John Cage’s “Europeras 3&4” at the Detroit Opera

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All eyes have been on Detroit in recent years, where Yuval Sharon’s much-profiled tenure at the rebranded Detroit Opera has turned into a case study for new models of opera’s cultural relevance in regional America. News outlets and commentators have been generous in covering his stewardship, highlighting Sharon’s audaciously modern programming and unorthodox concepts—not to mention the audience’s generally positive response—as encouraging proof that opera can find fresh vitality even in its fourth century. There is the sense that much of the country is rooting for Sharon; to see him and the company succeed without reliance on the stability of the canon would be a serious win in the fight for curatorial equity and aesthetic diversity in the country’s big-name houses. When talking about the Detroit/Sharon wager, the phrase “the future of opera” is never far away.

In similar language earlier this month, The New York Times ran a well-meaning preview of the Detroit premiere of John Cage’s “Europeras 3&4” under the headline “‘As Living as Opera Can Get’: John Cage’s Anarchic Anti-Canon.” The Cage, playing not in the opera house but down the street in the old Gem Theater, was a kind of litmus test of all Sharon’s promise: progressive programming with an eye to new audiences, a relocation of opera beyond the safety of its institutional home, a challenge to the expectations of what a repertory looks like, and a distinct attention to the urban landscape in which it’s taking place. And by all measures, it paid off handsomely: three sold-out shows to a big audience spanning ages, expressions, and interests. According to the demographic and energy in the room, “living” seems a perfectly fitting qualifier; as one reviewer behind me remarked to her seatmate, gesturing to the young, visibly queer crowd filing in before the curtain: “See? This is what happens when you do Cage. Opera is doing just fine.”

Rhetoric like that—aliveness, health, relevancy, progress—always sets off my red flags. I’m suspicious of anything that promises opera a new lease on life. That’s not because I don’t think modernity deserves to be treated as a meaningful part of opera’s history. The opposite: it is because I believe so firmly in how it orients itself to genre that I’m not willing to watch a new work get mobilized against its will to affirm what I see as a fundamentally conservative marketing maneuver to reinstall the idea of linear artistic inheritances, as a means of consolidating institutional power. The tokenization of a new/modern work as proof that “opera is alive and well” suggests a genetic continuance akin to royal transfers of power that I fundamentally oppose on both aesthetic and ethical grounds. From an institutional perspective, the motivation is perfectly rational: If opera companies can convince audiences that for new opera to work—or, more sinister, to even be worth their time—it ought to situate comfortably in the traditional “idea” or “project” of opera in a manner that follows naturally on from Wagner and Verdi, they can justify selling regressive programming the rest of the year on the deferred currency of the new work’s future potential. (“Maybe this new work will be the next great opera to take up the old mantle. Probably not, but maybe; come and find out.”) What’s being sold, then, is a gamble, a will-it-or-won’t-it. Audiences come to new opera conditioned to look for the inheritance of what they already know, and when they don’t find it—because, as we’ll see, it’s not there—the canon is retroactively affirmed for its enduring and unsurpassed achievement. Meanwhile, the inevitable confrontation of modernity’s untenability in our current performance economy is put off for another year.

Left to right: Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, bass-baritone Davóne Tines, and dancer Celia Benvenutti perform in John Cage’s “Europera 4,” presented by Detroit Opera at the Gem Theatre, directed by Yuval Sharon, March 8, 9 and 10 • Dress rehearsal photo © Detroit Opera / Austin Richey

So yes, I fear the language of aliveness and of progress, even about the thing I love the most. For all its purported advocacy for the music of our time, that marketing instinct of “life” always misappropriates at some level the idiosyncratic relationship a singular work establishes with an interior image of genre, and in the process does more lasting harm than good to how we as a public think about modernity as opera. Life—or the promise of it—is paradoxically new opera’s greatest danger.

Because—and this is neither hyperbole, nor hysteria, nor provocation—we need opera to stay dead for modernity to make sense as opera at all. With any work of art, one of the first modes of inquiry we have is how it orients itself—how it “thinks”—towards other models of expression, towards history. In the case of new opera, that question amounts to how we as listeners receive it as opera. How is it “being opera,” what is its “opera-ness”? That question has been the major dilemma in operatic historiography because, since “Wozzeck,” the filial or arboreal models of progression—nationalities, schools of reform, chronologies, styles, subjects—have come up empty-handed. It is a fundamentally pluralistic and non-teleologic body of output, despite largely operating under the same name. Two composers as distant as Robert Ashley and Liza Lim can write major works that take the name of “opera” seriously, but that word—and the instantiated work’s being-in-relation to it—signifies something vastly different and non-comparable for each. And for every other opera as well.

This is better known as mourning.

