The foxy old dame in the designer sunglasses behind me had it right. "I want to hear something new!" she exclaimed as we all sat in McCaw Hall, awaiting the world premiere of Amelia. She regaled her friends with details about last week's world premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick at Dallas Opera. I, too, wanted to hear something new.
Under the quarter-century reign of general director Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera has established itself as a sturdy, conservative home for the 19th century. It hasn't commissioned a new work since 1972—anyone remember Thomas Pasatieri's Black Widow?—and the foxy old dame and I were hoping Amelia would accelerate the company's slow, creaking tilt toward innovation. That slow tilt, which began in the late 1990s, could move Seattle Opera from a locally respected and beloved organization to a well-rounded, world-class company: one that not only serves up the operas everyone loves (Così fan tutte, Carmen, etc.) and singularly champions a composer (in this case Wagner, with an international-caliber Ring cycle before it was fashionable), but also is an obvious locus of new ideas and new works.
Announced in early 2007, the commission of Amelia followed in logical sequence after second runs of the exotic, steel-drum-inflected Florencia en al Amazonas (1998, 2005), Marvin David Levy's revised "re-premiere" of Mourning Becomes Electra (2003), and Heggie's The End of the Affair (2005). In 2009, Jenkins gave us cause for hope by importing Robert Lepage's gruesome and harrowing double bill: Schoenberg's Erwartung and Bartók's Bluebeard. Seattle Opera was crawling, slowly, toward the present.
Commissioning new operas is an important but risky business—they seldom survive. Comparatively lucky with Mourning, Levy recalled that two seasons after the opera's 1967 debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera, "it vanished." Like blockbuster movies, operas cost millions of dollars, but without the promise of stratospheric profits. And since most people can name more brands or "creative properties" in film (Disney, The Lion King) than marquee composers (quick—name a living opera composer besides Philip Glass or John Adams!), a "big name" means nothing.
So Amelia is an event, and a sumptuous-looking one. Swathed in azure, cerulean, bluebell, indigo, teal, and other vivid hues of blue light, the main set (designed by Thomas Lynch) is an elegantly open wire frame that serves as a suburban home, an aerospace firm, and a hospital—all places where Amelia, the daughter of a pilot killed in Vietnam, grapples with anxiety and explosive hysteria spurred by the loss of her father, whom she keeps calling "Daddy." It's a conspicuously odd word choice, spoken so often in Amelia that it feels unwittingly Freudian—the only people I know who still say "daddy" are either over 50 or work in porn. But for all its "daddy" dropping, the opera is bizarrely devoid of sexual tension.
Instead, loss is everything and so occludes the relationships among the other characters (including Amelia's husband, Paul) that it is hard to connect to any of them. There's so little else to Amelia's life that she becomes a caricature of grief.
The story succumbs to melodrama, subjecting characters to events and emotions rather than revealing much about who they are. Paul is a nice guy, an aerospace engineer, and seemingly the perfect husband—so why is he married to Amelia, such an obvious head case? Disparate pairings are commonplace in real life and usually reveal more about people than Amelia's shallow characterizations. When she learns that Paul is designing a new plane, Amelia simply sings, "The past taught me that all planes are bad." (Is she kidding? Has she never flown domestic?)
The libretto, by poet Gardner McFall, sometimes hovers poetically, as when Amelia's father sings, "Fear is worth feeling to know that sky." Author and director Stephen Wadsworth brings his love of symbolic parallels to this opera, setting its events in multiple times simultaneously. In the first scene, Amelia plays with "Daddy," while the chaplain conveys the news of the death of "Daddy," while above, Amelia Earhart tells her story—but the character development comes to naught. After umpteen episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Lost, concurrent chronologies are common. But these events are blurred by the presence of Earhart (also called "The Flier") and other archetypes such as Daedalus and Icarus. Amelia, her father, and Paul should get to tell their own stories deeply rather than relying on the archetypes to parallel and amplify their emotions.
The music by Daron Aric Hagen is lyrical, roiling, and complex, similar in spirit to early-20th-century composers like Howard Hanson and Ned Rorem (with whom Hagen studied). Hagen has girded his sweeping, voluptuous melodies with a smattering of techniques from the avant—dissonance, incongruous inserts, anything to whip up a rapturous frenzy when needed. But the music so seldom stops that any emotional buildup gets steamrolled by more music. The few sequences without (much of) the orchestra, notably Amelia's mad scene, offer relief to the ears, not drama.
Conductor Gerard Schwarz and the band excel at Hagen's music. The singers are uniformly good, though the gale-force pipes of Jane Eaglen (as Amelia's aunt Helen) blow everyone out of the water, rendering most of the words completely unrecognizable—the English supertitles are necessary not only for international tourists, but for us Anglophones trying to decode an overblown, underdirected voice.
Even if I'm wrong and Amelia is a landmark work (or just a decent opera), Seattle Opera has still put the proverbial cart before the horse. Before Seattle Opera adds to the 21st-century repertory, it needs to pay some dues and spend some time with core works of the 20th century that embrace new movement, singing, staging, and ways of telling stories. Otherwise, it will continue to tarry with subpar—and obviously derivative—works like Amelia.
Consider the following list of 20th-century operas (and their composers): Wozzeck (Alban Berg), Lulu (Berg), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (Dmitri Shostakovich), The Rake's Progress (Igor Stravinsky), Die Soldaten (Bernd Alois Zimmermann), Le Grand Macabre (György Ligeti), Einstein on the Beach (Philip Glass), and Nixon in China (John Adams). All of these works have had multiple productions around the world and are considered classic, compelling, or at least good; each is over 20 years old, yet none have been mounted by Seattle Opera.
Amelia is a step in the right direction, but it is a feeble one. No company should bother with anything so starkly new without an understanding of—and long-standing struggle with—20th-century opera. Before commissioning more new work, Seattle Opera should continue its admirable devotion to giving recent operas a second life and fulfilling opera's fundamental mission: to make a place for grand music and grander voices to move souls.