Rock musicians looking
to expand their songs invented "rock
opera". Here we have a composer
in the opera tradition Ė albeit a controversial
one Ė writing an opera based on rock
music. Itís a curious hybrid, but comes
off surprisingly well. Thereís no orchestra.
The music is played by a standard rock
band ensemble augmented from time to
time with saxophone and clarinet. The
opera develops in three acts, but thereís
no real development as such. The twenty
three songs are quite separate and different,
just like on a rock CD. Individually
they donít relate to each other: taken
as a whole, however, they create a sense
of time and place, with minimal narrative.
The action takes place in Los Angeles.
Naturally, an earthquake acts as Deus
ex machina to make the plot turn.
Itís very much a "rock
opera" then, however one might
try to ennoble it by giving it a fancy
label. It even starts with what is described
as a late 1970s "hit song".
Then thereís a number "à
la Stevie Wonder" Ė Adamsí words,
not mine. Itís followed by a latin American
duet and "hard blues rock à
la Joe Cocker". Along the way we
visit jazz, funk scat and "lyrical
ballad à la Whitney Houston".
Thereís even a number grandly named
"aleatoric improvisation à
la Witold Lutosławski in rock style".
Itís certainly very clever, for it enables
Adams to mimic the chosen style and
carry it off in a more sophisticated
manner. Of course we never lose sight
of Adams himself, because he adds a
quirkiness to all the pastiches which
elevates them from the originals. Itís
a delightful adventure in musical gender-bending
and not bad at all as rock opera Ė much
better indeed, than some of the more
mock serious offerings. For people whoíve
only known rock, this may come over
as genius writing, for some of us it
really is quite good. On the other hand,
though, I could not escape the feeling
that it was a tour de force for its
own sake, like a restaurant serving
fashionable takes on traditional dishes.
Steak and chips with sushi, perhaps,
or what they call "Pacific fusion"
in trendy California eateries.
Adams compared his
work to the Brecht and Weill classic,
the Threepenny Opera. Itís ostensibly
about seven working class people. Adams
found June Jordan, the poet and civil
rights activist to write the libretto.
There is social comment here, for how
could there not be when the characters
are small-time criminals, illegal immigrants,
gays and minorities? At the end, two
of the characters stand up nobly for
democracy, and the illegal immigrant
vows to go back to El Salvador to fight
for human rights. Itís about as analytical
and realistic as a cartoon. But maybe
itís supposed to be a fairy tale, in
the sense that opera is fantasy, where
improbable things are justified by gorgeous
music? Maybe Adams is having the last
laugh, on us.
The piece comes off
primarily because the performances are
totally committed. The Young Opera Company
Freiburg was founded for a production
of Holstís Savîtri. Hence
the name of the orchestra, The Band
of the Holst-Sinfonietta. . They specialize
in modern chamber opera and have performed
Waltonís The Bear and Rihmís
Jakob Lenz. They may be young but
they are technically well accomplished.
Kimako Xavier Trotman stands out as
Dewain, the hardman and convict with
a soft side, who wants to become a lawyer
and fight for justice. His voice is
agile and muscular, easily making the
transition from ghetto music to the
elevated declarations of hope at the
culmination of the opera, when he discovers
freedom and love. His is a distinctive,
unusual voice I hope weíll be hearing
more of. He has performed in the Vienna
Volksoper and the Alice Tully Hall,
so has the track record. He is also
a Fulbright scholar and Juilliard graduate,
who speaks six languages and writes
pop songs. If anyone can convincingly
span the gap between popular and "serious"
music, itís someone like him.
see also review
by Dominy Clements