-Anthony Turnage's trashy "Anna Nicole" — is no reason to lament the corrosion of an art form. Opera-making is an extremely complex and delicate operation. Few operas succeed, and far fewer break new ground.

My guess is that these days more operas are being commissioned and premiered than during any time in the last 50 years. New work is fashionable, wanted, fundable and, most encouraging of all, sellable. There were hundreds of third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-rate Italian operas being produced in the 19th century when Verdi entered the scene, and it can be argued that operatic genius doesn't spring from a vacuum.

Both "Soldier" and "Anna" cover the conventional operatic territory, heroes and fallen women. The first, which San Francisco Opera premiered Sept. 10 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, is the story of a security official at the World Trade Towers who forfeits his life to lead others to safety. You, of course, know the pathetic tale of Anna Nicole Smith, which Turnage treats as tragic-comic. London's Royal Opera premiered it at Covent Garden in February, and it has just been released on DVD. If both operas are baldly manipulative, entering an opera house has always required that you give your emotions permission to be manipulated.

What worries me is the cynicism. These companies knew what they were doing, and so did Turnage and Theofanidis. The 51-year-old British composer and the 44-year-old American, respectively, are popular with audiences and have had stage experience. The operas received strong performances, with the American baritone Thomas Hampson chewing the scenery as Rick Rescorla in San Francisco. Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek shook her prosthetic stuff convincingly enough in London.

Veteran stage directors were employed — Francesca Zambello in San Francisco and Richard Jones in London. "Soldier" got pretty much universally panned for its hollow score; "Anna" got a mixed critical reaction. Audiences, though, did not appear to leave either premiere displeased.

Nor did they leave any wiser, having experienced nothing new. But 35 years ago, when there might have been a lot less new opera, there was a lot more hope for its progress. There was a reminder of that this year when Robert Ashley's "Perfect Lives" was presented last month in New York for the first time in a long while and the first production of the final opera to Stockhausen's seven-day "Licht" (Light) cycle was seen in Cologne, Germany, last spring.

In 1978, Ashley started on his working-class television opera of quotidian talk and music transformed into wonderful surrealism. It became the first part of a huge operatic trilogy consisting of "Atalanta" and "Now Eleanor's Idea" (itself four operas), a project that occupied Ashley until 1994. Meanwhile, Stockhausen began "Licht" in 1979 and completed the seven-cycle epic in 2003, four years before his death.

The American Ashley and the German Stockhausen (who were born, respectively, in 1928 and 1930) operated in vastly different universes. Ashley's Midwesterners show up at the bank, a bar, a backyard, the supermarket. The opera is sung/spoken in a kind of drone that can space-out a listener, which means when funny things start happening, time travel and the like, you wonder whether you are imagining it. For its most recent New York production, "Perfect Lives" was made modern by staging it as pop-up opera in suitable locations, such as a real supermarket in front of real shoppers.

"Licht" is about heaven and hell, about Adam and Eve, about extraterrestrial life in the cosmos, about typewriters able to have sex. The music uses advanced electronics and advanced harmonic thinking with its own full panoply of transformative powers. For the Cologne Opera "Sonntag" (Sunday) premiere, the Spanish team La Fura dels Baus mounted acrobatics and 3-D special effects.

At one time, it was easy to believe that Ashley and Stockhausen were the Verdi and Wagner of their day. With today's incessant mainstreaming of opera, their works have become outsider opera. Still, there is hope.

Yes, the Metropolitan Opera cozies up to Broadway, presumably in hopes of keeping its HD broadcasts in business, with directors such as Des McAnuff simultaneously leading the Met's new production of Gounod's "Faust" and a New York-bound revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at La Jolla Playhouse. But among the company's most widely praised productions this year were Philip Glass' "Satyagraha" and John Adams' "Nixon in China." These American operas from the 1980s, once controversial and now popular, helped nudge the art form forward, if less radically than Ashley or Stockhausen. And hope springs eternal with promising Met commissions from two important American composers, Nico Muhly and Osvaldo Golijov, planned for coming seasons.

The most exciting new opera in L.A. in 2011, and maybe anywhere, came not from Los Angeles Opera (where budgetary concerns have hindered commissioning new work) but across the street at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered, in a lively concert performance, Gerald Barry's madcap "The Importance of Being Ernest." The musical ideas were not new, but the sheer insanity in the way they were used was. The other new opera that could have legs, at least musically from its radio broadcast, was Lera Auerbach's probing "Gogol," given its premiere last month at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna.

"Heart of a Soldier," on the other hand, has already passed its 9/11 anniversary shelf life and "Anna Nicole," on the new DVD, looks far more dated than Ashley's 1983 television version of "Perfect Lives."

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