“In opera,” argues Matthew Aucoin, “all speech is dream speech.” Exchanging ideas with one of his collaborators, the celebrated composer and conductor claims that opera singers give voice to something “surreal,” and “if you embrace this quality, the… gods will smile upon you.”
Invoking the gods always runs a risk; one thinks of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, inviting his demon killer to dinner. Nevertheless, Aucoin perceives the danger as essential for his artform, and the Boston native, still only 31, has contended with it well enough to win a Macarthur “genius grant.” His own originals start with “Crossings,” 2015, derived from Walt Whitman’s poetry and first performed at Harvard, the composer’s alma mater. But his true home is the one he described, in the first sentence of his first book, as “another planet.” Aucoin dwells in opera, participating at every level from joining the chorus to founding his own American Modern Opera Company — the acronym for which, he stipulates, is pronounced as in “running amok.”
In “The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera,” Aucoin also provides his Company’s definition of opera: “the medium in which art forms collide and transform one another.” For shouldn’t a winning performance please both ear and eye, both break the heart and lift the spirits? Shouldn’t a true maestro “combine all these elements” in what Wagner called a “total work of art?”
Setting the bar so high, and explaining why, provides the overture for Aucoin’s “adventures.” At once he establishes basic tenets, for instance drawing smart distinctions between the demands opera makes on the body (“every… singer [uses] her own skull as an amplifying device”) and the way Broadway musicals rely on electronics. At every turn, he reveals a sharpshooter’s eye for simile: “Opera is governed by strict, unwritten, irrational laws. … [T]hey enforce themselves implacably, like the edicts of the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”
Aucoin proves likewise canny about his vocation’s present-day standing. A 21st century man himself, he realizes how the artform looks these days, at once “glamorous” and “sickly.” But he rises vigorously in defense, asserting that “opera has the potential to be a strong countercultural force rather than a feeble mainstream one.” By existing “under the cultural mainstream,” the art can grow “more polyphonic and more diverse.” These passages feel as rousing as Giuseppe Verdi — a composer Aucoin loves “unconditionally” — penning a hymn for the fresh-hatched Italian state.
The hymn that rises at the opening of “Impossible Art,” and indeed the book as a whole, concludes in a celebration of contemporary experiment. Aucoin praises a range of new works, and not only at the end of the first chapter, which like every chapter could be a standalone essay. Also, overall, he moves from classic material to the developments of the past few decades. These include names unknown even to an opera-lover like myself, but anyone can applaud the thesis, namely that despite its history, the art may be “just getting started.” Anyone can appreciate how this justifies a rough chronological organization.
The first close examination is of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” (1607). The Orpheus myth, to Aucoin, embodies the central conflicts and triumphs of this art, and the second chapter, “Primal Loss,” offers a profound meditation that ends with Harrison Birtwistle’s “The Mask of Orpheus.” This work was composed in 1973, but it’s never enjoyed a full-length production, as something “closer to an ayahuasca ceremony than a night at the opera.” At least Birtwistle has this author’s appreciation, a rich and sensitive overview that wrapped up what I found the book’s best essay. Between the discussions of Monteverdi and Birtwistle, Aucoin looked at the late 17th century Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and the triptych struck me as no less than revelatory, a fresh illumination of a potent ancient story.
Nearly as ravishing was the chapter on Verdi. First published in The New York Review of Books, this sequence works through the three adaptations of Shakespeare, from “Macbeth,” 1847, to “Falstaff, 1893. As I say, Aucoin admits to a mad crush on such stuff, acknowledging the composer’s mastery within “the scale of the theater,” something like Paul McCartney’s in the pop song. Still, he can’t abide the notion that opera’s greatest expressions are in the past. The essays that follow the Verdi material, a good third of the text, insist on the art’s continuing vitality. He unpacks his own toolkit, showing us the workings of both his Whitman opus and “Eurydice,” 2020, his attempt at the Orpheus story. He salutes others testing the frontiers, so intriguingly that now I’ve got to find a production of Chaya Czernowin’s “Heart Chamber” (2019).
Yet it feels fitting, somehow, that this forward thinking ends with a backward look. The closing of “Impossible Art” raises a fanfare for Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” 1786; Aucoin deems it “an exception” — the lone work “capable of evading or surmounting [opera’s] foundational impossibility.” “Figaro” even prompts Aucoin, who is gay, to recall that on first viewing, its racy moments stirred his nascent sexuality. More to the point, for a text that ranks ultimately as a magnificent blend of criticism and rapture, his scrutiny of the work revels again in paradox, even as it struggles for an analysis equal to a masterpiece. One last time, the author speaks as if in a dream: “The end of ‘Figaro’ should go up in smoke.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE ART: Adventures in Opera
By Matthew Aucoin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 299 pages, $28
John Domini’s latest book is a memoir, “The Archeology of a Good Ragù.”