September 8, 2012

What we lost when Bizet died

Georges Bizet, a goner at 37
The summer months, officially the off-season for many opera companies including Virginia Opera, are my "silly season" when it comes to blog posts. The observant reader will have, um, observed (cough cough) that my recent posts have consisted of utterly worthless essays contributing nothing to opera education, choosing instead to focus on rants about opera costumes, making dog puns out of opera titles, speculating on how famous composers wasted time prior to the Internet, and other inane topics. Good for a laugh maybe (I hope!!), but not what my doctoral committee had in mind when they handed out my diploma and that stunning pink academic hood.

But LO! it is September. Never mind that it's still suffocatingly muggy in Southeastern Virginia and the air-conditioning is running full blast; colleges are in session, yellow school busses are puttering around everywhere, football games count for real now, and (most importantly) the Rehearsal Hall at Norfolk's Harrison Opera House is alive with rehearsals for our opening production: Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

In short, it's time for me to stop doing my impersonation of Dave-Barry-if-he-had-majored-in-classical-music and start sharing my thoughts and insights on the productions we'll be presenting this season in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax. (NOTE: you can get details on the 2012-2013 season, ticket info, yada yada by clicking on the "About VA Opera" tab above.)

So let us consider Georges Bizet, whose drama about a love triangle in ancient Ceylon has wormed its way into standard-repertoire status in recent decades. He was really something of a prodigy, more than the general public realizes. No, he wasn't writing operas at age 10 like Mozart, but Wolfgang wasn't so much a prodigy as a freak of nature. But Bizet did show talent relatively early, making his first attempts in the form as a teen-ager, composing a very polished (and often-played) symphony at age 17, and winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at 19.

Considering what other precocious geniuses have accomplished early in life, it may not seem all that impressive that he composed The Pearl Fishers at age 25, but you must remember something important:

Opera is not a young man's game.  Opera is hard! The ratio of successful operas which still hold the stage today versus all the operas ever composed in the past four centuries must be about 1000:1. Seriously. A full-length opera runs anywhere from two and a half to four or five hours in length and thus calls for the technical skills of a true master of composition. To create a fine opera, a composer must excel at writing for the voice; orchestration; ballet; a flair for musical story-telling and human psychology; the ability to sustain a long architectural design, and many other related skill-sets. Most composers get rolling in this field in their '40's, and prime-time would be between the ages of 40 and, say, 65.

To put this point in relief for you, let's take a look at what your favorite opera composers had achieved by age 25:
  • Giuseppe Verdi: Nothing. Zilch. Nada. His first work, Oberto, came out one month after his 26th birthday, and is nothing to write home about.
  • Richard Wagner: two lackluster, derivative student works: Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot.
  • Giacomo Puccini: Nuttin', honey. Laundry lists, maybe. Love letters to pretty girls. His opera ship didn't leave the dock til age 31.
Eye-opening, isn't it? And this is par for the opera-composing course, trust me.

The truly tragic aspect of Bizet's career is that he went to his grave believing that he was a professional failure. Carmen, his breakthrough work of profound genius, was misunderstood at first and only became popular in the years following his death at age 37. Here's the main point of this article, and the thing I want all opera-lovers to understand about Bizet: his death is the greatest loss to the opera world that has ever occurred. For him to have finished his apprenticeship - an apprenticeship which produced beautiful and effective music such as the sumptuous score to The Pearl Fishers - and have contributed just one work of genius as he was entering the stage of life when most composers of opera hit their stride, is simply horrific.

Suppose Shakespeare had died shortly after penning Two Gentlemen of Verona, leaving us without Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and the rest of his dazzling gallery of dramas and comedies? Or, to refer again to the masters of opera, let's see just how famous Verdi & Co. would be had they cashed in their chips at age 37.  What masterpieces would we now lack?
  • Verdi: would not have composed Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Aida, Don Carlo, the Requiem, Otello and Falstaff.
  • Wagner: We'd lack all the of Ring cycle, as well as Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal.
  • Puccini: would rate about one paragraph in opera encyclopedias, having written only two apprentice-level works: Edgar and Le Villi.
See what I'm saying? The giants of the opera world would not enjoy the lofty status with which they are viewed today. Again, the same would hold true for several other big names, including Bizet's mentor Charles Gounod.  That Carmen is generally acknowledged to be one of the ten greatest music dramas ever created is strikingly unique in opera history.  People, Bizet died on the cusp of a career that might have exceeded those of Verdi and Wagner.

Think of it! Georges Bizet should have lived into the 20th century; ye gods, if he'd had Verdi's health and longevity he could have lived to see World War I! Riding the wave of Carmen's global popularity, and blessed with a facility for composition rivaling that of Schubert, how many more masterpieces of lyric drama might we now be savoring and studying? 10? 12? 15? It's not only possible, it's likely. And bear in mind: in Carmen, he exhibited a flair for pushing the envelope; this work was revolutionary in its day, with an avante-garde intolerance for the type of bourgeois  pap to which Parisian audiences had become accustomed. Carmen manifests a scorched-earth disregard for happy endings and demure sexuality; its violence and earthy characters foreshadowed the Italian verismo school by decades.

What other innovations would this bearded, bespectacled genius have dreamed up? What, what, what have we lost?

We lost Shakespeare, I'm thinking. Crap...

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.

1 comment:

  1. You make a reasonable argument -- depressing, but reasonable. Maybe they should have a Doctor Who episode where he travels back to keep Bizet alive? (Is that a rational response to your column? Probably not...)