The work of mourning describes the complex pathways of transference along which the dead move from external referent to interior image available only in the solitude of the self: mourning is an interiorization, a bringing-within. From Derrida’s eulogy for Barthes: “When I say Roland Barthes… it is him in me that I name, toward him in me, in you, in us that I pass through his name. What happens around him and is said about him remains between us. Mourning [begins] at this point.” What Derrida means is that in speaking of the dead we are speaking to them who remain only in memory’s images. Each time modernity invokes the name of “opera” in earnest—each time it calls itself “opera”—it speaks to a specific image of the dead genre which that individual work alone contains in a non-replicable interior relationship. Every new opera thus mourns the dead genre, and by so doing carries it onward within it: opera endures, not through progress but through constant renegotiation by those who come beyond it with love for it.

In short: There can be no history of operatic modernity that is not also a memorial, no production of new opera that does not account for generic death, no opera written that does not, in its own way, undertake the work of mourning. Which is not an especially sexy marketing campaign. Heartbeats and vigor and accumulating freshness are far, far easier to sell. But at what cost?


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The “Europeras” are, by nature of their wager, particularly susceptible to the rhetoric of vitality. Almost from the first, there was a school of thought that sought to frame them as a riotous celebration in the great tradition of opera proper. The argument goes that Cage bravely rebuked all obvious assumptions that he was laying waste to a bourgeois genre (“We hope you will write the irreversible negation of opera as such,” as the first commission letter read), and instead recuperated wholesale the excess and zany simultaneity that is opera’s lasting heritage. By deploying the hard materials of opera proper in a way that preserved their identity, this theory suggests, Cage managed to demonstrate the genre’s relevancy to modernity in a manner that previous composers had overlooked.  

Closer attention to the works themselves makes that theory much harder to sustain. The five operas that comprise the “Europera” cycle map a long-form process of attenuation and dispersion. “Europeras 1&2”—commissioned for Cage’s 75th birthday by the Frankfurt Opera—begin in general circus mania: 16 singers, full orchestra, and the entire technical capacity of an opera house spend three hours superimposing random fragments from opera’s canonic history in a bedlam kind of superabundance. “Europeras 3&4”—written three years later for London’s Almeida Festival—pare down considerably. “Europera 3” calls for only six singers, accompanied by two pianos (playing chance-determined excerpts from the Liszt aria transcriptions), six turntables (selecting at random from a several-hundred-record bank) and fixed media, all interacting at I-Ching-decided times. “Europera 4” is even sparer and shorter: just two singers (a soprano and a mezzo), one piano, and an old Victrola Gramophone spinning early opera records between cliffs of silence. In the last, “Europera 5,” one of those singers moves offstage; a radio is added in her place; and a complex lighting system fills the empty chasms with a grid of shifting shadows. Together, they track a journey of dispersal, the decentering of opera in embodied memory.

Left to right: Baritone Robert Wesley Mason, tenor River Guard, dancer Celia Benvenutti, and baritone Rolfe Dauz perform in John Cage’s “Europera 3,” presented by Detroit Opera at the Gem Theatre, directed by Yuval Sharon, March 8, 9 and 10 • Dress rehearsal photo © Detroit Opera / Austin Richey  

In short, there are few works more profoundly concerned with loss, ruin, interiority, relic, and, ultimately, mourning than the “Europeras.” For all the noise and overload, what is occurring at the local level of action is a deeply tragic alienation: characters are abstracted from their capacity for agency and force; music is torn from its safe ecology and left floating in the amniotic fluid of unaccompanied silence; bodies are denied the physical gestures of drama that give logic to their arias; and the music of history itself moves further and further from the source of emanation until it vanishes behind forgotten set pieces. The flotsam and dust of 300 years hover, decentralized and uprooted, like a memory. We might go so far as to say that what Cage offers us is the image of opera, the image within us where mourning first begins. It would not be so huge a leap, then, to suggest it is the audience who mourns. Perhaps the endless labor of attention and frustration that music of chance demands, the constant finding of oneself within the wash, orienting oneself towards the fragmentary, the transient, the assemblage—perhaps this is the work of mourning. 

The “Europeras,” then, cannot be understood except by a history of opera capable of taking account of the genre’s deadness. (For proof, see Herbert Lindeberger’s haphazard and unconvincing attempt to incorporate them in the final chapter of his Opera in History.) And they cannot articulate this intimate relation to mourning except in a production which makes conscientious space for it. Which is another way of saying that how you do Cage needs to matter just as much as that you do it. Simply mounting the “Europeras” as proof that opera of the 20th and 21st century is alive and well and interesting enacts real violence on that work because it misappropriates the affect of its relatively open text as a means of affirming social values—capitalism’s desperate need for progress and growth as metrics for value and investment—which belong to a world beyond the work itself. 

