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Midsummer in Autumn

U.S. companies have never exactly clamored to present Michael Tippett's operas. But this month, Lyric Opera of Chicago offers his 1955 work The Midsummer Marriage. Why have Tippett's works had so much difficulty finding an audience in this country? by WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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Portrait: Malcolm

© Malcolm Crowthers 2005
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Sam Wanamaker's 1962
staging of King Priam for
Covent Garden Opera with Josephine Veasey
(Andromache), Margreta
Elkins (Helen) and Marie
Collier (Hecuba)

Reg Wilson/Opera News
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Thomas Carey (Mel), Jill
Gomez (Flora) and Robert
Tear (Dov) in Knot Garden's
1970 Covent Garden
premiere, directed by
Peter Hall

Zoë Dominic/Opera News
The Michael Tippett centenary year of 2005 did not get off to an auspicious start. The British magazine Opera led off with an overview of the composer's life by Andrew Clements. Given the capstone status of Tippett's five operas in his career, the piece was something of a keynote address. But it took note of the relative scarcity of Tippett performances in Britain (nobody was producing The Ice Break or New Year) and the "problematic" nature of the scores, and it floated the possibility that Tippett's music may be "so rooted in its era that when taken out of it can only seem hopelessly, squirmingly dated." There were the usual cries of disagreement two months later in the Letters column, as well as a less-usual second article in rebuttal, an appreciative piece by Dennis Marks. But the final word came in the May Letters column, where a writer took the trouble to suggest that Tippett's talents were not especially suited to the writing of operas but might have qualified him for writing headlines at the Guardian.

For Tippett's operas, it was ever thus. This month, the first of them, The Midsummer Marriage, comes to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a company premiere. This shouldn't be news, but the company has never done any of the composer's stage works. (Neither has the Met.) And Midsummer, first heard in 1955, did not get a U.S. production until San Francisco mounted it as late as 1983. King Priam, one of the dozen greatest operas of the last century, has never caught on. The U.S. premiere of The Knot Garden was in a university production. When Sarah Caldwell produced Tippett's fourth opera, The Ice Break, in Boston in 1979, none of the first three had been given a professional production in this country. TheIce Break went unrecorded commercially for thirteen years, and Tippett's fifth opera, New Year, never received a commercial recording at all.

The rough reception of these works in America is especially difficult to understand when there has generally been admiration for the music itself. In Act I of Midsummer, Chicago audiences will hear some of the most radiant music ever written for soprano - an aria resembling an alien, platinum version of the presentation of the rose from Der Rosenkavalier, followed by a long, glittering Handelian vocalise. It is music that was first sung by Joan Sutherland; her performance, currently available on a CD release of the original live radio broadcast, still provides heart-in-throat excitement.

knot garden
Rachel Hunes (Denise), Jane Irwin (Thea), Rachel Nicholls (Flora), Peter Savidge (Mangus)
and Andrew Shore (Faber) in Antony McDonald's 2005 Knot Garden for Scottish Opera

© Drew Farrell 2005

King Priam brought an entirely new sound world, one in which a prominent orchestral piano part and quick juxtapositions of block phrases contribute to what Lyric Opera music director Andrew Davis calls the composer's "mosaic style." Two other neglected Tippett works, the Variations for Orchestra and the second piano sonata, were produced in this same vital idiom. It is music that reminds us we have veins. In The Knot Garden, the intricate personal relationships of a small group of people are mirrored in an intricate fabric of musical motives; one of them comes from Schubert's song "Die liebe Farbe." Listeners who enjoy the crossword-puzzle motivic construction in Janácek, Berg and Sondheim have found it fascinating. And the sound of the apocalyptic title event in The Ice Break, an orchestral tour de force, manages to portray both the possibilities of the future and the impossibility of clinging to the past.

The most prevalent theory about the neglect of Tippett's operas is that the librettos are weak. Tippett wrote all five of them himself after first seeking the services of T. S. Eliot for the early oratorio A Child of Our Time. According to Tippett, Eliot carefully studied an outline of text the composer had prepared, felt that Tippett had the talent, and told him anyone else's words would merely be doing the job the music should be doing. Few critics have argued with the results in the oratorio, but few have defended the opera librettos. Even Andrew Porter, long the most eloquent and passionate of Tippett's champions, once wrote in reference to The Ice Break that "Tippett's English is frequently off-key and awkward…. As a poet, he allows himself a verbal recklessness and promiscuity of allusion at odds with the precision of his notes." But Porter quickly went on to explain that after repeated hearings he came to realize how the peculiar expression of the words was inextricably bound up in the overall communicative force of the operas. Peter Hall, who will direct the Chicago Midsummer, and who directed the first productions of The Knot Garden and New Year, agrees. "People immediately start pointing at Tippett's librettos and saying, 'What a pity he followed T. S. Eliot's advice and wrote them himself.' But actually I think without the librettos you don't really have what he's about. He's very cryptic, he's very ironic. He's actually quite funny."

