Playlist: Riot at the opera

Written on Skin, George Benjamin (detail)
Since the 1980s, English-language contemporary opera has been injected with radical potential.

It was symbolic that the recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Alejandro Iñárritu’s punchy, acerbic, Birdman, included an excerpt of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) in its score: a recognition, perhaps, of the compelling, vital art being composed in a form that for decades was considered decadent and outdated: opera.

For Richard Wagner, opera was the Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’, and since the 1980s a growing number of contemporary composers are rediscovering radical creative possibilities in its synthesis of text, drama, and music. English-language contemporary opera in particular is flourishing, with composers like John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, George Benjamin, Thomas Adès, and Mark-Anthony Turnage all producing works in the last decade to considerable acclaim.

Encouraged by audiences hungering for more, Adams, Benjamin, and Adès all have new commissions. A key factor is surely the versatility and malleability of the form, in style and in subject, which accommodates minimalist, spectral, serialist, or jazz influences as easily as it takes on the life of the Minotaur, or that of Anna Nicole Smith.

1. “Prologue: Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” from The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams (1991)
2. “The Protector and Agnès – Scene XII” from Written on Skin, George Benjamin (2013)
3. “Police Riot” from Greek, Mark-Anthony Turnage (1988)
4. “Five Fathoms Deep” from The Tempest, Thomas Adès (2004)
5. “For the Grave Cannot Praise Thee!” from The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams (2013)

Image: Written on Skin