Which is what happened in Detroit. After an utterly brilliant “Europera 3,” two crucial missteps sank “Europera 4” beyond recovery. Both of the decisions were products of marketing tactics aimed at softening the austerity of the work; both were ploys at making the Cage appear more accessible to the standard opera audience; and both derailed the work into something like a cheap imitation of the thing they claimed to be presenting. In the comparison of the two, however—the success of “Europera 3” and the failure of “Europera 4”—Sharon has given us an opportunity to think more concretely about the ways the orientation to history (how a work discourses with established or inherited ideas of genre, form, and project, how it casts itself towards or away from common models of articulation that share its name) and the ethics of production (how and why a piece gets mounted, what is being said in the giving it space to say, the fidelity of a production to the source text) impact the work of art and our ability to receive it. My aim is not to pin the blame or fault on any individual; rather, I want to use the particular problems of a particular production as brief means for thinking more generally about responsibility, obligation, and truth in the performance of new opera today.


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First, it’s worth taking stock of why “Europera 3” worked so well. Sung by Detroit Opera’s resident young artists, and with Sharon himself spinning records from the pit of the old Gem Theater, the near-constant din of half-remembered operas allowed for surprising moments of poignancy to emerge in combination with real levity and rigor. Cage asks his cast to each perform three favorite arias, and there is something especially devastating about seeing emerging singers in these parts. Watching young people labor to carry this too-large, too-old music in their lonely bodies—sometimes from roles they’ve never sung or won’t get to sing for years—emphasized “opera” here as an unsettled, ghostly, and not-quite-accessible force. The resultant tension between physical body and musical immensity spoke to something of the scale of the mourning for opera at stake. The effect of all these young performers dashing on from dark corners with strenuous effort, only for the opera as a whole to fail to materialize, was confusing and overwhelming and often ravishingly beautiful, most especially at the moments when it did exactly what Cage asked and nothing more.

(In a different review, I might have questioned the decision to backdrop the production with an enormous electric stopwatch—time, in Cage, is chronometric only as a utility, and our experience of it as an audience should be relative and durational—but the clock proved less intrusive in the end than other more glaring misinterpretations.)

In “4,” however, mirroring a tactic used in his 2012 production of the “Songbooks,” Sharon forewent young artists and called in big-name stars instead. The logic is transparent enough: for more conservative audiences that would never otherwise venture out to see Cage, the promise of hearing Susan Graham and Davóne Tines (both Detroit favorites) and the authority lent by their participation might convince them otherwise. And, as there’s no real learning of music and only the execution of three favorite arias, it is less work for them than learning a new opera cover to cover. So why not use voices everyone recognizes and admires? 

The billing first caught my eye, though, not for its celebrity but for the totally inexplicable decision to replace half of Cage’s clear instrumentation—“Europera 4” is scored for soprano and mezzo-soprano—with a baritone. I cannot believe that Cage’s decision was arbitrary and up for negotiation: the close timbral proximity between the two voices is crucial to the effect of alienation and distance that, in the fourth and subsequently fifth “Europeras,” comes to bear with force on the global experience. The importance of memory and echo—and, in particular, an attention to the female voice as opera’s bastion of loss and estrangement—was being willfully ignored. 

But changes like this can still be pulled off if sufficient care is taken to protect the aesthetic intention with which the original decision was made. This would require all participants to be fully committed to an ethics of production that treats the execution of the sensibility with absolute fidelity. This means—opposing a commonly held belief about Cage—that the participants cannot just do whatever they please: there is a code, a performance practice, to upkeep. The Dutch art critic Stephan Beyst, in a 2005 essay, pointed out that Cage really only makes one explicit demand of his “Europera” performers: “The singers are no longer permitted to stage a role, but are only allowed to make the gestures necessary for singing.” Because what happens when character becomes the sole focus of the performance is that our attention trains to the expressive nuance of the music’s former context at the very moment it’s meant to be decontextualized. For the piece to work, we need to hear the music as a kind of phantom possession, filling at the throat these bodies they momentarily occupy.

So when Tines begins throwing chairs about in the mock fury of a Purcell aria, in a performance of emotional profundity that drops us back into a fictional world of regency and power; or when Graham delivers the full physical comedy of Cherubino’s “Non sò più” with a gramophone as a scene partner, “Europera 4” vanishes before our eyes. Yes, the six arias make for wonderfully fun moments of theater: the audience gets to laugh, cheer, whistle in approval, applaud these starry interpretations like a night at the opera proper, and everyone leaves having had a good time. Only the thing they just loved isn’t John Cage. It’s a poor simulation that pulls the wool over their eyes by using Cage’s relatively open formula as permission to do whatever it takes to get people to like it. As if to drive the point home, a perfect-pitch assistant sat onstage for the entirety of “4” with no task but to hum—audibly, to the point of distraction—starting pitches to the stars. The loyalties were immediately made evident: the thing we’re attending is a 30-minute recital by two great singers posturing as John Cage’s “Europera 4,” the demands of marketing and access having killed that opera before it could even stake its claim.