There's no question that operagoers have had trouble finding intentional comedy in Midsummer. Many are put off by the metaphysical aspects. There is also a heavy Jungian cast to the work. The lead couple, Mark and Jenifer, are engaged to be married. In Act I they come to a temple guarded by a group of Ancients. A spiral stone staircase leads upward on one side; stone steps descend to the bowels of the earth on the other. Jenifer ascends the staircase and disappears, while Mark descends. At the end of the act, they return. Mark goes up the stairs, Jenifer descends. We don't see them again until Act III. It would seem to be a straightforward depiction of the anima and animus: with typical pre-marriage jitters, the lovers examine the aspects of each other's personalities most unlike their own. (Hall sums it up as "a young man's description to his analyst of what he went through before he went to his wedding.") In Tippett's conception, the opera is about the way we are both self-deluded and ignorant of ourselves. But the reaction to the premiere was simple befuddlement. Tippett cheerfully allowed the original reviews to be reproduced in his publisher's tribute to him. "Nonsense - But it's music," announced the Daily Express. The Daily Telegraph headline was "Opera Marred by Obscurity." A preview article in the News Chronicle trumpeted, "This Opera Baffles Us Too, Say Singers."

Meanwhile, in Act II, we meet the secondary couple, Bella and Jack. Like Papagena and Papageno, like the Dyer and his wife, they are lower class, down to earth and not given to poetic flights. Jack is a handyman and mechanic, Bella a secretary. She works for King Fisher (Jenifer's father), a blowhard tycoon who feels that money can solve every problem. (He seems specifically created to offend the very people who keep an opera house solvent.) Jack and Bella witness three Ritual Dances, an eighteen-minute allegorical display danced by the attendants of the Ancients. In the first, a hound pursues a hare. In the second, an otter pursues a fish. Hare and fish both escape at the last moment, but in the third dance a hawk menaces a broken-winged bird. The spectacle ends just as the bird is out of luck. Before the dances, Bella had decided that it was time to marry Jack. But now she is unnerved. In a moment that has never gone over well with audiences, Bella reacts by singing a little two-part aria about fixing her hair and freshening her makeup. Davis finds it "most endearing. There's a lot of humor, a lot of delicacy, a lot of tenderness, as befits the Papagena--Papageno pair in the piece. They're the two who don't have to worry about bringing the anima and animus into perfect balance before they can get married."

But audiences today, of course, are inclined to find this moment at best embarrassing, even patronizing. That is because we tend to take things so literally, divorced from context. Verdi was never accused of supporting the tossing of babies into bonfires (let alone the wrong babies). But playwrights David Hare, Wallace Shawn and Tom Stoppard have now found that audiences can't seem to separate the viewpoint of a character from that of an author. Peter Hall volunteers, "If I may be rude, I don't think that Americans are big on irony. And I think that you take Tippett at literal face value, which is I think fatal. You've got to think more of Restoration comedy and the kind of humor that we get out of, say, George Bernard Shaw, or even Harold Pinter. It's very difficult to sing irony, to sing wit. And that's a problem in receiving Tippett."

Davis agrees, explaining that a production can sometimes undermine the opera. "I do think this is a very important part of the piece - the dancing should be scary! It frightens Bella. At the end of the third dance, the victim is about to be killed. It should have a lot of tension in it. The progressive tension of the dances carries the plot forward. It is a continuation in the second act of what has started in the first - the struggle, the contest, the tension between the anima and animus. That is what Mark and Jenifer are exploring in the first act." And that is the only way in which Bella's reaction can work. Tippett's music clearly delineates what is happening in life and what is in dreams. Moreover, he specifies that the hunters - the hound, otter and hawk - are female roles, while the pursued are males. Who among us, having witnessed something we would rather not face, hasn't wanted to pretend that nothing ever happened?

