If Matthew Aucoin’s career continues on its trajectory, his importance as a force in American opera appears all but assured. With Eurydice last November, the MacArthur “genius grant” winner, then thirty-one, became the youngest composer to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera since Gian Carlo Menotti with Amelia Goes to the Ball in 1938 at the age of twenty-six. Other commissions followed, but when theaters shut during the pandemic, Aucoin spent the winter of 2020–21 writing The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera at a Vermont farmhouse. Many composers have written about music—think of Wagner’s eight volumes of prose—but the phenomenon of a young composer setting forth his thoughts succinctly, persuasively and readably about the nature of opera and selected individual works, as Aucoin does here, is something special.

The Orpheus legend figures prominently in Aucoin’s book, not just because of Eurydice and his earlier opera The Orphic Moment (2014), but also because it served as source material for the earliest operas, with reason: in the story, the hero must sing the most beautiful music imaginable. Aucoin sees Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice as “an excuse for the catharsis of music-making”—music-making that is essential to charming the underworld and restoring Eurydice to life. Monteverdi, who wrote the first great Orpheus opera (1607), recognized this with the formidable aria “Possente spirto,” which “stands out from the whole opera,” Aucoin notes. Orpheus’s musicality, however, is both an instrument of persuasion and a virtue in its own right. Aucoin sees Orpheus as torn between his love for Eurydice and his love for music, a point Aucoin and his librettist Sarah Ruhl stress in Eurydice. In this opera, Orpheus’s glance back, which results in the permanent loss of Eurydice, is a conscious decision in favor of music.

Besides Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Aucoin champions Harrison Birtwistle’s austere The Mask of Orpheus (1986), one of those monumental twentieth-century works that, like Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise (1983) and Stockhausen’s Licht (1977) cycle, attracts attention simply because it’s there. Birtwistle surrounds the Orpheus story with other myths and multiple enactments of the same action, resulting in “eternally recurring patterns of loss, decay, rupture, and regeneration,” according to the author. Aucoin tells us that The Mask has only had only one production (by the English National Opera in 1986) because of its complexity. In fact, the same company premiered a different version in 2019, with the hero portrayed as an alcoholic rockstar. This is not a book about performance standards, so Aucoin doesn’t talk about the corrosive effect of intrusive productions. Perhaps he didn’t want to burn bridges. 

He only discusses works he admires, which rules out acerbic putdowns like those aimed at Puccini by Joseph Kerman in his book Opera as Drama (1956). One looks in vain for an ill word about Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951), which other critics have treated severely, some attacking its neoclassical modus operandi, others faulting the protagonist’s undeserved madness at the end of his “progress” or his marriage to the preposterous Baba the Turk. A rare example of a major composer working with a major poet—in this case, W. H. Auden—the opera demonstrates that tension between words and music can produce artistic richness. “Throughout the Rake, Stravinsky’s music and Auden’s poetry seem to perpetually subvert each other, but the relationship is in fact mutually reinforcing,” writes Aucoin, citing Stravinsky’s disregard of Auden’s accent schemes as just one example of beneficial disagreement. 

Verdi’s partnership with the polymath librettist Arrigo Boito held up as exemplary: neither “could have achieved the wonders of Otello (1887) and Falstaff  (1893) on his own.” Aucoin makes other shrewd observations in his extended discussion of these operas. “The mature Verdi,” he writes, “is the composer least likely to make a misstep in dramatic pacing or psychological portraiture;” “He had a catlike instinct for leaping only when he knew he’d land on his feet.” Aucoin seems to recognize that, with Otello, Verdi actually improved on Shakespeare, even if Aucoin doesn’t come out and say so. He also astutely counters those who lament Falstaff’s lack of melody by saying that he hears “practically nothing but melodies,” even if some last but “a second or two.” It took me years to realize that.  

Among composers currently active, Aucoin expounds on two about whom he has “the most to say.” Chaya Czernowin, a Harvard professor, composed Heart Chamber (2019), which discursively treats an interesting subject—a middle-aged couple in love—but its avant-garde style is one that, I would venture to say, no American opera company would touch. Thomas Adès’s three operas have fared better, not least because, as Aucoin notes, his style refuses to distinguish between tonal and atonal music. Aucoin’s favorite is The Exterminating Angel (2016), based on Louis Buñuel’s 1962 film, and while he admires the others, he objects to the “youthful, let’s-see-what-we-can-get-away-with brashness” of Powder Her Face (1995) and the lack of “poetic richness” in the libretto of the Shakespeare-based The Tempest. A chapter on Walt Whitman supplies background to another opera by Aucoin, Crossing (2015).

There are a few other issues. Aucoin dismisses Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762, rev. 1774), for many the pinnacle of Orpheus operas, questionably claiming that its Enlightenment outlook clashes with the myth’s pessimism; yet surely the aria “Che farò senza Euridice” exquisitely exemplifies the “pleasurable” treatment of suffering Aucoin so admires in the Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La descent d’Orphée (1686). The author underestimates Verdi’s Macbeth (1847) because he underestimates the so-called bel canto tradition in which it is rooted. (“One generally doesn’t turn to bel canto for an evening of taut, seamless drama,” Aucoin writes.) In explaining that everyday speech is ill-suited to musical setting, he postulates that “in opera, all speech is dream speech,” thereby reinforcing the notion that opera is irrational by wrongly suggesting that rules of verisimilitude do not apply. In Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Cherubino is dressed as a girl to reveal Count Almaviva’s philandering, not to avoid his being sent to the army. Its plot details are indeed nearly impossible to keep straight, but Mozart’s opera presents, as Aucoin puts it, “an aerial view of the human soul, a portrait of everything that’s irresistible and brilliant and sexy about human beings,” along with what makes them infuriating. Who would disagree with that?  

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