I don’t blame Graham and Tines here. The instinct to mobilize celebrity as a box-office cushion for the hard sells is not a new phenomenon. Luciano Berio’s final opera “Cronaca del Luogo,” staged in Salzburg in 1999, had a great Brünnhilde, Hildegard Behrens, in its leading role; Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland,” premiered in Munich in 2007, had Dame Gwenyth Jones for its Queen of Hearts; and Aribert Reimann—who died two weeks ago—wrote his 1978 “Lear” for no less a presence than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Even in works of a comparatively accessible aesthetic, celebrity is a frequent motivation; Kevin Puts’s much-lauded adaptation of “The Hours” was commissioned because Renée Fleming asked for the role. Singers still hold a majority of the social cards, and those cards can be played if necessary to get bodies into seats.

Left to right: Dancer Biba Bell, dancer Chris Woolfolk, bass-baritone Davóne Tines, and dancer Celia Benvenutti perform in John Cage’s “Europera 4,” presented by Detroit Opera at the Gem Theatre, directed by Yuval Sharon, March 8, 9 and 10 • Dress rehearsal photo © Detroit Opera / Austin Richey  

The decision to do so, however, comes always with risk. The presence of names like Graham—best known for marquee performances in classic European operas—can draw undue attention away from the work and onto the individual, especially if they’ve been hired to “do their thing” onstage rather than submit to the demands of the text. While I fully support the expectation that famous singers take on as many new works as old, that needs to come with the caveat that they treat those works with equal care, attention, and, if necessary, humility. Performer egoism can only rarely be sustained in new opera the way it can in a “Traviata” or “La bohème.” The verity of those repertory works has been preserved a hundred times over in cultural memory. We already know how “Bohème” is supposed to go, we can see it whenever we want, and so part of attending a performance is the thrill of virtuosity displayed by a new singer’s interpretation of that particular matrix of drama, technique, and expression. No one is pretending that a good many of the seats at the new Met production of “La forza del destino” aren’t being sold on the credit of Lise Davidsen’s celebrity status. And you can do that with Verdi; he’ll be fine, no matter what happens to “Forza” this time around.

New opera, so much more unstable in an economy that still performs it largely out of obligation, lacks that permanent protection. These works get fewer chances at a foothold, enjoy less time in the public eye, and so depend on fidelity in the rare moments they do make it to the stage to ensure they have a chance at fair reception: not because the work needs to be heavy or oppressive or inaccessible to be “correct for the sake of correctness” but because loving it for the wrong reasons can be just as dangerous as not loving at all. One failed attempt at a work’s assembly can risk a generation’s worth of interest and trust in that work and contemporary opera more broadly. The absence of audience insight to the inner mechanisms of new opera can’t be a free pass for do-as-you-like interpretation. On the contrary, an even higher rigor is demanded to know for certain that it really is Cage onstage, and not something else parading under its guise.

Graham, Tines, and Sharon misrepresented “Europera 4” in Detroit. The gestures of apology employed to couch the work’s real transgression left a duped audience cheering for a watered-down and weakened simulation of opera’s great modern tragedy. But I also can’t hold it against anyone. Detroit is conspicuously the only opera house in the country—barring San Francisco, who programmed “Innocence” while Kaija Saariaho was still alive—with a “new opera” by a dead person on the roster. They are also one of the few houses doing more than one contemporary work in the season; Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves” opens there next month. They are trying, with no other proximal model, to push against the canonic expectations that have given rise to such interpretive malpractice, and their success as an institution is crucial in the ecosystem right now. While I can fault them for misreading the score and shirking on their research, I’m also aware that they are attempting to stage Cage with love and hope, for an audience who is enjoying it, at a time when no one else is.

Scarcity environments make criticism a hazardous profession: I feel a twinge of guilt, something not unlike disloyalty, pointing out flaws in what is otherwise a strong effort with its heart in the (mostly) right place. If there were more productions of Cage and operas like it—presented not as token but as pride and honest beauty—we could maybe at last get back to actual aesthetic discourse without having to settle (beggars/choosers) for cheapened copies of the objects of our love. But for now, we keep busy with these sweeping structural critiques, because the core problem facing operatic modernity is still one of language, of how we think about new opera in the context of history, and of the ethics of production under which these works are mounted. Until we abandon progress-oriented rhetoric and marketing for one more accommodating of mourning and of interiorization—one with more trust in what the work actually says as opposed to what we want it to say—the sense of authenticity and efficacy we get from witnessing new opera will continue to feel limited and shortchanged. It will only be by staging these operas with fidelity to the music and not the capital that we will give ourselves the chance to mourn opera anew on our own terms, to arbitrate again our orientation to the genre. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, find that it has shifted just a little along the way. ¶

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