It's no wonder Davis says the Chicago company "should really be doing it in German. Then we wouldn't have to worry." He is joking, but it is a fair point. There is nothing in Midsummer so obscure and difficult to parse as Act II of Wagner's Tristan. And if Tippett is faulted for certain perceived lapses, he should be given credit for his successes as well. His librettos are elegant structures, with sometimes-brilliant lines. In King Priam, Priam tells Paris, "You are not the founding sort." Before battle, Paris is visited by Athena (played by the singer of Hecuba), Hera (played by the singer of Andromache) and Aphrodite (played by the singer of Helen). He of course chooses Helen. Later, nearing death, Priam has three visitors. He refuses to see Hecuba and Andromache but admits Helen. The Knot Garden is one of the few operas to portray a believable gay relationship, and an interracial one to boot. The lovers in The Ice Break, Hannah and Olympion, ask, "What is so strange and deep as love?" Later, after three quick acts of brutality, Hannah asks, "What has more power of pain than love?"

Tippett's operas share a theme, the eternal possibility of reconciliation and renewal. After Hector, son of Priam, is killed, Priam visits his enemy Achilles in his tent. Achilles defiantly displays the corpse. But Priam kneels before Achilles, clasps his knees and kisses his hands. Achilles feels pity; he agrees to return the body, he offers wine, and he shelters Priam for the night. The Ice Break takes place against the background of race riots. A white mob in Klan-like white robes kills the black champion boxer Olympion. A black mob in black robes severely injures Yuri, son of an exiled political prisoner. Yuri's father and Olympion's girlfriend wordlessly find unexpected consolation in each other during a bittersweet, Bergian orchestral interlude. Tippett's fundamental Age of Aquarius aesthetic, summed up by New Year's "one humanity, one justice," has always been easy to mock. It is important to remember that it was hard won and genuine. Tippett spent three months in prison for violating the conditions of his registration as a conscientious objector. He had refused even non-combatant military duties, unwavering in his conviction that the greatest service he could provide was the production of concerts. Ralph Vaughan Williams, no less, testified on his behalf: "I think Mr. Tippett's pacifist views entirely wrong, but I respect him very much for holding them so firmly."

To be sure, Tippett's operas have some embarrassments and stereotypes. Later in life, he became dazzled by all things American. (Peter Hall remembers one of them as the TV series Dallas.) New Year involves a visitor from the future, "Nowhere Tomorrow." The chorus characters in The Ice Break go on a group "trip" (is it still called that?) and seek their guru, Astron. Olympion, offered a ready and willing white woman, reacts, "Wow! This chick wants balling!" As Davis puts it, "Michael had this gift for, when he was trying to be contemporary and with-it, he'd find some sort of verbal imagery that had gone out of fashion ten years ago." But one of Tippett's primary concerns was "whether or not we can be reborn from the stereotypes we live in," and for the works to last they must retain the stereotypes. The Ice Break druggies end up rejecting Astron's teachings; Olympion's girlfriend, in the elemental "Blue Night of My Soul," transcends the opposing forces around her.

Davis, who conducted a spring revival of The Knot Garden in London, feels that Tippett's work is ripe for rediscovery, because "time has lent a certain distance to it. You don't wince at some of the lines the way you did when it first came out, because there's a certain period quality to it." Andrew Clements, on the other hand, concluded his Opera article with "Whether their time will ever come again I don't know, but I'm not holding my breath."

Personally, I'm more optimistic. For one thing, music of craft, quality and universal expression doesn't usually stay in the shade forever. And in our singer-centric age, music that offers performers such golden gifts tends to survive. Sutherland's Jenifer, Thomas Allen's overwhelming Hector and Cynthia Clarey's "Blue Night of My Soul" are eloquent advocates for their composer. Davis recalls that there seemed little hope of a Midsummer Marriage revival after the premiere run until Janet Baker sang Sosostris's aria for a BBC broadcast. Immediately, fascination with the unique sound of the work was reborn. Hall and Davis are energized at the prospect of their Chicago production. Hall has the right frame of reference when he observes, "One should think not only of Figaro but of Così as well, which was also a seminal work for Michael." Davis takes the long view. "It was something that came to Tippett in a visionary way. That's what makes the piece so great, I think, is that it sustains this extraordinary sense of mystical adventure, somehow, that sets it apart from anything else. That makes it difficult to put onstage. I do have high hopes for this production. But I'm sure everyone who's ever done it has had high hopes."

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.

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